We start today by taking a few minutes to recap the first six steps of the 12 Steps to a Compassionate Life by Karen Armstrong.1 Can you name them? Step 1: We learn about compassion by understanding its centrality to major world religions and philosophies. Step 2: We look at our own world and how the Golden Rule guides our words and actions. Step 3: An important step in providing compassion for ourselves. Step 4: Empathy — recognizing the reality of suffering in the world and to feel with others their pain. Step 5: Mindfulness: working to detach ourselves from ego by observing how our mind works and to try to change old patterns. Step 6: Actions: putting the Golden Rule into action and work to turn negative thoughts and energy in a more kindly direction. And recognizing that mindfulness often leads to action.
Today’s focus, after all that, is on how little we know. Here the work is “to embrace the humility of ‘unknowing.’ No one human being can or does possess ultimate knowledge or certainty.” And of that I am ultimately certain.
Prior to my leaving for seminary in 1980 it struck me that I needed to get a better handle on the Bible so I wouldn’t feel so unprepared and inadequate for that experience. So I set out to read the Bible from beginning to end over the summer. Doing so raised more questions than I could possibly answer and I found much of it boring; all those hard to pronounce names and places, and also confusing passages; wait a minute — are those two creation stories I just read?; and I learned that much in the Bible is really, really violent. I put that task aside as I took a risk that my ignorance wouldn’t be uncovered too early in my seminary career. When I started classes I realized I wasn’t the only one who got to seminary more on faith than on Biblical knowledge. It was humbling and a relief. I think that was the beginning of a journey that lead me and continues to lead me to the fuller realization, that I don’t know what I don’t know. And rather than producing anxiety, I found that realization to be freeing, and even after all these years, I still know only a fraction of the topic.
So when people ask me about God and why God does this or not that, I can honestly say, I don’t know. I can share my understanding of God by my experiences and relationship with God, but I don’t have the definitive or easy answers many people seek. Although I don’t have the answers my invitation is that I’ll walk with you through the struggle.
Creeds and dogmas developed by the early church have given human beings a sense of who God is in our world. While these understandings written shortly after the developing of the early Christian church may point to the truth — they cannot hold all the truth.
Our Job passage reflects the age-old quest to get a solid answer and understanding of God but two questions are raised in the discourse: Do you think you can explain the mystery of God? “Do you think you can diagram God Almighty? And the response: God is far higher than you can imagine, far deeper than you can comprehend, stretching farther than earth’s horizons, far wider than the endless ocean.”
Living with mystery is disconcerting for many. In the scientific age is the desire for proof but the reality is we don’t know what we don’t know.
In this step, ‘How little we know’, Armstrong, in her own research discovered a footnote in a book referring to the ‘science of compassion’ as a “method of acquiring ‘knowledge’ by entering in a scholarly, empathetic way into the historical period that is being researched. Here the historian has to ’empty’ herself of her own post-Enlightenment presuppositions, leave her twentieth-century self behind, and enter wholeheartedly into the viewpoint of a world that is very different from her own.” This is done to “make place for the other.”
This seemed much to my understanding what is done when we prepare a sermon — exegesis and hermeneutics is that religious language where we look at the there and then of scripture and bring it to the here and how. By looking at the there and then aspect of Scripture it is important not to bring my layers of time and culture into the reading. They don’t belong there. By letting go of what we think scripture is saying we are able to enter another world of possibilities — of different time, culture, people, understandings. To ‘make place for the other’ takes work and awareness.
Armstrong also notes that through this discipline she “began to notice how seldom we ‘make place for the other’ in social interactions. All too often people impose their own experience and beliefs on acquaintances and events, making hurtful, inaccurate, and dismissive snap judgments, not only about individuals but about whole cultures. Western society, Armstrong declares, “is highly opinionated. Our airwaves are clogged with talk shows, phone-ins, and debates in which people are encouraged to express their views on a wide variety of subjects. This freedom of speech is precious, of course, but do we always know what we are talking about.” Excellent question for Facebook users.
Even with the advances of science, Armstrong asserts and I agree that “each generation has to start over and find solutions that speak directly to its unique circumstances. Philosophers today still discuss the issues that preoccupied Plato. But unknowing remains an essential part of the human condition. Religion is at its best when it helps us to ask questions and holds us in a state of wonder — and arguably at its worst when it tries to answer them authoritatively and dogmatically. We can never understand the transcendence we call God, Nirvana, Brahman, or Dao; precisely because it is transcendent, it lies beyond the reach of the senses, and is therefore incapable of definitive proof. Certainty about such matters, therefore, is misplaced, and strident dogmatism that dismisses the view of others inappropriate.” And to that I say, Amen, Sister!
Armstrong notes that: “Socrates believed that wisdom was not about accumulating information and reaching hard-and-fast conclusions. To his dying day, he insisted that the only reason he could be considered wise was because he knew that he knew nothing at all.” She continues: “…At their most insightful, the religions have insisted that the core of each man and woman eludes our grasp and is transcendent. This is where we discover Nirvana, Brahman, and what the German-born Protestant theologian Paul Tillich called the very Ground of Being; we find the Kingdom of Heaven within us and discover that Allah is closer to us than our jugular vein.
Hindus acknowledge this when they greet each other by bowing with joined hands to honor the sacred mystery they are encountering. Yet most of us fail to express this reverence for others in our daily lives.”
The aim of step 7 is threefold: “1. To recognize and appreciate the unknown and unknowable. 2. To become sensitive to overconfident assertions of certainty in ourselves and other people, 3. To make ourselves aware of the numinous mystery of each human being we encounter during the day.”
To help us with each of these aspects are three exercises. We cannot really spend much time on each this morning so I encourage you to go to the website later today to look closely at the exercises within today’s sermon. “First exercise: think about those experiences that touch you deeply and lift you momentarily beyond yourself so that you seem to inhabit your humanity more fully than usual. It may be listening to a particular piece of music, reading certain poems, looking at a beautiful view, or sitting quietly with someone you love.
Spend a little time each day enjoying this ekstasis (the sense of being beside yourself) and notice how difficult it is to speak of your experience or to say exactly what it is that moves you. Try to explain to somebody precisely how it has this effect on you, what it is telling you, and listen to the inadequacy of your words.” Think of the words you used to describe your first visit to the Grand Canyon? “Investigate the theme of unknowing in human experience. If you are scientifically inclined,” Armstrong suggests “you can explore the indeterminate universe of quantum mechanics, the neurological complexity of the mind, or depth psychology.
Second exercise. “Stand back and listen to the aggressive certainty that characterizes so much of our discourse these days. Consider your profession or something that really interests you: literature, the law, economics, sports, pop music, medicine, or history. Isn’t it true that the more you know about this special field of yours, the more acutely you become aware of all you still have to learn? Then notice how disturbing it is to hear somebody talking dogmatically about your subject over dinner or on the radio, making serious mistakes and false claims that are almost physically painful to hear.” For me it’s when someone speaks about what it means to be a “real” Christian or a “real” American.
Armstrong questions: “When you listen to talk shows and phone-ins or to politicians arguing with one another, do you think these people really know what they are talking about? Are they able to see both sides of an argument? Are they identifying themselves too closely with their own opinions? Are they more interested in scoring points than seeking the truth? Does anybody ever say ‘I don’t know’?”
Here’s a challenging exercise in open-mindedness: “select one of your most deeply held opinions — about politics, religion, the economy, football, movies, music, or business — and make a list of everything you know that supports your viewpoint. Then make a list of arguments that contradict it. If you are in a reading discussion group, conduct a debate in which everybody argues for a position that is the opposite of what he or she believes. Then discuss your experience. What does it feel like to enter into another perspective? Did you learn something that you didn’t know before? What do you think Socrates meant when he said, ‘The unexamined life is not worth living’?
“Third, spend some time trying to define exactly what distinguishes you from everybody else. Delve beneath your everyday consciousness: Do you find your true self — what the Upanishads called the atman? Or does this self constantly elude you? Then ask yourself how you think you can possibly talk so knowingly about the self of other people. As part of your practice of mindfulness, notice how often you contradict yourself and act or speak in a manner that surprises you so that you say, ‘Now why did I do that?’ Try to describe the essence of your personality to somebody else. Write down a list of your qualities, good and bad. And then ask yourself whether it really sums you up.” It probably doesn’t.
“Make a serious attempt to pin down precisely what it is that you love about your partner or a close friend. List that person’s qualities: Is that why you love him? Or is there something about her that you cannot describe? During your mindfulness practice, look around your immediate circle: your family, colleagues, and friends. What do you really know about each and every one of them? What are their deepest fears and hopes? What are their most intimate dreams and fantasies? And how well do you think they really know you? In your mindfulness practice notice how often without thinking, you try to manipulate, control, or exploit others — sometimes in tiny and apparently unimportant ways. How often do you belittle other people in your mind to make them fit your worldview? Notice how upsetting it is when you become aware that somebody is trying to manipulate or control you, or when somebody officiously explains your thoughts and actions to you.”
Familiarity does not mean full knowing. The person in my life who may know me best is my sister. But I know she doesn’t know me fully, completely or deeply — just as I know her well, but not fully.
In our quest to nail down facts is the reality of living in mystery of God, life, others, of unknowing, and at the same time working to honor the sacred mystery we are encountering in all of life. It’s true, we know not what we do, and we do need forgiveness, and the mystery is we are given it. As we go from this place today, go in mindfulness — meet and honor the sacred mystery of self and other as you become aware of God’s constant mysterious presence with you, within you, and your neighbor. Amen.
- Karen Armstrong: Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. 2010
Copyright DMC 2018