The Anosognosic’s Dilemma, Blogging, and the Body of Christ

One need not spend much time on the internet before coming face-to-face with what looks like raw, unfiltered stupidity. We’ve all seen memes mocking such ignorance. “How could you not see that?” we say, indignantly congratulating ourselves on our own superiority. As an advocate of the Oxford comma, here’s one of my favorites:

Oxford comma

Still, as pleasurable as dumping on such instances of idiocy may be, most of us do recognize that this sort of thing isn’t very Christlike (as some huffy commenter, devoid of any irony, will inevitably point out). Such recognitions notwithstanding, we feel guilty for a few minutes and then jump back into another Facebook battle with one of the utter morons who seem to populate the place. [fn1]

Perhaps the obvious take-away from this situation is to ask oneself: “What if I am a moron?” Or, better yet, “In what ways am I a moron?”

The problem with this take-away is called the anosognosic’s dilemma. I learned about this a few years back from an excellent series by Errol Morris in the New York Times. Morris succinctly describes the dilemma thus: “our incompetence masks our ability to recognize our incompetence.” That is, idiots are by definition incapable of recognizing their own idiocy. Consider the YouTube video of a teenage boy in his room playing a guitar. While there is some slight chance that this young man is the next Jimmy Page, odds are that the video evidences someone who does not—and indeed cannot—know how bad he really is.

I believe that the proper response to this dispiriting situation is: “Shoot. I’m anosognosic, which means that I’m probably fouling up all sorts of things I have no idea about.” [fn2]

In academia (whose groves I haunt) the anosognosic’s dilemma spawns a corollary that goes by the name of “Impostor Syndrome.” After spending years and years of graduate school getting beat down by smarter people than us, we begin to doubt the veracity of our achievements. “Haha! The journal accepted my article: I really fooled them that time!” Or: “They gave me tenure?! Surely they won’t be that stupid next time.” We believe that our fraudulence will be detected at any minute, and yet we go on with the show. [fn3]

And so here we have a meta-dilemma. [fn4] This one has to do with the intractability of our own ignorance. If an English professor has to face how banal her own undergraduate essays were (and she does, with every round of grading), the impostor syndrome undercuts any easy superiority that this realization might purchase. She sees the progress, but miles to go before she sleeps, ad infinitum.

While the gospel doesn’t necessarily resolve these dilemmas, it does offer some perspective. In 1 Corinthians 12-14 and in Romans 12, Paul famously presents the idea of the body of Christ. We are all members, each given certain gifts, which we are to exercise “according to the proportion of faith” (Rom. 12:6). This metaphor can, if we let it, attune us to our own intrinsic incompleteness. None of us, alone, can perform the functions of the entire body. None of us, alone, can master the knowledge contained in Borges’s terrifying Library of Babel.

It’s not just that Christ completes us, his Atonement making up for what we lack. It’s that in him, we complete each other. In Mormonism we believe in the necessity of a welding link connecting us all together. Christ’s Atonement at least partially consists in his putting our collective scraps of capacity at one by sealing us together.

Since I’m a Miltonist, I see the Atonement at work in the hurly-burly of public discussion. [fn5] We point out other people’s points of ignorance and, since (as MLK put it) “the arc of the moral universe … bends towards justice,” before too long someone will point out our own mistakes and blind spots. Because our collective ignorance is like the sands of the sea, we can go on shoveling away for what seems like forever, unable to see much in the way of positive outcome amidst the dust and noise, but over time I believe that truths do emerge, even if they can only be known by the body of Christ as a whole.

To complete each other, though, we need to remain in Christ. This means that the only real ground-rule of the discussion is: never, ever, tell anyone to leave the body, or imply that the body would be better off without certain people. Un-charity, in Paul’s terms, is for the hand to say to the eye, “I have no need of thee.” To cut another out is to excise yourself. How can we ask Christ to unite (at-one) what we are so eager to tear asunder? That is ignorance indeed.

Sometimes I think that God is like an elementary school band teacher. Here we have a person of real musical ability and a developed capacity for appreciating good music in a room of squawking and bleating beginners. Given that tuning would probably occupy the entire instruction period with only middling results, the teacher with perfect pitch suffers untold agonies. And yet this teacher, year after year, listens to the hubbub of earnest effort and chooses to hear potential—and in that potential, may even hear beauty. After all, that student currently committing atrocities on an innocent trombone might one day grow up into a band teacher.

So we blog on, boats against the current…

[fn1] Insert commonplace about common sense not really being so common after all.

[fn2] See: this blog post, as I’m sure you’ll be kind enough to point out in the comments.

[fn3] Especially since the reality of the classroom requires it.

[fn4] I told you I was an academic.

[fn5] Read Areopagitica if you want to understand why.

Comments

  1. Good thoughts and I completely agree in regards to the kinds of disagreements and arguments that are regularly on display in the bloggernacle and my local ward. But it isn’t hard for me to think up scenarios where I think it would be appropriate to expel a person from a faith community. I think you have to have a baseline commitment to the body of Christ before you have claims on it. What that baseline looks like is the tricky part.

  2. Angela C says:

    You are harshing my mellow, man.

  3. Jason K. says:

    Angela: I’ll try to mellow my harsh next time.

    Mat: I agree about the need for boundary maintenance and the difficulty of defining baselines. Perhaps negative definitions are more useful that positive ones, though. Trollishness often seems to consist in appointing onself to maintain a boundary using a baseline that is itself subject to disagreement. This action, paradoxically, demonstrates less-than-perfect commitment to the body of Christ. It tries to foreclose discussion, undermining the function of the body while presuming to act in its name. People with stewardship over boundaries granted by common consent can legitimately eject the trolls.

  4. Steve Evans says:

    Wonderful stuff. I suspect part of the solution of Christ is similar to the solution offered by Buddhism – awareness of the ephemeral nature of all things and of the nothingness of one’s self. The more we turn to Christ and completely surrender to him the less ego we have to bruise as our weaknesses are made plain.

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    What an unusual word. The etymology (from Greek) is a- (without) + nosos (disease) + gnosis (knowledge). This is supposed to mean a lack of awareness of one’s disease, but it seems unusual for the word for disease to go between the privative and the noun the privative is governing. Anyway, I’ve never heard of this concept but I can definitely relate to it; thanks for the fascinating post.

  6. Jason K. says:

    Yes, Kevin, it is an unusual word: useful for reminding me how rusty my Greek is, though.

  7. jlouielucero says:

    It is funny now that I have read this how much I see this in my business, and in a lot of things I do. The collective, especially when we are different, helps us find the truth.

  8. And what of the hand who voluntarily leaves the body, saying to the eye “I have no need of THEE?” One commenter recently, grieving over the issue that concerns her, stated she wasn’t even sure she believed in God any more. How can she reject God because men are weak and so often get things wrong? Can’t we make allowances for others mistakes as we hope they will ours? God loves us no matter what we are doing and if I understand Him he wants us to do the same with each other. Thank you for your thoughts, a bit of peace and love amid too much sound and fury.

  9. I did a presentation on this to management a few weeks ago. The Dunning-Kruger paper from 1999 is worth a read. They discuss some ways to remedy the situation.

  10. “Committing atrocities on a trombone…” What a perfect, moving, and funny metaphor. Good stuff here….I won’t say more because my ignorance would shine through.

  11. This is great. I recently attended a lecture by a Jewish biblical scholar. She shared that one nice thing about Jews debating the Torah, is that no one can accuse you of not being Jewish when they disagree with you. You are born Jewish and that’s that. This makes room for heated, but less threatening debate. She often hears her Christian students saying, “if you believe that, you’re not really a Christian.” That immediately turns things ugly. She proposed that Christians ought to take baptism more seriously. Basically, once you’re in, you’re in. Brothers and sisters in Christ. Then debate, trusting that you are both, at the end of the day, on the same side.

  12. Jason K. says:

    I love the Judaism example, RTC. Would that we Christians might learn from it.

  13. Thanks, Colin; “Dunning-Kruger Effect” is the term I was trying to remember.

    I love the analogy about the junior high music teacher. I recently, God willing, sat through my last junior high orchestra concert. My daughter will be in high school next year and the quality jumps exponentially. But that analogy is, of course, imperfect, since the Atonement can make a Yitzhak Perelman out of each of us.

    I like what Tolkien wrote in the first part of The Silmarillion. As Melkor (the Lucifer figure) takes his own ideas and weaves them into the divine melody, there is discord and the music falters, stops. Begins again. The discord is still discord – shrill, repetitious, strident, loud – but it is somehow woven into the rest of the divine melody. Iluvatar’s comment is that Melkor will discover that “all that he does will redound at the end only to the glory of my work.”

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