“What do you know for sure?” Ernie Colvin asked me the same question his Tennessee drawl every time I visited.
“Not much,” was my usual answer.
The implied humility in my answer was a pretense because I thought I knew a lot as most young men do. Now though, as I reflect on our friendship nearly a half-century later, I believe I would answer the same way, but with seriousness. I have learned much since I knew Ernie, but that knowledge has only helped me realize how ignorant I am. As I used to tell my students: “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.” Most looked at me with puzzlement when I said that, but others got it. The truly educated understand that the best we can come up with after a lifetime of learning and reflecting is a very tentative framework of understanding about the world around us. I like to call it a working hypothesis that should be subject to modification at regular intervals.
Ernie was a veteran of two wars: the Spanish Civil War and World War II, during which he had been a prisoner of war in Germany. He would be sitting at his desk carving wood and looking up with a wry grin when I came by. He was a security guard on the night shift and I was a field supervisor for the company. It was 1970 and I was nineteen, though I pretended to be 21 so I could get a pistol permit which was required for the job. Ernie was in his sixties and he was patient enough to offer thoughtful answers to my many questions. He taught me a great deal during our frequent, late-night conversations.
One of the faults that has dogged me for a lifetime is overuse of my brain and underuse of my heart. Since I became conscious of it, I’ve been trying to bring myself into balance but it’s slow going. Observing my youngest grandchildren helps in this endeavor because they’re full of wonder as they explore the world around them. They seem to feel it more than think about it and I remember being that way too until I got out of balance. My brain was always the favored utensil in my personal toolbox and I used it almost exclusively until realizing there were other tools in there as well.
Somewhere around eight or nine, I remember laying in bed after lights out and pondering the universe — the big one, that is, especially its outer limits. Trying to image our expanding universe fifteen billion years after the Big Bang, I’d imagine space — the nothingness between material things flying out from the central point of the original explosion. How far would things travel into nothingness? Was there a limit to the great nothing into which those things were hurtling in every direction? I knew intuitively there wasn’t. I knew that it was limitless, infinite. I knew also that, though the universe didn’t have limits, my human brain did. It couldn’t fully comprehend infinity. All I could know was that the eternal existed. That realization was extremely frustrating until I accepted it.
Accepting it became the initial basis for my belief in the Creator, but it wasn’t an “Aha!” moment. The process was gradual. Call it intelligent design or ultimate creativeness, but I began realizing that something conceived of the universe and caused it to be — with me in it. Accepting that the Eternal had a capital E helped me relax as well. Let me re-emphasize that the process has been gradual and ongoing. I’m still in it and somewhere along the way I came to believe.
Also along the way came a quote from that brilliant atheist-turned-Christian, Augustine of Hippo. Even though he wrote it fifteen centuries ago, it jumped right off the page at me: “If thou hast not understood, said I, believe. For understanding is the reward of faith. Therefore do not seek to understand in order to believe, but believe that thou mayest understand.”
So now there is something else I know for sure. I don’t feel any compulsion to make others know it. It’s enough that I do. I’m not an evangelist and neither was Ernie Colvin. He never preached; he just was. I sensed something in him that I wanted even though I didn’t know what it was.
Labels: God, History, learning, teaching, universe