I’ve heard the following Chinese parable a couple of times. It’s on my mind today:
An old farmer who had an old horse for tilling his fields. One day the horse escaped through the fence. When the farmer’s neighbors sympathized with the old man over his bad luck, the farmer replied, “Is it bad luck? Good luck? I don’t know?”
A week later the horse returned with a herd of wild horses from the hills. This time the neighbors congratulated the farmer on his good luck. His reply was, “Is it bad luck? Good luck? I don’t know?”
The next day, when the farmer’s son attempted to tame one of the wild horses, he fell off its back and broke his leg. The neighbors came around again and commiserated with the old farmer about his very bad luck, but the farmer’s reaction was, “Is it bad luck? Good luck? I don’t know?”
Some weeks later the army marched into the village and conscripted every able-bodied youth they found there. When they saw the farmer’s son with his broken leg they let him off. Now was that good luck? Or was it bad luck?
We like to jump to conclusions, and we have a tendency to jump to those conclusions pretty quickly. We do this even with ultimate, worldview positions. We have a tendency to want to measure everything by the tools that are convenient and familiar to us, but sometimes we need to be willing to venture off from the light of our comfortable positions into the darkness of unfamiliarity to gain a bigger perspective.
A pet peeve of mine is how quickly social media fills up with bold, confident statements about controversial things that we see in the news. A police officer shoots a young black man and kills him in the street, and social media lights up with a thousand diatribes from people who have already assumed what happened and what it means. One person assumes the young black man was minding his own business, doing nothing wrong and was taken down by a racist cop with an itchy trigger finger. Another person assumes the cop, probably a loving family man, was in fear for his life as he encountered a gang banging, cop killer.
I’m an attorney so I am well aware that stories often seem one-sided when we have only considered one side. Many clients have come to me with their stories. In each case, I earnestly listen, ask probing questions, take careful notes and plan out the strategies for presenting their stories to a judge who will decide their fates. Over the years I have learned to begin listening right off the bat for the inconsistencies, incongruities and gaps in their stories because I have learned there is always another side. If I am going to represent them well, I need to know the other side of the story too.
Sometimes, the other side of the story makes all the difference. Sometimes I can’t even help my clients because the other side of the story negates any claim my client thinks he has. My client may still be convinced that he is “right” because he refuses to view his situation through any other lens, but I am not going to waste my time and his money on a frivolous claim.
More often, however, the stories are not black and white. We are complex creatures, and our lives are more complex than we like to believe they are. We tend to gravitate toward black and white views of the world because we value certainty and clarity and we don’t like the messiness of not knowing or not understanding.
But we are finite creatures. Though we have the greatest intellectual and cognitive faculties of any other creature in the world (that we know), we are limited in our knowledge and ability to understand. We aren’t omniscient, all-knowing, though we often behave as if we are all-knowing. One of example of this is the way that we jump to conclusion..
We even jump to conclusions about ultimate things, like whether God exists, or the nature of reality, or the origin of life. We behave as if we have a perspective that informs us about all of the things. We certainly know a lot of things, but we don’t even know what we don’t know.
Some people in modern times assume that the universe consists solely of material things. They make no room for super natural, metaphysical things. It may be easier to know and to understand the material world, but our ease of knowing and understanding is not the measure of reality. We are not the measure of reality.
My father used to tell a joke about a guy looking for his keys under a street light. Along comes another guy who sees the first guy on knees clearly searching for something, and he asks, “What are you looking for?” The first guy says, “I lost my keys.” So the second guy proceeds to help look for them. After a while, the second guy asks, “Are you sure you lost your keys here?” And the first guy responds, “No, I lost them over there in the dark, but there is more light here!”
Although this is a joke, we often behave the same way. We are reluctant to abandon the light we have to probe the darkness we don’t know or understand.
I am reminded of another story:
The story is told of a man who was fishing. Every time he caught a big fish, he threw it back into the water. Every little fish he caught went into his bag. Another big one, back into the water; a tiny little one, into his bag. Finally, a man who had been watching him and was very perplexed by his unorthodox manner of fishing asked, “Can you please explain to me why you are throwing the big ones away?” The fisherman did not hesitate: “Because I only have an eight-inch frying pan and anything bigger than eight inches does not fit my pan!”
Now, as a fisherman, I understand this story in a different way. The big fish are thrown back because they are mature fish that reproduce, and I would want to throw them back to help sustain the fish population. But that isn’t the point of the story.
The point of the story is that we tend to fit all that we know into the way we already see things, and if something doesn’t fit, we throw it away. This works well, I suppose, if the measure we are using is the “right” one, but how do we know?
As finite beings, how can we ever know?
Ravi Zacharias suggest that we should always consider the bigger story and how our view of the world holds together in the big picture. Does it hold together (cohere) well? What is the explanatory scope? Are there things that cannot be explained well by the way we view the world? Are there impossible inconsistencies and incongruities in the way we see the world?
Can our science account for the spiritual? Can our religion account for science? Does our politics line up with our moral compass? Does our moral compass comport with our political view? Is my moral compass me-centered? Or is my moral compass objective and consistent?
Socrates thought “an unexamined life is not worth living”. Jesus taught that life is eternal and that the way we live our lives in the here and now impacts how we spend our eternity. “What good is it to gain the world and forfeit our souls?” Are we unwilling to search the dark, unfamiliar area areas because it requires us to leave the certainty of the light that we know? Are we content to live for this life alone under the street light of the material, temporal, material world?
I dare believe that a finite creature like me requires revelation that comes from a perspective beyond me. If there is a God, and I believe there is, God would have to reveal Himself to me because I am not capable of achieving such a perspective on my own, given my finite limitations. At the same time, that revelation would be useless if it did not make sense of the darkness and, at the same time, make sense of the light that I know. I believe I have found this revelation in Christ.
In similar vein, C.S. Lewis writes much more poetically:
I was taught at school, when I had done a sum, to “prove my answer”. The proof or verification of my Christian answer to the cosmic sum is this. When I accept Theology I may find difficulties, at this point or that, in harmonizing it with some particular truths which are imbedded in the mythical cosmology derived from science. But I can get in, or allow for, science as a whole. Granted that Reason is prior to matter and that the light of the primal Reason illuminates finite minds, I can understand how men should come by observation and inference, to know a lot about the universe they live in. If, on the other hand, I swallow the scientific cosmology as a whole, then not only can I not fit in Christianity, but I cannot even fit in science. If minds are wholly dependent on brains, and brains on bio-chemistry, and bio-chemistry (in the long run) on the meaningless flux of the atoms, I cannot understand how the thought of those minds should have any more significance than the sound of the wind in the trees. And this is to me the final test. This is how I distinguish dreaming and waking. When I am awake I can, in some degree, account for and study my dream. The dragon that pursued me last night can be fitted into my waking world. I know that there are such things as dreams: I know that I had eaten an indigestible dinner: I know that a man of my reading might be expected to dream of dragons. But while in the night mare I could not have fitted in my waking experience. The waking world is judged more real because it can thus contain the dreaming world: the dreaming world is judged less real because it cannot contain the waking one. For the same reason I am certain that in passing from the scientific point of view to the theological, I have passed from dream to waking. Christian theology can fit in science, art, morality, and the sub-Christian religions. The scientific point of view cannot fit in any of these things, not even science itself. I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen not only because I see it but because by it I see everything else.
(C.S. Lewis, “They Asked For A Paper,” in Is Theology Poetry? (London: Geoffrey Bless, 1962), 164-165)