Thursday, 3 July 2014

Too Clever by Half


"Don't be clever, boy."
"Yes, sir. How stupid do you want me to be?"
A young and precocious Stephen Fry understandably got himself into a bit of trouble for the above exchange.
He must have been infuriating to teach, but his question does make a fair point as it strikes against the anti-intellectualism of English institutions. I heard a French politician being interrogated by Jim Naughtie earlier this week, and was much impressed by the forthright rebuttals he parried with in crisp, concise English. Far better, I thought, than the grunting obfuscations of so many of our own political class, eager as they are to say nothing and to do so in a register they condescendingly suppose will mollify the common man. The last thing they want to be accused of is sounding posh, and the close runner up is sounding "too clever by half," that peculiarly English complaint. Those few among them who are not worried about either of these things are refreshing because they are so deplorably rare.
What to make, then, of Jesus' thanksgiving to His Father in this Sunday's Gospel, Matthew 11: "I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes?" Are we guilty of being too clever by half?
There certainly are churches where one is encouraged on entry to leave one's brain in a handy receptacle by the West Door, but I for one am glad that St Peter's is not one of them. There is a lot to be said for a simple faith, like the faith of a child, but it would be a great mistake to equate this with a "stupid" faith. Stupid faith does exist, and is an embarrassment to most Christians: the sort of faith that says God is punishing Britain for being nice to gay people by sending floods on Hull, or that people who get ill are just not praying hard enough, or that God put dinosaur bones into the ground to test our faith in the seven days of Creation, for example. But that is different from simple faith. Simplicity is not stupidity, and children are not (necessarily) stupid, either. A child's faith can be a beautiful thing, and is surely not stupid.
Yet, if we left our faith where it was at the age of 7, our knowledge of God would remain even more limited than it quite necessarily is. Critics of religion are often really criticising the religion that they learnt in their childhood but never explored in any greater depth. There are good things about childish simplicity, but bad things too: just think of the effect of the children's monochrome worldview portrayed in the Lord of the Flies. A world run by children would be cruel and exacting. And so, we might note, in the first part of Sunday's reading, Jesus makes a less favourable comparison with children than we usually associate with Him:
"But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another..."
The intellect, the faculty of reason, the ability to perceive the world in all its different shades and not merely in black and white, and so to deepen our understanding of its Creator: these are all God-given and He wants us to use them. Pray for the simple, and pray for the simplicity of life and vision that will allow us to see God clearly at the last; but be prepared to put in the hard brain-work first, and fight hard against the stupid faith that is a disgrace to the Christian Church. Pray too for those theologians who have done so much of that hard work for us already.

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