Jesus, Socrates, and the Problem of Human Blindness

Our whole business in this Life is to restore to health the eye of the heart whereby God may be seen. – St. Augustine

SOCRATES: Imagine this: People live under the earth in a cavelike dwelling. Stretching a long way up toward the daylight is its entrance, toward which the entire cave is gathered. The people have been in this dwelling since childhood, shackled by the legs and neck… because they are shackled, they are unable to turn their heads around. A fire is behind them, and there is a wall between the fire and the prisoners. Some light, of course, is allowed them, namely from a fire that casts its glow toward them from behind them, being above and at some distance. Imagine that a low wall has been built the length of the walkway, like the low curtain that puppeteers put up, over which they show their puppets.
GLAUCON: This is an unusual picture that you are presenting here, and these are unusual prisoners.
SOCRATES: They are very much like us humans, I [Socrates] responded.
– From Book VII of Plato’s Republic

If it is possible for one story to perfectly describe the human condition and the central problem of our existence, Plato’s Allegory of the Cave does just this. The journey from darkness to the light is an obvious metaphor for man’s passage from ignorance to wisdom. But this process is not so straightforward as we might expect. If any one of us were to fall into a deep, black pit, we would surely struggle with all our might to make it back to the light of day. But what if we were born in the pit? What if we have grown up in a cave, and, knowing nothing else, lack the ability to recognize our own blindness? What if we have grown so comfortable in our dimly-lit surroundings that we resist all efforts to be freed from our chains?

If we are honest with ourselves, we all have blind spots. We all lack wisdom. But some of us are so ignorant as to fancy ourselves wise. What made Socrates the wisest man in Athens? This simple insight: “I know that I know nothing.”

In the book Sophie’s World, the philosopher describes three types of people: the rare Socrates aware of his own ignorance, the people who think they already know enough, and the people who simply don’t care to think about anything too deeply. If my newsfeed is any indication, most of us fall into the latter two groups. I certainly have spent a great deal of my life in the know-it-all camp, a genuine cave-dweller.

What do you do when confronted with evidence that contradicts a previously-held belief? Quite simply, you can either modify your belief, or ignore the offending evidence. And so I have attempted to adopt the latter course. I have witnessed enough hypocrisy and lived through enough disappointment to distrust the idea of quick fixes or black-and-white dichotomies.

I believe now more than ever in the need to apply the same strict standards of truthfulness to all claims, regardless of from which “side” they originate. When it comes to matters like taxes and gun control, we should avoid the knee-jerk reaction to defend our existing beliefs and actually consider what others have to say. We don’t have to accept or reject 100% of their position. Perhaps 20% of what they are saying is valid. So let’s agree with that 20%. And while we’re at it, maybe we can admit that we are only 80% sure that our own current position (whether it be stricter gun laws or lower corporate taxes) would yield the desired result. The truth is, no one knows the exact outcome of any proposed policy until it is implemented. We are all trying to do the same thing that weathermen do — predict future outcomes — but with much less scientific rigor and much more personal bias.

When it comes to politics and economics, a healthy dose of humility is warranted. But when it comes to the things that really matter — to how we are to live our lives — what do we do when we cannot trust our own sight? Consider this passage from Matthew’s Gospel:

Why do you observe the splinter in your brother’s eye and never notice the great log in your own? And how dare you say to your brother, “Let me take that splinter out of your eye,” when, look, there is a great log in your own? Hypocrite! Take the log out of your own eye first, and then you will see clearly enough to take the splinter out of your brother’s eye. Matthew 7:3-5

Jesus instructs us to examine our own vision before criticizing that of others. We cannot expect those still living in ignorance to understand, as this is like “casting pearls before swine.” We are to beware false prophets, the “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” Not by their appearances, but by their fruits are we to judge them.

Why does Jesus speak in parables? He answers:

The reason I talk to them in parables is that they look without seeing and listen without hearing or understanding. So in their case what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah is being fulfilled: Listen and listen, but never understand! Look and look, but never perceive! This people’s heart has grown coarse, their ears dulled, they have shut their eyes tight to avoid using their eyes to see, their ears to hear, their heart to understand, changing their ways and being healed by me.
But blessed are your eyes because they see, your ears because they hear! Matthew 13: 13-16

And what about the rich young man who wanted to follow Jesus? When he was told to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor, “he went away sad, for he was a man of great wealth.”

He was like the cave-dwellers who could not part with something of lesser value (material wealth) to gain something greater, though initially more difficult (the chance to be Jesus’ disciple and live with him forever in Heaven). Is this not the very definition of ignorance and blindness?

Jesus healed the blind and restored their sight. But as for the Pharisees, the “blind guides,” he declares:

You hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs that look handsome on the outside, but inside are full of the bones of the dead and every kind of corruption. In just the same way, from the outside you look upright, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. Matthew 23: 27-28

The Jesus of Matthew’s Gospel is much like the Socrates of Plato’s writings; so much so that the atheist Friedrich Nietzsche famously dismissed Christianity as “Plato for the masses.” But one man was wise enough to reconcile the two traditions in a brilliant synthesis that has served as the foundation of Christianity ever since – St. Augustine.

In his Confessions, Augustine describes his own blindness as it persisted through young adulthood:

What profit was it to me that I, rascally slave of selfish ambitions that I was, read and understood by myself as many books as I could get concerning the so-called liberal arts?…I had turned my back to the light and my face to the things it illuminated, and so no light played upon my own face, or on the eyes that perceived them.

Augustine’s journey out of the cave was long and difficult, and only possible thanks to the constant prayer of his mother, St. Monica. But Augustine never dropped his admiration of Plato. Observe Plato’s influence in Augustine’s description of sin:

Sin is to a nature what blindness is to an eye. The blindness of an evil or defect which is a witness to the fact that the eye was created to see the light and, hence, the very lack of sight is the proof that the eye was meant… to be the one particularly capable of seeing the light. Were it not for this capacity, there would be no reason to think of blindness as a misforture.

Now consider these other famous quotes from St. Augustine:

It is no advantage to be near the light if the eyes are closed.

And I entered and beheld with the eye of my soul… the Light Unchangeable… He that knows the Truth, knows what that Light is; and he that knows It, knows Eternity.

I knew that most people never see this reality because they attach to the material aspect of the world. Illusions of self and other fill their vision. I also realized there are those with little dust limiting their vision.

Jesus and Plato and Augustine seem to be telling us the same thing — that our primary task is to stop viewing the world through the materialist lens and see things as God sees them, down to their true essence.

What happens when one has emerged from the cave long enough to see things as they actually are and discard his past misconceptions? Returning to Plato’s tale, he feels the obligation to return to the cave and free the poor souls still trapped there. But how is he received by those who have not yet gained their vision? Plato knows just what danger awaits this returned exile:

SOCRATES: Now if once again, along with those who had remained shackled there, the freed person had to engage in the business of asserting and maintaining opinions about the shadows… would he not then be exposed to ridicule down there? And would they not let him know that he had gone up but only in order to come back down into the cave with his eyes ruined — and thus it certainly does not pay to go up. And if they can get hold of this person who takes it in hand to free them from their chains and to lead them up, and if they could kill him, will they not actually kill him?
GLAUCON: They certainly will.

Of course, this is exactly what happened to Socrates himself, Plato’s beloved teacher, who was forced to drink hemlock for corrupting the youth of Athens. It is the same fate suffered by Jesus: condemned by the angry crowd, abandoned even by his closest followers; although His death was followed by the glory of the Resurrection.

What does all this say about us? We are so desperate to cling to our illusions that we are willing to condemn an innocent man to death. We like to think of ourselves as loyal Christians, but we are just like the Pharisees, just like the murderous cave-dwellers, just like the crowd that chanted “Crucify him!”

So how about we work on removing that log from our own eye, so that we might help our neighbor with his splinter?

God, grant us the humility to recognize our own blindness and the courage to venture out of this cave of ignorance into the light of your truth.

Advertisements

In Defense of Matt Walsh and Jesus Christ

I am a follower of the Matt Walsh blog. While I would not always use his choice of words, I tend to agree with about 95% of what he has to say. I like the fact that we are both young, Catholic conservatives and parents of small children. Reading his posts reminds me that I am not completely alone in my generation, which is reassuring to say the least. I often wish I had Matt Walsh’s courage. As his site claims, he is a “professional speaker of truths,” someone who doesn’t care about making friends or being universally adored. Unfortunately, I know that this sort of honest, no-holds-barred approach to blogging could easily cost me my job as a teacher at a secular public high school. Since my blog provides approximately $0 in income, I need to be very careful about what I say and how I say it. Some topics I have to avoid altogether.

I often write, reread, rewrite, and rearrange my posts for hours before I feel like I have finally gotten my point across in a way that is both effective and safe. I try to be objective and dispassionate, to the extent that this is possible. Still, my best blogging (or most popular, at least) usually pours out in a stream of consciousness when I am particularly ticked off about something. So far I’ve had two posts garner over 2,000 hits. Both were quickly-written and barely-edited pieces on “controversial” topics making points so obvious they would have once been considered common sense (birth control is your own responsibility; Bruce Jenner is not a woman). But until I can actually quit my day job and make a living as a professional truth-speaker, I will be forced to engage in some level of self-censorship.

Well, a few days ago something really ticked me off. I saw on my blogging site that someone had written a viral hit-piece on Matt Walsh entitled “Jesus Would Hate This Christian Blogger Just As Much As You Do.”

The title alone pretty much identifies the piece as complete and total bullshit. The dead give-away is that it puts “Jesus” and “Hate” in the same sentence. Author Jennifer Martin goes on to adopt a format she must think is extremely clever: contrasting excerpts from Walsh’s blog that have been completely taken out of context with verses from the Bible that have been completely taken out of context.

True to form, Walsh has already written an excellent response in which he utterly destroys Martin’s “logic,” so I’ll let him speak in his own defense. As a fellow Christian blogger with about 1/1,000,000 of his audience, I know a bit of what it’s like to be attacked for your views, and the courage it requires to go against the cultural mainstream. Whether liberal or conservative, Christian or atheist, blogging on controversial topics is always a risk. Being attacked on the Internet isn’t just an occupational hazard; it’s a job requirement. If you’re not being slammed by someone, chances are you’re doing it wrong.

No, my irritation is not on Walsh’s behalf—a man I don’t know and have never met. He has clearly done very well for himself and is quite capable of handling the daily attacks launched in his direction. Rather, my frustration is on behalf of Christians everywhere who are tired of being told what Jesus would do by people who so clearly don’t know and don’t care. I’m tired of the innate openness and understanding of many Christians being used against them in a sort of cultural jujitsu. I’m tired of Christians feeling like they have to constantly prove their tolerance to their progressive friends, lest they be labeled a bunch of bigoted haters. Most of all, I’m tired of the true message of Christ being watered down into an impotent, wishy-washy compilation of slogans better suited for bumper stickers than leading anyone to salvation.

By now we are all familiar with the liberal line on Christianity. According to progressives, Jesus was basically a bearded, peace-loving hipster who came to earth just to tell people to “Chill, man! Be cool! Don’t judge, and all that.” We are told that, were he around today, hipster Jesus would be picketing with Occupy Wall Street or leading a Pride rally.

do what makes

I’m sorry, but that is not my religion. Jesus was not about going along to get along, and neither is my faith. When reading the Gospel, I have never been struck with the revelation of “Oh! So we’re just supposed to let people do whatever they want and mind our own business!” That kind of understanding of Christianity can only result from a very minimal and selective reading of the Bible, if in fact the Bible is consulted at all. If that was all there was to Christianity, why did much of Jesus’ society and the most powerful empire in the world find it so threatening? Conversely, why did his early followers find it so appealing that they were willing to lay down their lives in His name? If all Jesus wanted was for people to be tolerant and get along, why was he put to death? You would think Caesar would have wanted him front and center.

Instead, Jesus was publicly humiliated, beaten, and ultimately put to death for his refusal to compromise or water down the truth—that He is the Son of God. Pilot did not want to kill Jesus. He offered him several chances to take the easy way out. But the real Jesus of the Bible—not hipster Jesus of the liberal imagination—was not afraid to rub people the wrong way. He was not afraid to call people out for their immoral behavior at the risk of personal ridicule (much like Matt Walsh, though I’m obviously not proposing his deification). Jesus was unpopular, controversial, and at times confrontational. He lived and dwelt amongst sinners, showing them great love and compassion, but He never condoned their sin.

The truth is, Christianity is a very demanding religion, a radical creed that is not for the faint of heart. I realize this may come as a surprise to some, as what passes for Christianity these days can seem like nothing more than feel-good, prosperity-Gospel platitudes, but that was not the original message. True Christianity requires even popes and kings to acknowledge their sinfulness and to humble themselves before the Lord. True Christianity makes no promises of worldly success; rather it risks great persecution and suffering. True Christianity demands the radical giving of oneself to others and accepts nothing less. (Recall the wealthy man who could not bring himself to give up his riches to follow Jesus.) Like Judaism and Islam, Christianity demands adherence to a system of moral laws that must be followed, even when they contradict one’s personal desires or ambitions. If you want a religion that allows you to make your own rules and just do whatever feels right, you should look elsewhere and leave Christianity alone.

Unfortunately, the progressive attempt to redefine Christianity is working. We have become so thoroughly secularized that even many Christians are uncomfortable with public displays of faith or prayer (“I’ll pray for you! Um, I mean, I’ll send you good vibes!” “Merry Christ— er, Happy Holidays!”). Many Christians now truly believe that it is not for them to judge anything anyone else does. You do you, and I’ll do me. But here’s the truth: sin hurts. Sin hurts the sinner, and sin hurts everyone else. There is no such thing as a “victimless sin.” When we stand by and ignore sin, when we “tolerate” it, we are letting people hurt themselves. If you saw someone preparing to slash their wrists or fall off a bridge, would you stand aside and think, “Hmmm, maybe not the best idea, but it’s not for me to judge?” Or would you at a bare minimum point out the harm that person is about to do to themselves and others who might copy their example? Aristotle recognized that there is no happiness outside of virtue; likewise, there is only pain in vice.

never-talk-about-religion

Sorry Jennifer Martin, but you do not get to redefine Christianity to suit your progressive purposes. No, Jesus was not an early supporter of the transgender movement (a conclusion you support pretty weakly with His acceptance of eunuchs and celibacy). Jesus was not a radical feminist, or a communist. You are free to be all of these things, but don’t project your secular values onto Christ.

f138fb0861c88b025c21679b89562505

Liberals like Martin are particularly fond of quoting Luke 6:37, “Judge not, and you will not be judged.” There are 807,361 words in the Bible, but these eight are their favorite. However, then as now, there are two different meanings of the word “judge.” One meaning is to discern between two things (i.e. good and evil); the other is to condemn. Given the full context of this verse, and the context surrounding Matthew 7:1 (“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.”), Christians are clearly instructed not to judge only in the second sense of the word.

The rest of Luke 6:37 reads “Condemn not, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” The point is clearly that we are to show forgiveness, love, and mercy to our fellow man; not tolerance of their sin. It is not our place to condemn others. We sit in final judgment of no man’s soul. However, we are specifically instructed on numerous occasions to discern between good and evil, and to act accordingly. Take the following examples:

“Do not judge according to appearances, but instead judge a just judgment.” John 7:24

“And why do you not, even among yourselves, judge what is just?” Luke 12:57

“The mouth of the righteous speaks wisdom, and his tongue talks of judgment.” Psalm 37:30

“You shall not do what is unjust, nor shall you judge unjustly. You shall not consider the reputation of the poor, nor shall you honor the countenance of the powerful. Judge your neighbor justly.” Leviticus 19:15

“Open your mouth, judge righteously, and plead the cause of the poor and needy.” Proverbs 31:9

“Whoever despises me and does not accept my words has one who judges him. The word that I have spoken, the same shall judge him on the last day.” John 12:48

How can anyone read this and still believe Christianity is just about tolerance? My guess is Jennifer Martin has not read the entire Bible, or even the majority of it. Rather she has sought out a few odd verses to assist in her condemnation of Matt Walsh, thus engaging in the very sort of judgment Jesus actually proscribes.

Dictionary.com defines a hypocrite as “a person who pretends to have virtues, moral or religious beliefs, principles, etc., that he or she does not actually possess, especially a person whose actions belie stated beliefs.” Martin compares Walsh to the Pharisees, but he is no hypocrite. He judges in the proper sense of the word—that of discerning between good and evil—while always acknowledging his own sinfulness. Ironically, Martin and others like her are the real hypocrites. They loudly proclaim their tolerance, and yet refuse to tolerate Christians. They attack conservatives for their arrogance, but they have the arrogance to believe there is no law greater than their own. They feign outrage at “judgmental” Christians, but are the quickest to judge all who do not agree with them.

Secular liberals know that true Christianity is the largest obstacle standing in the way of their quest to radically transform society and human nature itself. They know they cannot defeat Christianity outright, so they seek instead to neuter it—to deprive it of all its power and beauty by reducing it to a handful of feel-good platitudes. They have been trying to redefine the Christian faith for the last 2,000 years, and they will continue to do so until the final Day of Judgment. We cannot let them.