A Fear of Geese

Dear Kathryn:

I’d like to pick up where I left off in my last letter, if I may, and to do that I’m going to draw on a blog post I published a year and a half ago. It’s pertinent, especially in the current political climate. I hope it’s also helpful.

The nineteenth-century Danish philosopher Søren 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, it is often easier to dig in one’s heels and defend the status quo than to admit that life experience has produced a change of mind or opinion. And yet, the older I get, the more I am convinced that nothing is as simple as it once may have seemed. Everything is more complex, more nuanced. Every idea, every truth claim is made up of more layers of meaning than I had previously imagined.

Everything.

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 those who aspire to power don’t want us to believe that. 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. Proponents often defend their point of view with 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.

In this regard, I am indebted to Fr. Richard Rohr for a bit of wisdom that fairly stunned me in its elegant simplicity. In one of his daily devotional commentaries, 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,… 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.”

I find his reasoning powerfully profound and compelling. I so much wish I had written it. 🙂 I do know that I’m not nearly as certain about a lot of things as I used to be. Moreover, 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 letter, 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. More anon.

All the best,

Arthur

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