How Receptive Are You?

Friday of the Second Week of Advent, Year A: Isaiah 48:17-19, Matthew 11:16-19.

A few years ago, Thomas Nichols published a book entitled, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters. It captures the zeitgeist of our age in regards to knowledge – everyone thinks he or she is an expert in everything. Nichols laments, “I fear we are witnessing the death of the ideal of expertise itself, a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laypeople, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers” (3). It is tempting to agree with Nichols; we’ve all met (or have been ourselves) someone who preaches to everyone about their opinion as if it was the only truth despite their surface understanding of the issue. We can certainly agree that this is an unprecedented moment in history when Wikipedia and Google have made so much information available to so many people. Other internet-driven tools have amplified the voices of everyone using and reacting to this information. It certainly seems like uninformed opinions are running rampant, drowning out informed opinions.

I suspect that Nichols (and many others) are experiencing a bit of confirmation bias – that is, they have a hypothesis and they find a bunch of new examples that confirm it. And with the rise of platforms that give voice to all these unformed opinions, there is certainly a glut of examples. Other writers are also pointing out that noise, as opposed to bias, is just as troublesome in cultural systems in terms of formulating hypotheses around major trends (see the recent New York Times article, Bias is a Big Problem, But So is ‘Noise’).

Self-portrait, Rembrandt (1630, age 24) | Creative Commons, courtesy Wikimedia.

But the reason I’m bringing this up today is that I think Nichols’s book demonstrates that our culture is hopelessly lost in a dream of mastering knowledge all on our own. Nichols lionizes those who spend their lives learning and gaining expertise (at the same time he laments that most people are undermining them). He sees this loss of human expertise as one of the worst problems facing us: “These are dangerous times. Never have so many people had so much access to so much knowledge and yet have been so resistant to learning anything. . . Not only do increasing numbers of laypeople lack basic knowledge, they reject fundamental rules of evidence and refuse to learn how to make a logical argument” (2-3). One thing I can agree with: these are dangerous times, but not for the reasons Nichols presents. Frankly, I think its sort-of amusing to see a lament for the loss of rationality after we have put on a pedestal the power of the human mind to solve all the problems in the universe since the Enlightenment. We forget that we live in a time when human rationality as the only, correct paradigm for understanding the world is so dominant. We mistakenly think that this is, in fact, the primary example of how humans have progressed from dark times of superstition to a superior life thanks to technology. This is a huge historical bias.

Those of us who lament the loss of faith centuries ago might be excused for a little chuckle over the sense of alarm.

The fact is, there are other ways of understanding apart from relying on facts we can measure in the physical world. These ways of understanding, found often in religious traditions, acknowledge that we are more than just animal beings. For Catholics, our divine soul makes up an equal part of our being, and it is attuned to God’s voice. But this last sentence requires faith – faith in a soul, faith in our God, and faith that we can glean any kind of understanding, wisdom, or knowledge from listening to God. Fundamentally, the “dangerous” part of our times is the astounding lack of faith in these things. The cult of expertise that Nichols so loves thrives on skepticism, on testing hypotheses with evidence that can be tested, and this skepticism has been disastrous for faith and spiritual knowledge, which resists the ability to be measured.

I would like to ask Nichols and others like him what they make of today’s readings, where Isaiah shares God’s Word: “I, the LORD, your God, teach you what is for your good, and lead you on the way you should go.” Our ancestors in faith and the prophets took this as the fundamental basis for how we should understand the universe. God teaches us what is good and leads us through life. The simple promise that God gives us is that if we listen to Him, we will prosper: “If you would hearken to my commandments, your prosperity would be like a river.”

Do we “hearken” to God throughout our days? Have we aligned our ways of acting, thinking, loving, disagreeing, etc. with what He teaches? Let’s step back, do we even know how to “hearken” to God?? It starts with acknowledging that He exists and has something to teach us. It then demands that we are receptive.

Jesus presents us with a terrifying question: “To what shall I compare this generation?” The Judge of the Universe is paying attention. He has suffered and died for us, given us baptism to take away our original sin and a Way to heaven to follow in his footsteps. And yet, we want to be the judges ourselves, like those in his time who criticized John the Baptist for not eating and drinking and then criticized Jesus for doing the opposite. They were not receptive to John or Jesus, but instead were committed to making meaning for themselves. This is what Nichols sees in us, who read something on Wikipedia and decide we know it, they go about making judgements based on limited information. But I also see it in so many of the experts he loves, who have determined their own parameters and give us their opinions that he thinks should be the law.

Detail from Adoration of the Magi, Sandro Botticelli (1476) | Creative Commons, courtesy Wikimedia. I have cropped about half of this painting to show the interesting facial details that Botticelli included in this masterpiece. It is fitting that scholars believe that the leftmost young man was Lorenzo de’ Medici, who became one of the most powerful, enthusiastic and influential proponent of the Italian Renaissance. As we see, Lorenzo and his friends are on the fringe of the composition, more interested in themselves than the birth of the Savior. The third man in the trio is looking back at Lorenzo with his hand stretched to the Christ child, as if asking Lorenzo what his opinion is of this event. Whether Botticelli (who was a friend of this most powerful of patron families) meant to critique this or not, it stands that these figures, standing in for the overwhelming belief that man can do anything, including control his own destiny, have a haughty, distanced appearance. They don’t seem particularly receptive to divine teaching.

Jesus has an ominous sounding response for us: “But wisdom is vindicated by her works.” Jesus teaches this concept in many ways, notably during the Sermon on the Mount: “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits” (Mt 7:18-20). Let us take a look at our culture and see what fruits are abundant. Huge income gaps, worldwide suffering and discord, rampant selfishness found in the amassing of personal goods and property. These bad fruits point to a bad tree, and we know what will happen to them (fire!).

We can also take a look at ourselves, which is really more productive. This is the message today in Advent – are we receptive to God’s teaching and will? Are we producing good fruit? This is really what we must worry about because God is concerned with us personally and individually. As we await our Savior, we must be clad in the armor of light because “you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour” (Mt 24:44). If we truly believe this, if we truly worry about going to heaven versus hell, if we love God and want to be with him in ultimate love and goodness, then let’s be receptive, for God will “teach you what is for your good, and lead you on the way you should go.”


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