A few weeks ago, I opened a sermon with the oft quoted but rarely cited dictum from Benjamin Franklin regarding the certainty of death and taxes. In the days following the shooting in Orlando, United Methodist Insight published my essay entitled, “We Are All Mortal”. In this article, I wrote about the certainty of death. I am fascinated by the idea of certainty. Yet, if we take a moment and consider how wrong we’ve been (as the human race), I’m almost certain we would never be certain again.
Other than death and taxes, what’s the one thing most of us can be certain of? Think hard and beyond the love of your significant other, pet, or the next sunset. Those too are not guaranteed. If you said gravity, you’d be correct. If we’re sure of anything, it’s that gravity exists, does what it does, and will always do the same thing. I was reminded of this unhappy certainty only a week ago. Armed with my new Fitbit, I was exercising. I was walking a well-defined route around the island, designed to help me get a jump on my daily goal of 10,000 steps. It was early Monday morning when I turned the corner along “British Cemetery Road”. There are two cemeteries along the road, one British (a Commonwealth War Grave) and one belonging to a local family. This road is flat, well-paved and free from any obstructions.
One of the names on a head stone facing the road caught my eye. “William E. Williams”, I said out loud. That sounded like a funny name. I started making up silly combinations in my head. I wondered if William ever ran for office did he make his signs to read, “William E. “Bill” Williams”. It seems like many local politicians when running for tiny rural offices; if they’re named William, invariably put “Bill” in quotes beside their name.
That’s when I fell. I placed one foot in front of the other and the second foot took me down. Gravity grabbed hold and forced me flat on my face. My knee was gashed and bleeding, I couldn’t walk. (A tetanus shot was forthcoming.) Something was off with my right wrist because it didn’t want to help me move, roll over, or push up. I was down for the count. As such, being that I am geographically at sea level, I am certain I slammed into the pavement at 9.8 m/s2 .
Or did I? How certain am I? I could be wrong. I might be crazy. If anything has changed, over the past two thousand years of human history it is our understanding of gravity. Do we believe what we know today will be the sum total of our gravitational knowledge in five hundred years? You’d be crazy to say yes.
Aristotle’s view of gravity was the “thing”, set in stone, and people were killed for believing anything else. This lasted for two thousand years. Until Isaac Newton comes along with his story about an apple; then Einstein appears nearly four hundred years later with more ideas and our ideas about gravity keep changing. The big point is that Newton was basically right and for twenty centuries, humanity was collectively and objectively wrong. We couldn’t have been more wrong about something we were so certain about which we were right.
If we can believe an idea as collectively true yet objectively false for twenty centuries, why would we assume that our understanding of gravity or even religion couldn’t change? We’ve only known Newton’s laws for 350 or so years and given our track record of massive wrongness, how can we argue what we believe to be right today will be empirically correct forever?
Are we to believe our answers are the final answers? And by this, I mean our answers to any of the great issues of our day. If the answer is “yes”, it means our society is at the end of the process which has defined what it means to be alive. “Because it is there,” said Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to climb Mount Everest, when asked, “why do it?” Today, there is nothing “there” because we no longer accept “there” as valid physical or emotional places. We believe we know “there” and all there is to say about it. We cannot be wrong. The possibility does not exist.
However, the moment you acknowledge the smallest chance of being wrong about something like gravity, everything else is on the table. If I am wrong about gravity, if collective human wisdom was so misplaced, what else is up for grabs? You could be wrong about everything, right? As I lay on the unforgiving pavement, bloody and swollen, I realized: perhaps now is time to give up on the idea of being right about anything at all. Maybe this is where I need to be. It’s better to be wrong than obsessed with my own sense of rightness. Thank you, gravity.
Jesus was in the “wrong” business. His central premise was to be Newton to the Pharisees’ Aristotle. Forget the scripture where he says, “I haven’t come to overturn the law.” Those are only words. Look at his actions. Everything he does asks this question: “What if the way you’ve been thinking about God for thousands of years is wrong?” At the end of every parable is an implied question, “What if you’re wrong in how you think about God’s priorities and values in the world?” It is, with Jesus, the more we embrace our capacity to be wrong, the closer we get to a starting point within the Kingdom of God.
If everyone knows they’re right, where does that leave us?
Or, I could be wrong.