When I was a boy, I was blessed with a vivid imagination and an active interior world. For those of you with something of a whimsical bend, you know what I’m talking about. In other words, math and science weren’t my strong suits in school. I was always reading a story (science fiction was my favorite) or falling in love with literature, especially the myths and legends and fairy tales of the centuries past. I loved them all.
As I progressed in school, I learned to be proficient enough in the “hard” sciences to get good grades, but I never lost my love for story. After all, as a true son of the American South, storytelling was an integral part of my culture. After all, the best fiction writers are Southerners! But I am biased.
But that is true in all pre-literate cultures. Where literacy isn’t common, the truths and wisdom of a people have to be preserved in the telling of tales and myths of the people. Paul Bunyan was one of my favorites. Oh, and Johnny Appleseed. My grandfather loved telling that one. But then again, my grandfather was a master story teller. We grandkids would sit around pawpaw’s chair and listen as he’d tell stories about his police officer days, stories about his growing up during the Depression, and the early days when he and mamaw lived in the mill village in Atlanta. We absolutely hung on his every word. As I grew older, my mamaw would remind me that pawpaw sometimes “stretched” the actual truth of this or that story, but, to my surprise, it neither bothered me or changed the beauty of the story itself!
Unfortunately, our Western culture which has exalted a myth of scientific certainty to almost deity, has lost a bit of the whimsy and comfort with mystery that adds so much to life. Since the so-called “Enlightenment” period of Western civilization (a movement fostered by the scholasticism first in theology and then pressed out into all of life) we have reduced the beauty of story and mystery and treated them as quaint, childishness, rather than the powerful means of communication they really are. We ask of this or that message “Is it true?” “Did it really happen that way exactly?”
To be sure, accuracy is important for engineering, finance, and other endeavors, but this precision doesn’t exhaust the human person. And therein lies the problem even with how we approach the Faith.
In today’s Scripture Lesson we read from Genesis 7:6-9. Here Moses tells us that Noah brought his family and the animals in the Ark at God’s command to save them from the Flood. We all know the story well.
But some have spent their lives wondering “is the story really true? Was there a real Flood?” They even ask questions like “was the Ark really big enough to hold all those animals?”
Noah was six hundred years old when the flood of waters came upon the earth. And Noah and his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives with him went into the ark, to escape the waters of the flood. Of clean animals, and of animals that are not clean, and of birds, and of everything that creeps on the ground, two and two, male and female, went into the ark with Noah, as God had commanded Noah.
Our modern society has been shaped by questions of “is that LITERALLY true?” or “Did it happen EXACTLY like that?” We have whole schools of thought that try to “solve” the puzzle of possibilities and excuse the “silly notions” of generations past. Our modern faith has been strongly influenced by such attitudes as well. But no one has stopped to ask an important question: “Are we throwing out Something important?” My answer is a resounding “YES!” We are missing the point altogether!
The hubris of human intellectual pride that somehow we can reduce all things in the universe to mere observation is, at best, wildly optimistic! And, at worst, we witness the results already happening in our society as persons are reduced to mere fleshly machines, and all the world reduced to utilitarian “usefulness” or worse yet, personal desire and “my rights!” The clinical and antiseptic mindset of a society that has lost it’s ability to plumb the depth and wisdom of story and mystery loses something God-given in entering into union and communion with Him Who is always beyond our rational abilities and always dwells in mystery. One of the great writers of the past called this “The Cloud of Unknowing.” A perfect description.
Today, our world wishes to scrub us “clean” from these truths that “educated” people now consider “old fashioned;” “out of date;” and “naive.” But underneath all this sophistication is the twin weaknesses of fear and pride. Fear of the notion that there is something or Someone bigger than my own intellect, and pride in the thought that nothing is beyond my human reasoning. Deadly stuff in light of all the stories, all the mystery, all the wonder of being human.
The heart of humanity was made to hold Him Who is uncontainable. If we abandon the ability to wonder, to be awestruck, to stand with slack-jawed amazement at the possibilities, we humans will descend into a “hell” of our own making that makes all of us irrelevant dust. And that, my dearest, is the intent of the evil one; to finally have humanity discard and eternally marr the Image of Him Who is Uncreated and always bigger than all of us will ever be. We are called to worship because worship preserves wonder, and wonder makes us open to Him. Today, protect your childlike ability to wonder, to stand in amazement, to be open to mystery! Today, let the power of the disciplines of Great Lent preserve your heart for true adoration and a purposeful Orthodoxy!