The Grail Code 
Silly or not silly?

It’s time to play everyone’s favorite game, “Silly or Not Silly,” in which we mock other people’s sincerely held religious beliefs.

People sometimes ask me, “Is it right to mock the sincerely held religious beliefs of others?” And I answer, “Yes, it is, if they’re silly.”

But everything hinges on how we define “silly,” doesn’t it? And it’s very hard to put a definition into words that will distinguish what makes one set of beliefs silly and another not silly.

Perhaps the best way to get a feeling for the distinction is by looking at a few examples.

Christianity: Not silly.

Those cars weren’t made for the sinners, they were made for the righteous”: Silly.

Traditional Sioux religion: Not silly.

Herds of Rayon-clad suburbanites in fume-belching SUVs stampeding down to a little zoo in the countryside outside Pittsburgh to hear what the white buffalo has to say to them: Silly.

Darwinian evolution: Not silly.

Energy, in physics, as the capacity to work: Not silly.

Practically everything anyone says about “evolution” or “energy” in a “journal of meaningful living”: Silly.

Ancient Maya cosmology and mathematics: Not silly.

Ancient Hindu philosophy: Not silly.

Christianity: Again, not silly.

Pittsburgh new-agers gathering in the West End to celebrate some milestone in the Maya calendar by transmitting energy through the crown chakra in order to bring about the return of Christ consciousness, prepare for the next stage in human evolution, and celebrate the Four Rivers (one of them spiritual) of Pittsburgh as a mirror of the Milky Way Galaxy: Silly.

Looking at these examples, I think we can begin to see what distinguishes certain systems of belief as “silly.” Well-developed and internally consistent systems of belief taught and expanded by generations of the wisest minds in ancient cultures are inherently not silly. That’s true even if you believe they’re false. A Hindu would say that Christian theology is at best an imperfect understanding of the world, but Hindu philosophers admire the subtle wisdom of Christ and never hesitate to say so. Likewise, Christians may not approve of the ancient Maya religion, which included liberal doses of human sacrifice; but no one can say that it was silly, and no one can fail to marvel at the brilliant Maya mathematicians who calculated numbers in the billions when Europeans were still struggling to multiply CXLVI by LXXIV.

But when people raid these ancient systems of belief, take a few technical terms and a misinterpreted idea or two, and toss them all in the blender on the “puree” setting, the result is always silly.

In fact, we can put the matter more simply than that. Swallowing a religion whole is not silly; cherry-picking the bits of it you want to believe is silly.

That’s a very hard saying for Americans to hear. People like me are used to being told we should think for ourselves. We bristle at the idea of someone else telling us what we should believe. Why, that’s fascist or communist or something, isn’t it?

But what does the Bible say about it? “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” That’s so important the Bible says it at least twice, once in Psalm 111:10 and once in Proverbs 9:10; Proverbs 1:7 gives us the almost identical variant “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.”

Now, scientists instinctively know that principle. Not that all scientists even believe in God, although probably most of them do. (It depends, of course, on how you define “scientist”; if you’re an atheist who defines “scientist” as “someone who doesn’t believe in God,” you’ll come up with a different result.) But scientists know that you can’t build your own wisdom on nothing. You can’t decide what you want to believe about physics without first learning the accumulated knowledge of generations of orthodox physicists. You can’t learn what you need to know about dentistry without first accepting that dentistry is already a well-developed science about which your knowledge is less than adequate.

Or, in more general terms, you can’t learn anything until you accept that you have something to learn.

That’s why cherry-picking bits of different religions according to your own whims invariably leads to silliness. When you pick just the beliefs you like from a cafeteria of religions, you’re merely confirming your own prejudices. You don’t learn anything at all, because you never admit any ideas into your mind that weren’t there already. And a closed mind feeding on itself is—well, it tends to be rather silly.

Lancelot (funny how I managed to work him in after 750 words or so) spends the first half of Walter Map’s giant Lancelot cycle pretty well convinced that he knows what’s what. It takes the quest for the Holy Grail to teach him that he has something to learn. Only after he has failed abjectly in his quest is he willing to admit that he doesn’t know everything.

That’s a classic conversion experience. It’s exactly the opposite of the middlebrow cafeteria approach to religion. Instead of picking the beliefs that correspond most closely to what he’s sure he already knows, Lancelot finally realizes that there’s a gaping emptiness inside him, and prays that it might be filled. He acknowledges that the wisdom outside himself is greater than the wisdom inside himself. He’s ready to learn.

And that is why the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. The truly wise, like Socrates and Solomon, know that they know nothing. Until we’re willing to admit the possibility of a wisdom greater than our own, we’ll never learn anything at all. And if we can’t learn anything, then we’ll never really have the precious freedom to choose what we believe.

10 Responses to “Silly or not silly?”

  1. Dr. Platypus » Blog Archive » Wisdom and Folly Says:

    [...] “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.” The beginning of silliness is, well, go see for yourself at The Grail Code. D. P. posted this entry on Friday, October 26th, 2007 at 8:14 pm. Posted in the category Christendumb, +Apostles’ Teaching You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site. [...]

  2. Bob MacDonald Says:

    Don’t forget Job 28 - see this post at ancient hebrew poetry here

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