The Debate

February 24, 2010

The Debate

There once was a young man who sought high and low to find a learned rabbi who would be able to teach him the ancient wisdom of Hebraic logic. The story goes that after a prolonged search the young man finally found a suitable rabbi and asked if the rabbi would be willing to tutor him. Upon seeing the youth the rabbi simply smiled
and said, “You are too young and have too little life experience for the lessons that I have to teach. Come back to me in ten years.”

The young man was full of a confidence bordering on arrogance and responded, “I may be young but I have already mastered Aristotelian logic and symbolic logic. Test me. Ask me any question you want and I will prove to you that I am ready.”

The rabbi thought for a few moments and then choose a question. He said, “Two men descend a chimney. When they get to the bottom, one man’s face is covered in soot. Tell me, which one washes his face?”

In response the young man immediately said, “Why, that is easy. It would be the one with the soot on his face.”

In response the rabbi turned to leave, saying, “Of course not. What are you thinking? It is the man without the soot who washes his face, for he sees his friend’s complexion and thinks that he too must be dirty.”

“Please don’t send me away,” replied the young man. “Test me again. Any question at all.”

And so the rabbi thought for a moment and said, “Alright, listen carefully this time. Two men descend a chimney. When they get to the bottom, one man’s face is covered in soot. Tell me, which one washes his face?”

“Why, the man without the soot on his face,” replies the young man.

Again the rabbi shakes his head, “You are not listening in the right way. It is obvious that it is the man with the soot on his face who washes. He sees the reaction of his friend upon reaching the ground, can taste the soot from his lips, and can feel it stinging his eyes. Now leave me in peace.”

“Please,” replies the young man, “test me one last time, as I think I have it
now.”

“One last time,” replies the rabbi. “This time I want you to really listen. Two men descend a chimney. When they get to the bottom, one man’s face is covered in soot. Tell me, which one washes his face?”

“The first answer I gave,” shouts the young man, “but for different reasons.”

“No, no, no,” says the rabbi as he leaves. “They both wash their faces. How could someone descend a chimney and not think that their face would be covered in soot?”

—————————-

How, indeed? This parable reminds me of the seeming wall that faces college graduates. The young man in the story has got plenty of book knowledge, but when it comes to actually applying that knowledge the result is spectacularly naive. But going just a bit beyond that this story is also about the need for knowledge to be practical on its own; this story is skeptical of the need for the young man to learn Aristotle in the first place.

Consensus theological positions within churches change– sometimes dramatically so– over time. The exacting minutiae of specific spiritual positions is completely irrelevant in the face of the suffering of the world. I know that some will claim that getting the small things right is important since it lays the foundations for the big things. I can see the logic in that, but would counter with the thought that small things are small for a reason. Continuing the idea I explored yesterday, sometimes complex theologies crumble in the face of the worldly reality that we’ve all got soot on our face and need a washing.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s