It has been my lot in life, from time to time, to give testimony under oath in court room proceedings and depositions. This is not because I've been in some kind of trouble, but rather because I have served as an expert witness and fact witness in the field of technology litigation. (A fact witness is someone who was present at some event, like the creation of some new technology, who can testify to the facts regarding what was going when some invention occurred.)
Giving a deposition or being cross-examined is an interesting experience. One of the first things you learn is that, if there is any interest on the part of the lawyers in actually getting at the truth, it must be completely tangential to what they're trying to do with you. Lawyers, for the most part, seek to elicit sound bites from the witness which could help their case and might be trotted out for the jury in some way that is injurious to the other side. Lawyers' questions often seem designed, less to discover the truth, and more to extract a statement that could be construed to help their case. To extract these helpful sound bites, they carefully craft questions containing embedded presuppositions which they then try to get you to answer while overlooking the premise of the question. It's similar to the old question "Yes or no, have you stopped beating your wife?" Well, a yes or no response leaves the premise unchallenged and is hardly conducive to getting at anything remotely close to the truth.
The little embedded assumptions in a lawyers' questions are much more subtle than the "beating your wife" question and, honestly, it's kind of exhausting taking questions from lawyers. You have to carefully parse their words and you cannot even assume that the representations they've made about anything related to the questions are, in fact, the truth. I have been actively lied to by lawyers during depositions. On one such occasion, the lawyer's lies only became apparent much later in the deposition when the lawyer answered my clarifying question in way that was inconsistent with some earlier representations (he had either forgotten the lie he told earlier or was assuming that I wouldn't remember.) Well, I called him out on the inconsistency of his representations. Without getting into the details, what the lawyer had done was to elicit a technical opinion by lying to me concerning the details of how some evidence had been acquired from a computer system. To be honest, this kind of made me mad. I actually called him a liar to his face, under oath, while the court reporter was taking down every word and in front of the other lawyers in the room. I also insisted on amending my earlier testimony to include the fact that I had been lied to. For some strange reason, they chose not to use any of my accusations of lies in their presentation to the jury. Go figure.
Anyway, the jury trials I've seen are really elaborate, pre-planned choreographies of evidence manipulation. It is nothing at all like the old Perry Mason shows where some thunderbolt of unexpected evidence rains down into the proceedings at the very last minute. It's much more like a play being performed for the jurors, complete with carefully crafted scripts and scenery. The last thing a lawyer wants is for something unexpected to happen at trial. Imagine what would happen in a Broadway musical if some random person from the audience leaped onto the stage, inserted entirely unexpected dialog into the performance, and belted out a song from a different musical. That's about how lawyers would feel about Perry Mason-style surprises during trials.
I thought about the way lawyers ask questions this week as I was reading a book called "My Bright Abyss" by Christian Wiman. Wiman is an award winning poet, until recently editor of Poetry magazine, and has an incurable form of cancer. The book I'm reading is a series of Wiman's reflections on his plight, and on how cancer has affected his somewhat embryonic and uncongealed faith.
Wiman has a poet's way with words and a poet's acute sensitivities. The book is written as prose but contains a great deal of actual poetry and a whiff of poetic style even in the prose. There are many clever insights and memorable turns of phrase in his writing. The personality that shines through from Christian is likable and honest. On numerous occasions Christian shows flashes of insight and his writing style is certainly beautiful. But I find that for the most part I don't really like the book. It's sad to watch him groping for answers, even despairing of finding them, while he almost entirely depends on his own reason, mostly averting his eyes from what is contained in the Bible. There's a woozy, mystical understanding of faith that transforms it into a kind of ineffectual coping technique rather than what it really is, which is an intimate relationship with a person.
I was drawn to the book because of the author's plight and because I know from hard personal experience that facing your own mortality alters you. If you have ever felt the desperate need to grip your lover's hand, maybe for the very last time, to tell her all that she means to you, then you know what I'm talking about. If you've ever had to sit with your children and deliver ominous news - news about yourself - and seen the look in their eyes, then you know what I'm talking about. If you've ever felt the urgency of putting together a folder of information to simplify your family's transition after you're gone, then you know what I'm talking about. In my own personal case, I seem to have survived, Lazarus-like, to fight another day. But I have learned how a keen awareness of my impermanence is actually a great gift that rubs my nose in the knowledge that I was made for a relationship. Our mortality tugs us toward the realization that it is only in a relationship that we find meaning or value in our lives. Or coherence. The temporariness of our lives can remind us that the very embodiment of "grace and truth" is the person who counts.
As weird as it may seem, it was this passage from Wiman's small book that reminded me of lawyers:
"There is no clean intellectual coherence, no abstract ultimate meaning to be found, and if this is not recognized, then the compulsion to find such certainty becomes its own punishment."
These kinds of comments make me sad because there is an endless, hopeless meandering in store for everyone who believes them. The problem with this statement is multi-faceted. In the first place, he embeds a lawyer-like, unexamined presupposition in the statement and then expands out from there. He denies that there can be, in our lives, anything like a "clean intellectual coherence". But then he emphasizes what he means by saying "no abstract ultimate meaning" can be found. I entirely agree that ultimate meaning will not be found in some abstraction. The problem I have is with his coupling "intellectual coherence" with "abstract ultimate meaning". If the Bible says anything at all, it says that everything about our faith is defined in terms of a personal relationship. We are called, first and foremost, to commit ourselves to a person. And only in that personal relationship do we find "intellectual coherence". That's because the person we're told to seek just happens to be the author and sustainer of all reality. Jesus is not a concept or an abstraction but a person. "Intellectual coherence" can be had, but it can only be found in Him.
The other thing I really object to about Wiman's despair of finding intellectual coherence is that he asserts that anyone so deluded as to seek intellectual coherence is a candidate for punishment. Such an observation carries within it the seed of an actual moral objection to a coherent faith. This is unhelpful in the extreme. It suggests that we should foreclose the search for coherence because coherence can only be found in abstractions and, should you search for coherence, well, punishment is in store for you buster.
It could be that Wiman is conflating a coherent understanding with a comprehensive understanding. I've seen people do this before. Despairing at any possibility for omniscience they foreclose, in their minds, the possibility of knowing anything at all.
But it is entirely possible to have an understanding that is at once both finite and true. We may not know everything there is to know about God, but what we do know can nevertheless be true. And, more to the point, whether we know everything or not in no way diminishes the intellectual coherence of our faith.
My heart aches for Wiman. I know only too well the shock and disorientation of unexpected suffering. And I know firsthand the urgency of wanting to know how it is that your own suffering can make any sense at all. But, sad to say, anyone seeking an actual understanding about the meaning of suffering would be better off looking somewhere other than "My Bright Abyss".
For my part, I recommend the book of Job.