The Pearl of Great Price, by Faith and Reason

Cambridge, MA. There was an interesting piece in today’s (July 27) New York Times (Sunday Review) by the (always interesting) T. M. Luhrmann: “Where Reason Ends and Faith Begins.” She begins with a report on her visit to a seminar of some sort, where people were giving talks on all kinds of marginal realities, ranging from UFOs and reports on experiences of the afterlife and rebirth, and shamans communicating the messages of the dead.

How far does one go in believing in such things? Luhrmann says we all eventually reach what Renée Haynes called the “boggle threshold,” “the level above which the mind boggles when faced with some new fact or report or idea.” Luhrmann gives her own (sharp-edged) examples of such thresholds: “Praying in an ancient language you don’t understand is fine; praying in tongues (not a human language, but thought to be a spiritual one) anathema. A god who has a human son whom he allows to be killed is natural; a god with eight arms and a lusty sexual appetite is weird. You believe in the Holy Spirit, but you draw the line at exorcism. You take for granted that Christ will come again to earth, but riding on a white horse and wearing a robe dipped in blood? That’s obviously a prophet’s besotted fantasy.”

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Her point is that we all find limits to what we will believe, beyond which we see exaggeration, superstition, etc. By her reading, the boggle threshold has a purpose: indicating what we do not believe in makes what we do believe appear more credible and judicious, quite different from what is beyond the pale. We are all in this situation, she concludes: “Many struggle, at one point or another, particularly in a pluralistic, science-sophisticated society, with the despair that it all might be a sham. Most people, whatever their religious persuasion, assume that there are decent human beings with good intentions who interpreted the evidence differently and who are wrong.”

I report on this in part because the reading from Matthew 13 we heard at Mass today (July 27, 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time) muddies the waters a bit more, dispelling the notion that it will ever be the case that reason ends at some point, and faith begins. Rather, reason believes and faith thinks. Such, at least, is the wisdom of those who discover God’s kingdom. Jesus explains this by parables.

Chapter 13 is given over to parables of the kingdom: the sower and the seed, the weeds amidst the crops, the yeast in the loaf and (today) three (or four, depending on how you count them) more parables: The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. ‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. ‘Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old. (13.44-47, 52) These parables weave together a discerning rationality and intuitive passion, caution and long-cultivated experience and a readiness to do something entirely new: faith in the kingdom is at issue, but it is faith that is using every resource possible, to figure out where God is really at work. The kingdom is not somewhere else, not an extraordinary show that can’t be missed or that will never come. Rather, the kingdom is right where we are, now, as close as our five senses, if only we know how to see.

That is: the person of faith walks across the same field as everyone else, but somehow can see below the surface, and notice the treasure that is just below the surface. She wanders the market like all the other jewelers, examining pearl after pearl, yet she is the one who can pick out the pearl of great price — hidden in plain sight; she gets it, while the experts around her fall for the fake and the cheap. Or he is like the fisherman: yes, we drag in that great net full of fish, but no, they are not all worth eating; some are already spoiled, decay and not food; the person of faith sorts things out, discarding the fake, keeping what is really does lead to God. And finally, she avoids the simplistic views of the right and the left: God’s treasure is not merely what is old, been there for a long time, safe and familiar, approved; it is also what is new, unprecedented, and unauthorized. Neither does she fall for novelty; she holds on to what is worth keeping. She dares to hold together some of the old and some of the new. No one can do all this for her, as if to dictate what she is to believe, or to rule out faith as absurd. Faith is not for the passive. Loss of faith is not an award. She herself has to be able to notice, see, assess, discern, and decide without fear to go where faith leads her.

Her “boggle threshold,” therefore, marks no neat division of faith and reason, visible and invisible, authentic and worthless: these are mixed together in every ordinary place and on every ordinary day, not just when “the kingdom of God” — or “world without God” — suddenly lights up and makes the headlines. Only those who are grown up in their faith, afraid neither of faith nor of reason, can find their way into this kingdom of which Jesus speaks.

Matthew knows that none of this is easy. Chapter 12, just before the parables of the kingdom, ends with Jesus’ gentle admonition that no one, not even his blood relations, can take for granted that they are truly with him on the way to the kingdom: ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’ (12:48-50) And the parables of Chapter 13 — so easy, yet so demanding — are followed by a sober, cautionary tale: Jesus goes to his own home town, but the people there know him too well, have no room for the extraordinary, and cannot believe that he is anything but ordinary: And they took offence at him. So Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honor except in their own country and in their own house.’ And he did not do many deeds of power there, because of their unbelief.(13:57-58)

It was Karl Barth, they say, who urged his readers to have in one hand the newspaper and the other the Bible. Neither on its own gets us through the day. And so we cross over from Luhrmann’s insights to Jesus’ advice on not being blind or credulous or world-weary, and then back to seeing God, just where we are, believing and thinking at the same time.

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Bill Collier
3 years 3 months ago
An excellent exegesis of the "so easy, yet so demanding" parables of the kingdom in Matthew Chapter 13. And Fr. Cooney makes an excellent case that "[f]aith is not for the passive" and that there is "no neat division of faith and reason, visible and invisible, authentic and worthless: these are mixed together in every ordinary place and on every ordinary day." Unfortunately, but as I expected, the great majority of the comments in the NYT in response to Luhrmann's article express the view that science and religious faith are separated by a bright-line "boggle threshold."

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