Sunday, March 12, 2017

Going Where Teaching's Only What's Already Known

Daffodil in decaying leaves and snow.
Why does the good book begin not with one account of creation but with two? Why open with apparently contrasting, even contradictory, stories of our beginning and our nature? Karen Armstrong says that the stories in Genesis “seem to be warning us against any simplistic conception of the divine, which must always elude our limited comprehension…[God] frequently appears to be as ambiguous, contradictory, and dubious as they [humans] themselves” (p. 13, In the Beginning). 
In E.A. Speiser’s examination of Genesis, “the point here is not whether this account of creation conforms to the scientific data of today, but what it meant,” “not whether the statement is true or false, but what it means” (p. 9, The Anchor Bible Genesis). In his introduction, Speiser focuses the point: “The history of the biblical process is ultimately the story of the monotheistic ideal in its gradual evolution” (p. xlix).
Might it be that we are given the two accounts because the dissonance offers us the engagement with our distinctive human inheritance: the capacity for wonder. We are meant to search out our meaning, “my beloved, . . . work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). Martin Buber on Genesis: “The perception of revelation is the basis of perceiving creation and redemption” (p. 10, On the Bible).   And it is in story that we build the capacity for the work of wonder in the play of making meaning out of likeness, of parabolic instead of literal, out of that which acclimates to our evolving consciousness.
Why tell good stories? 
Among the varied reasons, a favorite of mine muddles around the paradox of powerful teaching: “You can’t teach persons something they don’t already know.” Paradox might be the proper container for our genetic complexity because it contains opposites. Since teaching, at first glance, is directed at what isn’t known, how does it also depend on what is already known? 
The function of analysis, with breaking into opposites as a prime example, drives toward deeper understanding. If we wish to further our knowledge of teaching, then, exploring this mystery of the paradoxical known/unknown promises tracking of the secret. And, after the analysis, if we believe that the whole is greater than the parts, we’ll need story to restore our broken Humpty Dumpty because all the king’s men and horses in the academy’s hegemony of scientific analysis can’t put the world of genesis together. But story can. On story’s terms. And that includes the holding of paradox and the love of parable.
  Idries Shah plays with all this. In Seeker After Truth, Shah blends several sources in order to discuss “How to Learn What is Already Known” (pp. 92-94).
  • Referencing al-Ghazzaii: “The question of divine knowledge is so deep that it is really known only to those who have it.” So the paradox has to do with a very special kind of knowing.
  • Bahaudin’s eighth counsel: “Be prepared to find that certain beliefs are correct, but that their meaning and interpretation may vary in accordance with your stage of journey, making them seem contradictory to those who are not on the Path.”  Capacity for paradoxical thinking includes tolerance for changing meanings and for apparent contradiction.
  • It also requires going alone and being rejected. Shah takes the tolerance for ambiguity on into dealing with invisibility and being devalued: “true mystical teachers may be ‘invisible’ to some people in the sense that such people cannot realize their worth. .  . What they are teaching, and its methods, may be imagined to be some mundane activity, even” (p. 93). Remember the teaching, “No prophet is accepted in his hometown” (Luke 4:24).
We could simply say that the answer is that there is no answer. As T.S. Eliot eloquently and perhaps frustratingly put it: “Except for the point, the still point,/ There would be no dance, and there is only the dance” (Four Quartets, “Burnt Norton”). Paradox, for one who chooses to engage it, means searching without full closure. It affirms the process, the longing, and therein builds understanding, that and tolerance.

Good stories give the playground, the stuff for exploring. Not THE answer. For a human who gives answers denies the authentic source and displaces the inner direction of the secret. Good stories help us laugh in the human condition. Good stories model the character of loving, of losing, of redemption.