Soren Kierkegaard once said that being subjected to verbal criticism on a regular basis—what he called the martyrdom of ridicule—is much like being trampled to death by geese. Nobody enjoys being skewered for what he or she believes. To avoid that consequence, it is often easier to dig in one’s heels and defend the status quo than to admit that experience has resulted in a change of mind or opinion.
And yet, the older I get, the more certain I become about one matter. Nothing is as simple as it seems. Everything is more complex, more nuanced, and composed of more layers of meaning than I had previously imagined.
Relationships, patterns of behavior, personal narratives. Descriptions, explanations, rationales. Natural science and social science, philosophy and economics, metaphysics and religion. Virtually nothing can be reduced to black and white. We live our lives trying to discern between various overlapping shades of gray.
Except that that is not the way we are taught and encouraged to perceive reality by leaders and those in power and those who aspire to power. If we listen only to “the chattering classes,”—politicians, activists, bloggers, even religious leaders—we hear and read little more than advocacy of positions that are maintained with absolute certainty and a verbal assault on both the intellectual competency and the moral character of those who would dare propose a different view. In such a climate, opponents are not merely wrong, they are evil.
And of course, the media do all they can to encourage that kind of preening and head-butting. It makes for good copy and riveting video. It’s much more exciting to hear opponents call each other names and impugn one another’s integrity than to watch a reasonable exchange of ideas in which the spokesperson for each side listens carefully to his or her counterpart on the other side and responds with something like, “Yes, I see what you mean. I may not agree with you, but at least I understand your position.”
I don’t mean to suggest there is no such thing as real evil in the world, only that there is a lot less of it than some people would have us believe. Mainly that would be people whose paycheck—not to mention their sense of self-worth—depends on their ability to influence people, as measured by votes or air time or website hits or book sales or weekly offerings.
It both amuses and amazes me how so many of the postings on Facebook—apart from the pictures of babies, vacations, and grandsons 🙂 —are just so much “preaching to the choir.” Dogmatic assertions, from both ideological extremes, that leave no room for disagreement and exhibit no evidence that the commentator recognizes any merit in the opposing view.
In this regard I am indebted to Fr. Richard Rohr (and to Don Clymer for sending me the appropriate link) for a bit of wisdom that fairly stunned me in its elegant simplicity. In a recent meditation, Fr. Rohr noted that the first human sin was the failure to heed God’s instruction not to eat the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. That disobedience introduced dualistic thinking into the human experience, the consequence of which has been our perceived need to determine who is right and who is wrong, who is good and who is bad in every situation. Here, I’ll let Fr. Rohr make the point himself. (Note, I’ve rearranged the order of Rohr’s paragraphs, but I haven’t changed any of the words.)
We read the story of humanity’s original sin in Genesis. There Yahweh says, “Don’t eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Gen. 2:17). Now why would that be a sin? It sounds like a good thing, doesn’t it? We were actually trained to think that way.
I guess God knew that dualistic thinking would be the direction religion would take. So the Bible says right at the beginning, “Don’t do it!” The word of God is trying to keep us from religion’s constant temptation and failure—a demand for certitude, an undue need for perfect explanation, resolution, and answers, which is, by the way, the exact opposite of faith. Such dualistic thinking (preferring a false either/or to an always complex reality) tends to create arrogant and smug people instead of humble and loving people. Too much “eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” might just be the major sin of all religion—especially Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The Bible’s first warning has consistently been ignored.
Jesus never said, “You must be right,” or much less, “You must be sure you are good and right.” Instead he said, “You must love one another.” His agenda is about growing in faith, hope, and love while always knowing that “God alone is good.”
Wow. That is powerful and profound, and I so much wish I had written it. Failing that, however, I am glad Fr. Rohr did and that I had the opportunity and the privilege to benefit from the wisdom.
I still have more to say on the subject of “why I lie about what I really believe.” I will leave that for another day. I hope the point of this post wasn’t too subtle. I’m not nearly as certain about a lot of things as I used to be. Not only do I not think that is a problem, I don’t think it is possible to be as certain about those things as I once thought. To admit that, however, is a sign of weakness in many quarters. It is an invitation to criticism, and as I said in my last post, I am not courageous enough to take that risk. At least, I haven’t been up to now. I guess you could say I’m afraid of geese.