Sunday, May 26, 2013

Freed From the Myth of Personal Brilliance


My favorite bookstore in the world has been, for decades, the Seminary Co-op Bookstore in the basement of Chicago Theological Seminary, adjacent to the University of Chicago. (It's now moved... :( )This bookstore was used by the U-Chicago Divinity School as their own. It is a feast of philosophical and theological literature!

One time I descended into this literary cornucopia and had a visceral feeling of vast self-ignorance. I read a "lot" of books. But on that particular sobering day, as I walked through the bookstore, I realized I had not read and therefore was unfamiliar with 99.9999...% of the thousands of books and millions of pages of knowledge contained therein. I concluded that I am, following philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset, a "learned ignoramus." Had I any pride in my accomplished readings it was now seen for what it truly is; viz., miniscule. To be conceited is to be foolish.

In Philippians 2:3-4 Paul writes:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves,not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

"Vain conceit" means that "conceit" is "vain." Here "vanity" is an attribute of "conceit." 

"Vain" means: futile, or empty. Containing nothing. Therefore, useless. Conceit is empty and useless.

Pascal once wrote: "What amazes me most is to see that everyone is not amazed at his weakness.” And at his or her ignorance.

When one's overwhelming ignorance is revealed and accepted, it is bracingly humbling. This true ignorance is not merely factual, but cognitive. There are things I will never be able to comprehend, not because I lack the information, but because of my inability to do so. It is good to come to this realization, because it is a true conceit-killer. And because it is just plan true.

At this point it's not so much what we know, but who we know. If the latter is Nothing, then welcome to the bleak world of French atheistic existentialism. (Not the atheistic "brights.") If the latter is an All-Knowing God, then we have found the place where our ignorant minds can find hope and rest.