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Our Knowledge and the Thing: Do We Know the Difference?


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Richard Feynman
I like this trivia question. "What was the highest mountain in the world before we discovered Mount Everest?" If you answered K2, guess again. The answer is Mount Everest.


Our knowledge of something is independent of the thing itself.


Mount Everest was the highest mountain in the world even before we named it. Even after we gain knowledge, our knowledge is separate, and to some extent separates us, from the thing.

Richard Feynman, a famous and beloved physicist, considered the birds of the air.
You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you're finished, you'll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird... So let's look at the bird and see what it's doing -- that's what counts. I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something. - Richard Feynman
In Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, Juliet knows the difference between "knowledge" and the thing. She encounters Romeo and decides she can no longer believe what she once "knew" and says to Romeo:
'Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What's Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.
How beautiful!

Our "knowledge" of hate filled stereotypes can alienate us from an individual. Knowing the names of birds does not mean we're interested in birds. Am I satisfied with merely learning the names God, definitions of his character, and some history?


When I worship God, am I merely worshiping my concept of God or can I get beyond that and worship God?


I was walking home from work thinking about Job's comforters.They had created an image of God and a narrative for him. It brought them comfort. In the end, they witnessed first hand that God is wilder than they imagined. Their knowledge and narrative crumbled and they became naked again before God. As I was walking, I wondered, "what images and narratives have I created for God, without ever realizing it, to bring comfort to myself?"


It seems detachment has a tendency to develop between our knowledge and "the thing."


Even our firsthand knowledge erodes with time after we've observed the birds. Much knowledge is passed to us secondhand. Detachment accompanies our acquisition of such knowledge when we forget we've never seen the thing our knowledge refers to. Is the detachment of our knowledge from the thing itself the root of sin Genesis describes?
 But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die. - Genesis 2:17

Unconscious detachment seems like a small problem but we all suffer from it and it keeps us from caring, trusting, or working together. It is the root of all avoidable suffering.


Knowledge is still good. However, I believe we're mislead when we believe knowledge, apart from experience or first hand observation, brings connection. This is true of birds or God. Is this the underlying problem Jesus addressed when he encouraged us to worship as children?
Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. - John 3:3 
And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them, And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven. - Matthew 18:2-4
Children approach everything experientially with no knowledge or bias. How can we do this? It's like saying we have to be born again into a world where we live through experience rather than knowledge and everything is always new.
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. - 2 Corinthians 5:17 (English Standard Version)
I know that sounds pretty evangelical; or, is it simply wonderful?


When we worship God, we need to acknowledge we may be merely worshiping our concept of God - as pretty or convoluted as it may be - and long for something deeper, truer, simpler, and more meaningful.


Is that a desperate hope leading to a dead end? I don't think so. Jesus taught that that is his intention for each of us.
But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth. - John 4:23-24
We have to empty ourselves. I believe the confession of sin from the Book of Common Prayer is a good start. It's may taste bitter but it's good. I begin most of my mornings with this.
Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in your will,
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name. Amen.

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