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Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Intellectual humility

Interesting (& worrying) article by Anthony Grafton in this week's New Yorker about what Benedict XVI's theological interests and publications suggest about his attitude toward other religions, the direction of the church, and plain old intellectual inquiry.

Here are a couple of passages that jumped out at me:

[Ratzinger believes that] in Latin America, people confused the liberation offered by the Church with social and economic liberation.
So, should we not work for social and economic justice, then? Is this just the way God ordains things--some people's lives really suck, but boy, they'll make out in the afterlife!--or what? I doubt that that's what Benedict or most believers of any stripe would actually say, but to me that's the dangerous endpoint of such an argument.

For Ratzinger, it seems, liberalism is another alien creed, like Judaism, but far less profound, and consists of "values" that can easily be identified, summed up, and extracted for Christian use. In a recent column in the Times, Cardinal Schonborn of Vienna...argu[ed] that the neo-Darwin theory of evolution is "ideology, not science." To support this claim he cited no scientific data; rather, he cited "the real teaching of our beloved John Paul"--clear proof that he has no idea what science is, or, for that matter, ideology. His rhetoric was classic Ratzinger--asserting that those who had perceived a softening in the Church's teaching [based upon John Paul's actual statements on evolution] were mistaken.

"Words mean exactly what I say they do," indeed!

This is all the more troubling to me in light of the lovely readings at mass this week (which Bright Star discussed too!) and the great homily a visiting priest gave. The Gospel reading was Matthew 13.24-43, where Jesus delivers several parables to describe the kingdom of God, including the one about the guy who sows wheat, and then his enemy comes along at night and secretly sows weeds, and the two plants start to grow up together. When the man's servants see this, they ask him if they should go out and start to uproot the weeds; he tells them not to, because there's a risk of pulling up the good along with the bad--they should wait until harvest time and divide the good from the bad then, once they can be properly distinguished.

The priest gave a really wonderful homily about the imperfections of the church, and how we all know people who have left because of very real problems in the church as a whole, or in certain parishes or with certain people, and how we should never be deceived into complacency or ignore these things, but how at the same time we should never be so arrogant as to think that we can always know the weeds from the wheat, or root them out without damage.

There was more to it (although not so much more--my lovely old church doesn't have A/C and was very hot and humid), including the importance of working toward perfection even if it's never achievable, but that's what stayed with me most. Given the worrying signs that the Vatican is going to issue a ruling on gay priests, it was hard not to hear the homily as an oblique commentary on a possible ban . . . but of course, it's also a much more general statement about the dangers of intellectual certainty.

It started me thinking about that passage in 1 Corinthians that I read at George Washington Boyfriend's sister's wedding--you know, the one that everyone reads: "Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am nothing." Chapter 13. It's beautiful, but you've heard it at just about every church wedding you've ever attended, right? "Love is patient, love is kind"; "the greatest of these is love"; all that.

But as I was practicing delivering it, I realized how fantastic that section right before the end is:

Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see as in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know even as I also am known. For now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
(New King James version)

I love that prophetic part, and I think it speaks to this same issue: there are just so many things you can't ever know. I think it can also be seen as a statement about the academic life, and the importance of remaining humble in the fact of one's own ignorance and intellectual blindspots: few of us work in fields where we can ever achieve permanent, unchanging answers to the
questions that drive us, but we remain convinced that the pursuit of knowledge, the advancement of learning, brings us closer to that capital-t Truth that, as the X-Files assured us, "is out there."

Until I practiced reading the passage several times over, I'd never understood that last part, "For now abide faith, hope, love, these three"; it just seemed like a nonsequitur, bearing no connection to the verse that comes before it. But what I think the text means is that, UNTIL we have that perfect truth, the only tools we have to work with, to get us closer to it, are faith, hope, and love, and when in doubt, go with love--that is, go with charity, with generosity, with understanding.

And that's really the only way to live in the world, whether you think there's going to be a Big Reveal after we die (or at an apocalyptic final moment), or not, and it seems that so many people simply don't have this sense of humility, can't even conceive that their worldview might be wrong or not be the only one, and don't have any interest in expanding it. Their God is a rule-giver: follow these three laws and you'll be fine.

And...that's not a God I have any interest in: one you can game, one who gave us our intellect only for us to ignore and fail to exercise it.

And for all his intelligence, I worry that Benedict pretty much falls into this camp--believing that there is only one truth, obvious to all, and eminently attainable.

link | posted by La Lecturess at 8:34 PM |


Anonymous Anonymous commented at 9:00 AM~  


more later-- but thank you.


Blogger BrightStar commented at 7:58 AM~  

This was awesome. Thanks for posting it.

I hadn't thought about faith, hope, and love as tools to get closer to truth, nor had I thought about this issues in connection with humility in academic life. I do like this part: "when in doubt, go with love."

we should never be so arrogant as to think that we can always know the weeds from the wheat, or root them out without damage.

I liked the Gospel reading, too. It reminds me of the question me and some of my friends asked ourselves in undergrad when we were continually discerning our place in the world. One of the questions we asked ourselves was: Do you want to serve God in the world or apart from the world? For example, do you want to join a religious order that cloisters you (some did and some do)? Do you want to take a job in secular society and be a presence among them? I was always sure I was meant to be in the world. Not to look down on "weeds," but because I was sure I wouldn't know for sure whether or not a person or situation was weed-like. I believed my knowledge was limited, and I believe God speaks to us in all situations, not only those bound by my religion. So, when I heard the Gospel reading, I thought about living in the world, weeds and plants together, growing up strong, being sorted out later by someone wiser than myself.

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