Sunday, April 18, 2010

Obscurantism

Since I’ve been in seminary, certain words and phrases have stood out and demanded more attention for further study. Here are four: mysticism, love, freedom, grace. I’ve yet to have a decent explanation of any of those that doesn’t leave me with questions, or have it presented in a way that is counterintuitive or made of plastic. Faced with this problem, how could I go about resolving it? I could just criticize the definitions I’ve been given and say how they’re wrong, disassembling and never intending to finish the job. This would be a lazy and cowardly thing to do. Merely attacking things without offering solutions, at least as a general policy, is an intellectual vice. This approach to learning has a name: obscurantism.

Have you ever talked to someone who keeps criticizing things, but never offers a solution to any of it? Have you ever taken a Sociology class? It’s an approach that is incomplete in offering solutions or doesn’t offer revisions to what it criticizes.

Another form of obscurantism is the intentional omission of information or facts. In a sense, it is closed-mindedness in the way that certain information is inaccessible or discarded for the sake of preserving a certain view from attack.

In regard to intellectual virtue then, it is good to have the ability to accept all the facts, and gain as much knowledge on an issue as possible. More specifically, this would be intellectual courage, which would be the ability to listen, gather information, and somehow assimilate it into a coherent whole.

In politics today, China is obscurantist with their restrictions on internet search engines and Google’s decision to leave. If you went to China and searched “Tiananmen square,” a series of red flags arise. This is one of many words the Chinese cannot search because of restrictions by the government. Google, in proper liberal democratic fashion, was not comfortable with restrictions on information, and pulled out.

Or take what happened with the health care debate and the Republicans becoming the party of “no.” Granted, they were forced into a defensive position on the issue, but their counter was weak and hollow. The Democrats took the same approach in the 80s.

What about the church? An easy target would be the church’s obsession with heresy, or that incident with Galileo when the church seemingly declared war on science and hasn’t been able to fully reconcile since (evolution?).

Stepping aside the issue of what happened with Galileo, let’s take the issue of heresy in the church. Could we say that the church engaged in obscurantism with the Gnostics (a first and second century heresy that held the view of two gods, one of the material world and the Old Testament, and one of the spiritual world and New Testament)? Did they need to assimilate this view into the doctrine of the church? No, they did not. The opposite of obscurantism is not accepting every view as true. On the issue of heresy, the church is rejecting a view that is incompatible with her teaching. If the church has established that God is the Trinity, then someone comes along and says, “We believe God is only the Father, and Christ is His greatest creation,” then the church will have to either accept or reject this view. If they accept it, then there has to be reconciliation between what it confessed earlier and what the new teaching is. The obvious contradiction cannot be ignored. In this case, then, the church has already established the doctrine of the Trinity and anything that undermines it must be declared as heresy (mere opinion).

As an undergrad, my greatest frustration (within the classroom) grew from having to sit in a class listening to a professor prattle until the feeling of helplessness was unbearable among the students, and undirected anger festered without structure or guidance. I saw it in sociology classes then, and at seminary it came from liberation theologians. They have the criticism part of their position perfected. They’ll be glad to tell you where the problem is, yet that’s where it stops.

Take the French Revolution. The people knew what the problem was and removed it, but how successful was their solution?

Without committing the crime obscurantist myself, I will offer a solution. I suggest academics, politicians, theologians, parents etc., not only hold a position of criticism but also give creative revisions. Whether the revisions should be accepted is another affair.

3 comments:

Stresspenguin said...

I'm sorry about your experience with the discipline of sociology, but I assure you that the entire disciple isn't like that, at least, that wasn't my experience in pursuing that degree.

I would suspect that since obscurantism is an intellectual vice, it can occur in varying degrees in any discipline either accidentally, by intention, or somewhere between the two.

I see two ways that obscurantism is employed:
1. When one sees the manipulative power of obscurantism as an easier means to an end.
2. At the end of their work on a thesis (regardless of the discipline) they discover that it is a null hypothesis. Rather than admit that their hypothesis was wrong, they obscure their findings and continue their work.

Both are more concerned with reaching their goal than finding the truth. Or put another way, the ends is more important than the means, without first trying to discover if the end is what should be pursued.

Will Edmonson said...

Yes, I think you're right about findings that don't match what was expected. There should be the option of saying I did not find what I expected and it's a null hypothesis.

I didn't know you were a sociology major. I remember you mentioning poetry, but not sociology.

For some reason, every sociology class I took had the professor spend the entire class time talking about problems with society and the students would comment and rant along. There was no theory and no solution presented except the vague idea of educating people. It's good to hear my experience wasn't universal.

Stresspenguin said...

I triple majored in Psychology, Sociology, and Criminology, while minoring in Creative Writing and Religious Studies.

The problem in our current academic system is that one makes a career and earns tenure by the dogged pursuit of one avenue of study. I wonder what the institutional and social constraints are to changing one's mind (or admitting error) in such a vocation.