Donald Rumsfeld, former US Defense Secretary, a name for ever bound up with the Iraq War fifteen years ago, rather like that of former Prime Minister Tony Blair. Unlike Mr Blair, though, Mr Rumsfeld has to his name one utterly memorable saying. At a press conference in 2002, he sketched an elegant map of the terrain of knowledge and ignorance.
There are known knowns: there are things that we know that we know. There are known unknowns: that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns: there are things we do not know we don’t know.
Take any current issue - the bloodbath of Syria and the already fractured UN ceasefire, or the dilemmas exercising the unfortunately named Brexit War Cabinet - and it can be usefully analysed according to the Rumsfeld triangle.
And so can faith. Faith concerns our attitude towards certain ‘known unknowns’, what the letter to Hebrews calls ‘things hoped for’ though not yet seen; that is to say, things that we know only as possibilities. And, says the writer, you can approach these things with assurance, thanks to a known known, which is the trustworthiness of God. Faith is not essentially irrational: you do not either live with thought and preparation or live ‘by faith’; so, when Abraham and Sarah take their great step of faith into the unknown, they don’t set off in a trance; they pack the car first.
The writer to the Hebrews uses Abraham as the defining case of basic trust, a trust which God honours by bringing many descendants from someone ‘as good as dead’, a phrase that shows a certain lack of respect for the Finding Your Feet generation, to use the title of the latest so-called grey pound movie. Abraham and Sarah stand for those for whom the autumn of life is a time of promise and opportunity. They are the Old Testament’s Timothy Spall and Celia Imrie, who advises her sister in the trailer, ‘You just need to take a leap of faith.’ If you prefer more upmarket sermon illustrations, TS Eliot may have had Abraham in mind when he wrote, ‘Old men ought to be explorers.’ (Four Quartets, ’East Coker’, V)
Whether your life is in its autumn or its springtime, you and I are invited to make the story of Abraham and Sarah our own, to see in God’s promise to them an assurance that God has great things in store for us: for the church, for this Cathedral, for you and me. What those things might be is of course unknown (a known unknown, to be precise), though one image to turn over in the mind is the unseasonal fertility of our couple: perhaps something that seemed obsolete or barren is set to become fruitful. Whatever God’s promises are, though, to receive them we need (like Sarah and Abraham) to be moving in the right direction. We need to prepare for ‘things not yet seen’.
The Abraham story comes to us within the greater story of Lent, Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, pondering his Father’s promise to him. It is a season when we are invited from time to time to Stop, Look and Listen to God. When Abraham listens to God, he is very much in the ignorant corner of the Rumsfeld triangle: we hear of no known knowns, no stories of how God has already been good to him, we just hear him receive this call to go he knows not where. That is basic trust of the most radical kind; but, as their journey unfolds, he and Sarah engage actively with God, sometimes even question God; and they come to know that their trust is well placed.
So it is with us. After a while, faith in God becomes irrational, even superstitious, unless you do the work of active engagement and searching questions. It is hard to grow in Christian faith unless you sometimes ask yourself, for instance, ‘Was Jesus right?’ When you say the Lord’s Prayer, which Jesus gave us, ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’, and then look at the world around you, do you actually take seriously the promise of the Kingdom of God, Jesus’ regime of justice and joy?
Saying Amen - Yes - to that prayer will propel us into deeper prayer - offering to God our longings (like the hart desiring the water books in the anthem we just heard (‘Like as the hart’, Hebert Howells) and into active engagement in our shared life, with all its unknown quantities. But if your answer to the promise of the kingdom is Yes - even a whispered, timid Yes - then God is not ashamed to be called your God, as you journey together 'in faith'.
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
Thomas Merton, Cistercian monk and social activist
Image from the 2017 movie 'Finding your feet'.