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Friday, April 13, 2012

Ignorance as submission

How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? I don't know, and you don't, either. I don't even know if angels can dance on the head of a pin, or if they would want to. There is a Wikipedia article on the subject, and, among other things, it says that this question has been used as a dismissal of theologians of the past, and that "[in] modern usage, this question also serves as a metaphor for wasting time debating topics of no practical value." (Dismissal of the theologians of the past may have been unjust -- they may not have really cared very much about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, according to the article.)

A friend recently asked me a question -- not the one above -- about angels. I responded that I didn't know much about them. I also looked up the subject, and discovered that there has been a great deal of speculation about these beings, among Christians, and, before the time of Christ, among Jews. As this Wikipedia article about the view of angels among Christian theologians puts it, "the Biblical canon is relatively silent on the subject."

It seems to me that knowledge of what angels look like, how they originated, how they spend their time, and the like, are a subject that God doesn't think we need to know very much about. Why not? I don't know. Perhaps that sort of knowledge would be dangerous to some of us. Almost certainly, having answers to such questions is not necessary for redemption by Christ. It's of no practical value.

There are a lot of things that some of us Christians would like to know the answers to. For example:
When and how is Christ returning?
What did Jesus do between his birth and his trip to the Temple, at about age 12? Did he have any siblings? How many siblings? What were their names, and what were they like? What happened to them? What happened to Joseph? When did he die?
What did Adam and Eve look like?
What did Jesus look like?
What was Paul's thorn in the flesh?

Granted, some of us think that we have the answers to these, or other such questions, especially the first one, but some of the rest of us have different answers, and none of the answers we think we have are supported unambiguously by the Bible.

Do I need to know the answers to these questions, in order to be redeemed from sin? No. Apparently, in God's view, they are of no practical value.

Humans need to submit to God's authority. Put like that, most Christians don't have major problems. Oh, sometimes we disobey. But we understand that we need to obey, and understand that we should repent when we don't, and we resolve, with God's help, to obey in the future. But we also, I believe, need to submit to God's authority not only in relation to our own behavior, but in relation to knowledge, and acknowledge our own ignorance. Being ignorant is part of submission, too.

Job went through a lot. At the end of the Book of Job, after Job questioned God for several chapters, off and on, God appeared, and, basically, said to Job "You don't know anything, so why are you questioning me?" Job basically said "You are so right. I'm sorry." (See here for more on that dialogue.)

There are some things that we should know, and submission to God's authority is not a valid excuse for knowing things that we can discover, and should discover. For example, it's no excuse for not studying the Bible, or for not reading and seeing and hearing what others have to say about it. In fact, not doing those things is failing to submit to God's authority. But there are a lot of areas, some Biblical, some not, where I have to say, basically, "God, I don't understand this, or know how this worked, or how it will work, and I'm just going to trust you on this subject." I have to recognize that I'm not meant to have definite knowledge on some things, and submit to an omniscient, omnipotent God who does, and Who can do something about them, if He chooses to.

In addition to the type of question I gave above, there's another type of question. Why did God let, or cause, some particular thing -- fill it in yourself -- to happen? Why didn't God cause this particular outcome, or let it happen? Here, of course, Job is the textbook case. Although we are (sort of) told why Job suffered as he did, we aren't sure that Job was ever told at all. The point of God's lecture to Job, about the world around Job, was not about questions of understanding how nature works, but it was about why bad things happen to good people. That's the question Job really wanted an answer to. He got an answer, but it was "I am God, and I, myself, am the answer. That's all you need to know." (See also Till We Have Faces, by C. S. Lewis.)

Thanks for reading. I hope to post soon on the limits of scientific knowledge.


Anonymous said...

I did not know about pestalotiopsis microspora (plastic eating fungi) until today and mankind did not know until recently. We should become quite knowledgeable considering we have all eternity to learn more and more from the master teacher.

The process of 'sorting' what should be known and what should be discarded or ignored is increasingly apparent to me as I use the net.

One good lens may be to use Wesley's Quadrilateral; for example the Bible does not tell us much about Jesus' siblings but tradition has some information that is revealing (Catholic Encylopedia).

Martin LaBar said...

Plastic eating fungi? I didn't know that, either.

Yes, we need to sort, and sometimes it's hard to do. In politics and religion, and probably other areas, we tend to only look at web sources that we agree with.

You may be aware that there's a "Quadrilateral Thoughts" blog on the web, here:

Thanks, anonymous, whoever you are.

Angie said...

Thank you Martin,

Definitely something I needed to read. I have a tenancy to over analyze, my personality almost demands that I have an answer- I can actually get a little OCD over this. Thank you for pointing out that I don't need to know everything, that isn't my job, it's God's :)

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, Angie. There's a fine line here. God gave us a measure of inquisitiveness, and, I think approves of us finding out the answers to some why questions, but we're never going to know everything, and we're never going to know some things -- we aren't God.