Law & Gospel: News from Across the Sea

The following is excerpted from Mockingbird’s newest resource, Law and Gospel: A Theology for Sinners […]

Mockingbird / 7.23.15

The following is excerpted from Mockingbird’s newest resource, Law and Gospel: A Theology for Sinners (and Saints), which is available here. This comes from the beginning of the Gospel section:

‘News’ expresses something different from ‘knowledge.’ We live in a time of unprecedented knowledge: a day’s worth of new data now would, in terms of raw amount of information, be the envy of entire centuries past. Knowledge equips us to better live in the world around us: The scientist must be in control in the lab, and the factory manager needs good data on her employees’ output, the cost of raw materials, and the reliability of her machinery. This kind of ‘hard’ knowledge is crucial to our ability to manage our lives and adapt to the world we live in.

The Catholic writer Walker Percy took issue with our myopic focus on knowledge. Adapting to and managing our world is a good thing, but we are more than simply detached scientists or statisticians. He uses the example of logicians at a meeting: If someone ran in and yelled, “Fire!” they would immediately run out of the building before carefully studying the sentence. For a moment, the accumulation of knowledge is no longer the most important thing. News is. The chance that the logicians might be in a plight which threatens their existence dwarfs all else, and they respond accordingly.

Percy envisioned a castaway who, in his plane crash or boat accident, loses his memory of the past. The castaway washes up onshore of an advanced island civilization, and he spends his days walking on the beach, where thousands of bottles with messages in them wash up every day. Some messages, like “The pressure of a gas is a function of heat and volume,” are easily tested and, if true, may lead to major advances in machinery or understanding of the world. Other messages, like “Jane will arrive tomorrow,” are not knowledge, but news.

News, in Percy’s example, is something which cannot be discovered or easily tested by the scientist, or by anyone else. It will not add much to the store of human knowledge, and often, as probably in this case, it is totally insignificant. But news is defined by its peculiar relation to the well-being of the hearer. When the castaway reports Jane’s imminent arrival to the islanders, some may be curious, but many will be more excited about the scientific breakthrough in their understanding of gases. Still, there may be one man somewhere on the island for whom this announcement means everything, the man who was married to a woman named Jane before she left years ago on a canoe, never to be seen again. This man will be thrown into a state of utter joy, mixed perhaps with anticipation and frustration and anxiety, about this visitor.

Again, we see that news, depending on the hearer, may be infinitely more significant than knowledge. The latter equips the secondary self, the one who adapts to and manages the world, but the former may address the inner man behind the armor. The predicament of the hearer matters.

Returning to our castaway, Percy says that though he “may or may not be an objective-minded man,” he also may “find himself in a certain predicament.” For example, if he is thirsty, the sentence “There is fresh water in the next cove” will not be filed away with other assertions to test, but it will take on a direct personal significance. The sentence may not even be true—let’s say only about one in every ten messages in the bottles is true—but if he is near death from thirst, he will give up all else and walk to the next cove.

Knowledge is a matter of truth and untruth, whereas news may be improbable, wild, even absurd. Yet if it has a direct bearing on the plight of the hearer, he will listen. Percy’s castaway thrives on the island, but all is not well:

“But if we say to him only that something is very wrong and that after fifty years on the island he is still a stranger and a castaway, he must listen, for he knows this better than anyone else.

Then what should he do? It is not for me to say here that he do this or that or should believe such and such. But one thing is certain. He should be what he is and not pretend to be somebody else. He should be a castaway and not pretend to be at home on the island. To be a castaway is to be in a grave predicament and this is not a happy state of affairs. But it is very much happier than being a castaway and pretending one is not. This is despair. The worst of all despairs is to be at home when one is homeless.

But what is it to be a castaway? To be a castaway is to search for news from across the seas.”

All the knowledge and skills in the world—which might help him grow his business, be a better father, make contributions to history and economics and science and medicine, and distinguish himself—will not address what he feels, deep down, to be “very wrong.” He is still a castaway, and still homeless.

The entire time, of course, Percy’s clever polemic against our culture’s obsession with empirical knowledge is tracing the shape of faith, carving out a place for it alongside knowledge. In his parable, the Law is operating by pricking the castaway with a sense of uneasiness, the sense that something is amiss. When the Law is preached, that is, and the pastor connects with the hearer’s particular plight—then he must listen. Our inner child, flailing and alone, will know to search for news relevant to her ‘existential plight,’ or the troika of guilt, death, and meaninglessness. Christ said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners” (Mk 2:17). The righteous cannot recognize Christ, because they are pretending they are not castaways; they are unaware of their predicament and thus blind to the News which addresses it. But the sinners and outcasts and poor, those who know they are castaways, take to Christ immediately.

The Gospel is News not only because it addresses our plight, but also because it comes wholly from outside of ourselves. It is not something we could have discovered, invented, or imagined. It is news because it is new. It arrives from beyond the boundaries of our ego, beyond all we know. It is news from across the seas, from the other side of the unbridgeable gulf between humans and God. It is “wholly Other,” as theologian Karl Barth said. And it is Good News because it addresses our plight with rescue, deliverance, salvation, and redemption. It may not empower us, may not help the advance of civilization or give us more control over our world. But it addresses our plight and proclaims that we have been delivered.

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