A couple of days ago the media was abuzz with the news that some truly enormous fossilised dinosaur bones had been unearthed in Argentina. At a hundred and twenty feet long and sixty five feet high, which is slightly bigger than the last contender for the title, it was duly pronounced the biggest creature that had ever walked on dry land. Of course, we have no idea if that is true or not. One day we may find out that this dinosaur was not the biggest but we will never find out that it was because we do not know what we do not know and never will.
Today I read the following on the Los Angeles Times website:
"Five thousand years ago, in ancient Sumeria (what is now Iraq), an Akkadian princess and high priestess named Enheduana composed what many historians believe are the first signed poems, preserved on inscribed clay tablets, ensuring that she is one of the few women in early history whose name is known to us."
Once again, we cannot possibly know that these are the "first signed poems preserved on inscribed clay tablets." We may one day find out that they are not but we will never find out that they definitely are.
There seems to be something in the human brain, even the brains of academics and scientists, that leads people to form definite opinions about what is real based only on the evidence they have without any reference to the fact that they have no knowledge of what is not yet known. This is something that both scientists and theologians definitely have in common. If you don't believe me about the scientists go away and read about the history of the designation of Pluto (the astral body, not the cartoon dog). It was once, based on what they knew about the solar system at the time, regarded by the vast majority, if not all, astronomers as a planet. But now, because lots of similar big rocks have been found orbiting the Sun out beyond Uranus and Neptune, it has been demoted to minor-planet status and there are some scientists who think that also is too grandiose a title for it.
Scientists are constantly changing their minds about things that they once thought immutable because of new discoveries. However, this does not appear to stop them being convinced that every new discovery is the last word on whatever the discovery relates to.
A lot of theologians are even worse. They have made their minds up about God based on what evidence was available to them when the canon of scripture was declared closed by the leaders of whatever church tradition they belong to. But, unlike the vast majority of scientists, they refuse to adjust their understanding of the divine when new evidence comes along. The obvious example of this is the ridiculous belief by far too many Christian theologians and leaders that the earth was created as described in the first chapters of the Book of Genesis even though there is overwhelming, empirical evidence that this is nowhere near to being the truth of the matter. However, it is the less gargantuan sillinesses of fundamentalism that cause the most problems in our world today; archaic and indefensible views about women and gay people for example. When modern people base their theological beliefs on the evidence as perceived by people alive two thousand or more years ago they are going to be as accurate in their understanding of the divine as a modern day cosmologist would be about the universe were he to base all his science on the evidence as perceived by natural scientists prior to the discoveries of Copernicus.
Theologians should be as willing to say that Saint Paul was wrong about certain things as scientists are now willing to say that Newton's laws about gravity have been superseded, to a great extent, by the theories of Einstein. In fact, theologians should go further. When they decide that a former belief has been proved to be incompatible with modern knowledge they would be wise to refrain from being over definite about their conclusions. It may well be that their new understanding will be as far from the mark in the future as they believe the understanding of previous generations of theologians was in the past. Saint Paul appears to have been right about one thing, that our understanding of the divine is tentative, as if seen through dark glass, and that it will remain so until we are freed from the physics of our present existence.
As long as we are subject to time's arrow we simply cannot know the truth and that might be the truth or it might not be. Who knows?