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Rumsfeld’s Square

Sermon, Church of the Holy Trinity, Toronto, April 23, 2017

Acts 2:14a, 22–23; Psalm 16; 1 Peter 1:3–9; John 20:19–31


Thomas’s situation puts me in mind of the Rumsfeld square. You know what that is, right? Donald Rumsfeld, at the time the US Secretary of Defense, talked about how there are known knowns – things we know that we know – and there are known unknowns – things we know that we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns: things we don’t know that we don’t know. We aren’t even aware that there is something to know. By implication, there is also a fourth category: unknown knowns. Things we know but don’t know we know. This could be Sherlock-Holmes-style deductions: we have the facts and can make a trivial deduction from them, but we haven’t realized we can. Or it could be that you’re talking to someone you know, but you don’t recognize them. Or it could be talents we have, things we know how to do, that we just haven’t discovered we know yet. So:

[facing congregation; start with right hand]

Unknown knowns

Known knowns

Unknown unknowns

Known unknowns

Now, Thomas is dealing with a similar thing that we can call a St. Thomas square. There’s the seen and believed, and the unseen and unbelieved; there’s also the seen but unbelieved, and – in the blessed position, we’re told – the unseen but believed.

Unseen but believed

Seen and believed

Unseen and unbelieved

Seen but unbelieved

The seen but unbelieved isn’t explicitly mentioned, but it’s implicit. And it’s annoying, isn’t it? When someone doesn’t believe what’s right in front of them? Except that sometimes this is the wise thing to do – you can’t always trust your eyes. But it’s blessed to believe what you haven’t seen, right?

But it’s not really that simple, is it? If you just make something up and decide to believe it, that’s not good. What we’re talking about here is when you have evidence. The other apostles told Thomas. So he was getting it second-hand.

That moves us from logic into linguistics – evidentiality. When you state a fact, how do you know about it? In English we just say where we got the information, or maybe –most of the time – we don’t even bother to do that. But in some languages, you can’t assert a fact without indicating how you know it – it’s right in the verb conjugation, even: whether you saw it yourself, or someone who saw it told you, or you were told by someone who was told by someone else. This all matters. It’s evidential marking.

With Thomas, he heard it from others who had seen it. But he wasn’t the first person after the resurrection not to believe what someone else told them. Mary Magdalene told Peter and John that the tomb was empty, but they didn’t take her word for it; they went and looked. So a population of 1 isn’t sufficient for belief? But when Peter and John went into the tomb, they saw the discarded wrappings and believed. They weren’t chided for disbelieving. But when the apostles, except Thomas – and of course Judas – saw Jesus, that was 10 of them. So Thomas was doubting reports from a population of 10. Should we calculate the margin of error on that? Is 10 the cutoff for statistical significance?

But no, really, it’s not that, either. A population of 10,000 demons wouldn’t be believed, even though it’s statistically very well powered. We know that there are large numbers of people who believe things we find utterly ridiculous. We know that many people think we, here, believe utterly ridiculous things. So it’s not just how many. It’s reliability. You have to decide whether a source is reliable. You need to know what authority they have. Do they have a good track record of telling the truth? Do they come well recommended? Did somebody else with authority tell you this source has authority? But if you accept one authority on the basis of another authority, how did you come to accept that authority? Sooner or later it comes down to you: You decide, on the basis of evidence, experience, and your own judgement, who has authority. But what gives you authority? You could believe what you believe because your parents told you, and you grew up accepting their authority. Lots of people take that line. But if you’re all grown up now, it’s your own decision to keep accepting their authority. But how reliable are your judgements? In Luke, Mary Magdalene and several other women told several apostles and they disbelieved them, though Peter went and had a look. Fair to say they disbelieved them because they had an inaccurate belief about the reliability of women? How reliable are our reliability judgements?

It gets pretty circular. In the end, if you want rock-solid authority, go to a rock. And I don’t mean Peter. That’s the guy who said three times that he didn’t know Jesus! I mean an actual rock. If there’s a big rock in the middle of your path and you don’t believe it’s actually there, your toe or shin will tell you you’re wrong. You can’t just believe that rock out of existence. If someone tells you it doesn’t exist, and you believe them with all your heart and soul, the moment you walk into that rock and say NGGNNGNGGG you’re going to have to reassess their authority – or you’re going to have to doubt the authority of your own perceptions. Some people do that! It’s not wise.

And yet they say faith moves mountains. Mountains are great big rocks, or piles of rocks. If you need to get past a mountain, and you have faith that it will move for you, well, it won’t. But if you have faith that you can find a way to move it, and your faith leads you to learn geology and engineering and to start a large company and acquire equipment and workers, well, then, maybe you can move it. Maybe. People move mountains. They cut the tops off of them and fill in the valleys next to them so they can get at coal underneath them. I sure wish they wouldn’t do that, but they do. And they do that because someone believed it could be done and found a way to do it. That’s why anything happens!

Most things, of course, are easy to believe we can do. What really advances us is when we believe we can do something that we haven’t seen we can do. I don’t mean believing we can play the piano well right now without ever having learned it. I mean believing we can learn how. Believing we have the ability to learn. Now, we could be wrong, but we don’t know until we try. And what we believe we can do may be something for which we have very little evidence. It may be something that other people have told us can’t be done. It may be something that seems stupid and difficult, like loving those who hate us. Standing up to injustice. Loving those who hate us and standing up to injustice at the same time. We won’t know if we can until we find out. But we won’t find out unless we believe at least enough to try.

And if we believe we know how to do something, and we try, and we turn out to be right, then it’s something we knew but didn’t know we knew. Our unseen but believed is an unknown known.

Which brings us back to Rumsfeld’s square. But you knew that already, didn’t you.


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