Friday, 2 January 2009

We know we are here but we don’t know where here is

First of all, a happy New Year to all my readers, wherever you are. I trust that 2009 is going to be a year of blessing, at least spiritually (if in no other area) for you.

I am preaching on Sunday night at our church and am giving the first in what is probably going to be a monthly series on Christ in the Old Testament. It is actually far more than just 'fulfilled predictions' and the like, but about some of the great themes such as Prophet, Priest and King. Thinking about it I have recognised a problem that I have come across with my students in a totally secular context.

The background is this. Alerted to something of a general failure to answer a vaguely mathematical problem I asked my students this question. ‘If you had to buy a cupboard for your bedroom, what units would you measure it in?’ The answer was – as I expected – centimetres. I then followed up with a second question: how far is Swansea from Cardiff? The answer – as I feared – was ‘about 40 miles’. ‘I see,’ I said. ‘Can anybody tell me how many metres there are in a mile?’ No one knew. The sorry point that had emerged was of a completely dysfunctional measurement system. They had no real way (at least in a strictly mathematical one) of understanding how things related to each other.

I suspect this phenomenon is far more widespread. Our A level history course results in students only knowing about three elements. If I’m correct they are: Nazi Germany, the French Revolution and a part of 19th century Britain. Only the latter unit covers more than two decades. So you can get a grade A without any knowledge of any other time period and without knowing whether the American War of Independence occurred under Henry III or George III. The problem goes beyond education: with the aid of GPS it is all too easy to find out with utter precision where you are. The only trouble is you don’t really know what that answer means because you have no real concept of regional geography. I have invented the phrase ‘We know we are here but we don’t know where here is’, nevertheless I think it reflects very well the problem. To coin a word, it is the googlisation of knowledge. We have accurate but atomised fragments of information and we do not know how they relate to each other.

Incidentally I do not entirely blame the settlers of syllabi, the Internet, GPS or Google because I think it is also connected with the postmodern mindset. Our local museum has become very trendy and has scattered the formerly systematic layout of knowledge into thousand splintered shards of information so that apparently random facts about population mingle uneasily with images of industry and observations on botany. It’s all very clever but ...

Taken like this can see you how it applies to my sermon series? Our congregations know bits and pieces. These facts are not in themselves fallacious but the problem lies in the way that they are not connected in any real systematic manner. This fragmentation of knowledge is enormously problematic. It makes any sort of logical defence of the gospel difficult, it torpedoes a consistent morality (you cannot argue from first principles because there are none) and it opens the door to making decisions on emotion alone. The cults – and Hell – must be very pleased.

So my challenge this year is to try to hold things together into some sort of consistent pattern. Long live systematics in whatever part of our lives, but particularly in the area of belief.