We are living through a moment of extreme irrationality

“To some extent, of course, politics has always played out, even in the most enlightened times, through visuals and suggestions, through hints and insinuations, and has always gone to work on us at an affective level. But new tools for carrying this work out, tools that combine both creative imagination and technical expertise, have ceded an outsized responsibility for our political destiny to the technologically literate but argumentatively sub-literate, to the meme-makers, to online subcultural insiders. It should not be altogether surprising that these sectors of society were not necessarily prepared to wield their new, tremendous power in a responsible way.

“We are living through a moment of extreme irrationality, of fervency and ebullience, of destabilization and fear. An important part of the story of how we arrived here seems to be the collapse of traditional safeguards for the preservation of rational procedures and deliberation.... Again, there are many people who evidently welcome this turn. It is rather those who value caution and reserve who feel suddenly as if they belong to another era, and have woken up to find their concerns, their habits—in short, their world—simply gone. It is those who have a weakness for legitimation from a crumbling establishment, from what will soon be the ancien régime, who have the most to lose, those who seek to preserve the old way of doing things: maintaining subscriptions to print media, publishing books, getting humanities degrees, supporting mainstream candidates in mainstream political parties, listening to well-reasoned arguments. These are the people who likely feel the sharpest disappointment at the seizure of the internet by the forces of aggression and chaos, at a moment when we can still hear echoing, from the most recent past, the grandest claims about its power to serve us as an engine for the rational ordering of human life in society....

“... we have most recently discovered the irrationality at the heart of the algorithm, or at least the impossibility of applying algorithms to human life while avoiding their weaponization by the forces of irrationality.”

Justin E. H. Smith, Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason (Princeton University Press: 2019), 17-18.

Discerning the Messenger

Western thought frequently examines messages independently of their messengers (even insisting on the inherent value of such an "objective" approach). But in the spiritual life, discerning the identity of the Messenger is of utmost importance, regardless of any abstract merits of the message itself.

"All things are lawful for me," but not all things are beneficial. "All things are lawful for me," but not all things build up.1

I'm frequently guilty of this when interpreting Scripture. Having been trained in the methodology and tools of historical criticism, I turn to my own reason and the interpretations of the academic guild before seeking the voice of God and listening to the Church Fathers.

Humanity's interpretative choice

This is an ancient problem that precedes East and West. It goes back to the foundations of humanity:

And the Lord God commanded Adam, saying, "You shall eat for food of every tree that is in the orchard, but of the tree for knowing good and evil, of it you shall not eat; on the day that you eat of it, you shall die by death...."

And the snake said to the woman, "Why is it that God said, 'You shall not eat from any tree that is in the orchard'?" And the woman said to the snake, "We shall eat of the fruit of the tree of the orchard, but of the fruit that is in the middle of the orchard, God said, 'You shall not eat of it nor shall you even touch it, lest you die.'" And the snake said to the woman, "You will not die by death, for God knew that on the day you eat of it, your eyes would be opened, and you would be like gods knowing good and evil." And the woman saw that the tree was good for food and that it was pleasing for the eyes to look at and it was beautiful to contemplate, and when she had taken of its fruits she ate, and she also gave some to her husband with her, and they ate.2

Dr. Mary Ford offers a great perspective on Eve's decision:

In this account, Eve is faced with two interpretations of reality.... One interpretation of this fruit and why it was forbidden was given by God, Who created Eve and everything else, and another one was given by the serpent, a fellow creature....

Eve, we could say, at this point decides that all that matters is the "text" alone—the two interpretations or statements made—along with how things look on the surface to her own eyes, which is only the superficial, physical reality. Apparently she doesn't stop to consider who it is giving each interpretation, and what her relationship is with each interpreter. Like many modern-day commentators, she thinks that interpretation can be impersonal, "objective." "Don't ask God about this," the serpent implies; "He is not trustworthy. He doesn't really love you. He doesn't really want the best for you." Then he implies, "And don't ask Adam, either. Judge for yourself—you don't need others to help you discern the truth."

The fruit really is beautiful. It looks good to Eve, and what the serpent says seems reasonable to her "unaided reason," so she decides to accept the interpretation he offers, and to act on his statement—an action which the serpent implies she can make completely independently. However, Eve doesn't realize that in choosing the serpent's interpretation, and in acting with her supposed autonomy, she in fact chooses communion with the serpent over, and instead of, communion with God and her husband.3

Dr. Ford goes on to quote St. Gregory the Theologian:

...[T]he tree of knowledge was not planted originally with any evil intent, nor was it forbidden in a spirit of jealousy. Let not the enemies of God make any such suggestion or think to imitate the serpent. On the contrary, it was good if eaten at the right time; for as I understand it, the fruit was contemplation, which is only safely attempted by those who have attained a more perfect state. But it was not good for those at a lower stage of development, ... just as mature food is not profitable for those of tender years who still need milk.4

She then notes:

...[I]t was entirely right for Eve to want to be godlike—that was God's plan all along. What was wrong was wanting this apart from God, and on her own terms and timetable.5

Humanity chose the creation over the Creator, independently evaluating the interpretation of the snake without considering our relationship with the interpreters.

A short story

     Faysal had never experienced a vision from God, but he believed such things were possible. He found it perplexing that his friend Roya claimed to have had one. She seemed so confident the vision was from God, but Faysal wondered if she was mentally ill or otherwise being deceived. His pastor had never dealt with this before, but encouraged Faysal to practice discernment by comparing the message of the vision to the Bible. But the message seemed so personal and didn't really conflict with any Bible verses Faysal could find.
     He knew of an old hermit at a local monastery who daily sought God in prayer and decided to ask him for help the following morning. Perhaps he might have some guidance, Faysal hoped.
     The next morning, Faysal went to visit the hermit, and asked how he could discern whether his friend's vision was from God or not. He explained how he had looked up various Bible verses related to the message of the vision but wasn't sure if any of it applied. After patiently listening to Faysal's concerns, the hermit asked him, "Does Roya know God?"
     "Well sure, she's gone to church her whole life," Faysal replied.
     The hermit smiled and said, "It seems you've been focusing solely on the contents of the vision, rather than on the identity of the messenger. If the vision is from God, then there is no reason for concern."
     Faysal objected, "Well, surely some messages would clearly conflict with God's Word and be evidence of deception."
     The hermit paused for a moment. Then he asked, "Do you have any children, Faysal?"
     "Yes, a son," he answered.
     "If God spoke to you in a vision, and in that vision told you to murder your son, would you say that vision is not from God?"
     Faysal shot back, "Of course that vision wouldn't be from from God! It violates God's commandment not to murder!"
     "And yet," the hermit replied gently, "Abraham obeyed God's voice when given this very message as a test, and God blessed him because of his faith and obedience." He continued, "Wouldn't you agree that the messenger, and the recipient's relationship with him, is of utmost importance?"6

Footnotes

1 1 Corinthians 10:23.

2 Genesis 2:16–17; 3:1b–6, NETS (LXX).

3 Mary S. Ford, The Soul's Longing: An Orthodox Christian Perspective on Biblical Interpretation (Waymart, Pennsylvania: St. Tikhon's Monastery Press, 2015), 50–51.

4 Oration 45:8 on Easter; excerpt given by Panayiotis Nellas, Deification in Christ: The Nature of the Human Person (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1987), 204; as quoted in Ford, 51.

5 Ford, 51.

6 This story was inspired by Ford, especially the above-quoted paragraphs and pp. 53–55. Full disclosure: I don't write fiction. I apologize for the wooden dialogue.

Irrational residue

For St. Basil, not the divine essence alone but also created essences could not be expressed in concepts. In contemplating any object we analyse its properties: it is this which enables us to form concepts. But this analysis can in no case exhaust the content of the object of perception. There will always remain an 'irrational residue' which escapes analysis and which cannot be expressed in concepts; it is the unknowable depth of things, that which constitutes their true, indefinable essence. In regard to the names which we apply to God, these reveal his energies which descend towards us yet do not draw us closer to his essence, which is inaccessible.

Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1997), 33.

Hermeneutic of love

Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought. If, on the other hand, a man draws a meaning from them that may be used for the building up of love, even though he does not happen upon the precise meaning which the author whom he reads intended to express in that place, his error is not pernicious, and he is wholly clear from the charge of deception. For there is involved in deception the intention to say what is false; and we find plenty of people who intend to deceive, but nobody who wishes to be deceived....

Whoever takes another meaning out of Scripture than the writer intended, goes astray, but not through any falsehood in Scripture. Nevertheless, as I was going to say, if his mistaken interpretation tends to build up love, which is the end of the commandment, he goes astray in much the same way as a man who by mistake quits the high road, but yet reaches through the fields the same place to which the road leads. He is to be corrected, however, and to be shown how much better it is not to quit the straight road, lest, if he get into a habit of going astray, he may sometimes take cross roads, or even go in the wrong direction altogether.

For if he takes up rashly a meaning which the author whom he is reading did not intend, he often falls in with other statements which he cannot harmonize with this meaning. And if he admits that these statements are true and certain, then it follows that the meaning he had put upon the former passage cannot be the true one: and so it comes to pass, one can hardly tell how, that, out of love for his own opinion, he begins to feel more angry with Scripture than he is with himself. And if he should once permit that evil to creep in, it will utterly destroy him. “For we walk by faith, not by sight.” Now faith will totter if the authority of Scripture begin to shake. And then, if faith totter, love itself will grow cold. For if a man has fallen from faith, he must necessarily also fall from love; for he cannot love what he does not believe to exist. But if he both believes and loves, then through good works, and through diligent attention to the precepts of morality, he comes to hope also that he shall attain the object of his love. And so these are the three things to which all knowledge and all prophecy are subservient: faith, hope, love....

And thus a man who is resting upon faith, hope and love, and who keeps a firm hold upon these, does not need the Scriptures except for the purpose of instructing others. Accordingly, many live without copies of the Scriptures, even in solitude, on the strength of these three graces. So that in their case, I think, the saying is already fulfilled: “Whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.” Yet by means of these instruments (as they may be called), so great an edifice of faith and love has been built up in them, that, holding to what is perfect, they do not seek for what is only in part perfect—of course, I mean, so far as is possible in this life; for, in comparison with the future life, the life of no just and holy man is perfect here. Therefore the apostle says: “Now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity:” because, when a man shall have reached the eternal world, while the other two graces will fail, love will remain greater and more assured.

Augustine of Hippo, "On Christian Doctrine," in St. Augustine’s City of God and Christian Doctrine, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. J. F. Shaw, vol. 2, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1887), Book I, Chapters 36-9, pp. 533-4.

You can read this work beginning at Book I, chapter 36, for free on CCEL by clicking here.