Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of January 17, 2000
Too much sophistication closes minds
By FR. RON ROLHEISER, omi
In 1987 an American educator, Allan Bloom, wrote a book entitled, The Closing of the American Mind. Its thesis is contained in its title. The book contends that today, in the Western world, we are becoming ever more shallow of soul, narrow of mind and limited in horizon. Many analysts would concur with that.
However, what is more unique to Bloom is that part of his thesis is that the real culprit behind this flatness of soul (which, he feels, is bleeding us of motivation, heroism and all that is sublime) is the death of innocence. Innocence, he asserts, is the real key to depth, happiness and passion.
At one point, he shares a personal story. As a young man, enrolled in a prestigious university, he was greeted by his professor on the opening day of class with words to this effect: "You have come here from your various parochial backgrounds, with all your youthful biases and ignorance. Well, I am going to bathe you in truth and set you free!"
Bloom says this professor reminded him of a little boy who solemnly informed him when he was six years old that there was no Santa Claus or Easter Bunny. But, adds Bloom, "he wasn't setting me free, he was showing off!" So too was the professor.
Reflecting on this, Bloom says what he learned from that professor was that he himself would forever teach differently. For his part, he would start his classes by pointing out to his students how experienced and sophisticated they already were and how, because of this, he would try to teach them to believe again in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny - so that they might have a chance of again being happy.
I share this story because we are a generation rich in everything, except innocence and happiness. We pride ourselves on our experience, our sophistication, our lack of naiveté. We are ashamed to admit that we haven't been everywhere, that we don't know everything, that there is still an innocence within us. Innocence is identified with naiveté and is generally looked upon either with condescension or with positive disdain. Lack of sexual experience particularly is stigmatized. We see innocence as ignorance.
Moreover our culture extends this equation to faith in God. Most of the culture believes that contemporary experience, development and insight, have unmasked faith as a superstition, a lack of nerve, a lack of sophistication, a narrowness, a bias even. The common perception, especially among intellectuals, is that contemporary experience has brought about a collective loss of faith because faith is an ignorance that is cast out by a fuller experience. To believe in God is to be naive, however sincere.
Thus we identify faith with innocence and innocence with ignorance and we are positively ashamed to be either of these. We pay a high price for this, as Adam and Eve did. Scripture tells us that the price of eating the apple was not that their minds were darkened but that their eyes were opened.
After eating the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve knew a lot more than they ever knew before. They just weren't as happy. Something precious had been shattered, as is always the case in the death of innocence, and there was now the need to begin to hide things. Experience brings new knowledge and new sophistication, but not everything we know and experience is good for the happiness of the soul. Nor, indeed, is innocence always an ignorance. Naiveté is ignorance - but innocence is not necessarily naiveté.
Paul Ricoeur says that, as adults, the real goal of our lives is to come to what he calls "second naiveté." Real maturity is ultimately about revirginizing and coming to a second innocence.
This however is not to be confused with first naiveté and natural innocence. We are born naive and innocent and the task of growing up is precisely to move beyond this childishness to adulthood. This is done by growing in experience and sophistication. For awhile, this is good. First naiveté in an adult is not innocence but ignorance.
However, growth beyond the natural ignorance of a child is itself meant to be a temporary step. Our real task is ultimately to become post-sophisticated - childlike and virgin again.
At some point in our adult lives, we should again - in a different way and for different reasons - begin to believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. Then we have a chance at happiness. Jesus tells us that children and virgins enter the kingdom of heaven quite naturally. A world that prides itself on its adultness, sophistication and experience might want to ponder that.