Butterscotch and Ahs Discuss Epistemology
In this time of crumbling institutions, conflict and rapid change, the question of what is truth emerges as we weigh in for and against various approaches to solving our problems. How do you express and live out truth as you know and experience it? How do you respond when your truth collides with someone else’s? What does Jesus mean when he says he is the truth?
Butterscotch, the golden rex rabbit, and Ahs, the collie, reclined in the shade under the pear tree. A gentle breeze lifted the hair on their necks. Butterscotch stretched her hind legs out behind her stubby tail. Ahs lay with his chin on the ground, nose close to her cage, eyes watchful. He heaved a long sigh.
“Stinky Dog, it is rude for you to drool like that when you look at me,” Butterscotch said. “Don’t think for a minute that I don’t notice how your jaw goes slack and you begin to salivate every time you see me. A prey species never has a moment’s rest. Which is why I say Jesus is getting a bad rap. Folks sniffing him up one side and down the other, running circles around him, chasing him into the brush, cornering him with their philosophies and theologies, poking him with their politics, trapping him in their minds – like he was some wild thing somebody wanted to make a hat or mittens out of.”
The dog sighed again. The rabbit pointedly rubbed her nose with her paw. Carnivores have terrible breath. “How do you know he doesn’t like it? Hasn’t even brought it all about?” asked the dog.
“Well, if you really knew him like I do, you’d see my point,” she sniffed.
The topic for the afternoon was epistemology – truth, and how you know what you know. Specifically, the two creatures were discussing the quest for the historical Jesus, the search by Biblical scholars to determine the historical reliability of the gospels. Their findings are seen by some as a frontal attack on Christianity.
Not that the rabbit put much store in two legged saviors. But she was able to recognize truth when she saw it. Ahs, on the other hand, slavishly worshiped two leggeds, followed them about, whined and begged to eat their food, and lie next to them. She knew for a fact that he let them pet him and never cleaned up afterward.
Since the pair could not read they hadn’t got as far as taking votes on whether Jesus really said and did the things that scripture claimed. Besides the sun was warm on their backs, the wind just right to waft the fragrance of honeysuckle their way, and neither believed the veracity of scriptural witness was the real issue.
How does one know what one knows? On what do we base our hope? On what authority does one make a claim? And just what does real mean anyway? Butterscotch, like the blind man in John, rested her case on the indisputable facts of her experience. “Whether this man is a sinner or not, I do not know. One thing I know, that once I was blind, now I see!” Her reality was corroborated by the testimony of witnesses. Toad in the flower bed south of the house agreed that she was indeed a changed creature following some kind of encounter with this Jesus. Mourning Dove reported that the rabbit was more humble and compassionate.
Ahs, on the other hand, more faithful or more gullible, relied on the testimony of tradition and the dogma of the church. Yet each appreciated the limitations of his or her perspective. Neither the uncritical acceptance of systematic dogmatics, nor the subjective witness of the inner bunny could completely satisfy the inquiring mind. In the end the two were left with the disquieting notion that everything might be in the eye of the beholder, the universe a dream, and the two of them, snoozing under the pear tree, only the imagination of some mind greater than their own.
There is a bit of the scientist in every mystic, who sets out to test in his or her own life if Jesus Christ is really all he is cracked up to be. “Prove it,” he says to God. Here are all these promises: freedom, joy, abundance, peace, wholeness, justice, truth, and life eternal. “Show me,” says the mystic and sets out to experiment with divinity in the laboratory of her experience.
In the beginning God is the object of the search. At some point God may peremptorily rise out of the test tube and take over the experiment. I find myself being dissected. My soul is flayed open by truth. I am blinded by glaring light and toasted over a Bunsen burner, where my impurities are burned away and I am distilled into my essence. I am no longer in control of this process. The knower and the known have shifted places. And truth is not something I can find, but something that has me in its grasp.
Theologian Lesslie Newbigin observes, “Reason, even the most acutely critical reason cannot establish truth.” … [This is because] You cannot criticize a statement of what claims to be the truth except on the basis of some other truth-claim – which at the moment – you accept without criticism. But that truth-claim on which your critique is based must in turn be criticized. Any claim to know truth is, therefore, simply a concealed assertion of power.”
The work of scientist Michael Polanyi reminds us that “all knowing involves the personal participation of the knower, that knowing always involves the risk of being wrong, and that the struggle to know calls for the fullest exercise of personal responsibility.”
Instead of seeking proofs of God from reason or experience, the contemplative finds fulfillment simply and humbly dwelling in love in God’s presence. The contemplative gives God entry into the world, not through a claim of truth, but through a believing heart. Instead of an exercise of power through the assertion of my reality over yours via dazzling argument or feats of spiritual prowess, the contemplative takes the vulnerable route of allowing God to make God’s own appeal through the context of his or her surrendered life.
That’s how Jesus did it. He seems to me to be asking us to do the same.
Excerpts from Letters from the Holy Ground – Seeing God Where You Are, Loretta Ross (-Gotta), Sheed & Ward, 2002, p 118-120. Read more….
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