Thinking Like God
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
September 16, 2007
Scripture: 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10
“What man of you having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost, until he finds it? — Luke 15:4
It is good to see you again after the summer break. I trust you had a good time in the sun, and the out of doors, where, incidentally, the hero of our story, a shepherd spends his whole life. On Thursday I had decided to treat this parable as a lesson from the Lord on identity and individuality, as symbolized by the love of the shepherd for each of his sheep; but on Friday I changed my mind. I mentioned the first intention in a seminar and a colleague who is personally acquainted with working shepherds told of once asking one of them if he could imagine a shepherd doing what the one in our parable did, and the reply was, “No shepherd I can think of.” Our shepherd left 99 of his sheep in jeopardy in the wilderness to rush off passionately in search of the one. This exchange of yesterday oriented me to the kind of thinking and decision-making our shepherd uses, and since the shepherd in this parable represents God, Jesus gives it to us to tell us how God thinks, I dare to call our meditation an exercise in trying to think like God.
Now a banker as banker would never understand our shepherd; for him thinking like this would be taking an imprudent risk, and he could even get into trouble for fiduciary negligence. Likewise the businessman as businessman who acts like this would be too reckless to survive long, and so also the general and the politician, that is, all the utilitarian thinkers who have to use that narrow kind of operational logic to get by in the narrow world in which they work. One should probably also include in this category all the sectarians and ethnically driven, and the academics whose approach to everything tries to be objective. No one who tries to practice detached, utilitarian decision-making would do anything but criticize the good shepherd for recklessness and inappropriate emotional involvement. We can imagine the calculation: ‘I have 99 minus one – that is just the cost of doing business.’
But a mother who is not mentally ill understands this shepherd’s way of thinking perfectly. She does not say, ‘Well I have John and Peter and Fiona left; we can sacrifice Baa-baa if we have to. All the mothers I have known would do what the shepherd did, with perhaps a bit more forethought, (but remember, Jesus is not portraying a bourgeois planned response, but communicating the passionate love of God for each one of us, and so exaggerates by having the shepherd dash off without making prudent arrangements for his flock).
So, how, according to Jesus, does God think and act, that is, how does God make decisions? God decides passionately, heedlessly, and emotionally. Utilitarian reason condemns such behavior. Passionate heedlessness is contemptible to many. There exists, for instance, a branch of social science called decision theory, which, as I understand it, believes that decisions can be made rationally, with mathematical precision. Jesus tells us that God decides impulsively like the shepherd, not with cool calculation like the decision scientist. What shall we say to this?
At least this, that cool rationality has its place, and it is an important place when we are dealing with the world, but it is a relatively narrow place and confined to activities relatively unimportant to human thriving. It is most effective in the “garbage collection” slice of life, in warfare, courts of law, markets etc. It is mostly out of place in the living room, the bedroom and the broader web of human relations in which we are embedded as plants in the soil. It has been a cruel torture of humanity to extend the web of operational logic to cover all of life, to make a science out of everything, and thereby to imply that what cannot be scientized cannot be important; the cruelest stab has been to make us doubt the simple evidence of our minds and bodies that the feeling of the love of ones mother is truer than everything that the world of utility represents, and that singing and poetizing speaks more truth than the periodic table of the elements.
Jesus tells us that God communicates with us like that impulsive shepherd, like the love of ones life, like Luciano Pavarotti (God grant him rest) singing Puccini, and Emanuel Axe playing Chopin, and Shakespeare praising the beloved incomparably: as in Sonnet 29, “Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising, / Haply I think on thee, and then my state, / Like to the lark at break of day arising/, From sullen earth, sings hymns at heavens gate;/ For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings, / That then I scorn to change my state with kings (Sonnet 29), lines 9-14). (If you had come to this service you would have heard me describe my “disclosure of larks” that took place on the gray shores of the Danish coast near Arhus, at whose university I was giving lectures). The remembrance of thy sweet love is more reviving, more life giving than food or drink or winning the lottery. There’s a country and western song that has the lines, “I can’t stand another minute of a day without you in it.” The hillbillies know what’s important, and it’s the same thing as for kings and professors; ” thy sweet love remembered.” If I have to point out the point at this point it is that the truth of operational rationality is less important for our survival from day to day than the truth of these deeply emotional things. Let me try to put more flesh on the bones of that claim.
In 1999 Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist currently at USC, published, The Feeling of What Happens, which became an important part of the emerging debate whether neuroscience is now showing empirically that decision making is a function as much of emotion and imagination as it is of calculation and objective evidence. In yesterday’s NYT (9/14/07/ p. A 25) David Brooks reports one of Damasio’s pieces of evidence. I shall quote Brookes from this article, which is on the disappearing of the term “intelligence” from scientific discourse, and the demise of the old I.Q. (Stanford-Binet Intelligence Quotient). Damasio “…had a patient, rendered emotionless by damage to his frontal lobes. When asked what day he could come back for an appointment, (the patient) stood there for nearly half an hour describing the pros and cons of different dates, but was incapable of making a decision. This is not the Spock-like brain engine suggested by the I.Q.” It seems permissible to conclude from this at least tentatively that when there is no feeling there can be no deciding. Damasio is an early explorer in this new world the neurosciences are now pioneering, in which feeling and thinking are turning out to be empirically inseparable, or more carefully stated, mutually involved. I take the early results of this quest to indicate that emotional knowing is at least as important for grasping the truth about ourselves, as rational knowing, and in the form of faith in God is the fons et origo of Wisdom.
Back to our shepherd: he thought like a good mother about the one among, let’s say seven, of her children who was lost. “I have got to find him; because my heart is torn by his absence and there is a great hole in my world.” “The feeling of what happens;” tell me if it isn’t the feeling you remember more vividly than the words and images, the feeling of that dreadful time, the time of your divorce, or the death of your spouse, the feeling of losing; and also the feeling of winning, the time you won that prize, got that job, discovered you were an important part of a world-enhancing community, the feeling of having made good decisions in the past that are bearing satisfying fruit in the present; the satisfaction of decisions well made; the joy of there being someone who loves you best in all the world.
Jesus tells us that God thinks like that shepherd; God leads with His heart; God will never sacrifice any one of us; God goes to extremes to find the one, even to the bottom of the barrel, even to the Cross and the Hell beyond. If the heart of the Christian ethic is the imitation of God, then we too should think like that. Thinking like that is what we call faith, and faith is mutual entrustment of the highest order, far higher than operational rationality – we give ourselves utterly to God and God gives Himself to us. For this reason we Christians regard betrayal as the darkest sin, because it is a violation of mutual entrustment, and thus of life itself. Faith, however, is simply, matter-of -factly, life in its fullness, the pinnacle of all good things, of music, poetry, visual art and the love of a good mother, and a good shepherd.
Thanks to God who came to teach such peerless truth through the story of a less than prudent shepherd.