Sunday, January 26, 2014

"Vincible Ignorance," Irresistible Kindness

In thinking last week about acorns, new beginnings, and the way faith can grow and bear fruit, I also found myself thinking about the way the process is sometimes thwarted, or reversed: acorns rot underground, are swept away by spring rains. Young trees are nibbled down by hungry animals, or are planted in so much shade they fail to thrive.

The same is true with faith: young faith sometimes disappears. Lives started in one direction shift and move in another. Even adults who have been active in a life of faith can find themselves walking away.

A friend who has encouraged me much in this blog sent me a link a few weeks ago: “Based on your recent blog posts, I thought you might like this:”

 I was drawn in immediately: 
I've shaken my fist in anger at stalled cars, storm clouds, and incompetent meterologists. I've even, on one terrible day that included a dead alternator, a blaring tornado-warning siren, and a horrifically wrong weather forecast, cursed all three at once. I've fumed at furniture, cussed at crossing guards, and held a grudge against Gun Barrel City, Texas. I've been mad at just about anything you can imagine.
Except unicorns. I've never been angry at unicorns.
Joe Carter, online editor for First Things and contributor to the Gospel Coalition, explores the anger atheists and agnostics sometimes express towards God:
As C.S. Lewis once testified, "I was at this time living, like so many Atheists or Antitheists, in a whirl of contradictions. I maintained that God did not exist. I was also very angry with God for not existing. I was equally angry with Him for creating a world." Lewis' experience is not uncommon among atheists. Many claim to believe that God does not exist and yet, according to empirical studies, they tend to be the people most angry at him.
Carter’s discussion is well worth reading, wherever you fall on the belief/disbelief spectrum. He offers some interesting statistical studies, digs into the implications:
I've argued elsewhere that, according to the Christian tradition, atheism is a form of self-imposed intellectual dysfunction, a lack of epistemic virtue, or — to borrow a term from the Catholic tradition — a case of vincible ignorance.
Vincible ignorance is intentional suppression of knowledge that is within an individual's control and for which he is responsible before God. In Romans, Paul is clear that atheism is a case of vincible ignorance: "For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse."
I'm a little uneasy at the accusation of "self-imposed intellectual dysfunction," or "lack of epistemic virtue," yet I’m intrigued by the idea of vincible ignorance, and certain I've seen it at work.

In a recent conversation, I listened as friends who have had strong experience of God’s grace argued against their own belief. Part of their discussion focused on ways they feel God has let them down.

Part focused on their frustration that faithful reading of scripture offers clear opposition to lifestyle directions they’ve chosen to embrace.

As they swirled into illogical justifications and accusations, it was helpful to have a term that describes what I’ve seen so often.

A dictionary from Catholic offers an expanded definition for “vincible ignorance": 
Lack of knowledge for which a person is morally responsible. It is culpable ignorance because it could be cleared up if the person used sufficient diligence. One is said to be simply (but culpably) ignorant if one fails to make enough effort to learn what should be known; guilt then depends on one's lack of effort to clear up the ignorance. That person is crassly ignorant when the lack of knowledge is not directly willed but rather due to neglect or laziness; as a result the guilt is somewhat lessened, but in grave matters a person would still be gravely responsible. A person has affected ignorance when one deliberately fosters it in order not to be inhibited in what one wants to do; such ignorance is gravely wrong when it concerns serious matters.
This definition reminds me of Wendell Berry’s exploration of ignorance in his valuable essay “The Way of Ignorance,” what I termed “the taxonomy of ignorance” in an earlier blog post.

As I said then, and am even more sure now, we all have areas of ignorance, and work hard to maintain our ignorance for a wide range of reasons. Atheists and agnostics have no exclusive claim to illogic. Neither do Christians.

Carter concludes:
I'm beginning to suspect that emotional atheism is far more common than many Christians realize. We need a new apologetic approach that takes into account that the ordinary pain and sufferings of life leads more people away from God than a library full of anti-theist books.
I believe Carter is right about “emotional atheism.” When I think and pray about friends who have walked away from the Christian faith, the reasons are unequivocally personal: an ugly divorce that shook their foundations, hypocrisy and lack of compassion on the part of Christian elders, inner dissonance when desire and discipline came sharply into conflict, unexplained suffering, unresolved pain.

I’m not sure, though, that he’s right about “a new apologetic approach.”

There is a point where words no longer work, where all words, any words, just fuel more anger, make the walls thicker, prompt a deeper withdrawal.

I’ve been reading in Romans (with Scripture Union’s Encounter with God: I highly recommend it).

Romans 2 says:
You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. So when you, a mere human being, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?
As usual with any passage in Romans, there’s so much going on in that it would take pages to explicate, but there are two things I feel sure of:

First, it’s not up to me to judge. We all have times of struggle and defeat, and the obstacles to my own faith and growth may not be the same as yours. So it’s not my job to hound you into agreeing with my theology, or to demand you explain why you think what you think, or to point out the illogic of your anger with God. I'm happy to talk if that's helpful, but no one owes me an explanation, and I have no need to prove I'm "right."

Mother Teresa: Be the living expression of God's kindness."
Second, it’s kindness, not logic, that leads us to repentance. It’s kindness more than philosophy, or reason, or archeological evidence, or grand cognitive structures, that has nourished my own fragile growth, protected me from predation, opened avenues of sunlight that gave me space to grow. 

It's God’s kindness that has persuaded me, sometimes miraculous and personal, but far more often mediated through human kindness. People who accepted me as I was, offered hospitality beyond reason, prayed for me, encouraged me, modeled a life of grace and mercy when I was gagging on judgment, anger, and pain.

As the ranks of “once I was a Christian, now I’m definitely not” appears to grow, I find myself wondering:

Whose hardness of heart will God be judging? 

Those who turn to disbelief as a response to unaddressed pain?

Or those who respond with argument and accusation, rather than greater kindness and mercy?