We live in an age where we question our heroes and our legends and our myths, and I think that’s lame, so I have deliberately cultivated a list of heroes. Among them is Adam Smith.
When Smith wrote Wealth of Nations, he was already thinking about the framing. It wasn’t Poverty of Nations, because after all, poverty is the natural state. Wealth is what is interesting. How do we create it? How do we help people? What are the conditions under which it flourishes?
Another hero is Renee Descartes. He was willing to start over on everything he’d ever known in order to start from first principles. What could he say he knew by logical proof alone? He was willing to abandon it all unless he could say that he knew it. I so admire his courage. Had he not been willing to put it all on the line, he never would have arrived at “I think, therefore I am.”
Recently, I read a talk given by a church member in another congregation saying that we should “be as willing to proclaim earnest doubt as earnest testimony.” He lauded the importance of “normalizing doubt” and “giving space for legitimate questions.”
Agreed, in part.
I hope we see the nobility of Descartes in every earnest seeker after truth. I hope we see the courage it takes to seek real spiritual knowledge, and the fearlessness that is required to seek answers that may not lead in comfortable directions. I do not know what the price to real spiritual knowledge is, but it is certainly costlier than being comfortable with your regular friends on Sunday. If you aren’t willing to give that up, it seems to me that you aren’t fully willing to pay that price. I appreciate those who are bold enough to put it all on the line.
But Descartes without Smith is unbalanced. It isn’t doubt that is precious. It isn’t skepticism, or lack-of-knowledge. Ignorance is not rare. They are the natural state. Knowledge–that is what is exciting. It is precious. It is rare. We ought not valorize doubt, but earnest seeking–and moreso the rewards that seeking brings.
I know some math teachers who love the math for the math’s sake. They love watching children do endless problems, and consider them an end in themselves. I know others who love to exercise for the sake of exercise–not for the joy of the experience or for the personal growth, or the power of disciplining ones’ self, but for the action on its own. I know some who love the hardness of the task more than they love the outcome of the task.
Spiritual knowledge is what is precious. Spiritual knowledge is dear–even a pearl of great price.
Elder and Sister Hafen are two of my favorite speakers. They talk about faith differently than most. They’ve taken Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, and applied them to faith (but far better than Fowler did). In essence they talk about three stages: stage one is idealism. Simple belief. Straightforward answers. Stage two is complexity. Realism. History. Nuance. Difficulty. Stage three is the synthesis of the two: chosen simplicity.
“I wouldn’t give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” Oliver Wendell Holmes said that, and it’s profound.
America is an incredible country–except for the bad bits. Democracy is the best system, except if it allows a dictator to rise. Religion is good, except when it isn’t.
Idealism. Realism. And then, chosen simplicity.
America is imperfect, and can be (indeed, has been) a force for good in the world. Democracy can empower dictators, and it is probably still the best system. Religion is bad, except for all the good.
For the economist, rare means precious. This is the water-diamond paradox. Water is necessary for life–but it is cheap. Why? Because it is common. Diamonds are nothing more than aesthetic, yet they are costly. Why? Because they are rare. Supply and demand. That which is abundant is cheap. That which is rare is precious.
I have learned how rare true spiritual knowledge is. I have learned how important grace is to our fellow travelers, trying to make it through life with grace, kindness, and a bit of joy imparted to others along the way. I have far more empathy for others today than I ever did–and I treat the word “knowledge” as sacred because I know how little I know.
And I know some things. Not many, but a few.
But I celebrate those few things:
- There is good and evil in the world. There is a chance to bring others joy, or to inflict suffering. My personal behavior affects others, both sins and successes. I have an obligation to be the best person I can be. Great societies are built by those who self-govern with high standards and integrity, who avoid evil and seek to do good. I can accomplish great things, in the same way others have, because we are all capable of goodness. A better world is possible.
- My family is the most important thing to me in the world. The more time I invest in them, the more I love them, and the richer my life becomes. Were everyone to treat their families this way, the world would be better for it.
- There is a need for grace. I have not seen Jesus, but I have seen my need for Him. I see that need in society, too. A society’s sins will come upon them if they don’t find a Savior, and turn from their evils.
There is a quaint practice in my church. Every month, congregants are invited to share their spiritual witness. We call these “testimony meetings.” I should admit that I once found them quaint. I no longer do. They are a celebratory rite, valorizing the precious knowledge that we have received through sweat and tears. We have paid the price, and we have attained knowledge. I know so little, but rather than confound me, it makes me the more grateful for what little I do know–that little pearl that is without price.
There is nothing useful or interesting about doubt or ignorance. They are the natural state.
Knowledge and truth–they are interesting.
They are worth celebrating.