Not Made to Know Everything

A meditation on human limits and bad news.

Not very long ago humans were radically limited in what we knew or could know, and I don’t just mean what the scientific method has allowed us to discover. I am thinking about the amount of news we consumed.

Before the 1830s and 1840s, most people were confined to the information they had from the blocks and neighborhoods of the great cities, or the villages or plains they inhabited.

It took days to get information in papers, even for events relatively close by. It might take weeks to learn of events around the world and prior to that much longer still.

Our technologies of communication make it possible now to see and hear — to read about or take in — events and information instantly from every part of the globe, even from the vast reaches of space.

In the past, we only ingested the anxiety and fear and pain and trauma of the world closest to ourselves, and for many human souls even those local hardships were beyond their natural capacities to bear.

When we cannot bear with the burdens placed on us we act out and we breakdown.

Omniscience is the word theologians use to say that God knows everything there is to know about everything and everyone, including (of course) beyond what is observable and knowable by humans.

As a pastor I am a student of humans and one of the things I’ve noticed is that we are NOT made for omniscience.

We cannot bear the weight of so much suffering. The images and stories, the ‪24/7‬ witness to natural calamity and human evil, are way too much for the average human soul and body.

And the signs that we are not made for omniscience are all around us. I will not name them because you can name what happens to our minds and bodies yourself.

And so this is my pastoral advice: turn down the volume of information you are taking in, for the good of your mind and body.

In some cases the human need is to quite simply turn OFF the TVs and radios and social media purveyors of ‪24/7‬ information, shut them down altogether. Cold turkey.

C.S. Lewis said he did not make a habit of reading the papers because if something truly newsworthy happened he’d hear about it. It was true then and it’s certainly true now.

This is not a counsel to bury one’s head in the sand, or to ignore the pain around you, but to recognize your limits, to focus on the world of suffering closest to you.

We are our brother’s keeper. We are called to love our neighbors, and strangers, and even our enemies with the same love with which God in the humanity of Jesus Christ has loved us.

Yes, we are all connected now by technology and that’s likely never going away. And there are some who are called to bear a lot more of the world’s bad news than others. It’s a unique burden to carry the weight of the world, and a dangerous vocation in the hands of maladjusted or malevolent leaders.

Sometimes we do need collective responses to a crisis that outstrip the resources of local communities. Even nations cannot handle massive natural disasters without the assistance of other nations, but we can in wisdom recognize our limited capacity to bear the amount of information we consume, and to ration our personal intake of data from around the world.

Remember, you were not built for omniscience. You cannot take it all in. You cannot bear it all. Only the human who is also God can carry the weight.

Wisdom teaches us to place our trust in the one human who is able to bear the sins of the whole world.

Turn off the broadcast news programs. Unplug talk radio. Close the social media platforms. Stop looking at — taking in — all the pictures.

Contemplate. Listen. Have conversations with those nearby you.

And then do what the Spirit and your conscience directs you to do to do your part to alleviate the suffering, to join God where he is already at work to rebuild. In this way we invite the kingdom to come here and now on earth as it is in heaven.

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Kenneth Tanner

Pastor | Contributor: Mockingbird, Sojourners, Huffington Post, Clarion Journal | Theologian l Author “Vulnerable God” (forthcoming, Baker Books)