On Not Being Stupid

In future posts, and as the political campaigns heat up a bit, I will return to the theme of a Christian political vision raised yesterday. As should be obvious, there are those in our culture for whom it is unthinkable for those of us who believe in God to have anything meaningful to say about the subject of politics; and that is particularly so regarding those of us on the more conservative side of the theological spectrum. In addition to believing that religious ideas have nothing to do with the actual space-time world where people try to find employment and engage in scientific research, such people think that folks like us are just plain stupid.

Stupid. Nobody likes stupidity. We should all be aware of the damage inflicted on young psyches when the word is repeatedly used as a derogatory address. Even later in life, however, we don’t like to be thought of as being stupid. Maybe we just haven’t been able to develop that Forrest Gump approach of simply responding with something like, “stupid is as stupid does.” It doesn’t come naturally. Then there are the words of philosopher Friedrich Schiller, who said that “against stupidity even the gods contend in vain.” Or, my favorite vernacular version of the same thought, the words of comedian Ron White:”You can’t fix stupid!” That, of course, doesn’t stop people from trying. The current issue of Philosophy Now announces a new annual award for Contributions in the Fight Against Stupidity. The winner was to be announced on Dec. 18; alas, their website has not yet posted the results.

What is stupidity? We recognize that it is something other than an opinion we just don’t like, though we often invoke the adjective for such purposes anyway–perhaps as a way of dismissing the thought without having to engage it. Is it like the popular definition of “insanity,” of which I was reminded by a friend’s facebook status–doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result? Is it primarily a description of particular thoughts, or of the persons who hold them, or of the means by which they were arrived at? Is it the same as being a fool, which the psalmist identified as one who believes in his heart that there is no God? That issue of Philosophy Now, devoted to the subject of philosophy of mind, suggests that stupidity is “poor reasoning, entrenched mental habits and unexamined assumptions.” Under such criteria, it would hard to argue that all of us, at some time or other, are prone to being stupid. Including Christians. And hard-core materialists, such as some of the prominent thinkers in the discussions covered in philosophy journals.

Given that Christians as a group are frequently thought of as stupid, what should we do to demonstrate that this is not always the case? The most obvious answer would seem to lie in that realm of poor reasoning and unexamined assumptions. As believers in the Creator “of all things visible and invisible,” as well as of the human creatures made in His own image, we should feel free to open our assumptions to investigation for right reasoning. Nor is that creative assumption to be excluded from those open to examination–we are not being unfaithful if we entertain the “let’s just suppose” alternatives to see if they pass the tests. Yes, we are drawn back to the scriptures to guide our reasoning; but we also cannot assume without examination that our way of using those writings is appropriate. And we certainly should question whether our cherished thoughts regarding political and economic questions are driven more by secular ways of thinking than they are necessitated by biblical fidelity.

If these are the criteria for stupidity, we would have to confess that we have been guilty thereof on more occasions than we would like. And we should be renewed in our resolve to truly seek wisdom rather than new, more clever ways of stating unexamined assumptions. To my mind, that implies that we should never lose the graciousness of saying, “I could be wrong.” Let’s engage in our own battle against stupidity, whether or not awards are forthcoming.