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Thursday, October 13, 2016

Your Level of Understanding

It’s 50 years since the first season of the original Star Trek TV series, so I’m rewatching some of those ancient episodes when I need a break from anything that actually requires mental activity.

Part of it is curiosity. I’ve been on a “memorykick lately, as readers of this blog will be well aware, thinking about what we retain and how and why we retain it. So I’m interested in seeing if those episodes are anything like what I remember them to be. I was eleven or so when Star Trek blew my adolescent mind.

That’s neither here nor there. But this one little bit of typical Star Trek dialogue stuck with me, from an episode written by multiple Hugo-award-winner (and legendary curmudgeon) Harlan Ellison.

Here’s the setup: phasers at hand, Kirk and Spock approach a godlike computer being that looks something like a glowing arch:

Kirk: What are you?

Guardian: I AM THE GUARDIAN OF FOREVER.

Kirk: Are you ... [pregnant Shatner pause] ... machine or being?

Guardian: I AM BOTH AND NEITHER. I AM MY OWN BEGINNING, MY OWN ENDING. [Hmm. Can’t imagine where Ellison nicked that from.]

Spock: [archly] I see no reason for answers to be couched in riddles.

Guardian: I ANSWER AS SIMPLY AS YOUR LEVEL OF UNDERSTANDING MAKES POSSIBLE.

I like that last line. After all, Spock’s comment to the Guardian is nowhere near as presumptuous as many made by today’s cynics about God.

If an atheist Jew like Ellison understands that a greater intelligence must always speak at the level of his audience if he wishes to communicate, I think Christians should definitely be able to handle the concept. It explains much about the way God dealt with Israel in the Old Testament, and the way he deals with us today.

Our humanity and our mortality require much in the way of accommodation. I think of Manoah asking the angel of Jehovah, “What is your name?” The angel asks him in reply, “Why do you ask my name, seeing it is wonderful?” “Wonderful” here means either “extraordinary”, “incomprehensible” or “secret”. I favor the second option.

The other use of the word occurs in the Psalms, when David is contemplating the extent to which he is known by God:
“You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
You search out my path and my lying down
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is high; I cannot attain it.”
Here also it would seem to be the incomprehensibility of God’s ways that David has in view. David’s concept of God is high indeed: a God who knows what is in the human mind before the speaker can even arrange his thoughts; a God who is present in every dimension of human existence and all throughout the universe; a God who knows his children from the atoms out; a God whose own thoughts exceed imagination.

That such a God would address us at our own level, in our own language and mostly in accordance with our preconceptions and experience should come as no surprise to us. How else would we have any hope of understanding him?

Spock, the rational man, sees no reason for the answers of a higher intelligence to be framed in such a way that they do not suit his personal disposition.

David, the spiritual man, doesn’t presume to pass comment.

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