We were in psychology class; the topic was B. F. Skinner’s theory called Behaviorism based on operant conditioning. We were learning the theory that behavior that is reinforced is learned. It started with Pavlov’s dogs who learned that the bell sound meant dinner was coming, and so began to salivate before a whiff of food was present. We learned many stories about how animals could learn new behaviors through conditioning.
During that time I heard a story that I have no way of knowing was true or not, but it seems it could be. It starts with a large fish tank. At first the tank is divided into two chambers by a glass wall. On one side is one kind of fish (we will call him the predator), and on the other is another kind, his favorite fish-food (the prey). The glass wall divides them. We were told that the predator fish tries repeatedly to get to the prey fish, but of course the glass wall that he cannot see nor comprehend prevents him. Eventually he stops trying. Then, the wall is removed. Both predator and prey swim freely together – the predator has learned that he cannot get to the prey, and so never tries, even when he is hungry.
We are the same. Inside all of us is a hunger. We know that there is something to our love of beauty, our feelings about music, our sense of justice, our yearning for perfection. But we experience a glass wall between us and satisfaction. All the art, all the nature, all the performances that stir us to the bone only fan the flames of yearning, but never fully satisfy. Justice is always the elusive goal, never fully achieved; perfection is out of reach, but we keep reaching.
The hunger, the ache, the longing, these are what philosopher Peter Berger called “rumors of angels” – signs pointing toward a transcendent world that we were made for, but do not fully live in.
This is where the ancient prophet Isaiah starts: with longing; with thirst.
everyone who thirsts, come to the waters
Thirst is real. The water is there. “Come” he says.
But then he contemplates the effects of the glass wall in the tank. What if the fish gives up on the idea that there is anything satisfying in the tank? What if the thirst has gone unquenched for too long? What if the tiny little world of my tank, my set of life’s experiences, my experience with faith or with church or with religious people has taught me that there is nothing there for me?
Isaiah contemplates his own context: there are people who are thirsty, and people who are hungry, but they are spending all their labor for things that aren’t food!
He asks them:
2Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Consider B. F. Skinner’s theoretical answer: perhaps they do not believe that the bread on offer has anything to offer their hunger. Perhaps they have lived in the divided tank too long. They have learned, they believe, that there is no food there for them.
Limited data of one life
The tragedy of the tank is what we experience as the human condition. We only have one life; we only have one childhood, one adolescence, one personal history. We live in one tank. It’s not a very large data pool from which to generalize facts about an infinite universe, but we do. One child grows up being loved and becomes a person who believes in loving.
Another grows up without love, and believes the world to be a hostile, threatening place. One child is abused and so hates all men. Another is abandoned and forever despises women. We experience our own tiny little worlds and we draw universal conclusions.
But we are not Pavlov’s dogs, and we are not fish in a tank who are without options. There is a way out. Isaiah says, in effect, don’t stop looking:
6Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near;
Seek, but do not expect instant clarity or the QED of an air-tight syllogism. We live in a world of thirst and hunger and rumors of angels. God is there for us, but he is not grasped by any of us. Mystery remains; he is far bigger than our little tanks could ever contain. Isaiah knows this, and has God say:
8For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. 9For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
We have come here to bear witness to the resurrection of the dead. This is our faith. We make no claim to understand how it all works. All we do is gather to say that in Jesus Christ, we have tasted the living bread, and found it food for the soul.
We have tasted; this does not mean we have therefore escaped the human condition. We are still selfish, ego-centric, easily offended people who find it difficult to forgive each other. But we know that the life lived simply laying down and acquiescing to our fallen, sinful human natures is not a meaningful life at all.
We believe we have been forgiven by Jesus Christ, and are called to live a new quality of life as his disciples. We believe that though perfection will never be achieved, we are called to live into the values of his kingdom, living for him, and therefore sacrificing for others.
We would never presume that we can accomplish this alone, therefore we affirm the value of coming together as the church. We come together to admit our imperfect, fallen, sinful human condition, and to remind each other that our faith is not in ourselves, but in God, who, through Jesus Christ has redeemed us, and who one day will call us to be with him forever.