Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
Adlai Stevenson once wrote
“Unreason and anti-intellectualism abominate thought. Thinking implies disagreement; and disagreement implies nonconformity; and nonconformity implies heresy; and heresy implies disloyalty. So, obviously, thinking must be stopped. But shouting is not a substitute for thinking and reason is not the subversion but the salvation of freedom.”
I have traveled to a lot of places, in this country and around the world where reason has been a scarce commodity and to me that has always been a frightening specter; a world where reason is is all too often sacrificed on the altar of political, ideological or religious expediency.
I had a Church History professor in seminary that was known for his attention to detail and his expectation that his students would master the subject. His method was quite simple. A fellow student asked him during review for a mid-term exam “what do we need to study for the test?” His answer was simple “everything.” The student restated his question “what do we really need to know?” My professor paused and made a comment that did not make the student very happy. He said something that I paraphrase here “it is the details that enable you to see the big picture, without the details you know nothing.”
A good number of my fellow students did not appreciate the fact that he was deadly serious. I actually think that GOP Presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee, who flunked out of my seminary, may have been one of them. It was not simply the ability to remember names and dates and events but to be able to connect them and see what was really important. Many did not take him seriously and when the test came many failed it. In fact some continued to fail every exam because they could not reconcile that details were important. The attitude of a good number of my classmates was that history, philosophy or even systematic theology was not important especially if they involved study of people or ideas that they did not agree with.
Unfortunately we now live in an age of anti-intellectualism and anti-historicism. As much as some of us would like to try to affix blame, this is not a problem that can be blamed on any one side of the political spectrum. Sadly, it cuts across the spectrum as people return to more primal instincts in an uncertain time, where established political parties and systems of government seem unable to get the job done, where economic systems seem rigged in favor of a small minority of people and where the social and religious underpinnings of society are rocked by change and uncertainty.
But reason does matter, and those who ignore it do so at their own peril as Christopher Hitchens once said “That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.” History shows us in times like this, where reason is tossed aside in favor of primordial urges; that instead of seeking answers and instead of trying to figure out what is really important and studying the details of the great questions, that frustrated people become intellectually lazy and gravitate towards people who play to their often legitimate anger and frustration.
People simply fall back on the dogmas presented by the Unholy Trinity of Pundits, Politicians and Preachers that cater to their ideology for reassurance and quite often carry very dangerous demagogues into office with often-tragic results for their nations and the world. The demagogues of the Unholy Trinity are quite good at taking advantage of frightened and angry people who need scapegoats.
If you listen to talk radio or are a devoted fan of any particular cable news pundit you can see this on display daily and even more so by our political leaders and those seeking political power. For the most part what is presented is at best half-truth sprinkled with deadly venom of hatred to make the half-truth an absolute truth. In such a world facts are only important if the “true believer” can use them buttress his ideological bias even if he has to take the completely out of context to in order to do so. The demagogues do not need to appeal to reason, they appeal to something more primal, they appeal to fear, anger, and the need of desperate people to find someone to blame.
Appealing to fear and loathing is so much easier than using reason. To call an opponent a Communist or Nazi, Fascist or Imperialist, Unbeliever or Heretic or even a Racist; and then connect them to the evil we want to demonize them is far easier than it is to actually engage them in a truthful debate and to see things in their historical context. The same is true when we try to shut them down without even listening to them or giving the chance to air their views, even views that are not supported by the facts or history. Likewise when we use such labels against those that disagree with us we dehumanize our opponents thereby justifying any evil that we use to silence them. That is one reason that on this site I do my best to listen to others, even those who do not agree with me and why I do my best to build bridges and maintain a respectful dialogue. I may disagree with someone’s argument but I will always do my best to treat them with respect, allow them to present their position and unless they are threatening me with death or bodily harm allow their comments to remain on the site. Sadly, I have had some of those threats, notably from known White Supremacists, one of which was so specific in violent intent that I had to report the man to the FBI.
That being said, I have a decent number of people who comment and express their disagreement, sometimes quite strongly, with me who are respectful and who I will never label with any of those often-pejorative terms. In fact there one commentator on this site with who I have often spirited disagreements, but despite that I have come to appreciate him and believe that if we were to spend any amount of time together drinking beer and watching baseball that we could become fast friends. But sadly, I do not think that many people on either side of the political divide could do now. I actually wouldn’t mind spending time with this man. Why? Because despite all of our disagreements; he remains respectful and continues to comment. I think that speaks volumes about his character, which has to be honorable. I think that is what we are supposed to be about in the United States.
Sometimes it seems to me that we presume that if we repeat what we believe enough, even if it what we believe is unsound or erroneous that it will become truth. As individuals, governments, institutions and businesses we often settle for easy answers that agree with our presuppositions and dismiss opposing views as heresy. Too often we allow people of little learning but whose great charm and salesmanship ability, to sell us myth in place of fact and this happens across the political, social, economic and theological spectrum. That is a tragedy for all of us no matter what our political, ideological, or religious views.
I have written on this site about the study of history as well as ways of learning. The little things do matter, and the study of history, philosophy, theology, the sciences, economics in fact anything of any importance is based on understanding details, and things like precedent and context. It is not enough to string together a series of quotations or citations if they are taken out of context, altered or intentionally misused to fit our ideology or doctrine, whatever it may be.
Such methods may comfort the true believer in whatever cause and even make them feel superior to those that disagree but such thinking. But it blinds them to reality and ensures that they never become aware of their own envy, malice, pettiness and dishonesty. The “wall of words” that flow so easily from the mouths and pens of the members of the Unholy Trinity that their faithful followers, ensures that they are unable to separate them from reality, truth from fiction, opinion from fact. This “wall of words” serves as their protection against any thought, fact, presumption or doctrine that contradicts them. John F Kennedy said, “Too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”
In times like this it is most important to take the time to learn from history, not just generalities that mix fact and myth but the little details that make up history and for that matter the sciences, philosophy, sociology, political thought and theology. As a society we have ceased to do this and until we take the time to return to such study, dialogue and put aside our blinders we will be doomed to remain as we are no matter what political party is in power or ideology dominates the airwaves and cyber space.
Reason, it is important, and as unreasonable as it sounds there is a prayer that neatly sums up what I desire for me and for our society:
From the cowardice that dares not face new truth
From the laziness that is contented with half truth
From the arrogance that thinks it knows all truth,
Good Lord, deliver me.
Have a great night.