Saturday, January 18, 2014

Submit to the Voice with the Global Perspective

Monroe County

 I remember, as an undergraduate in the early 1970s, reading Jean-Paul Sartre's novel Nausea. One of my favorite philosophy teachers, Michael Gelven, recommended it to me. Gelven really knew his existentialism. I was attracted to its themes of meaninglessness and absurdity in light of the absence of God. 

Even though I had recently come to believe in God, I was convinced that the atheistic existentialists had it right about life's "meaning" in light of God's non-existence. If God did not exist, then everything is morally and amorally possible (since there are no objective moral values). 

Existentialists like Satre and Kierkegaard, reacting to Hegelian-type rationalism, emphasized the limits of human reason. Human reason, on atheism, has serious, big-time limitations.

One of the Nausea's characters never left me; viz., the "Self-Taught Man." The Autodidact. He spends his life in a library with the goal of reading all the books in alphabetical order. By doing this he thinks he can learn all there is to know. But this is foolish meaninglessness, since he spends a lifetime reading but never gets out of the letter 'A'. His failed attempt to know everything is absurd, as is life for Antoine Roquentin, the main character of Nausea.

I once had an encounter with my own ignorance on a trip to my favorite bookstore in the world. It's the Seminary Co-op Bookstore at Chicago Theological Seminary, next to the University of Chicago. Here I found the ultimate feast of theological and philosophical texts, unlike any I had seen. There was a lot of learnedness in that place and I wanted to swim in all of it!

On the day of the greater revelation of my self-ignorance, when I walked into the store, I had an "Antoine Roquentin Nausea" experience. (A mini-nausea experience, not full-blown existential angst.) I looked at all these books, old and new, and knew that, among the thousands of academic texts, I had read few. There was the table with all the new publications containing recent research and  fresh reasoning. Of the books on that table I had read not one. I felt ignorant. I am. And we are.

Philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset once called scientists "learned ignoramuses." He wrote, in The Revolt of the Masses:

“Previously, men could be divided simply into the learned and the ignorant, those more or less the one, and those more or less the other. But your specialist cannot be brought in under either of these two categories. He is not learned, for he is formally ignorant of all that does not enter into his specialty; but neither is he ignorant, because he is ‘a scientist’, and ‘knows’ very well his own tiny portion of the universe. We shall have to say that he is a learned ignoramus...a person who is ignorant, not in the fashion of the ignorant man, but with all the petulance of one who is learned in his own special line....That state of ‘not listening’, of not submitting to higher courts of appeal which I have repeatedly put forward as characteristic of the mass-man, reaches its height precisely in these partially qualified men.”

We're all learned ignoramuses. Epistemically we're all partially qualified. And that, I am certain, is an understatement. We have moments when we feel we know a lot. These moments are delusions.

I've met a few people in my life that I found truly brilliant. One was Reginald Allen. Arguably he was the greatest Plato scholar in the world. And one of the top Aristotle scholars in the world. I was one of six Northwestern U. doctoral students in his seminar on Aristotle's Metaphysics. I knew I was in for something special when the occasional N.U. professor dropped in just to hear Allen lecture and teach. One day, e.g., the brilliant philosopher Ed Curley attended class. 

We sat around a large wooden table, in heavy wooden chairs, in a room lined with books. Dr. Allen would walk in and begin to teach. He knew the entire thing in its original Greek! I thought, "I have never seen anything like this before." I was in the presence of human brilliance. I liked him as a person, too. But in reality he was another learned ignoramus like myself. No one was more learned in ancient Greek philosophy than he. But from that I cannot assume he was qualified to change a light bulb, much less to play like Yo-Yo Ma, or do brain surgery

We don't know everything, see everything, or understand everything. We don't come close, right? But God does.

A few years ago Linda and I traveled from Monroe to Columbus to attend a funeral. It was in a town east of Columbus. We had never been in that area before. Our son Josh asked if we'd like to borrow his GPS. That sounded like fun to me. We typed in the address and took off. When the British voice (which sounds more intelligent to me than other voices) said "Turn right in 400 yards," I obeyed. The GPS took us straight to our destination. I thought it would even tell us where to park in funeral home's lot. But on the trip home something happened.

I like to take different roads and see places I've never seen. Linda does, too. So I pressed "alternate route" and off we went. We were driving in a place we'd never been before and the GPS said, "In 400 yards, turn right." But that did not feel right to me. Stop here. How could I know? I had never been in this place before. I ignored the smart-sounding British voice and went straight. "Turn around in one mile." Then, "Turn around." Then, "Turn around, you ignoramus!" 

We got lost. Finally I submitted to The Voice With the Global Perspective. We headed back to Monroe.

I am an ignoramus. "Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth." (1 Corinthians 1:26) Even if we are "wise by human standards" we still know very little.

If there was no God then we should all despair as the nausea sets in. But the All-Knowing God came to us in the form of a person. What a brilliant idea, this sophia of God. If I trust in and submit to him, and not in my own very-partial understanding, he will make straight my path. (Proverbs 3:5-6) 

There is a God Positioning System. Avail of it.