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SERMON ARCHIVE

 

 Blasphemous Truth

 

Old Testament Reading: Psalm 131:1-3

New Testament Reading: 1 Corinthians 8:1-3

Let me share with you a bit of religious autobiography. All my religious life I have been plagued with doubts as well as consumed by curiosity. Neither has made my religious life easier. Both have continually alienated me from those I had imagined to be close companions in the spiritual quest.

There has always been, as you might expect, more than a chance connection between my curiosity and my doubts. Indeed, perhaps they are two names for the same thing. In a religion where faith is defined as holding fast to received doctrines, curiosity about whether things are exactly as they are supposed to be--is doubt.

The Christian church has always been persuaded that it possesses great knowledge. It has sought to persuade us that this knowledge is all-sufficient. The same is no doubt true of most religions. They seem to be aware that there are other things one might believe, but they believe that these would be errors, heresies. Knowledge that might corrupt and damn the soul.

I have been warned many times over the years not to read this or that book, from Schonfield's The Passover Plot to Raymond Brown's The Birth of the Messiah, because they would destroy my faith or subvert my belief in the inerrancy of the Bible.

In all these warnings, and in the shunning and exclusions I have often met, I hear the words of Spinoza, himself excommunicated from the synagogue for knowing too much. He said,

Men think it pious to trust nothing to reason and to their own judgment, and impious to doubt the faith of those who have transmitted to us the sacred books. Such conduct is not piety but mere folly. What are they afraid of? Do they think that faith and religion cannot be upheld unless men purposely keep themselves in ignorance, and turn their backs on reason? If this be so, they have but a timid trust in scripture.

It is this timid trust that has led to stories like that of the Tree of Knowledge in Eden. Imagine! The great sin of the human race is to dare to know! It is a sin I am proud to commit. There is a saying attributed to Jesus by the Sufis that seems to make reference to the Eden story.

How many trees there are! But they do not all bear fruit. How many kinds of fruit there are! But they are not all good. How many forms of knowledge there are! But they are not all profitable.             
                                             (in al-Ghazali, The Revival of the Religious Sciences)

What sort of knowledge are we being implicitly warned to avoid here? Well, one might be well advised to avoid filling one's mind with trivia. It is indeed impressive in a sort of carnival side- show fashion when a person is able to tell you the name of every character on every episode of Star Trek, every World's Series score, every detail of celebrity gossip. But why bother?

You know we are in trouble when publishers can sell books of trivia so people can study to do well in Trivial Pursuit or Jeopardy! Finally educators caught on and decided to educate people despite themselves. After Hirsch's book Cultural Literacy appeared, people were made to feel embarrassed that they knew nothing of Western history and literature. The answer? The Cultural Literacy trivia book! If you can reduce it to game show questions, if you can trivialize it, then Americans will buy it.

You can occupy your mind with nothing, fill your head with saw dust. That would be profitless knowledge, I guess. Can there be religious trivia? You bet! Here is perhaps the classic text on the subject. It comes from Buddhist scripture. A disciple of the Buddha has become exercised over the question of whether the world is eternal, or whether it was created. He takes his question, his quest for knowledge, to Gautama the Buddha.

Well, Malunkyaputta, anyone who demands the elucidation of such futile questions which do not in any way tend to real spiritual progress and edification is like one who has been shot by an arrow thickly smeared with poison and refuses to let the doctor pull it out and attend to the wound. If the wounded man were to say, "So long as I do not know the name of the man who shot me, and whether he is a member of the warrior caste, and what clan he belongs to, whether he was tall or short or medium height, whether he was of brown, yellow, or dusky skin, whether he was from this or that village, town or city, what kind of bow he used, what sort of gut the bow string was made of, what sort of feathers are on the shaft, the exact shape of the arrow head ... until then I will not allow the arrow to be pulled out or the wound to be attended to" - that man, Malunkyaputta, will die without ever knowing these details. A holy life, Malunkyaputta, does not depend on the dogma that the world is eternal or not eternal and so forth. Whether or not these things obtain, there still remain the problems of birth, old age, death, sorrow... all the grim facts of life--and for their extinction in this life I am prescribing this Dharma.

Now just what counts as trivial matters in religion? Those that tend not unto edification? A set of particular doctrines? Not necessarily. It's pretty simple, really. As Jack Boger pointed out to me, you can reduce even the most profound and salvific truths of Christianity to the level of trivia. They aren't inherently trivial, you understand, but if for you they are not in fact edifying, and that because you will not let them be, then they have become trivia.

I said that Americans love trivia and will trivialize anything as grist for the mill. Well, there is a game called Bible Trivia. Once I played a game of it with Jennifer. But the game of Bible Trivia existed years, centuries, before anyone ever put their trademark on it and started selling it in boxes. People have been trivializing biblical truth for as long as there has been biblical truth!

Imagine a man who can repeat all ten commandments but thinks not for a moment of living by them. Picture a woman who has gone to the trouble of memorizing every verse of the Sermon on the Mount, but with no intention of taking them to heart. Not so uncommon as you might imagine. You have extra knowledge or beliefs not to be better, but to look better--than someone else!

Here is what Paul is getting at, I think, when he observes that knowledge puffs up while love builds up. If you become proud of knowing so much and you grow to despise those who are not nearly so educated, so enlightened, then you are on the worst kind of ego trip. You become isolated, since it is lonely up there at the top of the pedestal.

This cannot be the way of salvation. This is the opposite of spiritual growth. This is imagined self-salvation by cognitive works. Salvation is passing your exams with honors, and too bad for the poor schmucks who failed. As the Gospel of Thomas says, "If anyone knows all things but fails to know himself, he knows nothing." That is unprofitable knowledge.

Unprofitable knowledge is that which is incompatible with love. But then we are speaking of imagined knowledge, pernicious delusion, not knowledge at all. Don't you see that?

But we have to be careful here! We can erect no other barrier to knowledge. Historically, the Church has told us, "If any supposed knowledge contradicts the doctrines of our religion, then it cannot be real knowledge at all, and we may safely ignore it." No! Not for a minute!

Jesus and the Buddha are not saying "Don't rock the boat." They were among the greatest religious boat-rockers the world has ever known! They are simply saying to keep your priorities in order. Don't use your mind just to chew gum when you could be feasting on the truth!

No question can be off limits for us! We cannot be warned away from any question, no matter how dangerous, on the excuse that it will be unprofitable. And this for one obvious reason! How will you know that a particular piece of possible knowledge is profitable or not--until you know it?

If you don't know whether or not there's gold in them thar hills, there's only one way to find out! Pick some place and start digging! It may be a long time before we see any results, but then just think of the parable of the sower. The sower at first feels that he's wasting his effort. Most of the throws land the seed on worthless soil. But then some of it, a minority of it, hits rich, deep soil, and the pay-off far outweighs the effort that went into it! It's all worth it!

I said that I have always been told to stick a little closer to the path. "Don't read those scriptures that were excluded from the biblical canon till you're more grounded in the ones that did make it in." In all these warnings, the point was to stick with what we think we know. We hope nothing else is true, especially nothing that might cast doubt on what we think we know! Better let sleeping dogs, and certainly sleeping dogmas, lie!

I will admit after some decades of delving into dangerous ideas and outlandish notions, that such warnings are not idle. I think it is no exaggeration to say that virtually every religious opinion I have ever held has been stripped from me. That I now entertain beliefs I once considered damning heresy, even ideas that Bultmann once said no sane person believes! Let me tell you why, having gone this route, I still believe it is a good thing to have done.

The great comparative religion scholar Mircea Eliade makes an interesting observation on the different ways the quest for truth is viewed in the East and in the West.

"For India, truth is not precious in itself; it becomes precious by virtue of its soteriological function, because knowledge of truth helps man to liberate himself. It is not the possession of truth that is the supreme end of the Indian sage; it is liberation, the conquest of absolute freedom. The sacrifices that the European philosopher is prepared to make to attain truth in and for itself, [for example] the sacrifice of religious faith..., to these the Indian sage consents only in order to conquer liberation"

I am not sure this attitude is unique to the East. It seems to me to characterize Western religion as well. Western religion has always taught an epistemology of opportunism: "I'll believe whatever I have to in order to be saved. Just tell me."

I see the quest of the philosopher, as Eliade describes it, as far superior. He is like the man in the parable of the treasure in the field. He knows truth for a matchless treasure, and he is willing to dispense with everything else, including religious faith, if it must be, in order to gain the truth.

But it is not only the secular philosopher who is willing to let cherished religious beliefs go if by doing so he or she may flee the unreal and cleave to the real. Meister Eckhart, after all, says, "What is truth? Truth is something so noble that if God could turn aside from it, I could keep to the truth and let God go."

Do you see what is at stake here? The truth, no matter how blasphemous, no matter how destructive of cherished assumptions, is better than sacred illusion! Adam and Eve were exiled from a fool's paradise once their eyes were opened, and you will be, too!

Ask yourself this: can an illusion be edifying? Can a delusion, a misapprehension, a false belief be profitable? It cannot. And what is the conclusion? Any doctrine, any opinion, any supposed knowledge of religion that turns out not to be true automatically falls into the class of the Buddha's matters that tend not unto edification. Let the light of scrutiny and truth fall where it may and expose what it will.

Again, I must question Eliade. The fearless knower who wants the truth for its own sake is not seeking truth in a vacuum. To seek and find the truth, as nihilistic as it may seem, as first one and then another traditional dogma is cast aside, is nonetheless a spiritual path. It is the Via Negativa, the harsh asceticism not of the one who lives without bread, but of the one willing to fast even from the Word of God if that, too, proves to be a mirage.

Robert M. Price

 

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