When I was a child I talked like a child, thought like a child, reasoned like a child…but now I’m pretty damn smart and have nothing left to learn.
Too often this is how these famous words of Paul are used and interpreted. This overconfident analysis misses the entire point, because right after commenting on his own intellectual development, Paul admits that, even at his old age, he only sees “through a glass darkly,” and that his knowledge is only partial. In other words, he is still in a process of leaving childish things behind him.
He might even agree with Socrates who allegedly said that the greatest wisdom is ‘knowing that I know nothing.’ Even for Socrates, however, this doesn’t actually mean that he knows absolutely nothing, but is an acknowledgement of the limitations of his knowledge and a reminder that those who think they know a lot are often those who know very little.
Paul’s message, then, is not so much a confident description of how much smarter he is than he was before, but rather an encouragement for others to continue with him on this journey of enlightenment.
So we could ask ourselves:
- Do I believe more or less the same things I did ten, twenty, or thirty years ago?
- Do I have absolute certainty about my beliefs?
- Do I tend to think of other people as blind, lost, immoral, unethical, stupid, foolish, and so on?
- Do I tend to read things and talk with people that I know I will agree with?
- Do I get defensive or have an emotional reaction when I am confronted with viewpoints other than my own?
An affirmative response to any of these questions represents childish thinking and reasoning. Personally, I struggle with the last one on the list. Often, I react too emotionally to things I don’t agree with. I have to resist the urge, for example, of telling people on the Internet why they are wrong. (This doesn’t actually work.)
The parallels to Greek philosophy are quite clear.
Plato described an ignorant society where people are trapped in a dark cave looking at shadows on the wall, which is reminiscent of Paul’s “glass darkly.” We are only looking at shadows of truth, rather than the real thing.
Paul applied this to himself, but too often people think of themselves as the enlightened one, and everyone else as being trapped in a cave.
For example, look at our recent election. According to some, the last nine years under Harper were fantastic and voters were complete fools to elect Trudeau. On the other hand, during the Harper years, many frustrated progressives said that Harper supporters were the ones being duped. In other words, both sides think they’ve got it figured out and that their opponents are the deluded fools.
When Jesus said to examine the plank in your own eye before looking at the speck in the eye of another person, his words are often applied to morality. But what if we applied them to the intellect?
What if we started with the premise not that, “society is trapped in a cave,” but that “I am trapped in a cave.” A critical thinker should always be able to find ways in which she is looking at just shadows of truth rather than reality. She should always be able to find flaws in her thinking, errors in her logic, new perspectives, and so on.
The inevitable result of this process would be people who:
- have beliefs that are constantly evolving
- are less smugly confident that they, alone, are correct
- sympathize with others and can understand, and learn from, their point of view
- don’t feel threatened by alternate viewpoints
- react rationally, rather than emotionally, to things they disagree with
Never mind that others are in the cave as well. Usually, our attempts at “enlightening” others will just backfire anyway. Instead, we each must bring ourselves out of the cave and to do so we must critically examine our own points of view and begin with the premise that we, not others, are the ones who are the deluded fools.