Monday, July 18, 2011

Ancora Imparo

“The harder I work, the behinder I get.”
                                                  refrigerator magnet

There is an interesting phenomenon in medical learning that applies to all disciplines of study:  The more I learn, the more I find there is to learn and the more I realize how little I truly know.  Have you ever felt this way?  As if I had a chance at knowing everything there is to know in the field of medicine, it did not help at all when I learned that the world’s fund of scientific knowledge doubles every five years.  I did not have to go long into my professional career before I had to acknowledge that I would never arrive at a point of completing the learning process.  The magnet was right.
Annie Dillard spoke of being overwhelmed:  
“I reel in confusion: I don’t understand what I see.  With the naked eye I can see two million light-years to the Andromeda galaxy.  Often I slop some creek water in a jar and when I get home I dump it in a white china bowl.  After the silt settles I return and see tracings of minute snails on the bottom, a planarian or two winding round the rim of water, roundworms shimmying frantically, and finally, when my eyes have adjusted to these dimensions, amoebae.  At first the amoebae look like muscae volitantes, those curled moving spots you seem to see in your eyes when you stare at a distant wall.  Then I see the amoebae as drops of water congealed, bluish, translucent, like chips of sky in the bowl.  At length I choose one individual and give myself over to its idea of an evening.  I see it dribble a grainy foot before it on its wet, unfathomable way.  Do its unedited sense impressions include the fierce focus of my eyes?  Shall I take it outside and show it Andromeda, and blow its little endoplasm?  I stir the water with a finger, in case it’s running out of oxygen.  Maybe I should get a tropical aquarium with motorized bubblers and lights, and keep this one for a pet.  Yes, it would tell its fissioned descendants, the universe is two feet by five, and if you listen closely you can hear the buzzing music of the spheres.” (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek)
Do we, in our Christian journey, allow ourselves to become mental amoebae, preserving our endoplasm at the expense of missing galaxies of Truth?  Paul’s endoplasm must have been bubbling when he exclaimed,Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!” Romans 11:33.

At the same time, it is the very abundance and availability of information that can, paradoxically, numb our senses, causing us to plop down in a heap of mental exhaustion.  Acknowledging the impossibility of knowing everything, we are inclined to give up the pursuit of knowing anything, leading submissive lives, passively waiting for the scraps tossed our way, settling for whatever tweets, email-forwards, and Facebook messages are sent our way, or whatever TV programming happens to offer up this week.
The all-too-common response, then, is to throw up our hands in surrender.  Disillusioned, we stop actively learning, and we demote discipleship from a required course to an elective one in the curriculum of faith.  “If God’s paths are untraceable,” we say, “why risk getting lost?”  We stay home, rationalizing our complacency by concluding that learning earns us no brownie points.  Entrance to Heaven does not depend on our Jeopardy performance. (I’ll take “Pearly Gates” for $1000, Alex).  And if it does not make a difference, why stress over knowing something we can never fully comprehend anyway?  If we don’t work harder, we won’t get behinder, we conclude our logic.
We settle, becoming spiritual lazybones, shifting our spiritual weight from one buttock to the other, trading in discovery for familiarity, “Aha!” for “Ho-hum.”
Where does all this leave us then?  On one hand we have a God who, despite all our striving, can never be comprehended.  Faith is, for us, too wonderful and mysterious to be fully understood.  Attempting to do so, on the other hand, seems only to magnify the difference between God and us....
Ah… now I see!  Learning more of God and His ways is not a threat to His omni’s.  In discovering truths about God, we do not, like Dawkins suggests, scientifically chip away at the mystery of God’s essence, reducing it to some complex formula.  To the contrary!  Discovery leads us, not away from worship, but to it!  It did Galileo.  Upon discovering the moons of Jupiter, he penned the following words in his journal:  “I render infinite thanks to God for being so kind as to make me alone the first observer of marvels kept hidden in obscurity for all previous centuries.”
Discovery humbles us and elevates our estimation of the Creator.  The more we learn, the greater we realize God to be, and the more properly we can see ourselves in contrast to Him.  “Learning is therefore,” as Calvin College president Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. has said, “a spiritual calling.  Properly done, it attaches us to God” (Engaging God's World -- A Christian Vision of Faith, Learning, and Living).   Frances Collins, Director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, which recently completed the colossal task of identifying all of the 3,000,000,000 letters of the human DNA code, said it well.  “For me,” he said, “scientific discovery is also an occasion of worship.”  (“Time,” August 15, 2005)
The words "discovery" and "disciple" have the same Latin backbone, "discere," which simply means “to learn.”  Learning, for the follower of Christ, is neither elective nor optional.  Disciples are, by definition, learners… people with lifestyles of proactive, intentional discovery.  Always alert and searching, ears perked, eyes wide open.   Fact is, we are students and, as followers of Christ, we will always be students.  Students of faith, learners of truth.
“Ancora imparo,” remarked Michelangelo, at the time, 87.  “I am still learning.” A fitting modus operandi for every serious follower of Christ.  Active, intentional learning is the essential lifestyle of all who would follow Him.

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