and the firmament proclaims [God’s] handiwork.
2 Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge. …
7 The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul; …
10 More to be desired are they than gold, …
sweeter also than honey, ….
Psalm 19 then ends with a prayer which I invite you now to pray silently with me:
be acceptable to you,
O Lord, [our] rock and [our] redeemer. Amen.
Do you hear the wonder in Psalm 19? Can you see and taste the wonder? This is the wonder that has led Jews in some times and places to introduce their children to learning by painting large Hebrew letters with honey and inviting their children to taste the sweetness of the letters. This is the wonder that led one Jewish woman in Los Angeles to create an interactive children’s museum to encourage children to learn Jewish traditions. Children explore the museum using all of their senses, whether lighting Hanukkah candles or tasting Passover flavors or praying at a reproduction of the Western Wall in Jerusalem. These are not “pretend” practices, but practices that engage children and adults in wonder. Indeed, the prayers from the reproduced Western Wall are sent to Jerusalem to be placed in the actual Western Wall. They are later buried on the Mount of Olives with other prayers from the Wall.
Do you hear the wonder of the Psalm? The heavens tell the glory of God and the earth proclaims God’s handiwork. Days pour forth speech, and nights declare knowledge. Images – profuse and vivid – stir pictures of sunrises and sunsets, mountains and valleys, waterfalls and ocean waves – all too magnificent to grasp in their wonder. The images also evoke the wonders of ecological systems, which, however fragile, are remarkable in the ways that plants and animals and sun and rain support one another in their complex, interactive lives. The psalm even evokes the wonders of the human body. However frail and fragile the human body is, it is a wonder of God’s handiwork. Dr. Roger Yu told my husband and me yesterday when he checked my husband out of the hospital: “The exactness of the human body is truly amazing.” Yet, as the psalmist says, all of this wonder is beyond human speech and words. We can speak of it, but we cannot fully grasp the mysteries.
The psalmist wants us to know that knowledge courses through creation, but its origins are in God. God not only communicates through creation, but also through the law, through which people come to knowledge and finally to wisdom. Psalm 19 calls the law by different names – commandments, decrees, precepts, and ordinances – all of which proclaim knowledge. These God-given words revive the soul, make wise the simple, are more precious than gold and sweeter than honey.
Psalm 19, with its passion for knowledge and wisdom, is fitting to rehearse as a new academic year unfolds. Boston University, and schools and colleges around the world, are sacred sites where people meet wonder in the biology lab, the poetry class, the library stacks when they are researching the social history of a once obscure country. Universities and schools for all ages are sacred sites where people stretch their abilities to relate with others, to ice skate as they never have before, to mesh with others in a winning hockey team. However odd this comparison between academic pursuits and the knowledge proclaimed in God’s universe, it is apt.
In Medieval Europe, religious orders founded universities to educate clergy and public leaders and to spread knowledge as far as people could imagine. Between the early 17th and 19th centuries, religious leaders in the United States founded colleges and universities for similar reasons. They often built the university libraries to resemble Gothic cathedrals. The Yale University Library even has a long aisle leading to what resembles a high altar, where the circulation desk sits. Consider the awe inspired by this early library architecture of Yale University, Bowdoin College in Maine, or the Bodleian Library in Oxford, England. The architecture was no accident; it was a way to honor the sacredness of learning and the wonders
We can critique these practices of interlocking religion and academic study. We can argue, for example, that such practices are Eurocentric and they have fed the hegemony of Christianity in the United States and other parts of the world, communicating that Christianity was the only religion of a land. On the other hand, the same people who were passionate in their religious lives were often passionate in their search for scientific truth, poetic beauty, and anthropological understanding, and they were passionate about the wellbeing of the world. Further, scholars who made scientific discoveries or studied ancient literature or astronomy often experienced moments of sacred awe, whether or not they associated those moments with religion. Passion for learning and passion for the Holy, more often than not, go hand in hand, and we find this in most religious traditions. The psalmist who scribed Psalm 19 understood this well.
So where does this passion lead? I suggest that the passion for knowledge leads to probing. Remember the young hospital doctor who was in awe of “the exactness of the human body.” When I asked Dr. Yu if I could quote him today, he became curious and began asking questions. He described some of his own search through theological puzzles. His inspiration about the exactness of the human body has led him to questions about God, Jesus, and the universe. Similarly, when you and I allow passion for learning to do its work, it will lead to probing, even when the probing unsettles us and seemingly chases the passion away for a time.
Probing is a natural human act that takes many forms. We probe why a tragedy happened or why someone acted the way they did. We probe frontiers of neuroscience and frontiers of the universe, searching the planets and other distant bodies. Boston University was founded by religious people who cared about clergy education and public leadership. The founders were abolitionists who wanted to further justice in the United States. Today, Boston University continues to be related to the United Methodist Church as its historic founder and as a contemporary colleague in probing; however, the University is not owned or directed by that church or any other. Indeed, it has many other colleagues as well – granting agencies, other
universities, and people in many parts of the world. Further, a large percentage of the faculty and students here are Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, and agnostic, to name a few, but we are bound together with a common passion to learn and a common commitment to probing. We do not exist to promote a faith, but to promote probing. This is why Marsh Chapel encourages the probing of peoples across many faiths and why the University engages with and learns from people of many faiths.
This perspective of a modern university resonates with the Psalmist’s passion to know the world and to seek understanding. A modern university, as an open institution, does not ground its intellectual probing in a theological position on God and knowledge. But the psalmist was not addressing a modern university. The psalmist addressed the people of Israel – a religious people. The psalmist wanted this people of God to know the world and to know that the source of knowledge is God. As the psalm echoes through history, it now invites modern and postmodern people to be similarly in awe of God’s work. It invites people of faith and searchers who claim no faith to quest endlessly for knowledge and to know that quest as a quest for God. To probe God’s universe is to revere God, and to revere God is to probe God’s universe. Probing is itself an act of wonder – caring enough to dive as deeply as possible into the pool of knowledge.
Thus far, I have addressed the wonders of knowing. I have said nothing about the never-ending quest, the dangers of foolishness, or the new challenges that arise every time we learn something new. I was awakened to the challenges most recently by our four-year-old granddaughter. When her parents told her that Poppy was ill, she responded quickly, “He must be allergic to the snow.” Her parents had previously explained to her that we live in Boston, and one of their explanations included snow. That one stuck. When Kylie learned that Allen was ill, she immediately tried to understand why. She took the knowledge she had, mixed with her love for Poppy, and tried to diagnose the patient. Kylie’s response made her Mimi smile. Her parents, of course, took this opportunity to give her another lesson in geography and climatology because they do not want Kylie to stop probing. Probing always leads to more probing.
Authentic probing leads to insight, but often not to final answers. This week, we remembered the eighth anniversary of the horrific events of September 11, 2001. Probing those events has been challenging because people have often been willing to accept simple explanations that place blame on one group or another, then generalize the blame to everyone associated with that group. We have been content with “probing light” in contrast to “probing heavy.” Heavy probing does not end when a scapegoat is found; heavy probing seeks explanations in every possible corner of knowledge.
Why should we be so thorough in our probing? Here, the text from Proverbs is particularly insightful. It urges people to heed the teachings of their fathers and mothers and to resist the enticement of sinners who will lead them into war and greed. These sinners say: “Come with us, let us lie in wait for blood; let us wantonly ambush the innocent” (1:11). Then they say: “We shall find all kinds of costly things; we shall fill our houses with booty” (13). After giving these warnings, Proverbs continues with a plea:
18 [they] set an ambush—for their own lives!
19 Such is the end of all who are greedy for gain;
it takes away the life of its possessors.
20 Wisdom cries out in the street; …
22a ‘How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?’
We easily fall into war and greed if we allow ourselves to settle for simplistic answers.
To this point, the texts for today highlight the beauty of knowing and the ways that continual seeking can protect against foolishness, especially the foolishness of throwing our lives into war-mongering and greed. We have one more text knit into the lections today, however, and this one reminds us seekers that knowing requires something of us. As we come to know something, we become responsible for that which we know. Here is where Mark’s gospel speaks a challenge. About half-way through the gospel, Mark tells the story of Jesus traveling with his disciples. Along the way, he stops to ask: “Who do people say that I am” (Mark 8:27). The disciples respond with what they have heard others say about Jesus. Jesus then replies with another question, “But who do you say that I am?” to which Peter answers, “You are the Messiah” (29). Jesus responds by explaining that the Son of Man must suffer and be rejected and killed. At this point, Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes him for saying these things. Jesus, in turn, rebukes Peter for not setting his mind on divine things. Then, Jesus calls the crowd to him and says: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel will save it.” (31-35)
The picture here is that people are asked to know and to speak what they know, but they are also asked to act upon what they know; the disciples and crowd were asked to give their lives for the sake of the gospel. Here we are in 2009, watching summer close and fall open. Here we are listening to the beauty of Psalm 19, invited into the joy of learning from the heavens and the earth, the days and the nights, the laws and precepts of God. Here we are listening to the warnings of Proverbs to seek wisdom and not be misled by the foolishness of war against the innocent and greed. And here we are listening to the challenge of Jesus in Mark’s gospel: to give our lives for Jesus’ sake and for the sake of the gospel. Who would have thought that knowledge could be so rich, so important, so challenging? But it is! May you be blessed with a never-ending thirst for knowledge and with the courage to accept its demands and promises!
Dean of the School of Theology at Boston University