Friday, January 20, 2012

On Rumsfeld, unlikely beasts and blue marbles

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...

Donald Rumsfeld is, in my opinion, unfairly maligned. To clarify: you can malign the ex US secretary of state for defense as much as you like for his politics, let’s be clear on that point. But there is one statement that he made that will forever come to mind whenever his name is mentioned, and for which he was unfairly ridiculed. Personally I think it was a quiet moment of genius.

“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.

Sometimes it takes a personal encounter to reveal our lack of understanding. Sometimes it takes a change of perspective, something referred to as a ‘paradigm shift’ – an over-used expression that has been applied to many areas of life as well as the large-scale changes in scientific understanding to which the phrase was originally applied. These days the concept of a paradigm shift has been reduced to whether one can see the duck or the rabbit, the young or the old woman in pictures that are familiar to most of us. We forget that it originally described something much bigger and more unsettling, that came at the end of a period of dissatisfaction with a standard explanation into which new information would not fit; after wrestling, arguments and tearing out of hair. We forget that seeing things differently split the scientific community, at least temporarily, and that it was a brave person indeed who confessed to seeing a rabbit when everyone else was looking at a duck. Mendelian genetics, biogenesis, plate tectonics, quantum mechanics – all these now central tenets of scientific thought were once unknown unknowns, then known unknowns. And before that they were the opposite to what we thought we knew – the so-called known knowns of their day, when humanity believed that a body-building father could pass on strength to his children; living matter spontaneously came into being; and that the continents of the earth and the sub-atomic particles were equally and predictably fixed. Such massive shifts in understanding may have their ‘Eureka’ moments, but they tend to come at the end of long painstaking hours of thinking, testing and re-testing. The new idea may be simple or complex; something a child could have figured out, or one that takes a genius in their field. However they came about, these ideas often caused some initial pain and disturbance, along with the dizzying sense that everything we thought we knew was wrong. The shift from classical to quantum mechanics is still doing this today, with its fresh revelations from the Cern Large Hadron Collider and its preposterous notions of string theory and time travel.

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’.

 This photograph was taken by Bill Anders, an astronaut in Apollo 8. It was quick thinking on his part – this was not part of the mission. The spacecraft took three days to reach the moon, then orbited it 20 times. On Christmas Eve they made a broadcast from this orbit, during which they read the first ten verses of Genesis. Both words and image offered a God’s eye view of our planet for the first time.





Together with a later image, taken by the Apollo 17 crew in 1972 and named ‘Blue Marble’, ‘Earthrise’ altered our perspective on our world profoundly. Many contemporary accounts speak of the impact in terms of the fragility of our home; its beauty; and its one-ness – the nations were not separated by the hostilities of the day, but were all subject to the same natural laws and environmental dangers. Indeed, it is these two images more than any others that have been credited with kick-starting the modern environmental movement. Interestingly, the astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle had written in 1948: ‘Once a photograph of the Earth, taken from the outside, is available, a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose.’ Certainly this seemed to be the case.

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.

3 comments:

blue hands said...

Tracey, this is absolutely magnificent. Thank you so much for taking the time to write it down.
Moira x

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Tracey Wheeler said...

Thanks lovely people glad you enjoyed reading.