How Many Fools Do You Know?

Caroline J. Simon


The Sermon on the Mount is full of pronouncements that make me blink. In classes I have taught on virtue ethics, I have seen student after student read Matthew 5--7 and wiggle and squirm. "Hyperbole," says the sophisticated reader. "Easy for them; they lived in simple times; life is complicated now," protest the disgruntled. What parts of this sermon make you squirm? Do you struggle with the sections about not storing up treasures on earth? Do you (like Jimmy Carter) feel called to repent of committing adultery in your heart? One part of this sermon that has not given me much pause until recently has been weighing heavily on me of late. It occurs to me that it might be called "the Christian scholar's crucible":

"You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, 'You shall not murder'; and 'whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, 'You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire."

As scholars, we live by our wits; disputation is often our bread and butter. In such a setting it is not easy to refrain from saying "You fool" to those with whom we have vivid disagreements. In our scholarship, these disagreements may be about methodology or intellectual starting points. In campus politics, they may concern whether changes in curriculum or admissions requirements or community worship style constitute improvements or threats to institutional integrity. We may not say "You fool" in so many words, at least directly to those on the other side of the issue, but how often have we said it with our tone, or with carefully crafted, scholarly-sounding put-downs, or to our like-minded colleagues about someone with whom "we all" disagree?

The scriptures tell us that there is nothing hidden that will not be made manifest. Pascal, cheerful soul that he was, pondered what the truth of this might mean to human relations:

"Human relations are based on mutual deception; and few friendships would survive if everyone knew what his friend said about him behind his back, even though he spoke sincerely and dispassionately. Man is therefore nothing but disguise, falsehood and hypocrisy, both in himself and with regard to others. He does not want to be told the truth. He avoids telling it to others, and all these tendencies, so remote from justice and reason, are naturally rooted in his heart."

If Pascal is even close to being correct about those whom we consider friends, how would things sit with those whom we consider scholarly or theological opponents or rivals? What if every remark you've ever made about a fellow scholar's work or habits of mind were FAXed to that person tomorrow? How many people could you stand to look in the face who knew with full accuracy what you've said about them behind their backs?

There are, then, multiple reasons to refrain from labeling another a fool, even if we do so only "in our hearts." Our attitudes subtly color our speech and action. The cutting remark, thinly disguised in civility, is no less damaging to ourselves and others because it is dressed up for polite society. Indeed, a bald "You fool!" might be less damaging since frankness would at least give our discussant permission for an angry rejoinder. But more serious than this is the damage that thinking another a fool does to Christian community, especially scholarly Christian community. A fool is someone who cannot learn. A fool is someone who has nothing to teach us. By thinking another a fool we arrogantly consign her to intellectual hell; she is, we have concluded, irredeemably ignorant.

Pascal, as usual, cut straight to the heart of the matter. How much do we care about the truth? Do we care enough about it to suffer the pains of open, frank, face-to-face disagreement that assumes that those with whom we disagree are not fools but people who may have something to say that we very much need to hear? Are we willing to assume (what we would, after all, want them to assume about us) that their scholarly efforts are products of their sincere search for truth? Can we say with Thomas Aquinas, "We must love them both, those whose opinion we share and those whose opinions we reject. For both have labored in the search for truth and both have helped us in the finding of it"? If not, we can always revert to the sophisticated reader's assessment of the Sermon on the Mount: "Hyperbole!"

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Last Updated: March 20, 1997
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