Teaching from the Point of Ignorance

I meet too frequently with the word random these days.  I recognize its right use, but believe it to be improper in much of its current use.  I think there are real philosophical reasons for its misuse.  I think that only through humility can we return it to its proper place.  I believe many today have replaced the idea of mystery with this tamer notion of randomness.  Let me see if I can be clear in this position.

I will simply state the various quotes that have brought me to this belief and see if they lead others to the same position.

First, John Paul II stated in Fides et Ratio, “One of the most significant aspects of our current situation, it should be noted, is the ‘crisis of meaning.’  Perspectives on life and the world, often of a scientific temper, have so proliferated that we face an increasing fragmentation of knowledge. This makes the search for meaning difficult and often fruitless. Indeed, still more dramatically, in this maelstrom of data and facts in which we live and which seem to comprise the very fabric of life, many people wonder whether it still makes sense to ask about meaning.”

So if I may infer such, fragmentation drives us toward the feeling that everything is detached, or disconnected, which leads towards explaining the occurrences we experience in life as random.  Randomness or the perception of such is accompanied by the belief that meaning is either purely pressed upon the randomness of things, or in clearer terms, self deception.

But this is where Wendell Berry flies in and provides me with another quote that leads me to my thesis.

He states in his book, Home Economics, the following about these two words, random and mystery:

“…pattern is verifiable by limited information, whereas the information required to verify randomness is unlimited…. What is perceived as random within a given limit may be seen as part of a pattern within a wider limit.  If this is so, then Dr. Jenny, for accuracy’s sake, should have said that rainwater moves from mystery through pattern back into mystery.  If “mystery” is a necessary (that is, honest) term in such a description, then the modern scientific program has not altered the ancient perception of the human condition a jot….To call the unknown “random” is to plant the flag by which to colonize and exploit the known….To call the unknown by its right name, “mystery,” is to suggest that we had better respect the possibility of a larger, unseen pattern that can be damaged or destroyed and, with it, the smaller patterns….But if we are up against mystery, then knowledge is relatively small, and the ancient program is the right one: Act on the basis of ignorance.” — Berry, Wendell, “A Letter to Wes Jackson” in Home Economics, p. 4

So in talking about truth, which does exist, and can be known, and can communicated, so that it matters that we talk rightly about it, it is necessary to preserve the notion of mystery.  Infinite truth cannot be finitely understood, and thus must be humble enough to admit mystery.  The pattern of God’s truth is such that I can only by faith confess that it’s there without any hope of my grasping it completely.  But it is not, as such, random in any way.  Teaching should start at this point of mystery, or ignorance.



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