As the year closes, I've been watching a documentary series on Netflix, "Chef's Table." It profiles in roughly one-hour episodes famous chefs who will never be on Food Network, but who regardless are apparently well known in the field.
I've never heard of any of them.
The third in the series is a chef from Argentina who has several restaurants around the world, is, the documentary tells me, constantly on television and has been for years, and is very, very famous. Everywhere except America, apparently. To say he's the Bobby Flay of South America would be an insult, but I'm guessing his fame is on that level or perhaps well above. More likely he's Bobby Flay combined with Mario Batali with the name recognition of Guy Fieri.
I mention it only because I thought of the notion of what we know being important in giving us perspective on what we think is revelatory, or especially an indicator of the future. Annie Dillard pointed out that no place on the globe is "out of the way," except as a matter of perspective, and our perspective is not the only one on the planet. "Out of the way" to us may be "home" to someone else (as it is to this chef, who lives on an island in a lake on the border of Argentina and Peru, reached at the end of 100 miles of dirt road). As Ms. Dillard puts it (if memory serves): "Out of the way? From where?"
Anyway, I thought of that when reading about story no. 10 here. Daniel Dennett, in his ignorance about priests and clerics in general, thinks he's discovered a new thing made possible only by modern technology. When, in fact, it's neither new, or distinctive, nor the shape of things to come; nor only made possible thanks to silicon chips. Think of Graham Greene's "whiskey priest," or the preacher in The Grapes of Wrath. Literature is sprinkled with examples of priests and pastors who found the church a convenient place to make a living, and little more. Hell, Chaucer wrote about them. So this is nothing new. And besides, as I've said several times before: has Mr. Dennett ever attended a seminary class?
Seminary is not a place for indoctrination. Take this ludicrous statement by Mr. Dennett as an example:
Protecting your inner workings is becoming very difficult; it’s very hard to keep secrets. Religions have thrived in part because they were able to keep secrets. They were able to keep secrets about other religions from their parishioners, who were largely ignorant of what other people in the world believed, and also keep secrets about their own inner workings and their own histories, so that it was easy to have a sort of controlled message that went out to people. Those days are over. You can go on the Internet and access to all kinds of information. This is going to change everything.This (the internet) is going to change nothing, because: what the hell is he talking about? Christianity ceased to be a "mystery religion" sometime in the 1st century. You want a mystery religion, you look to the temple practice of the Mormons. Is the internet going to destroy them? And as for parishioners being ignorant of that other people in the world believe, has Mr. Dennett paid attention to the arguments about Islam? It seems clear people prefer ignorance over knowledge, the better to despise and detest "the other". Yes, you can go on the internet and get all kinds of information. Most of it is crap, and people mostly look for the information that confirms their prejudice.
Information is not education.
Maybe this is the place to make that distinction: education is not about being informed; education is about being trained to think in a certain way. There is no "objective" stance, no "God's-eye view" or "position of the universe" for humans to take. All information is served up with a point of view attached, if only the point of view that the earth sits "upright" with North America and Europe "on top," and the lesser countries "below." Larry Wilmore presents the globe like that on his comedy show, but everyone takes it as a joke. I first encountered it in seminary, as yet another way to simply change my point of view, my presumptions about everything. And that's what a seminary education will do: challenge your point of view about everything. And it won't give you a new one to replace it. You have to come up with that on your own. I remember a seminary professor, a man closer to my age now than then (20 years ago) asking a group of us how we would explain the importance of Jesus Christ without resorting to old-school soteriology about the damnation of the unbeliever. He didn't have the answer either; he was asking us.
Seminary ain't Sunday School
Education is about being trained in the ideas and even ideology of the teacher. You can challenge that ideology (I got into almost an infamous spat with one of my professors in seminary), but you have to learn how even start to do that. The self-taught, the autodidact, are conspicuous by their opinions and insistence on ideas that their self-education never challenged. The internet has not created a class of people who prefer to confirm their prejudices with select information, it has simply confirmed their existence as a normal part of human society. We all prefer our own prejudices: that's why there are so many denominations and non-denominational churches, so many different types of French cheese, so many ever-changing flavors of ice cream. We all think we are right, and we all gather with "right-minded' people; people who think like us. The internet didn't invent that; the internet didn't change that.
All the internet did was provide yet another forum for the confirmation of that. What it won't do is the same thing television was never going to do: it won't educate.
Education is a deliberate process, an engagement between teacher and student. It does not occur by happenstance or coincidence or osmosis.
I don't know about the pastors and rabbis selected by Mr. Dennett for his book: maybe they have had mid-life crises; maybe they have had a crisis of faith. Maybe the insane pressures of being a religious leader simply got to them, and they abandoned their churches and synagogues altogether. Nothin he describes is new or unique in the world. It is as old as religion and clergy itself.
And as for the idea that congregations will demand information the church is hiding from them, all I can say is: I took my training in the thought of the Jesus Seminar and the German Biblical scholarship which prompted the Christian fundamentalist movement, to my congregation, and they didn't use it to demand more of me: they rejected it wholesale, and me with it. I don't think I was a worthy messenger, but what I didn't find in my churches was any desire to know more salient and valid and, at the same time challenging, information than anything I've seen on the internet since I went online in the '90's.
Here I want to tie in another article at RD mentioned in that top 10 list, this one about Sam Harris and his e-mail spat with Noam Chomsky.
Let me say at the outset it still surprises me, as it did Chomsky, that Harris would publish this exchange. Harris seems to be a man remarkably obtuse when it comes to either self-reflection or even any consideration of an idea that isn't his. But it's the article at RD that convinced me, mainly on the strength of the three long quotes from the e-mails of Noam Chomsky, to revisit this issue at year's end. I mention it because it concisely states where Chomsky rebutted everything Harris had to say ("I’ve seen apologetics for atrocities before, but rarely at this level" pretty much marks "paid" to any idea that Sam Harris is an ethical thinker; and I agree with you completely that we cannot have a rational discussion of these matters, and that it is too tedious to pretend otherwise" is so clear and directly between the eyes it is only myopia that can account for Harris being willing to publish this exchange.) and it establishes, as clearly as anything I've ever seen since the collapse of logical positivism, that the positions taken by Sam Harris are morally corrupt, unsound in reasoning, and thoroughly discredited.
We have in Dennett and Harris two people probably better known because of the Internet than they would be otherwise (the number of people who write bestselling books but also influence the public discourse is vanishingly small), and they are far more alike than different in that both of them live in a bubble which the internet only reinforces for them. And that is what the internet has created: more of the same. A little bit louder, and a little bit worse. Mr. Dennett is as ignorant of the world around him as I am of famous chefs and public figures who don't swim into my ken. And he's as parochial as people who think that anyplace not near them is "out of the way" for everybody. Mr. Harris is no different, yet he can't even allow any contrary idea to swim into his knowledge, lest it uproot his understanding and render everything he's ever said pointless.
And yet they are, if not saints, at least representatives of one constituency on the internet. Maybe that "vast wasteland" isn't inherent in how we use our communications technologies; maybe it's simply inherent in us.