From the Psalter:
Make the circuit of Zion; walk round about her;
count the number of her towers.
Consider well her bulwarks; examine her strongholds;
that you may tell those who come after.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Psalm 48:11-12 (BCP Version) – January 28, 2014.)
I’m intrigued that, near the end of what is a pretty standard hymn-of-praise sort of psalm, there is this admonition to be a careful observer. Jesus will echo this admonition, not in its exact words but in intent, several times in the gospels.
Jesus often urges his followers to pay attention to things and to observe carefully; each of the gospels includes at least one such admonition:
“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.” (Matt: 24:32; cf. Mark 13:28)
“Be alert at all times . . . . (Luke 21:36; cf. Mark 13:33)
“Pay attention to what you hear . . . .” (Mark 4:24; cf. Luke 8:18)
“Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting.” (John 4:35)
In the novel Stranger in a Strange Land, the science fiction author Robert Heinlein invented the profession of “Fair Witness.” This is an individual trained to observe events and report exactly what he or she sees and hears, making no extrapolations or assumptions; the Fair Witness draws no conclusions and makes no inferences from what is observed. At one point in the story, a Fair Witness is asked the color of house. She replies, “It is white on this side;” she refuses to venture an opinion as to the color of the sides which cannot be seen.
When I first read Stranger, I was intrigued with that idea and when I was a practicing trial lawyer, I often wished that I could call a Fair Witness to the stand. Practicing attorneys are well aware of how poorly most people observe, recall, and report what happens in the world around them. Although traditionally valued by the courts, eye-witness testimony is notoriously inaccurate!
So the Bible’s admonitions to carefully observe, to “make the circuit” of the subject, to walk around it, to count its features, to examine, and to consider well are good ones. But it is not “Fair Witness” observation to which we are encouraged, not simply the accurate gathering of facts. It is, rather, to intelligent consideration and contemplation, to the drawing of inferences, and to the making of conclusions on the basis of observed data. A modern reader might even say that the Bible urges us to make use of the scientific method!
A Cambridge University scientist, William Beveridge, in his book explaining The Art of Scientific Investigation (1957) wrote, “Interpreting the clue and realizing its possible significance requires knowledge without fixed ideas, imagination, scientific taste, and a habit of contemplating all unexplained observations.” I believe that this is as true of religion as it is of science. It applies to consideration of one’s faith and one’s spirituality, as well as to observation of the physical world. This is why the Bible encourages us to pay attention.
Like science, religion is hampered by “knowledge with fixed ideas,” by lack of imagination, and by failure to contemplate the unexplained. I also think it is imperative that a religious person have what Beveridge calls “scientific taste,” which I understand to mean a passion for observation, a commitment to being alert at all times, a delight in taking the time to “make the circuit of Zion.”
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.