As more and more people die from COVID-19D, as more and more children are infected, as more and more lives are changed forever in a negative way, I hear more and more people ask one or more of the following:
- what is wrong with people that they won’t get vaccinated, that they oppose masking?
- why are people so stupid?
- why won’t people listen to reason?
- why do “they” listen to misinformation?
- why won’t people use their heads/listen to reason/wake up/etc.?
The segment of the U.S. population that is privileged, well-educated, economically secure, fully employed, worldly and experienced in a broad and diverse global context is the minority, and we exist in rarefied air. The fatal flaw in the reasoning of the free-thinking elite is that everyone sees the world as we do. We assume everyone possesses the same set of tools for sifting through information and messaging to discern what is accurate and credible and what is not. We project that most people are readers/reasoners, when this is a diminishing portion of the population. Fewer and fewer people are seeking secondary, collegiate, and graduate education, and in many cases the standards for learning have been lowered to the point of absurdity and meaninglessness. The divides between the educated haves and have-nots is widening, not shrinking. Even among college graduates, the majority are receiving their “news” and their perspectives on the world from corporate and social media sites immersed in prejudicial political worldviews with agendas for persuasion, not information. Throughout the educational system, thinking has been displaced by rote learning and logic/reasoning skills are subjugated by data processing protocols. Quality of education lost the battle with quantity of education.
Am I saying that we are becoming a stupid country? No, but I am saying that we are becoming an ignorant country, drawing on three historic definitions of the term.
First, “lacking wisdom or knowledge.” While I disagreed with so much of what he said, nonetheless I was always deeply impressed by William F. Buckley. I grew up watching (and being regularly incensed by ) Firing Line. Buckley was a conservative intellectual (today, fast becoming an oxymoron) who could draw from a vast knowledge and experience base to present well-reasoned and rigorously researched opinions and propositions. He could debate anyone in an even-handed, level-headed, respectful manner. He was a champion spokesperson for the heart and soul of Republicanism, and he focused on the ideals and values rather than the flaws and faults. He spent most of his time constructing a powerful defense of what he was in support of, wasting very little time taking cheap shots at opponents. He was the yin to Eric Sevareid’s/Walter Cronkite’s yang, where all three openly and transparently confessed their biases, but were able to set personal slant aside to report the best facts and information available. Sounding like the old coot I am fast becoming, “back when I was a boy, things were great… not like now…” Today, we have way too many “news personalities” who are fed their “information,” who have very little depth and background themselves, and who are much more concerned with ratings than integrity. This in turn fuels the reactive and reductive (lack of) leadership we see in our politicians. Members of Congress talk more about their “air time,” “visibility,” and “number of hits” to their social media than they do about serving their constituencies and serving the country. When our leading voices are “lacking wisdom or knowledge,” it breeds a poisonous spread.
Second, “lacking awareness.” I will use a churchy example that just drives me crazy. We have a disgruntled wing of The United Methodist Church that are using the terms “Wesley” and “Wesleyan” as sword and shield for their desire to break away. The problem I experience every freaking time is that I cannot have a rational and informed conversation with any member of this “Wesleyan” base because they have no knowledge or awareness of what Wesley actually wrote and said. When members of this cadre “quote” Wesley, they do so from snippets and paraphrases, almost always taken out of context, cherry-picked especially to support their thinking and arguments. The create Wesley mash-ups of bits and pieces of early/immature Wesley, mid-life/conflicted Wesley, to older/mature Wesley, to wiser/reflective old Wesley, ignoring any internal contradictions, evolution of thought and theology, and outright revision/reframing done by John Wesley himself. If you chance to leave their contrived and imprecise script, the conversation bogs down, simply because these “Wesleyans” are “lacking awareness” of the breadth, depth, and scope of the person they are pillaging. It is really frustrating, but the majority of people spouting off about what “Wesley thought and taught” haven’t read or studied his sermons, letters, and journals.
Third, “the will not to know.” The ghost of Christmas present introduced Ebenezer Scrooge to two urchins protected by his robe, “They are Man’s and they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance and this girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.” (Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, 1843). This is where we stand in the current pandemic, watching millions of people choose not to know, choosing doom and destruction to awareness and knowledge. This is the scariest form of ignorance – to choose not to know, to stick our head in the sand and deny truth and reality.
Is ignorance sin? To lack knowledge and experience or awareness is sad and destructive, but it is not willful. Abdication of personal agency, disregard for the impact we have on others, refusing to check facts and validate opinion – I believe this is sin, when sin is defined as “missing the mark” and failing to use the gifts, knowledge, skills, and resources God gives us all. We are fast becoming an ignorant society, and unfortunately our UMC is reflecting and refining this ignorance in alarming and disheartening ways.
Education was once among the highest goals and core values of our culture. It was acknowledged that knowledge is power, but sadly today, power is about force, not intellect. Truth is subjective, alternative facts contradict and cancel each other, and misinformation is accepted without question by a large segment of our nation. So, for now, we are not a stupid country, but we are speeding out of control is this direction due to widespread ignorance. For those dwelling the rarefied and privileged air, it is as frightening as Charlie’s descent in Flowers for Algernon; not for the individual, but for an entire society.
Can the church offer a counter-cultural alternative? Could we crusade for the revelation that our minds, brains, knowledge, wisdom, reasoning, rigor, and intellect are all gifts to us from God, and that it is expected – demanded – of all followers of Christ become faithful and committed stewards of learning? Could we unite as one people of God, reintegrating learning, reasoning, and contemplation is the bases for spiritual formation and Christian education? I encounter a strong anti-intellectualism is our current reality, both in church and society, but I also am confronted by a voracious and ravenous hunger for a deeper faith, a broader knowledge, a comprehensive theology, and an integral “theory of everything.” For the few years left in my ministry and service, I am dedicating myself to feeding the hunger and “erasing the writing” of the doom of ignorance. (Even the ignorance that comes from spending too much time in the rarefied air).