Back in the early 1980s, I got my first American Express card: traditional green, with the original Amex charge card terms. I had a Visa back then, and I knew its limit: $1,000. I had no idea what my limit was with Amex: so long as I paid it off every month, they'd approve pretty much anything. Eventually, though, I ran up against the wall, which turned out to be located somewhere around $4,000; I'd charged over $8,000 the year before, and paid it in a timely manner, but four grand in a single month was more than they were inclined to permit. And they were right, too: four grand in a single month was more than I could handle, having just left a $30k-a-year job, cashed in my stock portfolio, and moved halfway across the country.

The obvious lesson here, of course, is "Don't spend so damn much." But there's a subtler truth over in the shadows: I might never have found out what that limit was, had I not tested it. And when I did find out, it came with more questions: Do the same rules apply to other Cardmembers? Do the higher-prestige cards — gold, platinum, eventually "black" — confer additional benefits? And how did they determine that limit in the first place? (The answers: pretty much yes, definitely yes, and none of your business.)

This is, I admit, an odd opening for an Easter commentary. But it does reflect one fact of life that we don't think about very much: the more we know, the more we discover that we don't know. We've done all manner of research on the common cold, a disease which has existed as least as long as sick days at work, and we've traced the culprits down to a small collection of viruses, but we're nowhere near finding an actual cure: according to ancient family wisdom, a cold will last two weeks if you do nothing, but if you ply yourself with a variety of medicines you can cut this down to fourteen days.

So things will happen, and they're not always good, and those of a more skeptical bent will wonder why, if this God person is supposed to be the last word in goodness, why He doesn't do something about that. It was many years before I figured out the proper response: "What makes you think He didn't?" We're only just now getting a handle on one particular flavor of Picornaviridae after all these years, and we think we're going to explain the mind of God? What are we thinking?

Probably the same thing we're thinking when we convince ourselves that because we can now predict a tornado in the next couple of hours over a ten-square-mile area, we assume that we understand all the important factors of climatological phenomena and can therefore make all sorts of dire predictions about future climactic conditions for an entire planet. Or the same thing we're thinking when we pronounce a "quality-of-life" judgment on a person who's yet to be born. We have enough answers for a small subset of questions, and we think — or, rather, we hope — that it's enough.

If we seek the truth by looking for mere answers, what we will find, inevitably, will be more questions:

[A]ll knowledge begins in the senses; however, not in a static way, but in a dynamically expanding way. Think of how the human subject has delved all the way "down" to the subatomic level, with no end in sight. In fact, there is no end in that direction, only a "relative infinity" that mirrors the true infinity of the Divine. Clearly, the idea that we could ever locate the absolute in that direction is pure metaphysical folly, since the merest act of knowing obliterates any materialistic paradigm. It is not so much that this or that truth is absolute, but that any truth "participates in" or "converges upon" the Absolute. Otherwise, as [Frithjof] Schuon said, only man's ignorance is absolute.

Which explains much why some, confronted by "He is not here" (Matthew 28:4), will react with denial: "He was never there in the first place."

Today's world, unduly impressed by "credentials" of some form or another — anyone with enough letters after his name can hang out his shingle and will be acknowledged as an "expert" — will always attempt to persuade you with its appeals to higher authority, without of course ever acknowledging the Highest Authority of them all. I'll start taking their calls when they demonstrate their ability to empty out a tomb, from within, over a spring weekend. Not even American Express can do that.

The Vent

#625
  12 April
2009

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