Your Humble Zeitgeist

False Humility is the Spirit of the Age

I recently met a Catholic priest from South India, a friendly younger man with piercing black eyes and a wild salt-and-pepper beard, who had stopped in Jordan on his way to a conference in Lebanon. He asked me if I was Catholic.

“No,” I admitted, a little embarrassed to not be Catholic. “Just Christian.” I guess I felt that vague statement needed justification somehow, so I added: “I don’t like the differences. I wish there were no differences.” I thought I might be in for an interesting discussion of Catholicism versus Protestantism, or maybe Denominationalism versus Non-Denominationalism. So his response took me off guard.

“Yes, it’s all man-made.” And by that, he told me, he meant even Christianity itself. “Who knows what’s really up there?” he asked.

And so I found myself in the odd position of defending my faith to a priest. Our conversation reminded me of something C.S. Lewis said: “Once the layman was anxious to hide the fact that he believed so much less than the Vicar: he now tends to hide the fact that he believes so much more”.

But Lewis was speaking of Anglicanism, and he noted that this development in the Anglican church was prone to make a man become “a Roman Catholic or an atheist.” By that, he meant that he would either defect to a church with actual faith, such as the Catholic church, or leave the faith altogether.

I am not old enough to remember it, but I gather there was a time when the Catholic church was different – when someone who said of his faith, “It’s all man-made … Who knows what’s really up there?” would have been considered unqualified to undergo confirmation, much less take holy orders.

But times change. Today, you can’t escape this kind of thing by becoming Catholic. Everywhere you look is an agnosticism about God (“who knows what’s really up there?”) combined with a dour certainty about religion (“It’s all man-made”). This attitude isn’t limited to Christian circles, either; I doubt you could find a single major world religion where it has not grown prevalent. It’s popular among educated youth in Amman, just as it is in London and Seattle. It’s the Spirit of the Age, the zeitgeist.

Confidently Unconfident 

The Spirit of an Age always has good PR. There is always an attractive aesthetic and a compelling ethos. So, for example, the Spirit of the Age of Rationalism presented itself as being honest and courageous. The Spirit of our age characterizes itself by Humility. It’s not hard to see why; what could be humbler than saying, “I don’t know”?

If “I don’t know” is all that is being said, I think it is humble. But usually, it is not all that is being said. The Spirit of the Age cannot really be meekness and humility, because to be the Spirit of the Age it must dominate the Age – which isn’t done by meekness and humility. So the Spirit of our Age does not merely say “I don’t know” – it follows that up with, “And I know that nobody else does either.”

That is a very interesting assertion. How does one know that knowing something is impossible? Usually, we aren’t told how the agnostic or relativist knows this; we are simply told that it is arrogant to claim knowledge of certain things – which is only another way of saying that those things are unknowable. Of course, claiming knowledge of unknowable things would be arrogant; but how are we to know which things are unknowable? Divine revelation?

I know that Greenland is near Labrador because someone I trust traveled there from Labrador. Conversely, I might decide that there was no such place as Greenland near Labrador if I sailed around there and found only empty ocean. But if I wanted to claim that nobody can know whether Greenland is near Labrador, I would have to claim to know everything there is to know about the techniques of exploration – or be trusting the word of someone who does.

Likewise, someone who says it is impossible to go to Mars must know everything there is to know about rocket science. As Lewis noted regarding a similar debate: “You cannot know that everything in the representation of a thing is symbolical unless you have independent access to the thing and can compare it with the representation.”

And anyone who says that no one can know God (or know God well enough to disregard other things claiming to be God) is claiming to have exhaustive knowledge of the ways of discovering God.

Humble Pride and Proud Humility

So this kind of prescriptive agnosticism is not humble; it is arrogant. It makes even the blunt assertion, “I believe this, and I think you are wrong,” sound refreshingly humble and down-to-earth by comparison. Even simple pride has a sort of humility to it that this false humility lacks; at least pride might admit it is proud.

And the pretense of accepting all beliefs is actually more exclusive than a simple assertion of rightness or wrongness, because “all belief systems are equally true” must mean that none of them are actually true. Contradictory ideas can only be equally true by being untrue. There is equality at zero. The postmodern relativist meets believers in different creeds with the patronizing indifference of an adult mediating an argument between children over which of their teddy bears is the better chef. It’s an indifference rooted in disbelief. But an adult speaking with children in this way is never likely to learn anything. And a wise, postmodernist speaking with benighted fundamentalists is never likely to learn anything, either. If you’ve made up your mind beforehand that a subject is nonsense, you aren’t likely to get very much out of it.

Lewis spoke of “escaping the prison of the Zeitgeist.” Our zeitgeist is different from his, and was only just beginning to show its face in his day. But the need to escape it remains. The Spirit of our Age is false humility, and the antidote to it is true humility. That begins with admitting that we are just as fallible as anyone else – and to be “fallible,” we must be claiming to know some truths.

No one is different from anyone else in this regard. We all assert some beliefs as truths, and we are therefore all vulnerable to being proven wrong. No one can escape the debate by elevating himself above it. We think what we think, we believe what we believe, and we know what we know – nothing less, and nothing more.

Further Reading:

Greg Kouk, “Seven Things You Can’t Do as a Relativist

Greg Koukl, “The Trouble with the Elephant

Les Sillars, “Lukianoff’s Ashes

Daniel Witt (BS Ecology, BA History) is a writer and English teacher living in Amman, Jordan. He enjoys playing the mandolin, reading weird books, and foraging for edible plants.

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