I Wonder

“I wonder…” Those words shared by Dr. Jason Clark was meant to convey a particular posture in how we study and learn. I forget exactly the context in which it was shared, but it was one of his talks meant to encourage our cohort to hold our ideas, thoughts and learnings loosely. The memory still holds me captivated to that moment when I heard it afresh in the context of higher learning. These words evoke a kind of child-like playfulness, a naiveté, an invitation to imagine something else. For me, it gently invites me to a space in my mind where I just slow down in my thinking; to pause and reflect on my thoughts. 

There was a time in my life when I tried to place ideas in sort of a binary form. Every idea in my mind went through a filter: either true or false; valid or invalid, warranted or unwarranted, etc.. My project was simply not to have gray areas in my thinking. There was simply no time and space for this. I had assumed that for anyone to be considered a good and clear thinker, he or she would have considered and settled the big ideas in philosophy and theology, i.e., nature of time, determinism vs. freewill, calvinism vs. arminianism, etc.. After all, theology was the “queen of the sciences” and once ruled the many domains of human knowledge. If there was anything important to be known, it was in these disciplines. My academic training, I’m afraid encouraged this attitude, but in the end served as a corrective.

Thank goodness I have sobered up. I no longer think this way. Besides, it was tiring and in the end intellectually dishonest. There were just too many occasions when I exclaimed “Wow! I once held this belief X so passionately and now know it to be false” that I had to stop and reevaluate how I had to come to know anything. My ego can only withstand enough of these before realizing I am in not omniscient. Pride has a way of hiding the obvious. I did not know it at the time, but I was getting introduced to intellectual humility, the virtue Richard Paul and Linda Elder write about in their chapter on Essential Intellectual Traits.1 It became clear. I realized that if I could be wrong on something I had previously not doubted, no beliefs of mine were impervious to further scrutiny. 

Did I succumb to wrong impressions about humility; the twisted notion that to be humble requires being a doormat? By God’s grace, no. Like I said earlier, I felt freer. Philip Dow in his book Virtuous Minds: Intellectual Character Development writes “intellectually humble people value truth over their egos’ need to be right, they are freed up to admit the limits of their own knowledge.”2 As an amateur Christian apologist it is easy to feel inadequate when I cannot give adequate answers to seekers’ questions. While it is no excuse to neglect doing the hard work of study, it is liberating to admit I do not know certain things, but I can always find out. 

A prideful person does not listen to advice because of the predetermination that he or she is right. Scripture supports intellectual humility in ways we might have overlooked. Consider Proverbs 12:15 “The way of fools seems right to them, but the wise listen to advice.” Abraham Lincoln is arguably one of the best presidents in American history; famous for saving the Union, but not many know about his humility. One historian tells of a story about an occasion when Lincoln gave a direct order to Edwin Stanton that was disobeyed. Despite their differences, which was not a secret, one would have expected some deference on Stanton’s part since this was after the Civil War. Lincoln could have easily dismissed him for insubordination but instead decided to meet with him to listen to what others in Lincoln’s cabinet considered an insult. He said, “that is no insult, it an expression of opinion; and what troubles me most about it is that Stanton said it and Stanton is usually right.”3

When I think about Lincoln’s example of humility I am brought to new heights because with the Holy Spirit’s help we can be like him. And yet at the same time I am brought to new lows  because there are not enough men and women today who come close to this. The reflective ministry practitioner in me asks the following: Do I exhibit the kind of intellectual humility in my research that I do not hesitate to ask for advice from my faculty advisor? Am I willing to go where truth leads and expose prejudices for what they are? Am I willing to listen to differing opinions with a predisposition to change my mind? I wonder.

Obfuscation

How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Readwas tough reading for me. I held off writing this to the very end to avoid the real possibility that I may have misunderstood Bayard’s project. I did not want to fall into the same category of people who misjudge books simply by its cover. One only has to look no further than the one-star reviews of books found in popular online retailers such as Amazon to see that many readers are guilty of this. 

For example, there was a book titled The Benedict Optionby Rod Dreher that got published last year. The subtitle was “A Strategy For Christians in a Post-Christian Nation.” This book received rave reviews, some positive and some negative. It quickly got on the New York Times Bestseller list. David Brooks, a writer for New York Times applauded the book and said “Already the most discussed and most important religious book of the decade.” That is high praise. However, most Christian leaders I talked to had a different and rather unfair critique of the book. One of them said the book espoused a radical retreat from society which impugned the Christian’s calling to being salt and light. This inaccurate assessment could not be further from the truth. If one had simply read the book, he or she would learn that a temporary retreat, a “going back to basics” sort of approach, which the author clearly advocated, that refreshes and empowers believers enough to be effective agents of change for the kingdom. It is disappointing that many of Bayard’s tips on how to talk about books one has never read might lead us down this same path. 

The title I chose for this post is the word Obfuscation. This is not a very endearing characterization of a person, especially for academics. The Merriam-Webster definition of this word is “to throw into shadow; to obscure; to be evasive, unclear, or confusing.” As bad as it is, in my opinion, the author is perfectly comfortable with this. He said so himself. In an NPR interview Bayard said he was comfortable “living in the gray.”1In many places in his book he writes about “inner books,” “inner libraries,” “secret texts” a mobility to meaning that one wonders if there is a point to reading anything at all. 

It is one thing to acknowledge that there are gray areas in ascertaining the truth of a matter, but it is quite different to be settled in it. The flaw in Bayard is that in describing the lack of apodictic certainty of truth he has prescribed the lack of any truth. In other words, just because a thing is difficult to grasp, now therefore there is nothing to grasp. That does not follow. A good example of the chaos and folly that attend this kind of thinking is illustrated by Bayard in the game of Humiliation. 

“The game thus consist in humiliating yourself as much as possible: the more you humiliate yourself, the more likely you are to win. But there is an additional twist, which is that victory also depends on sincerity. To win, you must not only give the name of a well-known book, but also convince the others that you have told the truth about not having read it. If you give the name of a book that is too well know, such that it is actually implausible for you not to have read it, the other players have the right to reject your statement. The chance of winning is thus proportional to the players’ trust in the person confessing his ignorance, and so also in proportion to the genuineness of the player’s humiliation”2

Notice that there really is no objective to this silly parlor game. It only ends in chaos since there is no grounding for truth. Lies don’t exist unless truth first exist. One must always assume the truth of a thing before it is shown to be false. That’s a logical order and cannot be breached. Otherwise we all start with skepticism and that’s an unlivable world. In this game no one wins and it only ends in futility and destruction. In fact we do find that one of the professors thinking he won the game actually lost the game, even more, his reputation and his job.

If there is another alternative to how we can talk about books we have not read, allow me to suggest one. This advice comes from my personal experience having managed a bookstore for over seventeen years. The first step is to contact publishers of books that fit your interests, and get on their mailing list. Indicate that you want to start receiving their catalogs which usually gets printed a few times a year. For example, if your interests lie in Christian academic titles, you’ll want to obtain catalogs from IVP Academic, Eerdman’s, Baker Academic, etc. Not only do you get to know about books that have yet to be printed, but the descriptions, table of contents and other promotional material contained in these catalogs will be surprisingly enough to engage in fruitful discussions about a myriad of topics. Collecting and perusing these catalogs actually do start to create the real inner library—similar to the one Bayard talks about. Except this one has its basis in reality.