George Smiley: Ever bought a fake picture, Toby?
Toby Esterhase: I sold a couple once.
George Smiley: The more you pay for it, the less inclined you are to doubt its authenticity.
From John Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Dr. Peter Ingham: Most died during the acute stage of the illness, during a sleep so deep they couldn’t be roused. A sleep that in most cases lasted several months. Those who survived, who awoke, seemed fine, as though nothing had happened. Years went by – five, ten, fifteen – before anyone suspected they were not well… they were not. I began to see them in the early 1930’s – old people brought in by their children, young people brought in by their parents – all of them complaining they weren’t themselves anymore. They’d grown distant, aloof, anti-social, they daydreamed at the dinner table. I referred them to psychiatrists. Before long they were being referred back to me. They could no longer dress themselves or feed themselves. They could no longer speak in most cases. Families went mad. People who were normal, were now elsewhere.
Dr. Sayer: What must it be like to be them? What are they thinking?
Dr. Peter Ingham: They’re not. The virus didn’t spare the higher faculties.
Dr. Sayer: We know what for a fact?
Dr. Peter Ingham: Yes.
Dr. Sayer: Because?
Dr. Peter Ingham: Because the alternative would be unthinkable.
From the film Awakenings
We all invest enormous amounts of capital, emotional and otherwise, into how we see the world. When things turn out shockingly differently than we believe, like a betrayed lover we are devastated. For some of us the revelation comes slowly, through an extended period of illumination: a protracted, painful adjustment with the promise of more pain ahead. For me the beginnings of these movements, at least the initial ones toward Orthodoxy (though I did not know at the time that it was toward Orthodoxy), were part and parcel of a deeper struggle about faith. I felt absolutely alone, because there were only one or two people whom I could share all this with, and they were miles away. Phone conversations are poor substitutes for long discussions deep into the night with a pipe and some Scotch or a few ales. At this period of my life I felt like I was smiling into the abyss waiting for it to smile back – – and yes, I was reading Nietzsche. When I was in college I read myself into Calvinism. It was quite the jolt for my parents, but they became more accepting when my younger brother, the more stable and acceptable William, imbibed of my theological waywardness (I mean, after all, it’s Bill). But once into seminary, and then in grad school (late 80s and early 90s) the crisis of faith came, and coming out of it is when I realized that my faith in our Incarnate Lord and the Triune God as the axiom of my existence may admit of more than what I found in my copy of the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF). I was still a presbyterian, I was an elder in my local parish, but something wasn’t quite right, and my medieval training (or maybe better put, my training as a medievalist) was pulling at my jacket sleeves the way Augustine’s old sins kept pulling at the sleeves of his robe in that wonderful scene of his conversion in The Confessions. The implications of the question of the filioque kept shifting the sand under my feet, whether it was about predestination, imputed righteousness, or, most importantly, how we construct theology. I had invested an enormous amount into two frames of reference, and I was beginning to see how mutually exclusive they were, and I needed for my own sanity to come to a resolution. I was not the artist who, according to F. Scott Fitzgerald, could hold mutually exclusive ideas and still function.
And so to the point: have we invested so much of our lives into ideologies, idols of our own making, that we are pulled down by them and unable to divest ourselves from them in order to move to where the truth leads? I am not making any recriminations nor casting aspersions, but address this to anyone who reads.
Daniel Willingham in his wonderful book Why Don’t Students Like School? sets out the basic truth that thinking is hard. He gets into the nuts-n-bolts of why, and for any educator will prove a profitable read. Because complex subjects demand we simultaneously hold multiple concepts to the fore of our thinking, and some of them very complex, we can only make real progress in the realm of thought once we have mastered multiple levels of information (facts, concepts, abstractions, the language and symbols of the authors we treat). Thus, the more complex the subject, the more apt we are to accept easily accepted nostrums as our answers instead of doing the real digging demanded to understand exactly what someone else is saying. Moreover, I need to become Nietzsche in order to read him. This doesn’t mean I throw over Christ to embrace Zarathustra, but I need to embrace the questions that plagued Nietzsche so that I can understand his answers. Prejudices become the poison of thought when they become the conscious axioms we impose on others, all the while leaving the unconscious ones that are still guiding out thinking untouched. Because of this lack of rigor, we don’t have to investigate real axioms to see if the edifice we have built on them will stand long or collapse.
I will use one illustration. St. Maximus said that virtues are natural things. This was nothing new to St. Maximus, as we can read similar sentiments in St. Athanasius. I offered this insight to a person who had asked me to critique something they had written, and its import for what this meant about his own doctrine of predestination was completely missed, as his response indicated. I could see that he needed far more reading, and far more information and passed along to him some titles. When he published his work, he was still wanting of understanding on the basic concept that natures don’t change, and that sin is personal and not natural, and he never did grasp the Orthodox understanding of the symbiosis of “nature” and “grace.”
We are all guilty of the lapse in rigor I have described, me most of all. We have to be willing to admit that at times we have bought forgeries, and make the best effort to extricate ourselves with as little loss as possible.