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Rock Climbing

Psalm 62 and Matthew 7:24-29
Mark Edwards
January 21

Mark Edwards Climbing

Mark on the “Acid Baby” climb in the Aasgard Pass of the Cascade’s Alpine Lakes area in Washington State.

Let’s talk epistemology for a little while. Epistemology is, as many of you know, that branch of philosophy that wonders about how we know the things we know. It is especially concerned with the goal of clarifying how what-we-think-we-know can be shown to be accurate, true, and trustworthy.

For instance, the famous philosopher Rene Descartes writes Rules for the Direction of the Mind in 1628.

Rule 1: The aim of our studies should be to direct the mind with a view to forming true and sound judgements about whatever comes before it.[1]

“True and sound judgements.” Certainly this is a wise and prudential activity. And for those in our community who are about to go through driver’s education, we especially commend this one. May you learn to form “true and sound judgements about whatever comes before…” you and your bumper.

Rule 2: We should attend only to those objects which our minds seem capable of having certain and indubitable cognition.[2]

“Certain and indubitable cognition.” Now that is a bit higher of a bar. We should only aim for that kind of knowledge? Yes. In his comment on this, Descartes notes, “it is better never to study at all than to occupy ourselves with objects which are so difficult that we are unable to distinguish what is true from what is false.”[3] Following this line of reasoning, Descartes concludes, “we ought to concern ourselves only with objects which admit of as much certainty as the demonstrations of arithmetic and geometry.”[4]

Rule 3: We ought to investigate what we can clearly and evidently intuit or deduce with certainty, and not what other people have thought or what we ourselves conjecture.[5]

Now we are getting into the real meat of modern philosophy and Enlightenment thinking: break out from the bonds of oppressive thought structures that have been foisted upon you; be skeptical of what others are telling you; seek certainty for yourself. In the words of Immanual Kant’s famous essay, “What is Enlightenment?”, “Sapere aude! (Think for yourself!)”

“Have the courage to use your own intelligence!” is therefore the motto of the Enlightenment.”[6]  In bold style, Kant charges that “because of laziness and cowardice… it is so comfortable to be a minor! […] Minority is the incapacity to use one’s intelligence without the guidance of another. […] If I have a book which provides meaning for me, a pastor who has a conscience for me, a doctor who will judge my diet for me, then… I do not have any need to think.” Sapere aude! Think for yourself! Have the courage to use your own intelligence!

Three rules for thinking: Seek true and sound judgements, go for total, indubitable certainty, and don’t trust others. What Descartes initiated, and what Kant promulgated, is now the base assumptions of a town like this, in a day like this. Most of us probably think this way, and most of us probably teach others to think this way too.

And yet, sometimes the world is not always so simple and tidy. Sometimes, no matter how much we want it or seek to grasp it, doubt overpowers certainty. Sometimes we must trust others to give us what we can’t secure for ourselves. Sometimes we encounter people, experiences, emotions, questions of faith, that are, well, just a bit more complex, strange, and curious than “arithmetic and geometry.”

Take my friend Martha Beck and the life-flipping experience she has of carrying a child with Down’s syndrome. In Expecting Adam, she documents a life being inverted. The book opens:

John and I disagree about the precise moment we lost control of our lives. He thinks it was the car accident in New Hampshire. I say it was two weeks before that, when Adam was conceived. Either way, it was sometime in September of 1987, which ever since has been known in our family history as the month ‘It All Went to Hell.’[7]

Beck’s book is a wonderful tale of how a life built around Descartes’ rules of rationality and control gets inverted by an unknown God and a very special child.

Let’s talk epistemology and faith for a little while. Martha continues:

By the time I left for Harvard [as a high school graduate], I was an atheist. I had come to agree with Albert Camus that the only significant decision left in a godless universe was whether or not to commit suicide. The decision was pretty close to a toss-up for me. It had weighed so heavily on my mind that I took the next year off from Harvard and read a lot of Western philosophy, from the pre-Socratics to the postmodernists. Then I read the basic texts of several world religions and finished off with a layperson’s tour of theoretical physics. I was looking, in case you haven’t guessed, for the Meaning of Life. I couldn’t find it.

I did come out of that year with a new life philosophy, a kind of skeptical relativism […] I respected my family and friends’ religious beliefs, in a detached, social-sciency sort of way, while secretly believing that faith in God was not only the opiate of the masses but the refuge of people too craven to accept the fact of their own mortality. In short, I belonged to the same religion as everyone else I knew at Harvard.

…just then Adam landed a solid kick to my kidneys, and I was struck all over again by amazement at what was happening to me.

Over the course of two or three days, I gradually revised my own conception of reality. I did not come to any firm conclusions… Until that point, I had followed good old Baconian logic of refusing to believe anything until it was proven true. Now I decided that I was willing to believe anything, absolutely anything I heard, saw, or felt, until it was proven false. If this doesn’t sound like a major life transition to you, it’s because you’ve never done it. With this single decision, I expanded my reality from a string of solid facts, as narrow, strong, and cold as a razor’s edge, to a wild chaos of possibility.[8]

A wild chaos of possibility? Sounds like the Biblical God might be involved.

The problem with trying to live according to a world that fully fits within our understanding, and which plays according to our rules, is that we will always be shaken.

The world, our families, life, The New York Times will always confront us with things we cannot control, situations we do not understand, and emotions that overwhelm. If we lean on our understanding, how long before we are simply knocked over?

As we read in Psalm 62:

How long will you assail a person, will you batter your victim, all of you,
as you would a leaning wall, a tottering fence?

Can I withstand the assaults the world will throw at me? If I try, will I ever be shaken? How long might I fend off the fears, anxieties, depressions, and angers that assail and consume so many?

Can you withstand all the assaults the world will throw at you? If you try, will you ever be shaken? How long might you fend off the fears, anxieties, depressions, and angers that assail and consume so many?

I will admit that it doesn’t take a whole lot to shake me up. Some bad news in a single email often does it.

I will admit that it doesn’t take a whole lot to make me anxious. Sometimes 26 characters about “My nuclear button is bigger and more deadly than your nuclear button” tend to do it.

I will admit that it is not infrequent that the news is just so sad and depressing: news about what’s happening in Myanmar with the Rohingya, a cross sampling of America’s cultural woes and challenges as found in the headlines of NJ.com, or just recalling our friend David Bryant, who is going in for his 43rd year of prison for a crime that it looks like he did not commit. These can be so depressing.

As we read in Psalm 62:

For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation.
[God] alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall never be shaken.

How could we ever really say that?

Perhaps through experiences like Ann Lamott’s. Maybe you know her book, Traveling Mercies, a wonderful tale.

I thought about my life and my brilliant hilarious progressive friends. I thought about what everyone would think of me if I became a Christian, and it seemed an utterly impossible thing that simply could not be allowed to happen. I turned to the wall and said out loud, “I would rather die.”

…This experience spooked me badly, but I thought it was just an apparition, born of fear and self-loathing and booze and loss of blood. But then everywhere I went, I had the feeling that a little cat was following me, wanting me to reach down and pick it up, wanting me to open the door and let it in. But I knew what would happen: you let a cat in one time, give it a little milk, and then it stays forever. So I tried to keep one step ahead of it, slamming my houseboat door when I entered or left.

And one week later when I went back to church, I was so hungover that I couldn’t stand up for the songs, and this time I stayed for the sermon, which I just thought was so ridiculous, like someone trying to convince me of the existence of extraterrestrials, but the last song was so deep and raw and pure that I could not escape. It was as if the people were singing in between the notes, weeping and joyful at the same time, and I felt like their voices or something was rocking me in its bosom, holding me like a scared kid, and I opened up to that feeling and it washed over me.

I began to cry and left before the benediction, and I raced home and felt the little cat running along at my heels, and I walked down the dock past dozens of potted flowers, under a sky as blue as one of God’s own dreams, and I opened the door to my houseboat, and I stood there a minute, and then I hung my head and said, […] “I quit.” I took a long deep breath and said out loud, “All right. You can come in.”

So this was my beautiful moment of conversion.[9]

Will we open the doors of our hearts and minds to the peace that passes all understanding? Will we find certainty, safety, a wild chaos of loving possibility in Christ? Or will we try to prop ourselves up and keep our walls from falling over?

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise person who built a house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. [Matthew 7:24-25]

As we read in Psalm 62:

For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation.
[God] alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall never be shaken.

Who is this God? Who is that “he”?

Now this sermon was entitled “Rock Climbing” and since I’m preaching, I’d better say something about it. I used to do a lot of rock climbing. Big mountains, airy walls, splitter cracks, tiny crimpers. It’s bit hard to talk about why I love(d) climbing so much, I’m not sure I fully understand it myself.

But here’s one reason:  you could be absolutely up there, nothing but beauty, air, death, and fear all around you. And yet, you could be gripped, jammed, crimped, or frictioned onto some absolutely solid rock and not have a fear or care in the world. That total paradox — of being in such a wild, dangerous, and threatening place, and yet being so calm, confident, and content because the rock you were on was so obviously solid and strong and reassuring — was, well, a bit addictive. You just always wanted more. Don’t you wish you could go through life that way?

As we read in Psalm 62:

For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation.
[God] alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall never be shaken.
Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us.

If you are looking to never be shaken, if you want a fortress, if you think this place needs salvation, if you just wish your soul would wait in silence, if you just wish you had something totally solid and indubitable and certain to cling to, then you need a rock.

Let’s put epistemology and faith and verification together for a moment: David Bryant. Forty-three years and counting in jail for a crime that by all reason, rationality, evidence, and logic he did not commit. And yet he writes:

I am fine, my heart is holding up under all of this Difficulties, But God has seen a Way, And all is Good, so He say’s, Wait Patiently!, And So we Do… I have Faith and Belief.. With No Questions, what more needs to be said. Just the Fact![10]

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise [David Bryant] who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock… Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded. [Matthew 7:24-25, 28]

For God alone my soul waits in silence; from Christ comes my salvation.
Jesus alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall never be shaken. [Psalm 62]

I invite you all to “climb on.”

[1] Rene Descartes, The Philosophical Writings of Descartes: Volume 1. Trans. by Cottingham, Stoothoff, & Murdoch. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 9.

[2] Descartes, 10.

[3] Descartes, 10.

[4] Descartes, 12-13.

[5] Descartes, 13.

[6] Immanual Kant, What is Enlightenment? in Basic Writings of Kant. Ed. by Allen Wood. (New York: The Modern Library), p.135

[7] Martha Beck, Expecting Adam: A True Story of Birth, Rebirth, and Everyday Magic. (New York: Berkeley Books, 1999), 9.

[8] Martha Beck, 169-170.

[9] Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith. (New York: Anchor Books, 1999), 50.

[10] David Bryant, personal letter of Monday, March 13, 2017. See: http://centurion.org/cases/bryant-david/

© 2018 Nassau Presbyterian Church
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