In the first of the Sherlock Holmes stories, A Study in Scarlet, Dr. John Watson makes a startling discovery about his new friend: Sherlock Holmes is blithely unaware that the earth revolves around the sun. When Watson expresses shock at Sherlock’s ignorance, the consulting detective is nonplussed:
“What the deuce is it to me?” he interrupted impatiently; “you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”
Sherlock Holmes has resolved to let nothing “useless” take up space in his memory:
[T]he skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it: there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.
At first glance, there appears to be a sort of evangelical purity about Sherlock’s preferential option for the practical. In the religious sphere, the words of Paul to the Corinthians come to mind: “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). Like Sherlock, Paul proclaims a hierarchy of knowledge: “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil 3:8). Paul even appears to support Sherlock’s recognition of the importance of forgetting some things in order to acquire only useful knowledge: “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:13–14).
When it comes to sharing the joy of the Gospel with those who have not yet been captivated by the Word (and even those who have!), it is necessary to speak in a way that will allow others to see the attractive force of the person of Jesus Christ. St. Paul strove to be all things to all men, so that he might save some (see 1 Cor 9:22). As he wrote to the Corinthians, “I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it” (1 Cor 3:2). Although we must preach the Word in season and out of season, our proclamation should not become strident or shrill, but should respond to the concrete circumstances of others’ lives and their modes of thought and expression. This means that we must actually know the people whom we are talking to and be able to converse in the language and concepts with which they are familiar. We should strive to give a reason for the faith that is in us, using stories and images that will help our audiences to pay attention and relate our experience and ideas to their own lives.
In doing so, we follow the example of the sacred authors of the Holy Scriptures, who “put forward divine and spiritual truths by means of comparisons with material things” (see St. Thomas on metaphors in Scripture). By using images of nature—including the earth, sun, and moon as they appear to us, rather than Watson’s theories of the planetary system—the Scriptures allow us to come to know God by means of things we know more immediately through our five senses. Ultimately, this imagery reaches its culmination in coming to understand the love of God through the love of our fellow men and women—”for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20).
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. . . . No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1:1, 14, 18).
Elementary, my dear Watson.
Image: Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce (as Holmes and Watson, 1939 film series)