Jared Witt - May 9, 2019
Paraphrasing Aristotle: the sign of a well-developed mind is the ability to chew on an idea neither swallowing nor spitting it out right away.
When you’re a child, your ideas about the world and God are given to you. You have very little to do with it. Reality is described a certain way and you accept that.
As soon as you can talk, you start asking for the names of everything. What’s this? What’s that? It’s thrilling to name something. In one biblical creation myth, naming things was the main project for which humans were created in the first place. When you name something, you pluck it out of the swirling morass of undifferentiated stuff and honor its special, unique existence. That’s why we’re encouraged not to name animals that are likely to die soon. When you name something, you give it an emotional weightiness that it didn’t have before.
By this biblical depiction, all things were created, but humans were created as co-creaters. Humans name stuff.
When I was a child, I fixated on naming every dig duck (“big truck”) that I could see on the road. Lesser minds around me likely tired of this, misunderstanding me for merely restating the obvious over and over. I wasn’t. I was formulating in my little head the platonic ideal of “truckness” through a thousand case studies. I was taking pleasure in the core miracle which has stumped nearly every philosopher throughout history: there is something and not nothing. The realization was headier than any drug.
Soon, before we’re even out of diapers, it is no longer enough to describe what something is. We want to know why it is. Good parents recognize the trap in setting themselves up as all-knowing gods and resist the urge. If not, the kids quickly figure out which questions make the parents squirm and probe away.
As we approach our teenage years, we grow frustrated that the tight little world of whats that was handed to us didn’t come with an equally satisfactory set of whys. We might even start to find that many of the whats themselves are inaccurate or only skim the surface of things.
This adolescent phase of philosophical deconstructionism (which really just means going back to the origin of our ideas) is an important part of our development. A smart parent will quietly encourage it. If our whys have been indulged and respected to this point, the transition from the childhood world of tight, simple whats to the adult world of unanswerable whys won’t be nearly so jarring. And we can exercise our deconstructive rebellion in non-destructive ways.
By the way, it's strange and unbiblical how some Christians fear science, which is essentially just naming stuff.
In more repressive environments, where all our whys were shut down on the face and a conspiracy beneath is suspected, we might decide that a total break with our upbringing is needed. We decide there is no baby in the bathwater and resolve to drain the tub. We have not built up the strength of spine to live with mystery and so dive head first into nihilism—a transition from “there are things we can’t name” to “there is nothing worth naming.” We might self-medicate with drugs or jump into other destructive behaviors to help numb the cognitive dissonance.
Because ninety percent of what passes for Christianity in North America doesn’t indulge any questioning, the vast majority of our society gets stuck in either childhood or adolescence. The option seems to be that we can either embrace the why-intolerant worldview that was given to us on felt board in Sunday school, or we can toss out both baby and bathwater and assume a permanent teenage rebellion. This latter move always passes for “free thinking” in a binary culture, when in fact the thing reacted against is still very much controlling the rebel.
“Thoughtful” and “Christian” are not adjectives that easily associate in our culture, with everything that’s gone on. And combining the two can be a lonely place to live. Your Christian friends think you’re basically an atheist, questioning everything all the time. Your non-Christian friends think you blindly believe in an all-knowing lunacy, when in fact they are the ones failing to admit mystery into their tight and simple explanations.
I know it’s lonely and can be frustrating. Press on. The rest of us are out here. We’re few and far between, but we’re around, the spiritual warriors who have refused to accept either the 11th century “God” of the one side or the 17th century “science” of the other. Instead, we fully embrace the quantum mystery of a universe which seems to resist all binaries and live comfortably in the third way tension of time-space and light-particle.
But make sure it’s not lonelier than it needs to be. Find your people. Stick close to others who embrace questions rather than shutting them down. Find spaces that honor and respect the ineffable holiness without needing to control it or define it.
Be neither naïve child nor teenage rebel. Be an adult.
Cheers and Peace,
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