On the plane to and from the Holy Land earlier this month, I read Chuck Klosterman’s book entitled But What If We’re Wrong? Klosterman offers an interesting exercise: He attempts to position himself and the reader as if we are one, two or five hundred years in the future looking back at our twenty-first century selves. And he begins with the premise that human beings then will recognize that human beings now are wrong about virtually everything. His study runs the gamut. For one, he makes a fairly persuasive—though bizarre—argument that Chuck Berry, and not Elvis, Bob Dylan, or the Beatles, will be the only representative of Rock-N-Roll who is remembered at all two centuries from now. Berry will be the Mozart of the rock era. All the others, Klosterman says, will be minor footnotes. (The book is worth a read.)
Klosterman also focuses on our most essential, unquestioned knowledge and says it will be proven wrong in the future, using as a real-life historical example the way in which Copernicus and Galileo revealed to us that millennia of cosmological thinking about an earth-centered universe was wrong. (Yeah, the big stuff.) Klosterman argues that every generation assumes that it’s bedrock principles and notions about God, the universe, and everything are solid and that every generation is, sooner or later, proven wrong.
Take gravity. Aristotle said, and people believed, that items fell from heights to the earth because all objects crave their natural place. The natural place of rocks is earth, for instance, and so rocks will do everything possible to get to the center of the earth. Aristotle’s theory held for two thousand years. Grasp that: We thought Aristotle spoke the truth for two millennia, until Sir Isaac Newton explained gravity to us. We now believe that our theory of gravity is unassailable.
But what if we’re wrong? I know that sounds crazy, and you definitely should not learn your physics from a priest, so take the words of Columbia University theoretical physicist Braine Greene (quoted in Klosterman’s book) instead. Greene says, “There is a very, very good chance that our understanding of gravity will not be the same in five hundred years. In fact, that’s the one arena where I would think that most of our contemporary evidence is the most circumstantial, and that the way we think about gravity will be very different.”
Professor Greene has guest starred on The Big Bang Theory, so you know he is worth paying attention to. If you’ll stick with me and this science lesson just a minute longer, Professor Greene explains this way:
“For two hundred years, Isaac Newton had gravity down…And then from 1907 to 1915, Einstein radically changes our understanding of gravity: No longer is gravity just a force, but a warping of space and time. And now we realize quantum mechanics [and string theory] must have an impact on how we describe gravity…Now, that requires extra dimensions of space. So the understanding of gravity starts to have radical implications for our understanding of reality. And now there are folks, inspired by these findings, who are trying to rethink gravity itself. They suspect gravity might not even be a fundamental force, but an emergent force, [a symptom of something more basic, like heat is a by-product of motion and friction].”
“I think,” Professor Greene says, “that gravity is the least stable of our ideas, and the most ripe for a major shift.”
Whoa. I don’t understand most of that, but it still blows my mind. I think of gravity as the surest of all our notions. It’s as sure as, well, gravity. But Chuck Klosterman and Brian Greene believe our future selves will chuckle indulgently at our quaint understanding, sort of the way we chuckle at Aristotle and his rocks desiring to bed down on the earth.
Why do I bring this up this morning? Because I think the reason many of us come here to church Sunday after Sunday is because we have a deep suspicion that we may be wrong. Not about gravity, but about something just as essential and unassailable, about something that, to question or dispute, would expose us to ridicule or dismissal. I think we suspect, or fear, or maybe hope, that the world’s bedrock and conventional wisdom about success, and value, and our sense of self are just flat wrong.
That conventional wisdom was little different two thousand years ago than it is today. Like all of our certainties, it has had incredible staying power. It is what the disciples are arguing about on the road in Mark’s Gospel today. Jesus hears them debating and jockeying about who among them is the greatest.
That is our conventional wisdom about the world: It is an endless game of asking the question, “Who is the greatest?” Whether it’s writ large in the contest of nations, cultures, and races; or writ small in our social circles, the workplace, or among children (sometimes adult children) in a family, the world, we believe, is about who is the greatest.
What sets me above others? What makes me more deserving, better? Surely something, so says conventional wisdom. Surely, I am set apart and above, and if I’m not, then something is wrong because Lord knows I should be. The goal, even if subconscious, is to claw myself up to the pinnacle, by whatever means I can employ to get there. Or, as the flip side, maybe I’ve been formed to believe that I can never get there, that I am destined for the bottom of the heap, that I am not strong enough or worthy enough. I’ll never be good, much less the greatest. Either way, the world’s wisdom is predicated on a pecking order, and the rules of the game require winners and losers, calculations of relative value that uplift some and push down others. It’s a zero-sum game in the end, and that’s as sure as gravity.
But what if it’s wrong? I think we think it just might be, and as I said earlier, I think that’s why we’re here.
St. James today acknowledges the world’s age-old conventional wisdom. James says it is characterized by selfish ambition, envy, covetousness, falsehood for the sake of gain, and conflict that leads to the death of relationships. In one of the bible’s more captivating phrases, James says all of these things emerge from “the cravings that are at war within [us].” It is like entropy; eventually it will tear us apart. But then St. James, like some theological Copernicus or first century Chuck Klosterman, argues that this wisdom is an illusion, that it’s just flat wrong, that the world really and rightly revolves around something else entirely. There is a different wisdom, a different truth which James calls “wisdom from above,” and James explains that it “is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” It is God’s wisdom, and it is, in fact, the opposite of the way the world tells us to get ahead and find our value.
This is a revolution as seismic as Newton’s discovery of gravity. It shifts the way we see reality. It reveals to us in a flash of insight that “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” It changes what we value, who are heroes are, who we want to emulate, our goals, and how we define the bounds of our community. When we finally and truly embrace it, the old wisdom of the world seems, in retrospect, as silly as Aristotle’s belief that rocks desperately desire to fall to earth, and we recognize that we can’t ultimately hang on to both ways of thinking. St. James calls that being “double-minded,” and that kind of compartmentalization gets us nowhere. We must let go of the old wisdom entirely.
But how do we exchange the old wisdom for the new? How do we make it real and not merely theoretical? “Draw near to God,” James says, “and God will draw near to you.” We center ourselves in God, and we at last exchange peace for striving. (It is a blessed relief.) We surround ourselves with others who have long suspected that the old wisdom, the world’s truth, is wrong, and we begin to form relationships in which yielding can be a virtue and mercy becomes a strength. And we do both of these things here, in the church. In a world in which being right has never seemed more important, we come here and admit that we are wrong. That’s why the church matters, at the end of the day. We admit in humility that our ways of propping up this world are destructive and must be set aside if we are to thrive—or even survive—either as individuals in our daily lives or as the whole human community. I believe we’re wrong, and I thank God that we are.