Rilke..a reflection

The Essence of Wisdom, page 4-

Rainer Maria Rilke: “Most people have turned their solutions toward what is easy and toward the easiest side of the easy; but it is clear that we must trust in what is difficult; everything alive trusts in it, everything in Nature grows and defends itself any way it can and is spontaneously itself, tries to be itself, at all costs and against all opposition. We know little, but that we must trust in what is difficult is a certainty that will never abandon us.”

I don’t know how so many people can get by during the day and not seem to question anything. Frankly, I admire- a little– those who are able to be satisfied with someone else’s rules; it would probably make life less confusing and a little easier to navigate, to be sure. But, for me, anyway, it wouldn’t be much fun either, and the fun in questioning outweighs (again, for me) the passive acceptance of the ways things are.

I’ve paid a lot of seat belt fines for having that attitude. Why must I wear a seat belt on residential streets where I am driving between 15 and 20 mph? I suspect the reason is municipal revenue raising and fine quotas, rather than concern on the part of any police officer for my personal safety. But that’s one of the practical downsides of always being stubbornly stuck in the questioning mode.

On the upside, I learn a lot of stuff. One example that applies to my profession and which you read about frequently here, is my thinking about the Bible. Agreed, it would be easier for anyone to believe that the various books of the Bible were written with lightening from heaven on a rock, or spoken in God induced trances by the prophets, or dropped, perfectly translated and edited in Zip-lock baggies, onto the desks of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. But- for me- all of that would negate human interactions with God and reactions to God over time. And that is what the Bible is an imperfect record of.

Yikes! Imperfect?

Of course. The original languages the Bible were written in are ancient ones. Scholars of biblical translation will always have arguments and make necessary concessions about specific words and phrases. Does a comma go there, or there? And is this a new paragraph, or not? Since there were no grammatical marks in ancient Greek, sometimes it’s just a guess. And what about these verses at the end of Mark, or this 8th chapter of John? (They don’t ‘fit’ their contexts at all and don’t even appear in the oldest manuscripts.)

And speaking of manuscripts. None of these books went from the author to the printer. The New Testament gospels and letters would have been carried around for years before being copied by whoever was nearby that knew how to read and write and was willing to laboriously copy the text onto another vellum or papyrus with a sharpened stick or feather quill. And mistakes were made. All of the oldest copies we have of these books are copies made between 100 and 400 years after the originals were written, and multiple copies of the same passages reveal numerous floating commas, varying breaks in stories, and even additions, or subtractions. The original copyists, after all, were amateurs, recruited to do this work, probably voluntarily. Only several hundred years later did the professional factories of transcribing monks begin to appear, who would continue to do their hand copying at least until the 16th Century when printing presses began to appear. (Each of them manned, I need also to note, by different human typesetters of varying educations and skill levels.)

Most of those grammatical and contextual problems can be dealt with, however. We will never all be in agreement with the exact meaning and ramifications of what is written there, but we can all be in the general ballpark. What causes some to call “Foul!” however, is the question of whether the Bible represents the “complete” knowledge we are intended to have about God. Many say it is. I and many others say it is not.

It would be easier to regard the Bible in the former manner. It would be easier for studying, making conclusions, agreeing with the doctrines of others, and deciding once and for all what the “rules” are if I regarded the Bible as everything I needed to know about God. But I can’t, don’t, and won’t. I cannot pretend I can relate personally or exclusively to the 4000 year old worldview of a nomadic people learning how to cope in a new agricultural economy. I cannot pretend, simply because it’s easier, that God brought the world about in a literal seven day week. That explanation made sense to a people who had no telescopes or microscopes, and who believed that the earth was the center of everything- everything being a big dome over a flat earth, and containing everything, including the stars, within it. But it makes no historical sense to me. (There are theological truths in those stories- and in abundance. But that’s another subject for another day.)

Over the years, various individuals have discovered more about the nature of the earth and universe. Many of them, too, arrived at conclusions which it would have been easier to not have made. Copernicus, then Galileo, initially kept their findings about a sun-centered solar system quiet. Even Einstein later juggled and fudged on some of his initial conclusions about the expansion and movement of the universe- they were hard findings to admit to; it was easier to ignore them in the hopes that they would simply go away or be found to be wrong. They jarred his personal worldview that the universe was finite and contained; they were hard conclusions so, for awhile, he took the easy, and wrong, approach to them- he hid them. (He later, of course, recanted, and said that those actions had been the worst mistake of his life.)

I choose to keep my mind open, all the time, to new information. That’s hard work sometimes and the temptation to retreat into someone else’s orthodoxies is real. But I cannot put a period at the end of any sentence about God. I cannot construct barriers around any set of beliefs because tomorrow there will be new information, new insight, and new light shining on what had formerly been darkness.

None of us want our doctors to restrict themselves to the medical books of the 17th Century. It would be easier for them, certainly, to reach into a bucket of leeches to cure our stomach ache, or to make some cuts on our arms to help fix our headache. At the time, there was a real medical basis for both of those procedures, but now we (and they, thank God) know more.

So I’m stuck. I’m stuck with a God that won’t stay still. I’m stuck with a God that is no longer adequately able to be described only with the metaphors of ancient peoples. I’m stuck with a God who has revealed some attributes and characteristics to me, but has many more for me to discover.

Blame God, if you must find blame for all that. God’s the one who put all those question marks in my mind. I barely made it through college science courses with a C! But as soon as I got serious about God, that old information suddenly took on a life of its own, and it doesn’t give any indication of letting up.

So, I guess I’m stuck.

Hallelujah. (I guess.)


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