The challenging thing about life is that living it requires wisdom. Another way to say that is that life requires judgment and that judgment in turn requires wisdom.
Since we have so little wisdom, we are continuously and continually inclined to avoid the need to exercise judgment by replacing it with one of two options: rules or tolerance.
Do not think for a moment that I refer exclusively or even primarily to conventional politics. Indeed, nothing goes untouched by these two impulses (for that is what they are: impulses to take a shortcut).
Think, for example, about the use of correct grammar. Two parties argue for the soul of civilization: the prescriptivists and the descriptivists. The former prescribes, identifying the rules that the masses must follow. The latter describers, noting the moves that the masses make. The former look for authority to the unchanging rule (so they used to become teachers); the latter look to the common usage.
If you would like to follow a humorous and occasionally risible discussion on this matter, follow this link to a dangerously light-hearted blog post by David Bentley Hart called Le Mot Juste. Note the two options that run through the argument.
Since I’ve mentioned David Bentley Hart, I’ll direct your attention to another presentation of his, this one on “tradition and innovation.” This one is a video, but notice his comment at the beginning about the relationship between tradition and innovation. Can you see the same parallel as the grammar/word wars above.
Apparently Hart likes to wade into controversial waters.
That bothers some people, but only because they (we) prefer to keep playing on the beach even though that means nobody will have anything to eat at meal time.
In other words, you can’t avoid these controversies. We all have to make decisions. We all have to exercise judgment if we are going to make decisions. We all need wisdom to exercise that judgment. We all feel inadequately wise to exercise the judgment that enables us to make sound decisions. So we prefer to avoid the controversies. So we turn to rules. Or we turn to tolerance.
But you can’t.
Because everything requires that we resist the two poles that we wish would make life easy. It’s true in grammar and word choice. It’s true in tradition and innovation. It’s true in assessing school work, in raising children, in teaching reading – every where we turn we are confronted with what seems like two choices, but really is an opportunity to gain wisdom by staying between them.
On the one hand, we want rules so we don’t have to think, but can simply do as we are told. We speak of “absolute truth” and think that the truth is absolutely indifferent to the context in which it is embodied. We speak of “absolute right and wrong” and argue that the good is utterly inconsiderate of the circumstances in which it is incarnated. We say that “beauty is absolute,” contending that there are self-evident standards that pay no attention to the material with which it has to work.
On the other hand, we want complete permission so we don’t have to think but can immoderately follow our appetites and passions wherever they lead us. We say that something is “true for you” and refuse to consider that truth must be true if it is true. We focus on the utterly complex circumstances in which moral decisions need to be made, and use them to defend any decision that was sincerely made. Beauty, we contend, is in the eye of the beholder, and nothing can be done to improve something measured by absolutely relative standards.
Is it too much to argue that the first impulse (and please remember that these two options are impulses that all of us possess in our own souls) is expressed by the older brother in Our Lord’s parable of the Two Brothers (Prodigal Son)? Is it too much to argue that the second is the younger brother.
This dichotomy, in other words, is the broken state of our own souls. Neither of them is fitting. But the father went out to both of them.
I need to think about this some more, so I will write about it more. Perhaps it needs to be said that since this dichotomy is universal, I expect it to yield insight into how to teach, learn, govern, assess, and prepare.
For now, it dawns on me that it seems always to lead to the deeper question: “Who are you to judge?” And of course, to provide an answer is to eliminate yourself from the conversation. Which is a shame, because it is a great question.
How does one become qualified to judge anything? For now, I will only point out that it isn’t as if we have a choice. We have to judge.