Friday, February 27, 2009

The Pursuit of Knowledge, The Practice of Discernment (part 2)

While our state as a whole ranks quite high in the "level of education achieved" demographic, our specific geographical area consists almost entirely of folks who opted to end their formal education with their high school diploma. This rarely makes any impression on me whatsoever; there are many, many areas of aptitude in life, and I'm not so haughty as to think that book learning is the only way to go.

I will admit, though, that there's a certain thrill in sitting down with someone who can engage in an animated, detailed discussion of the abstracts of life. Science. Literature. Philosophy. Art. Culture. History. These are the bits that are often missing from my adult conversation. And these are the very things that Cousin Malcolm brought into our home during his short stay.

Cousin Malcolm had barely unloaded his pack when he was regaling us all with tales that rival anything in "Around the World in Eighty Days." A pitch-perfect ear for story-telling, a showman's gift of timing and the habit of producing--at just the right moment--a key piece of evidence only served to fuel our hunger for more of what he was selling.

"So there I was, sitting under a bridge in Paris," one of Cousin Malcolm's stories began, and instantly, we all snapped to attention.

A bridge? In Paris? Do tell!

"So there I was, with my bag--" he swept his hand toward the very sack that now slouched tiredly beside our couch, "just smoking a cigarette under this gorgeous bridge. It was almost night, but not quite. And then, this fellow came by and--you won't believe this!"

His hand disappeared into his pocket. In a moment, he produced a shiny Euro. He held it out for the children to admire, then slipped it into Logan's hand with a wink.

"This man gave me that Euro. He said, 'Here, son, go buy yourself a beer.' And you know the best part? He was Haitian. An artist, of course. It was a riot. I ended up staying with him for a few days. Amazing guy."

From there, Cousin Malcolm dived into a long discussion of the state of modern art in France, then took a detour into the state of government in Haiti before heading back to the bridge in Paris. We rode along on the journey, anxious to hear more. Then he was off again.

"You do know why there are so many ponts in Paris, right? Do you know how long the Seine is? Want to learn a song?"

In the course of a few short days, the topics covered were vast and sundry--and personal. While I've told my children about Marie Curie and her work, Cousin Malcolm took my children along on his personal tour through the Institut Curie. Stops included several theories that she chased, scientists that she worked with and a gaggle of silly biographical stories that morphed a giant of science from an untouchable icon to a woman--a mother--who pursued a dream.

Having been, and seen, and touched for himself, so much of the world is personal to Cousin Malcolm. Who better to open the doors of understanding and insight than one who can give a first person account?

After the children went to bed, those doors swung even wider. Mr. Blandings and I enjoyed bouncing ideas off of Malcolm. String theory ... what do you make of that? Restoring paintings ... good idea? Transubstantion--how do you think that works? What's this I hear about some idea about crystals being alive? Where do you stand on--?

On the second night, we stepped into the idea of Creationism vs. Darwinism. Cousin Malcolm--a cultural, though non-practicing Catholic--has studied the theories of Darwin quite thoroughly but, he revealed, finds holes in the overall findings. A viewing of "Expelled" was arranged. And the conversation took a turn that really wasn't surprising at all. In fact, Paul faced the very same issue in the book of Acts when he visited Athens.

19Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, "May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean." 21(All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)

Cousin Malcolm was intrigued--absolutely intrigued--by the ideas that we presented to him regarding the many positions that Christians take on Creationism. Old Earth, Young Earth, evolution within species, no evolution within species ...the many shades of the theologies that exist within the Christian community. He swallowed every bit that we could offer eagerly, countering, digging and playing devil's advocate all along the way.

At the end of the night, he was completely satisfied to admit that he was content to have knowledge of, but no commitment to, anything.

And this is what we ultimately discovered about Cousin Malcolm: He is, for all intents and purposes, an Athenian nomad somehow trapped in the wrong time. So great is his knowledge, so curious is his mind, that it is virtually impossible for him to reduce anything to truth. There are simply too many options. Too many alternatives. Too many theories.

The world as Cousin Malcolm knows it is shades of grey. Truth is relative. Worst of all, it is never ever definitive.

This is how I came to realize that not living among the academic giants of our time is really not a loss. There is, after all, such a thing as knowing too much. God created us to wonder, to learn and to pursue truth. But he also created in us a gift that many of the most intelligent minds can somehow not grasp: discernment.

You can be interested, educated and engaging ... but if you lack discernment, what good is any of it? How do you know what theories to hang on to, and which to discard? How do you differentiate between good and better? How do you function?

When you think too much, even the simplest facts of life are much harder to grasp.

"I know how to multiply," Atticus bragged as we sat at breakfast one morning.

"Do you know zero times zero?" Malcolm asked.

"Of course. It's zero."

"But do you know why it's zero?"

"Because if I give no one gives me anything, then I still have nothing," Atticus said.

"Yes, but can you prove that?" queried Malcolm, grabbing a piece of paper from the counter. Within minutes, he was scribbling a proof worthy of a graduate school mathematical course. Which he's taught, of course.

At the end of the lesson, Atticus's brows were knit tightly.

"I think my answer made more sense," said Attiucs. "Nothing times nothing is nothing. I don't see why it has to be so complicated."

We drove Cousin Malcolm an hour and a half east on Sunday. We spent the afternoon tooling around a touristy little village in the mountains, where the children oohed and aaahed at Malcolm's ability to converse with groups from four different countries--in their native tongues, naturally. He entertained us all with a story about apprenticing in a Bavarian clock maker's shop. We ate in a deli, then we dropped Cousin Malcolm at a small, deserted motel. His plan was to walk due east for two days, then pick up a ride at the state line. Jo cried when we pulled away from the curb; I heard Atticus praying for Malcolm's safety as he contemplated, no doubt, the idea of hitchhiking with new and more personal horror.

When we arrived home, we discovered a small parcel of items that Cousin Malcolm had left behind to thank us for our hospitality. A booklet written in hiragana. A sampling of international coins. A bookmark listing the official website of a university's advanced physics lab. And a copy of "The Odyssey," with songs in the original Greek.

What will stay with us the longest, though, are the tales of adventure shared by Cousin Malcolm, who brought strange ideas to our ears ... without necessarily knowing what they meant.


Kindred Blessings said...

...and I thought our house guests were interesting!!! While your guests are less frequent, it seems like they are packed with a lot of interest!!

Anonymous said...

I loved these two posts!

I've been doing a personal study of Acts and discernment so this was really appropriate today.

Sarah at SmallWorld said...

Wow! Everyone needs a Cousin Malcolm!! Maybe he could hire himself out!

Anonymous said...

The last two posts have been especially great. Thanks. I had a Cousin Malcolm in my life - except that she was an Aunt Ruth Anne, called Anne by the rest of the world, Annie by me. My favorite memory is her getting off of a plane from New York carrying a handmade kite that she had brought for me. Then regaling us with stories of all her travels and adventures. Wonderful.

Luke Holzmann said...

I wrote a poem to a friend of years long past in which I said, "You have read much, but have understood even less."

I still think of that line when I hear about people like my friend.