As Ulysses sailed into the straights known for its seductive Siren songs, he was prepared. Homer’s Odyssey details the resolve Ulysses took to stay the course – being rope-tied to the mast and stuffing wax into his crew’s ears, lest they hear the beauty of the voices around them and change course.
One modern take on this story is a “Ulysses Pact” — medical slang for an advance directive: I instruct my future doctor to ignore my future wishes, trusting my current health and information is the best I’ll ever have.
A Ulsysses Pact approach is very useful for avoiding temptation – If I were trying to kick alcohol I would make a plan to avoid happy hour situations, knowing when I got there my resolve would go up in flames faster than liquor on bananas flambé. If a friend were thinking of cheating on his spouse I could recall to him the wedding vows made, (maybe put blinders on his wandering eyes?).¹
But should we follow the pact for interpreting how our faith interacts with the world?
When technology, science, medicine, art, travel and globalization continue to give us more information about the earth we live on, our understanding of God’s mysteries evolve and so must our faith. This adaptability – letting the interpretation change while keeping the main thing as the main thing – has been one of the keys to Christianity’s survival all these centuries.
Temptations aside, making a Ulysses Pact with our course of faith can be stunting. With wax in the crews’ ears, we cannot hear or take in new information – our beliefs are set and that’s that.
Shoving my ears with wax means choosing to become tone-deaf to the world around me.
To put it another way, shoving my ears with wax means choosing to become tone-deaf to the world around me. Ostensibly, to protect myself. Afraid of being swayed by their words, the wax means I can no longer hear that my own words now sound disparate to the next generation.
Into this exact mindset walked Jesus, two thousand years ago.
The religious of that time had set their minds on God’s kingdom, and, picturing just how it would look, shut their eyes tight in order to stay the course.²
So how do we remain open to new information when we already, “know what we know”?
Pursuit of Truth
Here’s a crazy suggestion: look to the scientific method.
Brian McLaren makes a great case for religious communities to learn a lesson from science that’s worth considering: “Science is deeply interested in facts – in determining them, organizing them, presenting them in an orderly way, and using them in practical ways. Religion, we might say, does the same thing with beliefs: it determines what beliefs are acceptable, organizes them and presents them, and uses them in practical ways.”³
He goes on to say that science’s primary loyalty is to its method or practice, rather than the facts it currently proclaims. It starts with a mystery, moves to hypothesis, and after experimentation and time, can be considered scientific fact and acted upon. But notice: if new evidence arrives that undermine accepted facts, there is room to incorporate new evidence, and emerge with conclusions that are even closer to the actual truth.
As opposed to putting fingers in our ears and saying, “Nah, nah, nah I can’t hear you. But the Bible says it and that settles it.”
“Breaking up with old facts is hard to do…but doesn’t discredit science as being unfaithful to its tradition…[instead] it enhances credibility because of its relentless pursuit of truth…even to the point of overturning previously proclaimed certitudes.”³
Late to the party
But if learning from science sounds like something the church should never do, I would argue that we already do it, we’re just perpetually late to the party. Well, first we deny there even is a party, then start listing all the dangerous things that could happen at the party, then through some emergency phone call step into the party and see that it’s not so bad, and at one point or another we call an uneasy truce with the party and finally come to recognize the image of God in the faces of those at the party.
The church survives by latching onto God’s big story and adapting itself to cultures, languages, and epochs, interpreting anew the powerful and innovative words of Jesus.
We must today acknowledge that we are, right here in our seats, living in a new culture and language, maybe even epoch, and begin the process of adapting. God’s grace is too good to keep it all the same.
Even if we think we have agreed upon an answer, the scientific method asks us not to forget the questions.
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¹refer: an interesting post about Ulysses Pact as applied to overcoming temptation
²Since there were no movies to quote back then, maybe Jesus was making a Homer ear wax reference when he said, “For him who has ears to hear?” (c’mon, you know he would have been a movie quoter with that omni-memory)
³These quotes and paraphrased explanations come from The Great Spiritual Migration by Brian D McLaren, pages 35-38. I would recommend this book to you. As a start, hear him on this Nomad podcast and then see if you are so excited that you can’t go back to sleep either.
I’m continuing to quote McLaren because I think he’s onto something, as usual about a decade earlier than the rest of us. [remember how mind blowing, “A New Kind of Christian” was? (well at least the ideas in it, not the shabby fiction he wrapped it in). He wrote it in 2001]
Source for N.C. Wyeth’s illustration of Ulysses at the mast: http://comicsbookstories.blogspot.com/2010/04/n_10.html