Sunday, January 19, 2014

Go to roost, Little Chicken

January 19, 2014

Dear friends,

All right. Enough already. Today we will put Chicken Little to rest.

Chicken Little’s story emerged from my argument that discipleship of the mind entails conscious monitoring of the intellectually empty calories we consume. Choosing good nutrition for mental health and spiritual vigor requires discernment, however. Just as in the process of purchasing food at the market, when choosing material for the mind the package is not always a reliable indicator of the value of the content. 

I intended for Chicken Little’s story to serve as a case in point. Chicken Little’s adventure story was packaged with no indication of gravitas, certainly no challenge to serious thinking was indicated. What can be more foolish than a children’s story in which the major character appears as an anthropomorphized animal, and a chicken at that? Nevertheless, appearances to the contrary, I set out to show that the narrative deals with a serious human problem. 

One of the essential difficult life lessons we must all grapple with involves learning that personal experience while real in its impact is not, however, an easy or reliable guide to wisdom.  Something did indeed happen to Chicken Little, and both his consequent headache and his fear were real.  None the less, despite the reality of his experience, the explanation that Chicken Little constructed to give meaning to his experience did not serve as a reliable road to truth.

Chicken Little’s adventure spoke both to the value of community, and its limitations. Chicken Little was not alone (others shared his concern). Chicken Little’s community was all too easily infected by his fear, however.

The story (at least as I recounted it) spoke both to the value and the limitations of searching for answers; there is great value in Chicken Little’s effort to warn his community of the alleged danger and so make his personal experience serve the common good. There was severe limitation in relying upon the community’s response, however; communal response did not insure communal wisdom.

The story’s ending spoke both to the value and the limitations of tangible evidence and the process of empirical research. The wisdom of the Lion King—going to the environment in which the incident occurred, and looking for further information there—this is the road to wisdom whether in learning that there is no bear under the bed at four years of age, or, at forty years of age, determining if pesticides that kill bugs damage human tissue when ingested.  But the story is reliable in its faithful account of the limitations of human knowing: there was no piece of fallen sky to be found. There was, however, that tangible, clearly present acorn, and the tantalizing possibility that there was a relationship (not yet proven) between that acorn and Chicken Little’s headache and his dramatic conclusion about the untrustworthy sky.

Lots of worth-thinking-about stuff to be packed in a children’s story of a chicken’s adventure in searching for a breakfast bug. Despite its category label, there was potentially more than empty intellectual calories in Chicken Little’s story.

Last week I suggested, however, that getting to this material required the willing suspension of disbelief, a thinking skill in which we temporary lay aside our focused attention on the reality of “the real world and its objects” (the chair upon which you are sitting, the screen upon which you read these words), and choose another reality of experience into which we enter temporarily. This other reality is just that—another reality—and not unreality as our materialistic cultural world view would argue.

Travel to this virtual reality provides the great advantage of learning that is remotely attached to experience (it’s a good thing if we can learn via narrative rather than experience that touching a “live” wire will produce at best a nasty shock, and at worst bring quick death. Direct experience, contrary to proverb, is not always the best teacher.  And in the search for answers to particular categories of questions, direct experience has only a limited capacity to tell truth, and great potential to distort the evidence it presents.

In one essential dimension of life, we can, so to speak, come to know Aslan, the Great Lion, only if we travel through the wardrobe door.

The season of Epiphany is not an invitation to see things that are not there. Neither is it an encouragement to disregard the real chair over which I may stumble if I am “out of touch” with the reality of the concrete.  Epiphany is an encouragement to see and live in the multiworld reality of a tattered, tired world, suffering with its limits and its realities, scarred by its cruelties, but, none-the-less, suffused with beauty, rich in love, and carrying beyond my ability to describe, the kingdom of God that is both already and not yet.

Thinking with you that the richness of life flows from the wisdom to develop conscious awareness and pragmatic skills in all the realities of my life.

See you next week.


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