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:
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.