Questions, Answers, and Arrogance

If we’re so many stickmen and stickwomen, trying to get out of our loops, how do we do it? I’ve been asking this question with regard to circular thinking, with new input being sifted in the same ways according to the same worldviews, confirming what we’ve always believed. It seems natural, as I’ve tried to show, that the only way to break out of an old worldview is to encounter some fact or idea or situation that will not behave according to the old rules. It transcends the categories already in place and calls for new ones.

Thomas Chalmers calls this the “expulsive power of a new affection,” explaining that while the object of affection of our hearts might shift, there will always be an object. We will desire something. In the same way, our heart’s desire will shape our worldview. It will determine our core questions and assumptions, thus our conclusions on varied and diverse issues–from the economy to aesthetics. And, while I happily granted the point here that there is no Christian monopoly on excelling in performance at economics or artistry, I also said it was in spite of secular assumptions, not because of them. Or, to state it another way, secular excellence is in debt to the grace of the God in whom the secular individual does not believe.

I don’t expect that baldly stating this as an assertion will or should convince anyone. So I’ll try to unpack that in a more critical way soon, but for right now I’d like to look at what’s going on when I make that assertion. My first question dealt with how to break out of the pattern of thinking as we’ve always thought. The second question was “how can we know if we’re thinking true thoughts?” And, for some, to answer that in a way that has implications for every individual all around the world–as I’ve tried to do–is the height of arrogance. It’s off-putting to the point that they disregard what else is said because they think it necessitates a worldview that is far too narrow in its consideration and far too broad in its application to be correct.

But for this opposing position to be true, art and science are mangled beyond recognition. Art that succeeds in its task relies on human nature for its power. It is expression aimed at connection, at camaraderie, between artist and audience (even if the artist is herself the only intended audience). Indeed, how can one explain Shakespearean plays in modern-day Tokyo outside of values and virtues which transcend temporal cultural distinctives? Would anyone ever accuse 21st Century Japanese actors of arrogance because they believed the beauty, insight and wit of 16th Century English plays could inform their work, and indeed their lives?

At the same time, no one reads a physics textbook and understands the facts outlined in it to apply only to the culture who speaks the language in which the text was written. The textbook contains things about the natural world that are true everywhere at all times as far as we have been able to discover them. That’s essential to the nature of the scientific endeavor.

As with theater, as with physics, so it is with theology. And for much the same reasons. Because we’re fellow creatures living in a common world, to say that the grace of God informs the lives of those who do not even believe in this God is to say that Henry V’s speech at Agincourt is beautiful or that force equals mass times acceleration. Such is simply the nature of the claim. That there can be arrogant actors, scientists and theologians is beyond doubt. Individuals often try to master these disciplines rather than to be mastered by them. But if we let those people take our eyes off art, nature or God, the fault is our own.

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