One of the things JRR Tolkien got very right in his epic “Lord of the Rings” was the pull of “mastery” on our hearts. It’s not hard to see that below our strivings with technology, our market strivings, our relational strivings, our political strivings, is our hunger for mastery.
Part of the reasons science and technology are so powerful is because the promise mastery. Elements, compounds, chemistry, machines, physics all promise to afford us control and predictable outcomes. Electrolysis of water produces oxygen and hydrogen, every time!
There are few places where this desire of mastery is so naked, and so offensive, as in the church. The church’s desired outcome is the summon bonum of outcomes: the perfection of all things, the kingdom of God, the life of the age to come, communion with the creator and source of all goodness, beauty and happiness. No one overtly expects the pastor to deliver this outcome, but the pastor is supposed to be competent to shepherd the sheep into the fold, which, in our challenge here, means offering the young Steve Jobs the answer that will “seal the deal”.
This expectation upon a pastor is not far from the types of temptations Satan famously offered Jesus at the advent of his public ministry. Pastors differ in two important ways: they are not as prepared for the trial as Jesus was, and they are too eager to accept Satan’s offer. A third problem they have is a church behind them cheering them on to embrace this quest for mastery and in doing so to be their savior and hero.
Pastors should, perhaps, go back and read their Bible some more, beginning with the beginning. In the garden of Eden the man and the woman are left with the serpent to ponder the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. After they partake the one thing God does not wade in with is “an answer”. There are consequences, there are remedial accommodations, clothing, divorce from God’s intimate presence and walled garden, curses for the man and the woman’s areas of productivity, but there are no answers that will make things all better, at least not in the form of a sentence, paragraph or tract. They get a promise, but that promise will involve a process and the process will be long and difficult.
Now I’m not pitching the pastoral vocation into the dumpster by playing with the term “answer” here. Answers are good things and things that pastors should have a degree of competence with, but what I am doing is forking the definition of “answer”. There are “answers” as “helpful responses” which are good things, and there are “answers” understood by the common notions of “proof” as in debating a new atheist demanding “proof for the existence of god” or something.
I’m always amazed that anyone with any experience with people would still expect that such a thing as a mastering “proof” exists when it comes to people. Proofs do exist in many ways and places, especially logic and mathematics, but when we use the word as something that will predictably and with 100% consistency convince human beings of something personal, important and complex, they do not exist. This of course is why we have so much quarreling.
Behind this notion of “proof” is of course the quest for mastery. We want the sentence, the syllogism, the magic words that will prove as predictably effective as electrolysis for water. In that desire we also reveal something deep within us, something that God himself would not violate, we desire mastery so deeply we will embrace it at the expense of allowing personhood to exist with others. Once the magic “proof” is acquired, personhood will only remain with the wielder of the proof, all others must become less than persons, become slaves, become tools to the master of the proof. This is of course what Tolkien’s masterpiece is about.
At this point some will cry that I’ve yielded the field to skepticism and relativism. Without proof then we are adrift at sea. This isn’t the case. I didn’t say that truth doesn’t exist and that in fact it can’t be demonstrated and it doesn’t in fact assert itself. Nothing could be further from the truth. Truth is there and can be known and pointed to, the problem is with our personhood.
CS Lewis in the Screwtape Letters has his mentor demon instructing the younger to keep his “patient” away from hard sciences because this might lead to the notion in the patient’s head that a real world in fact actually exists. Science is a terrific tool at discovering and communicating truth. Where we tend to go wrong with it is where we begin to lose sight of what the tool can actually accomplish and the boundaries within which it works.
The New Atheists enjoy explaining away religion as the results of evolutionary processes and therefore cannot be anything other than our own internal delusion. The difficulty with this reduction, which is repeatedly made plain, is that the same holds true for one’s embrace of belief in science. If an experience is a product of describable forces and by being such is explained away, then all is explained away, even one’s explanation. Chesterton made this point long ago, as have many Christian and non-Christian scientists and philosophers, but then again, we have the challenge of “proof” for which the New Atheists are no exceptions. They can’t seem to prove much to those dimwitted theists, and the theist can’t prove much to the New Atheists.
This also lands us in the lap of what has seemed to be a very convincing proponent of skepticism and relativism: pluralism. Given the fact that no proof has emerged that has proven as effective as electrolysis for water, therefore we can’t say anything, point to anything, convince anyone, and for the sake of good manners and civil society we should simply be nice to each other and let anyone say or do what they want to.
This too has proven (yes, a hard language habit to break) to not work because of course the prescription itself requires compliance leaving us back where we started. If pluralism proves anything it demonstrates the truth of the “problem of proof” that I’ve just laid out, or in fact that persons are what they are: choosers.
How then can truth be known? If truth is elusive because of the problem of persons and proof, then the helpful direction has to do with a quality of personhood, namely humility.
Humility is not a lack of confidence in one’s center or a lack of confidence in what one already believes to know, it is instead a deep confidence in one’s center. Humility is a deep rootedness and security that permits one to actually listen to another. It is also a quality that affords a multiplicity of personhoods. Tolkien’s Sauron is prideful, the only persons he permits continuing to exist are those that are instrumental to the expansion of his own personhood. Yhwh, however, desires that the persons that he creates and relates to in fact continue to be persons. He glories in their personhood.
Job is not squashed for his questions. He is chastised for his pride, but his personhood was afforded and affirmed even in the complaint.
So, when we imagine young Steve Jobs at his Lutheran church, asking the pastor to explain God seeing the suffering in Africa and demanding to know what will happen to those children, we should take a bit of a look at our own expectations of this pastor. (I’ll get to expectations in this challenge in a bit.)
Some of us might desire that the pastor have “the answer” to lay on young Steve Jobs to keep him in the church fold. Do we desire that this answer would be so powerful and predictable that it would yield oxygen and hydrogen from water? Would we wish for this so strongly that we would be willing to jeopardize the personhood of young Steve Jobs? What within us desires this? Do we so deeply yearn for vindication and justification for “our side” whichever “side” that may be?
The answer given by the pastor as related in the book was this:
Steve Jobs (Walter Isaacson)- Highlight Loc. 549-51 | Added on Monday, October 24, 2011, 08:58 PM
“Steve, I know you don’t understand, but yes, God knows about that.”
Jobs announced that he didn’t want to have anything to do with worshipping such a God, and he never went back to church. He did, however, spend years studying and trying to practice the tenets of Zen Buddhism.
Perhaps the pastor should have said “I don’t understand”. If you read the rest of the book it’s plain to see that Jobs didn’t response well to phrases like “you don’t understand” in just about any context.
Young Steve Jobs was given the freedom to respond as he did. He was very much a PERSON who grew, decided, lived with victories, defeats, consequences and rewards. Fortunately the world is such that no such “answer” was available to destroy his personhood.
In John 10, the passage where Jesus is called “the good shepherd”, the quality of his pastoring is valued by his capacity to have mastery over the sheep, although he has this. The good shepherd is praised for his love for the sheep, in fact the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep and for this reason his sheep know his voice.
Could young Steve Jobs have recognized the quality of that shepherd for the suffering children of Africa? What seems to have offended Jobs in that moment was perhaps a perceived neglect. This was, of course, Job’s (apostrophes are important!) complaint. Job’s orthodox friends were of no help and quite famously an “answer” did not come, at least not in the way this Lutheran pastor would be expected to have produced.
Love, however, seems a better response than the impulse to mastery. We’ve yet to explore, however, what love entails.