Devotional

I don't wish to know that!

 

Simplified reality

Too much information is more than the human mind can handle. This is the suggestion of some academics in the Universities of York and Newcastle, discussing the problems raised by the increasingly complex computer controls in modern aircraft, with particular reference to the disaster at Keg-worth in 1989.

The in-flight computer system worked well enough. If anything it was too efficient. It alerted the cabin crew to a problem in the port engine, but apparently it deluged them with such a flood of information that they were unable to react sufficiently promptly to save the situation, but drew the wrong conclusion and shut down the starboard engine instead, with the subsequent loss of forty-seven lives. The academics conclude that crucial decisions were made on the basis of 'an over-simplified view of reality'.

 

No need to know

Every Tuesday night at Compline in Wcstcott House we used to pray to be delivered 'from all knowledge that might be hurtful'. I do not remember that it ever occurred to us to pray to be preserved from more knowledge than we could readily assimilate. But, latterly, I have come to appreciate the wisdom of the Providence that obliges us to operate in this life on a strictly `need to know basis'. Curiosity may be futile as well as idle.

How pleasant it would be, we imagine. to come up with the perfect answer every time we are challenged to give an account of the faith that is in us. In our more bilious moments, perhaps we contemplate the satisfaction of being able to deliver withering replies to the likes of Richard Dawkins, modish BBC producers, and, generally, to religion's numerous cultured despisers. Unfortunately, such luxuries arc always going to be forbidden, and just as well.

Rather, we are obliged to complain with the Psalmist. that 'my tears have been my meat day and night, while they say daily unto mo, 'Where is now thy God?' The tsunami, to give but one example, provides a major challenge to the idea of the divine ordering of things. How may we even begin 'to justify the ways of God to men' when such things happen? Perhaps we should not try. 'If one cannot speak about something then be quiet' so Wittgenstein, or, more colloquially, if you find yourself in a hole, stop digging!

 

Saving knowledge

At the same time, as well as maintaining a decent reserve, we need to concentrate on what we really need to know and hold on to, not to be concerned about how much data we can assimilate or how many plausible arguments we can deploy. My grandfather, for example, had a hard and, materially speaking, unrewarding life. But he would often comfort himself with the text that, 'The sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be revealed in us'. This was something for him to hold fast to and to live by. He worked with his hands. He was not a reading man. But he was a faithful worshipper at his parish church.

Other people, differently placed, may have discovered what they needed to know by the old discipline of reading a chapter, or at least a passage, of Scripture day by day. This would not have been so very different from the work of lectio divina (on a par with manual labour) enjoined by St Benedict on his brethren in Chapter 48 of the Rule. The lectio distils into meditatio or prayer.

 

Seeking stable contentment

However it is achieved, the object of the exercise is stability. `Because of the frailty of our mortal nature we cannot always stand upright.' We need to be able to grasp firmly the few things we need to know and hold fast to. They serve the same purpose as those physical supports around the home provided by our kindly social services for those whose mobility is impaired. We may safely leave the fine working to others, the theologians, exegetes, religious, creative artists even, whose business it is. We do not know, and should not be too curious to know, all the answers. Otherwise we are to rest content with what we need to know.

For the rest we are to live with a humble and reverent agnosticism. Here now, like the dwellers in Plato's cave, we only see what St Paul describes as reflected images in a kind of enigma. But we may look forward, perhaps with no slight apprehension, to knowing, just as we are known.

 

Fr Hugh Bates lives in retirement near York

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