We like to think of ourselves as intelligent, rational beings, who are likely to make decisions mostly on common sense. Yes we might acknowledge a degree of bias arising from deeply held conviction, but this we would discount as a good thing, a thing that defines our distinctive superiority. After all, rational pursuit of absolute truth has rather gone out of fashion these days. We are more likely to value scepticism, incredulity, conspiracy even. The truth is never as simple as it might seem and frankly, it is boring. It is most likely fake news anyway.
Perhaps it has always been like this- after all, our prejudices are only absurd to those outside our narrow social-media driven doughnut. However, there seems to be a particular reason to wonder about fixed, inflexible belief at the moment. Fundamentalism is on the rise at the moment- and I don’t just mean the religious kind.
I have been thinking about IDEAS. I like ideas. I love immersing myself in them, particularly ones that coincide with my own
deeply held correct beliefs prejudices. Check out Russell Brand’s Under the Skin podcast– it is full of lovely ideas. But ideas do not start in a vacuum. They arise in a context. Ideas can be dangerous. Some ideas become the distorting goggles through which every other idea is viewed. Religious ideas are perhaps the most common example of this that will come to our minds, but there are many other quasi-religious ideas that might be seen the same way. Here is my far-from-complete list;
Nationalism (including independence movements such as that in my own country)
The breeding of dogs
The playing and watching of the noble game of cricket
Ideas can become bigger than anything; they can become bigger than compassion; than the rule of law; than family; than the need to save the world from extinction even.
There is the dilemma. We need ideas more than ever. But they might yet be the end of all of us. It is almost as if we need an idea to mitigate and protect against- ideas.
This week, we have had a few examples of this in the media.
The Christians who support Trump because despite his obvious lack of the practice of anything like the Christianity they espouse, he agrees with their ideas in relation to a narrow set of issues.
And then there are the Creationists who think that Trump’s refusal to believe in climate change is an opportunity to use their ‘science’ to prove that we should take Noah’s flood as a literal historical account.
Meanwhile, across the world, ISIS stumbles on from bloody battle to bloody battle. Each obscenity against humanity subjugated to their one great idea- an ‘Islamic’ State.
Closer to home, politicians are meeting in grand rooms to discuss how to progress the ‘will of the people’ known as Brexit. Brexit is required because a narrow majority of UK population were sold an idea of ‘Englishness’ (I use this word rather than ‘Britishness’ deliberately.) The idea of Englishness is nonsensical and amorphous, borrowing power from all sorts of sub-ideas, but ultimately it was more powerful than any idea that the remainers could describe.
It is almost as if we humans have no ability to see the point at which an idea, or a belief, has gone too far. Our innate tribalism and preference for our own in-group requires ideas that force us to come together against the other. We are only really vitalised by ideas that are weaponised. We are interested only in the ideas that give us power, give us self belief, confidence; temporary control over the shifting sand on which all ideas have their foundation.
Am I right in this? Are their ideas that do not fit this category?
Are there ideas to which all other ideas should be subordinated?
If so, are we sure that there are not other ideas that are bigger, better, purer?
The irony of these questions is that they force us back to the beginning of the circle. The only way that we can measure any idea is by the application of another idea. The end of belief is itself, a belief. Religion can only be replaced by another religion. We are forced by to our own
deeply held correct beliefs prejudices.
What occurred to me recently was that Jesus knew all this. He knew that people take ideas, distort them and use them as weapons, particularly religious ideas. In fact, he spent most of his time warning people against the way that religion has become bigger than people. He had this one idea that he said trumped all others (even Trump). He called it love.
I think he knew even then that most of us would never get it. Sure, we would get glimpses of it- we would feel it in the arms of our mothers, and thrill to it between the legs of lovers. Sometimes in old age perhaps, we would look out onto familiar city streets and feel strangely warmed by it. It will be mostly reserved for our children. Because there are so many other ideas that get in the way of it.
A lovely man once told me that he knew he was going to make mistakes with ideas, but when he did, he was going to try to make sure that he would err on the side of grace. He would try to choose love. He would subjugate all other ideas to this simple one.
People will say that to do this is not reasonable. It is not economically/politically practical. It can never work in the real world.
It is just an idea after all.