Well, my daughter has shifted her attention from Nostradamus to Galileo. www.beatriceblount.blogspot.com
In her latest post, she claims that we post-modern ‘sophisticates’ are as likely to misjudge those who offer challenging knowledge as the people of Galileo's time.
The famous astronomer, you will recall, made the discovery that the sun was the center of our solar system. That implied that the earth was not fixed but rather moved around the sun. Under pressure, he recanted. He feared banishment from the Lord's Table. It’s very old news. Also, the story has been repeated in so many scholarly text books and articles by now that few people in the Western World have escaped hearing about it.
We are not likely to face such a problem in our times, of course. We don't have any astronomers in our churches to begin with. They simply don't attend. Neither do paleontologists, physicists or anthropologists. As the church's infatuation with ignorance as a form of piety has deepened, we have steadily eliminated great swaths of human knowledge and those who pursue it, from our congregations. Today, among a shocking number of believers, even theology and biblical studies have become suspect.
We expect our faith to comfort us. We don’t expect it to offer information about origins, meaning, justice, jurisprudence, history, art and so forth. Furthermore, if a biblical or spiritual insight cannot be stated as a sound bite followed by a joke, (hopefully illuminated by clever lighting and delivered with excellent sound) we tend to be uninterested.
The most literary religion in all of history has suddenly fallen in love with ignorance. It’s an enormous tragedy.
American Evangelicalism is presently afflicted with a late stage of cognitive dissonance. (The term means “the voluntarily suppression of any knowledge that may challenge what one has decided in advance to believe.”)
In addiction work, we call that “denial.” It is a simple word that describes a serious condition. For example, it keeps an otherwise loving dad from noticing that his teenager has become anorexic. “That just doesn't happen in our family,” the dad keeps repeating to himself. Soon, the sedative pleasure of denial numbs his eyes to his daughter’s shrinking body.
The same process works to cover up any addiction in one’s family. Everyone outside the family may know that the old man is mad as a hatter but the family members just smile and tell stories about his eccentric and creative ways.
Cognitive dissonance is simply a fancier word for the same reaction.
Everyone is prone to cognitive dissonance, by the way. Thomas Samuel Kuhn wrote a very famous book about how it affects scientists. He claimed that when newly discovered facts threaten old theoretical structures, aging (and not so aging) scientists will often go to work to expel the people who take the new discoveries seriously from respectable positions in universities and laboratories. As it turns out, even scientists tend to fight new information. It's a very human trait. That’s why intellectually honest people intentionally adopt a process for information-gathering and information-evaluation that purposefully challenges what they would prefer to believe.
Christians call that process “discernment.” St. Paul says that it is a necessary for any Christian group that allows people to prophesy. “Let them prophesy,” writes Paul, “but let the others judge.” In other words, a prophet must not judge his or her own prophesy. The community must stand back, assess, ponder, reflect, examine, debate – do the difficult work of testing the origin, accuracy, and biblically faithful nature of the prophetic utterance. This is supposed to protect the Christian community from cults, stupidity, and from egomaniacal wind bags that manipulate Christian’s hunger for God in order to enrich themselves.
A genius can be wrong. After all, very intelligent people have sometimes taught heresy, a spiritually toxic spirit that comes wrapped in the guise of clever words. It is also possible to be a genius without acquiring wisdom, which is more spiritually desirable. So genius is not everything.
I certainly do not think we should open up all our doors and windows for every novel and cool idea. The church was right to be cautious in past generations. We are the poorer for our modern abdication of theological responsibility.
On the other hand, we must be cautious – and humble about our own tendency to suppress knowledge. We must own up to the real reason we tend to reject knowledge – to become cognitively dissonant. It is rarely because we think we are battling heresy; it is usually because we have become so ill informed about the world and our own faith that we are now uncomfortable with anyone who knows very much about anything. That’s why (by our actions and attitudes) we often tell thinkers and artists to go away.
And they do.
It hurts us when we look into the past and are forced to acknowledge the harm Christian leaders did to our witness. We still live with the results, as Tiffany points out. The historical church sometimes required intelligent people to deny what they knew to be true in order to keep peace with those they loved. That was a sin against truth and we must admit it. Every generation of young students rediscover these sins against science that our spiritual ancestors committed in the name of Christ. When our children discover these events in their studies, we must acknowledge their pain and embarrassment and tell them how we can avoid committing the same sin.
There is probably no better example of the church’s sin against intellectual integrity than the defeated Galileo leaving worship, the taste of consecrated bread and wine still on his lips, muttering to himself as he went, "and yet it moves."
However, our sin may be greater. We have allowed our knowledge base to become so weak that a developing Galileo will have left the Lord’s Table long before we ever have to threaten to deny him the body and blood of Christ. He probably will have left while still in high school, when the church refused to teach him, listen to his questions, treat his quest for knowledge respectfully, or find some mentor who is not threatened to explore the cosmos and to joyfully (And worshipfully) confess that “we know in part and see in part.”