Is it me or is it him?

Everyone who thinks about God and talks about God is a theologian. Everyone who thinks and talks about what is good and what is true and what is beautiful is a philosopher. Everyone who looks at the created world and strives to understand some part of creation is a scientist.

But some theologians and philosophers and scientists are amateurs, while others are professionals.

In the sports world, the distinction between amateurs and professionals is whether they are paid. Amateurs may accept no money for their performances, but professionals are paid to perform. The distinction in other fields is not so clear. Some very amateur theologians and philosophers and scientists are paid well for what they write, while some very professional people in the same fields go unpaid.

One difference between amateurs and professionals is their awareness of what others in the field have written and said. They have read and thought about the writings considered important in that field. The professional does not need to agree with all that the leaders in the field have written. A biologist does not have to agree with Charles Darwin. (Most don’t.) A psychologist does not have to agree with Sigmund Freud. (Most don’t.) But, as professionals, they are aware of what these past masters have proclaimed, and they are able to relate the thoughts of the past masters to their own work.

A second difference between amateurs and professionals is their careful use of words. They are not sloppy in defining terms; they generally use the same words with the same meanings as those who have been professionals in that field in the past. If it is necessary to coin a new word, or to give a new meaning to a standard word, professionals carefully define their terms so readers will not be confused by the new or changed term.

A third mark of professionals is clarity in communication. They do not ramble and wander about their field, but they explain their ideas in a way most adults can understand. The most brilliant mind is useless if its owner cannot speak and write clearly. When a speaker leaves audience members saying, “That is one smart person. I didn’t understand what was being said, but it sure sounded smart,” the speaker has failed as a professional. Audience members who heard a professional speaker say, “I never thought of that before,” or, “I really learned something today,” or, “That’s the first time I ever understood that idea.”

More distinctions could be found, such as sufficient confidence in one’s own ideas to be willing to hear and discuss contrary ideas, and the ability to debate without resorting to insults and condescending language. But those three are enough to lead into my title of, “Is it him or is it me?” If I am reading a famous book written by an acknowledged master in the field, and I am not understanding what I read, does the fault lie with me or with the writer?

I usually begin by assuming that, if I do not understand, the failure is mine. The writer would not be widely regarded as a professional if no one else understands what he or she was saying. On the other hand, I remember a professor in college saying of Immanuel Kant that Kant took great leaps in logic that lesser mortals were not always able to follow. At the time, I took the philosophy professor’s description at face value. But increasingly I wonder if the professor was warning us that Kant was not exactly professional, that his leaps of logic may be, in fact, holes in his system of thought.

This month I’ve been reading Gregory of Nyssa, a theologian of the fourth century, and I have found the reading discouraging. It seems that Gregory wanders and rambles, repeats himself, and does not communicate clearly. Therefore, I ask myself, “Is it him or is it me?” Or—a third possibility—is this just a bad translation? I have flipped ahead in the book and found shorter essays that may be more focused and professional. The first half of the book consists of a rebuttal to an Arian theologian named Eunomias. Maybe Gregory’s writing will be clearer when he deals directly with theological matters.

In fact, Gregory himself has given me that hope. Last night I read, “But I must hasten on, for I see that my treatise has already extended beyond bounds, and I fear that I may be thought garrulous and inordinate in my talk, if I prolong my answer to excess, although I have intentionally passed by many parts of my adversary’s treatise, that my argument might not be spun out to many myriads of words. For to the more studious even the want of conciseness gives an occasion for disparagement; but as for those whose mind looks not to what is of use, but to the fancy of those who are idle and not in earnest, their wish and prayer is to get over as much of the journey as they can in a few steps.”

In other words, this time it’s him. J.

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Star Wars, truth, and redemption

When George Lucas first envisioned the movie that became Star Wars IV: A New Hope, he was planning on a single epic movie, not a franchise. As the script developed, the story and characters went through many changes. Lucas came to realize that the story he wanted to tell would not fit within a single movie. In the end, he introduced his characters and then moved them immediately to the big ending he wanted to show: the destruction of the Death Star. When the original Star Wars became wildly successful, Lucas was invited to make more movies with the same characters. He rounded out the trilogy, ending the third movie with another destruction of another Death Star. Along the way, he introduced more ideas about the characters and their setting than had been in the script for the first movie.

As a result, the great Jedi warrior Obi-wan Kenobi is trapped in a pair of blatant lies in the original movie. Handing Luke Skywalker a lightsaber, Obi-wan says, “Your father wanted you to have this.” Shortly thereafter, Obi-wan informs Luke that Darth Vader killed Luke’s father. In the next movie, The Empire Strikes Back, Vader reveals the truth to Luke when he tells him, “No; I am your father.” In Return of the Jedi Luke confronts Obi-wan with his lies, and the warrior feebly twists the family history so that he can tell Luke, “In a way, what I said was true.”

In any other galaxy, Luke Skywalker would have wondered, “How can I believe anything this person tells me?” Honesty ought to be one of the qualities that distinguishes the good guys from the bad guys. Half truths and twisted truths ought to be the tools of evil, not the strategies of good. But in the Star Wars galaxy the bad guys are powerful enough to be open about their plans, while the virtuous rebels must rely on deception to prevail against the Empire.

Philosophers have struggled with the ethics of telling the truth or lying. In a classic puzzle, they ask whether it would be moral to lie to protect a life—such as if an agent of evil is looking for a certain victim, you know where the victim is hiding, and the evil one asks you directly where that person is. Should you tell a lie to keep the potential victim safe, or should you speak the truth, salving your conscience with the thought that the agent of evil would cause the harm; you would be blameless. Most people, I think, would find a lie acceptable, even honorable, under those circumstances. Immanuel Kant (a German philosopher who lived roughly two hundred years ago) disagreed. He insisted that, once you have found one justification for lying, you make all lies acceptable, and no one can trust anyone else anymore. By insisting that no circumstance justifies lying, he upheld what he called the moral imperative of always telling the truth.

Christians know that Jesus Christ is the Truth, and Satan is the father of lies. We would rather speak the truth than tell a lie; we want to avoid the habit of lying. But under a condition where harm would be done by speaking the truth, most Christians would lie. For we have something Kant did not have in his system: we have the forgiveness of our sins. We avoid sin whenever we can; but to save a life we would tell a lie. We would not call the lie justifiable, but we know that we are justified. All our sins have been forgiven by the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. He has justified us, redeeming us and bringing us back to his kingdom of pure and perfect truth.

In George Lucas’ universe, even Darth Vader could be rescued by sacrificial love. In his story, the father was saved by the son. In our truth, the Son redeems those who have fallen into evil and makes them acceptable to the Father. In a way, Jesus accomplishes this through a holy deception. He clothes us in his righteousness and takes the blame for our sins. By transferring guilt to his Son and righteousness to sinners, God the Father participates in this deception, and by it we are saved.

Obi-wan’s lies happened only because George Lucas did not know what would be in his second Star Wars movie when he filmed the first one. But God knows everything. When he created the world, he knew about our sins and about the price that would need to be paid to redeem us. God went ahead and created anyhow. He thought we were worth the cost. J.