Know It Alls & Know Nothings
First Baptist Church Laurens
May 22, 2016
In his reflections on our passage for today from Luke chapter 2, Richard Vinson, who teaches at Salem College in North Carolina, calls our attention to two famous paintings that seek to influence our understanding of this story from Jesus life when our savior was 12 years of age. They are the same paintings that you see on the screen this morning.
The one on the left is by the Italian painter Duccio who lived in the 13th and 14th Century. (Don’t worry, I had never heard of him either before reading Vinson’s thoughts about him!?!) The painting is called Christ Among the Doctors. In it, as you can see, Jesus is elevated above everyone else and has the halo of divinity over his head so that it is clear that he is their superior. This is true not only of his being elevated above Mary and Joseph who are the people standing to the far left, but, it is also true of his being elevated above the religious leaders despite their being much older and having studied the scriptures for a long period of time. With the painting, Duccio’s point is very, very clear, Christ came into the temple not to learn but to instruct even though he was only twelve years of age.
The other painting, the one on the right, is also meant to depict this same moment in Luke’s gospel. It is called The Return of Christ and His Parents from the Temple. It is by none other than the 17th century Dutch master known as Rembrandt. Here, a very different image of Jesus is offered. He is lead by his parents – they are the ones taking him home. He doesn’t look down on them as in Duccio’s painting but rather he looks up to them as his earthly mom and dad. Even though he is clearly the son of God, he still 12 and they are his parents.
Vinson mentions both of these paintings because he wants to suggest that a proper understanding of this story is found in averaging out these two works of art not simply gravitating toward one or the other. I happen to think he is right. (Richard Vinson, Luke, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary, pg. 74-79).
Who was Jesus? He was both fully man and he was fully God. That is what we are taught from the time we are little children in the church until we are very old and this passage holds the two in an obvious tension with each other. Jesus in the temple as a 12 year old possesses uncanny wisdom. He says things that even the sages of the church do not fully understand. He teaches them as much as they offer their wisdom to him.
But, Jesus is also 12. He has stayed behind in the temple without telling his parents, he has worried them to death and he has stayed in the temple not only to share his thoughts but also curious and interested in what the religious leaders have to share. He is not 30 as of yet, he is still 12 which is why the chapter, I think, ends with an important yet mysterious verse about the son of God in verse 52 where we read these words, “And Jesus continued to grow in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.”
Now, why do I bring this particular story up on this day when we gather in the church to celebrate our graduates? I do so because I think this story about the tension at work in Jesus reminds us perfectly of a very important lesson that needs to be at work in your lives as graduates preparing and in our lives as people of faith. In truth, it is a tension that should remain in all of our lives at all times. For without question, learning is for a lifetime, not just for a season or not just until we have reach the end of the professional academic road. And, being good learners, means approach new knowledge in the right way.
The story of Jesus here I think beautifully illustrates the temptation that we all face. Most all of us, throughout our lives approach new ideas and the learning process as either “know it alls” or as “know nothings”. This is our great temptation.
Here is what I mean by that statement. Know It Alls are those who already have life and every discipline of study figured out. When we live as Know it Alls, we have nothing left to learn and there really are no new ideas worthy of our consideration. Our job rather is to simply stand our ground and resist everything that might stretch us, push us or challenge us. If an author says something we don’t like or agree with right away, we stop reading. If a speaker challenges us with a new idea that is concerning – we tune them out. Again, we have arrived and are no longer in the learning mode. In essence, this is the Duccio side of the story and a rejection of the way that Luke 2 ends with Jesus, while divine, also being human and continuing to grow in wisdom and in his relationships.
The other side of the coin are Know Nothings. Know Nothings believe everything with no questions ask. When we are Know Nothings, we enter every conversation, every learning experience and embrace every new idea as if it is intellectual manna from heaven. We have no firm beliefs and our lives are built more on shifting sand that solid ideas. In turn, we are quickly swept up in all manner of new thoughts with a naive gullibility. To a large degree, this is the Rembrandt side of our passage. Jesus is just a boy, being led by his parents and making the decisions that all little boys make. But, this misses the divine side, it misses the fact that Jesus was every bit the teacher as a student in this story and it misses that point that far more was happening in Jesus life than anyone could have imagined.
Let me be clear, I am not saying that you or I are like Jesus. But, at the same time, I am saying that there is an important principle here for us to pay attention to and to work at mastering in our own lives.
None of us know it all. None of us have arrived. All of us have ideas that we need to be challenged and refined by. In turn, to live our lives in defense of all that challenges us or to live only defending what we have already decided is a terrible position to take.
But, all of us know something. We are not blank slates. We do have lessons we have learned. We do have morals and principles we have embraced. We do have a Judeo-Christian faith that many of our lives have been shaped by since birth that we must never allow to cave to the whims of the day or to every new idea that comes our way. So we cannot be gullible and run after everything and anything. We must find a way to live in between the two.
As I have mentioned in recent weeks, I have been enjoying David McCullough’s recent book on The Wright Brothers. One of the things I have appreciated about their story is that they are a perfect example of this quest to live in the middle between being a Know It All and a Know Nothing. On the one hand, as they worked to solve the problem of man’s inability to fly, the Wright Brothers were open to all sorts of ideas and perspectives. They read continuously, studied the birds virgorously, talked and learned from others that were pursuing the same goal and they even wrote to the Smithsonian Institute and asked that they would send them all information that they could on the subject. In no way, did Orville or Wilbur Wright see themselves as Know It Alls.
But, they were not Know Nothings either. Over time, they came to firm convictions and strong beliefs about flying and how an airplane could be developed and they refused to waver from them.
One of their chief rivals was a Professor at what would become the University of Pittsburg whose name was Samuel Pierpont Langley. Langley had different ideas from Orville & Wilbur. He also had the backing of famous people such as Alexander Graham Bell and a $50,000 investment in his work from the War Department and private investors. Again, this was the early 1900s so you can image how much $50,000 really was at that time.
Here he was a professor, with important friends, lots of money and clout. And, there the Wrights were, fairly uneducated bicycle builders from Dayton, Ohio who financed their own work. Yet, while the Wrights respected and listened to Langley, he did not sway their convictions. And, of course, history tells us the result – Langley’s great plane, the Aerodrome crashed in the Potomac while the Wright Brothers saw their flier soar across Kitty Hawk.
Let me affirm again this morning that this is not just a word for graduates, this is most definitely a word for believers. Faith is constantly a pursuit of learning more and more about God and what it means to follow him. In all of our opportunities to grow and mature in knowledge and in wisdom, we must never act as if we know it all. Because, we never do. But, we should never act as if we know nothing and we have no principles to embrace, stand upon or defend. Ours is to live between the two – firm in what we believe but open and willing to learn and grow even more.
When he was 87 years old, Michelangelo, one of the greatest minds who ever lived, said this, “I am still learning.” Amen.