This blog conveys the bulk of the introduction to the first session of 'Safe Space', the group I talked about in my last blog entry. I've published it here partly for the use of the group members, who may have left last night's meeting thinking 'What was THAT all about?' (although I'm unconvinced revisiting it will help much!); and also for any readers who may be interested in how we are approaching this. The meeting ended with a time of contemplation of names for God, followed by a run up the road pushing our car. We hope this last stage will not become a regular feature - as long as we remember to turn off our lights! Thanks to all who ran and pushed...
“There are known knowns; there are things we know we know.
We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don't know.”
In the context in which the statement was given – the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq – it succinctly summarized the situation. But the statement has wider relevance to the questions of life, the universe and everything. There are known knowns. There are known unknowns; and there are unknown unknowns, the dark matter of the collective knowledge of humankind without which we are always to some extent groping blindly – or, as Paul put it in his letter to the Corinthians, ‘seeing dimly in a mirror’. But in addition there are also things we think we know but don’t really – unknown knowns, if you insist, Secretary Rumsfeld. The philosophers worry about brains in buckets (how do we know that we are not a brain in a jar, stimulated by scientists to experience our world as we think we know it? Why do we think our world is ‘real’, and not a dream or a computer programme as in the film ‘The Matrix’? What evidence do we have?). That’s all too hypothetical for me. Me, I worry about giraffes.
I never knew I didn’t believe in giraffes until I saw one. Of course giraffes exist. I know this. Of course I knew they’d be big, ungainly, unlikely animals. But confronted with one at Longleat, my mind reeled in such a way to suggest that I had never really believed in them at all. Since that experience I have had similar moments with some famous landmarks – most notably the Leaning Tower of Pisa and Mount Rushmore.
I knew they were there. I had seen photographs, seen film, met people who had visited them. And yet there was a moment of reality, that revealed that up until that moment of encounter I had filed them in the part of my brain labeled ‘fiction’.
There are things I know.
And there are things I think I know.
So, to recap:
Donald Rumsfeld was right. We don’t know a lot, and there’s stuff we don’t even know we don’t know.
Indeed, as demonstrated by what I’m choosing to call the Giraffe Experiment, we may not even believe what we assume are the known knowns.
Throughout the history of human understanding there have been moments when everything right turned out to be wrong. Such moments can be painful; that doesn’t make them inappropriate or even unnecessary.
And sometimes they can be rather wonderful.
One of the best examples of an image that in itself caused a paradigm shift, rather than being an illustration of one, is a photograph taken on Christmas Eve 1968. You will know it well: you’ve seen it on posters, on TV, on greetings cards. It’s so familiar that its power has been reduced to a duck/rabbit moment. It’s called ‘Earthrise’.
We knew that the earth would be seen from the moon. We knew that it would be beautiful, yet look insignificant in the vastness of space.
We thought we knew; but we didn’t. Not really.
Neil Armstrong put it like this: ‘It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.'
Knowing is not a constant state. Things change; new information comes, and our openness to that will vary from person to person and from time to time. There may be ‘Eureka’ moments; but mostly knowing and understanding is a slog, a wrestling match that is no less rewarding for the struggle. Embarking on a life of faith requires us to be available for moments when everything shifts, and we are left dizzy and disorientated.
Think of Saul the persecutor of the church, walking to Damascus to find new Christians and make their lives hell. He wasn’t by nature a sadist; he wasn’t doing it for pleasure, but out of a sense of righteousness. He was a godly man who thought he was doing right by his Maker. When he met God in the form of Jesus on that road, he didn’t argue that God had it wrong; but he must have been feeling pretty dizzy afterwards. Some duck/rabbit moment.
When I was twenty-four and newly moved to Bristol, I had a faith meltdown, which was so deep-rooted that I was not able to go further, deeper; I had to unlearn before I could learn, to disassemble before reassembling.
I would go to church, and feel alienated; come home, and cry. Or I would stay at home, and be no happier, missing the structure and rhythm of my life and feeling like I was missing God, too.
I remember many hours and days of a sense of falling, of standing too close to a precipice and not knowing if I was afraid of it or drawn towards it.
I knew that to admit a loss of faith would call every aspect of my life into question – but
‘Unless a seed falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much’ (John 12:24).
My faith, such as it was, had to die. It was too small, too constrained. It was the unconsciously assumed dregs of other people’s faith. It didn’t fit me; it wasn’t really mine. Oh, it had served me well, at times; I had known moments of wonder. But my connection to the God of that version of my faith was slowly being squeezed into oblivion. If I wanted to know God, I had to let go, and jump.
The thing about jumping is that landing is not always guaranteed. Landing is, in fact, entirely optional – at least when it comes to God. He doesn’t necessarily ‘do’ gravity.
So now I have a few known knowns; but even they are subject to change on an almost daily basis. The best I can honestly say is that I work to this principle; IF there is a God, IF he is not an impersonal force – what would he be like? I absolutely and unequivocally believe that God is a God of love – something that, before the long jump, was a parroted statement.
I believe in a God of love. I am just not always sure he’s there. Which, rather wonderfully, is so much better than before when I always believed God was there, but was not very sure at all that his intention was always to love.
So, here we are on a January day in 2012. Christmas cleared away, Easter in the distance. Caught between winter and spring, between doubt and faith. On the outside, looking in. Ready to think about the known unknowns, and the unknown knowns.
And maybe even to catch a glimpse of some true unknown unknowns, things that are, up until now, nowhere in my head at all.