Parable of the Lost Pearl (Reprise)

I would like to take the Parable of the Lost Pearl, as used by Patriarch Timothy I in 781 AD, and give it a few twists to suggest different theological views. The parable can be seen in the original form in THIS PREVIOUS POST.

ocean-shells-pearls-oysters-1920x1340-wallpaper_wallpaperswa-com_69

Consider the parable this way…

“Long ago, a royal expedition returned from years at sea. The captain was invited to a great banquet held by the king in honor of the safe, and apparently successful, return of his fleet. The captain as a guest of honor had a special gift to present to the king… a rare and perfect pearl that had no equal in all the world. At the height of the feast it had been determined that the captain would present the king with this perfect pearl.

But there were thieves in the midst of the group. They hatched a plan. Three would snuff the flames that provided light in the room. One would take the pearl from the captain in the darkness and one would spill stones that were similar in size to the pearl on the ground to add to the great confusion. Hopefully, in the confusion, the thieves could escape.

The plan almost worked. The lights went out and the stones were dropped… but the one thief who was to take the pearl misjudged in the dark and only succeeded in knocking the pearl out of the hand of the captain.

In this utter darkness, the captain cries out for everyone to be careful because this priceless pearl is on the ground somewhere. Each reached down to feel around and found a pearl-sized object. Each stood up excited at his or her find. Some hoped to hide it successfully and sneak away, but also didn’t want to be implicated in the theft due to their absence. Some on the other hand wanted to tell others excitedly how they have found the one true pearl… only to discover that others believe that they have that one same pearl.

For a long time the people stood in the room in a stalemate. No one can leave without risking being branded a thief… but no one can completely convince another as to who has the real pearl. They must wait until the light of day.”

This story has more than one potential ending, and the ending one chooses speaks much about one’s worldview.

  1.  Pluralist/Universalist. A view akin to John Hick may end the story with the sun rising to discover that everyone is holding an incomparable pearl.  In this case, the point is that no one has a unique find that others lack. All have the truth.
  2. “Heavy” Post-modernist. If one holds to a Jacques Derrida form of post-modernism, I suppose the story would end with the discovery that no one has a pearl. In fact, there is no pearl… it was a deception of the captain. This would point to the rejection of authority and “real” absolute truth.
  3. Modernist. The ending would drift towards a “whodunit.” One wise person figures out a way to identify who has the true pearl, and, perhaps, who the thieves are. This would perpetuate the belief in a wise authority figure who is able to identify what is really true while everyone else is still in the dark.
  4. Pre-modernist. I am not so sure about this. I suppose that maybe the pearl would reveal itself (or there would be some other miraculous revealing) without waiting for the daylight. This might suggest that the true faith has a self-evident quality that cannot be hidden or confused with fakes (much like in the “Princess and the Pea” where royal blood ultimately reveals itself).
  5. “Light” Post-modernist. In this case, I think the story would stop right where it is. This view does not deny the possibility of that there is a true pearl (absolute objective reality). Rather, there is doubt about the ability of people to be able to identify such reality, discerning it from that which is not real. Therefore, the story ends in a state of doubt. Eventually there may be light to know what is TRUE, but for now, we can only guess and hope.

You will note that as the parable (similar but different to how I told it) was related by Patriarch Timothy I, ends where I ended it. He noted that one could relate the pearl to religious truth. Each person believes he/she is right and others wrong, but until the end of the age, we cannot know for sure. That being said, one may have evidences of having the true faith, much as a person may have reasons to suspect that he/she has the true pearl (weight, size, density, “warmth,” and surface texture, for example). postmodernism

In the story, then, Timothy comes closest to a “light” post-modernist position. We have the inability to be absolutely confident that we hold true beliefs and that others do not. We must accept a certain amount of doubt, meaning that we must maintain a certain amount of faith if we are to hold onto the potential pearl we are holding. However, Timothy goes on to say that one has the possibility of figuring out whether it is likely that one’s beliefs (much like the “pearl” one is holding) is likely to be real or not. As such, he takes a somewhat more positive “modernist” view of the ability to evaluate the one’s subjective perceptions than a typical post-modernist. At the same time, the evaluation is not left to an “expert” but to the individual… this is also more post-modern than modern.

So what? Well, if Patriarch Timothy is expressing Christian faith in 781 AD, there is more in line with a light form of post-modernism. Objective truth/reality exists, but we must accept that we lack the ability to perceive this reality without risk of deception. We however, in line more with modernists, can analyze to see if it is likely that what we believe is true. Still, until God reveals all truth to the light at the end of time, we must live in a state of faith (and doubt).

It is good that Christian faith appears to have much in common with a light version of post-modernism (not rejecting objective or ultimate reality, but questioning our ability to discern such reality). It seems as if relatively few people accept the ‘heavy’ form of post-modernism, although many, without much thought to the justification, seem to accept the implications of that view. If there is considerable common ground with this light version of post-modernism, there should be plenty of room for respectful honest discussions between Christians and this particular worldview.

The Lost Pearl in “Timothy’s Apology for Christianity”

In 781 A.D., there was a discussion between Patriarch Timothy I, and Mahdi, the third of the Abbassid Caliphs at Baghdad. 41de67tkwll

Excerpt from Timothy’s Apology for Christianity. You can read the rest of it HERE.

“O our victorious King, in this world we are all of us as in a dark house in the middle of the night. If at night and in a dark house a precious pearl happens to fall in the midst of people, and all become aware of its existence, every one would strive to pick up the pearl, which will not fall to the lot of all but to the lot of one only, while one will get hold of the pearl itself, another one of a piece of glass, a third one of a stone or of a bit of earth, but every one will be happy and proud that he is the real possessor of the pearl. When, however, night and darkness disappear, and light and day arise, then every one of those men who had believed that they had the pearl, would extend and stretch his hand towards the light, which alone can show what every one has in hand. He who possesses the pearl will rejoice and be happy and pleased with it, while those who had in hand pieces of glass and bits of stone only will weep and be sad, and will sigh and shed tears.

“In this same way we children of men are in this perishable world as in darkness. The pearl of the true faith fell in the midst of all of us, and it is undoubtedly in the hand of one of us, while all of us believe that we possess the precious object. In the world to come, however, the darkness of mortality passes, and the fog of ignorance dissolves, since it is the true and the real light to which the fog of ignorance is absolutely foreign. In it the possessors of the pearl will rejoice, be happy and pleased, and the possessors of mere pieces of stone will weep, sigh, and shed tears, as we said above.”

And our victorious King said: “The possessors of the pearl are not known in this world, O Catholicos.”—And I answered: “They are partially known, O our victorious King.”—And our victorious and very wise King said: “What do you mean by partially known, and by what are they known as such?”—And I answered: “By good works, O our victorious King, and pious deeds, and by the wonders and miracles that God performs through those who possess the true faith. As the lustre of a pearl is somewhat visible even in the darkness of the night, so also the rays of the true faith shine to some extent even in the darkness and the fog of the present world. God indeed has not left the pure pearl of the faith completely without testimony and evidence, first in the prophets and then in the Gospel. He first confirmed the true faith in Him through Moses, once by means of the prodigies and miracles that He wrought in Egypt, and another time when He divided the waters of the Red Sea into two and allowed the Israelites to cross it safely, but drowned the Egyptians in its depths. He also split and divided the Jordan into two through Joshua, son of Nun, and allowed the Israelites to cross it without any harm to themselves, and tied the sun and the moon to their own places until the Jewish people were well avenged upon their enemies. He acted in the same way through the prophets who rose in different generations, viz.: through David, Elijah, and Elisha.

And our victorious King said: “We have hope in God that we are the possessors of this pearl, and that we hold it in our hands.”— And I replied: “Amen, O King. But may God grant us that we too may share it with you, and rejoice in the shining and beaming |90 lustre of the pearl! God has placed the pearl of His faith before all of us like the shining rays of the sun, and every one who wishes can enjoy the light of the sun.

This passage seems valuable today in ways that were, perhaps, less true just a few years ago.

  1.  The scenario comes closer to today than in the last several hundred years in terms of the relationship between church and government.  Timothy as Patriarch of the Eastern Syrian church was leader of a Christian group that was at the mercy of a non-Christian political entity. Up until the World Wars, the majority of Christians lived in lands that were predominantly led by Christians. Prior to World War I, in fact, there was still a certain amount of belief in Christendom. A majority of Christians today live in lands that are either dominated by a hostile or at least unsympathetic religious majority, or a secularized (often a civil secular religion) government. This is not, necessarily, bad. Christianity seems to have always been at its best when it is not a wielder of power. I personally think this is true of all religions. This conversation shows Patriarch Timothy as thoughtful, respectful, and honest with the caliph— even expressing admiration for the other faith in terms that most of us would have difficulty accepting today. It is hardly surprising, I think, that up until the mid-20th century, the dominant groups in converting Muslims to Christianity were not Protestants or Catholics, but those of the Orthodox faiths.
  2. The parable clarifies, in some ways, much in a challenging topic today. Many people argue as to whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God. Those who say “No” are often thought close-minded, and those who say “Yes” are often viewed as heretical. The parable of the lost pearl provides an answer of sorts. First, both groups are SEEKING to worship the same God, much like the people in the story are seeking the same pearl. Second, however, is that both seeking the same pearl is not the same as both attaining it. Of course, this doesn’t solve things totally. If one says that the two religions are the same since they seek the same God… this opens the door for viewing many many religions as the same, since so many seek the God who is the great creator of all things. To say then that there is sameness due to this one similarity is neither rare nor, perhaps, even important. On the other hand, if you argue that the uniqueness of the pearl limits promotes exclusivity of the true faith, one must also face the fact that it may divide even more than we want. No two people, Christian or otherwise, completely picture God the same, and none see God truly as He is. As such, one might argue that no one truly has this pearl. This is part of the reason for the confusion today. Still, the parable I think points more to the idea that our faiths differ, ans so our Gods differ.
  3. This pearl has considerable relevance in this age we describe as “post-modern.” Post-modernism can involve the belief in no absolutes… no metanarrative, no objective reality. This parable, or at least its explanation denies this. There is true faith and untrue faiths. On the other hand, it affirms one aspect of post-modernism. Doubt is not a rejection of faith. In fact, doubt is normal and healthy, since we are limited in this present world to be groping for truth in the (semi-) dark.To me the parable gives not only a better picture of faith and doubt for a post-modern age, but a clearer picture in most any age.