St. Justin Martyr

On Being Brilliantly Wrong

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Though serious Christians may differ on how to characterize an ‘inerrant’ Bible or an ‘infallible’ Magisterium, consensus ought to be forthcoming regarding the errant and fallible character of every other source of guidance on offer. This includes not just the slow and thick, but most especially the quick and brilliant; not just the hardened lier, but especially the posing sage. Our minds gravitate to God, and since we cannot yet see him, we are forever subconsciously seeking divine qualities in the people we do see.

It may be easy to demote the criminal, or the bearers of everyday mediocrity. Their foibles are on unmistakable display. But the brilliant in intellectual terms, or the great artist, and even more the seemingly noble in moral terms – who lavish us with insights or inspire us with solemn example – are easily confused with utter perfection.

To expose such confusion, when the Catholic Church sizes up its candidates for sainthood, one of the first signs of disqualification is any hint that the candidate thought he or or she was indeed a saint. The canonized saints will have weakness they are only too aware of, and not a few of them will have theological ideas slightly left or right of center. My focus here, though, is on the brilliant, the philosophical and theological stars on the firmament of our wayward world.

One part of growing up is learning – in a process both slow and unsettling – that mom and dad are just two more human beings among millions. Daddy’s infallible prowess, and Mommy’s infinite bosom of protection and forgiveness, finally display their limits, and quite opposite traits begin to blemish our icons of parental perfection. If we truly love them, we will learn to love them even more for their shortcomings than we did for their imagined grandeurs. But we have a harder time with this when it comes to the saints. We tend to flatten them into two-dimensional do-gooders.

The ones we have come to know more directly in recent times, like St John Paul and St Theresa of Calcutta, will not always fit the story-book image of the sweet and holy. John Paul II was a great saint, and a world-historical figure, but perhaps would lose a few stars as administrator in the complex Vatican system – he apparently wasn’t good at delegation, and it may have been this which caused the Curia to go south during his long papacy, and the sex abuse scandal to be nudged aside by other issues. Mother Theresa’s occasional imprudent decisions are all documented, and her own dark inner struggles have become a part of an even more realistic profile. But this is simply the way we humans grow in holiness, with embarrassing, unsightly tares fully on display right next to the golden grains of wheat. But again, I want to turn to the intellectuals, since it is their delinquencies that most concern me.

I work at a university, full of professors who pretend, at least, to be smart, and many of them are very smart, a smaller portion truly intelligent, and perhaps a select few genuinely wise. Where I myself stand on this scale is something I will leave to the consensus of my students, if such can ever be gauged. I have no idea. But I have lived long enough to have located at least a handful of truly wise thinkers – most of them, alas!, only available through their books – and know that it is true wisdom that radiates through their writing, whether eloquent or rudimentary, cool or square. I have referred to a selection of these sages in my other post: Incoming Light.

But what about that category of thinkers and writers who are very smart, even impressively intelligent, with occasional, but rare, rays of wisdom shining through their words – and yet, precisely due to their considerable endowments, can sometimes be brilliantly wrong?

Aristotle sold out to the rather creepy theory of abiogenesis; Aquinas’ theology, from a Catholic point of view, gets it wrong about the Immaculate Conception; and even the archetypal genius Einstein resisted the Big Bang theory for years (in part because his priest-friend Georges Lemaître had conceived it, and he feared he was maybe theologically biased). When young students find some great and perhaps charismatic thinker, understandably they have a hard time recognizing their faults.

You have to understand a large number of deep matters if only to misunderstand a few. Since most of us don’t understand them at all, we will hardly notice when the highly gifted get them wrong. Being brilliant is a gift that can bring great light to those less illumined, but it also secures for its annointed the dubious privilege of being sometimes brilliantly, and possibly dangerously, wrong. That is why there has to be a living voice in a true Church, someone who occasionally interrupts our brilliant disquisitions to point out an overlooked fact, or a slightly twisted emphasis. That voice is called the magisterium.

It has been compared to the referee, or the umpire, in a game – not someone we are overly fond of, but someone without whom the game would quickly become a riot. And yet we, with our philosophers, scientists and theologians, are the ones who actually play the game,  and not these pesky arbiters. Nonetheless, from time to time we will hear a whistle, and even the brilliant should have the humility to stop and listen.

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