Thursday, February 20, 2020

On Being Taken In

“ ‘You see,’ said Aslan, ‘they will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their own minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out.’ ”
— C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle

“You are not going to fool me with that religion stuff.”

That seems to be the position of many people in our modern world. There are many religions, they observe, and they disagree about all kinds of really basic things, like who God is, what morality should be, and what the point of life itself is. And since they all disagree, there’s got to be a lot of tommyrot and humbug out there.

Fortunately (they believe), there is the position of secular skepticism about it all. And in that position is safety. By being sufficiently cynical about anything religious, we can avoid being taken in. And unless someone were to prove that one or another religion was actually right (and this, they refuse to imagine can even be done), and do it so conclusively that even a secular cynic could not deny it (say, like producing a God on the spot) we are right to stand in the view that nothing is to be believed, nothing trusted, and nothing regarded as obligatory. In this, negative safety is secured: we can stand in the neutral position until further notice, and we’ll be fine.

We’ll just disbelieve — and we’ll never be taken in.

Skeptical Stronghold

Now, let us admit right off the bat that if any age was one that called for skepticism, this is it. We have more spin, angles, sensationalizing, propaganda, press releases, politicking, distortions, fake news, sales pitches, half-truths, partial information and even phony science than at any time in history. And on every side are things that one can’t know, ought not to believe, and shouldn’t just trust. In that kind of a world, to believe everything is just plain stupid … and downright dangerous. Nobody could argue against that.

And certainly, skepticism about the claims of religion is also warranted. After all, most religions are false. Many are, to one extent or the other, misleading. Even within the Christian church there are those who insidiously peddle falsehood instead of truth. And all of them are playing for huge stakes — the welfare and disposition of one’s soul. The scriptures themselves warn us that it will be so. When any available truth is so hedged about with lies, it seems just a matter of sweet reason and self-preservation to withhold belief, and say, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Fair enough?

The Back Gate

But there’s a kind of cynicism that goes too far. In our position of urbane detachment, the self-protective cynicism we cultivate in order to avoid being taken in, there can be another insidious deception. We can easily get so used to being skeptical that we use skepticism on everything, even things we ought to know are true because there’s more than enough evidence for them to warrant sensible belief.

Along with this comes a second self-delusion: it’s the idea that if we use skepticism on everything, we’re going to stay safe. We will be wise. We will be sophisticated. We will not be anybody’s fool. And further, we start to think that we never have to venture to believe anything of which we are not absolutely assured in advance. But what we often do not notice is that deception can take us by the back gate, even while our faces are to the enemy.

The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard points this out:
“[O]ne can be deceived in many ways; one can be deceived in believing what is untrue, but on the other hand, one is also deceived in not believing what is true; one can be deceived by appearances, but one can also be deceived by the superficiality of shrewdness, by the flattering conceit which is absolutely certain that it cannot be deceived.”
So think about that. If Kierkegaard’s right, skepticism isn’t a permanent refuge, an Archimedean safe place to stand from which one can “move the world”. It is, instead, floating on a vacuum. It’s merely negative. It gives you nothing to trust, and also no firm vantage point from which to work. Every lever needs a secure fulcrum. When you are essentially standing on nothing, don’t be surprised if you can’t move anything either.

That’s the problem with skepticism. It will prevent you from being taken in by deceptions, but also will prevent you being taken into any truth. You will be fooled by nothing, but also know nothing.

Knowing Nothing

What does it matter?

Well, firstly, because the skeptic misses everything God has clearly put within his vision. As Romans says of all men:
“[W]hat can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them … his invisible attributes, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived … they are without excuse … they knew God, they did not honor him as God … their foolish hearts were darkened.”
One thing that’s plainly in sight, not just because the created world shows it, but also because God has made it plain to all men, is that he exists. The skeptic, however, says, “Indirect evidence of design is not good enough for me. I can conceive of the same evidence as pointing to evolution or to a universe with no God.” And he refuses to believe. He would rather know nothing.

The same is true of knowledge in general. Much of what we now know, we know because somebody took a risk and believed in something of which he or she was not absolutely certain. “Credo ut intelligam,” Anselm wrote. “I believe in order to know.” Skepticism says only “I’ll believe it when I see it.” But practiced consistently, skepticism never really “sees” anything at all. It always finds a reason to disbelieve, always a way to explain away any evidence it finds, yet another ground of suspicion and another rationale for avoiding commitment.

Skepticism itself is so focused on not being fooled that it can end up guaranteeing total ignorance. Though it presents itself as a position of wisdom, of sophisticated distance, of self-possessed maturity, it is impotent to reveal any truth at all.

Toothless and Truthless

This brings us to the second problem with skepticism. That is this: when you know nothing, you don’t have the truth. And when you don’t have the truth, what does it really matter whether you believe in nothing, or in a lie?

This becomes particularly poignant when the thing you can’t bring yourself to believe in is something that you simply can’t — or wouldn’t want to — live without; one of those things that makes life itself worth living. Kierkegaard writes:
“If it were true — as conceited shrewdness, proud of not being deceived, thinks — that one should believe nothing which he cannot see by means of his physical eyes, then first and foremost one ought to give up believing in love.”
Skepticism destroys the possibility of love. To show love to someone, you have to have faith in either their character or the goodness of the God who commands you to love — even to love someone who is, humanly speaking, an enemy, perhaps. Like the young man too nervous to knock on his intended’s door and ask her out, the faithless skeptic refuses to take any chance that love might be real. He stands at cynical distance, insisting that unless the beloved comes out and commits to him, he will not commit at all.

It’s not just in the matter of love that skepticism turns sterile. Meaning, ethics, humanity, and even true selfhood … all these things do not come to anybody who reckons without God.

So then, what does it really matter if the skeptic sees himself as “safe”? Would it not be at least a bit better to believe a comforting lie than to live in a lie-free bubble, but with no love, no knowledge, no belief, no ethical reasons, no hope, no meaning and no end in sight? A lot of people think it would. And since the skeptic has nothing better to offer, he’s hard put to figure out why they’re making the wrong choice.

False Security

Is all that bad enough? Well, it gets worse.

Thirdly, skeptical blindness can be more durable than false belief. The person who has been actively deceived has at least a chance of discovering the deception and being freed from it. But what about the person who thinks he or she simply cannot be deceived, since he or she is not believing in anything? How does one convince somebody like that of any truth at all?

Kierkegaard puts the problem this way:
“Which deception is the most dangerous? Whose recovery is more doubtful, that of him who does not see or of him who sees and still does not see? Which is more difficult, to awaken one who sleeps or to awaken one who, awake, dreams that he is awake?”
The answer’s obvious. It’s the man who says, “I see,” and yet sees nothing, who is the most blind.

And it gets worse still. For ironically, though the skeptic imagines that by refusing to see he is not blameworthy, God takes the skeptic’s profession that he is a wise man and a knowing fellow at face value; so that the skeptic has not only remained blind, but has removed any excuse there might have been that he or she simply did not know. As the Lord said, to the Pharisees, “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains.” Consequently, it’s a dangerous thing to see oneself as a clever and knowing fellow: God takes you at your word.

Judgment still comes, but the skeptic decides not to see it coming.

Already On Fire

One more bad thing about being a skeptic: you’re living in a house that’s already on fire.

Judgment’s coming, and you’re doing nothing while it comes. This self-protective skepticism, this protective refusal to believe, is inevitably going to get you killed. It’s not just going to cost you your life; it’s going to cost you your soul as well.

As Bob Dylan once wrote, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody / And it may be the Devil, and it may be the Lord / Still, you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”

There’s a time for standing back, and a time for believing and committing. The time for standing back isn’t forever.

Skepticism: How Far Will It Take Us?

Is being skeptical a bad idea altogether, then? Clearly not. The willingness to believe can be misdirected or abused very easily. And as Christians, we are positively commanded to remain skeptical of claims, and particularly of religious ones:

Here’s the balance: “Test everything; hold fast what is good.”

Get it? “Test.” Look it over. Do it very carefully. Don’t believe everything you hear. Likewise, watch out for false teachers. Heads up for perverts and evildoers. Don’t be naïve. Check up on even good doctrine. Don’t get taken in by things that just sound good.

But here’s the other side of the coin: “Hold fast what is good.” When you’ve examined it, and you’ve found something that is genuinely good, don’t lose your grip on it. There is no benefit in cynicism if it leaves you incapable of locating truth. After all, the purpose of the initial skepticism was to clear the floor for something worth believing. Get hold of the truth, and once you’ve got it, do not let it go. Don’t get thrown off by the latest “wind of doctrine” or trend of thought. “Buy truth, and do not sell it.”

Without faith, says Hebrews, it is impossible to please God.

To avoid being taken in is less than half the purpose of wisdom. The rest is to take in the truth.

Graphic courtesy Barry Langdon-Lassagne [CC BY 3.0]

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