Saturday, August 24, 2019

Freed From the Myth of Personal Brilliance

(Seminary Co-op Bookstore in Chicago)

This past Monday Linda and I spent a day in Chicago. We ate delicious food, people-watched, and marveled at the architecture.
We drove to the south side and the University of Chicago. My favorite bookstore in the world is there - the Seminary Co-op BookstoreThis bookstore is used by the U-Chicago Divinity School as their own. It is a feast of philosophical and theological literature!
I read books. My habit is to have ten going at a time. But on Monday, as I walked through the rows and rows... and rows...  of academic books...  I realized I had not read, and therefore was unfamiliar with, 99.9999...% of the thousands of books and millions of pages of knowledge surrounding me. 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: tiny. Miniscule. 
One character in Sartre's novel Nausea (which I have read) is "the self-taught man." He lives in the library in Paris. His quest is to read every book in the library, from A to Z. He doesn't get far. After decades of reading he is still not out of the As. He gets to Ac..., and then another book is published that begins with Ab. His quest to know all that can be known is vain.

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." "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.” At his or her ignorance.

When overwhelming, matter-of-fact 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. It is an arrogance-killer. It is just plan true.

It's not so much what we know, but who we know. If the latter is Nothing, then welcome to the bleak world of Sartre's 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.