There’s this weird thing I do with works that are new to me, that aren’t deeply rooted in my past and identity: I suddenly become a big believer in the idea of infallibility. That is, if it’s true then it will all be true, and therefore if I find something I can’t accept I become suspicious of the whole thing. I’ll be happily reading and nodding for pages, chapters even. And then I come across a single sentence that seems utterly wrong and suddenly I’m squinting at the book like I expect it to bite.
I would never do this with the Bible, which has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. When I was younger and still held to the idea that Scripture was infallible, I would have just ignored contradictions. When I started to see contradictions, I also started doing mental somersaults to reconcile them so I didn’t have to give up my faith. Eventually I came to believe that while it had some good ideas, the Bible was of course written by people and subject to flaws. My most common answer when someone questioned some interpretation I held that didn’t match with a particular part of the Bible was simply “Yeah, Paul’s wrong a lot.” (And yes, it’s pretty much always Paul.)
That wasn’t the only way to get around the issue. I did a lot of reading on the history and Biblical criticism so I could also have more drawn out debates if I was so inclined. At one point that was something I did a lot. Our culture is so different from that of the New Testament authors, and Paul in particular is so hard to read because he’s talking to specific communities about specific issues they already know and don’t need to have summarized, that there are many places where there isn’t really a consensus and instead we just find competing ideas.
So I could argue the point and talk about how you can’t just read the Bible without context as if it was written today. But once I accepted that the authors were human, that started to seem like a waste of time. I realized that even if they completely convince me and I accept that Paul is saying exactly what they think he is, that doesn’t mean I have to agree with it. Because of that, for quite awhile I’ve been able to pick and choose which parts I think make sense and which parts I think are probably best left in the past.
I’ve started a project recently where I read a bit from a different book every day of the week. On Wednesdays, I read the Tao Te Ching. It’s been in my collection for years but I always had so many other things to do and read. Now I’m making an effort to catch up, reading about 10 sections each week. And it’s hard. Not the words themselves, it’s a pretty light read that way. But for all the things I like and find myself nodding as I read, there’s just a few statements here and there that immediately make me want to cast the thing aside and never look at it again.
The author’s statements about knowledge in particular have been quite upsetting for me. He suggests at one point that it’s wise to fill bellies but leave people ignorant, otherwise intellectuals interfere. Yeesh. “Give up learning, and put an end to your troubles,” he states in section 20. Harsh words for an academic. I love learning, and the idea that it’s best to discourage knowledge and ambition puts me in mind of power-hungry dictators who have a lot to gain from a mindless population. For a few minutes, I was concerned that Lao Tzu just might be evil. It took a lot of effort convincing myself to keep reading. I tried to just learn from the parts I liked, of which there were many, but those bits about knowledge just kept rising to the surface. I finished my reading, but not with the same openness – it had shown itself quite clearly to be fallible, treacherous, and definitely not on my side.
So I gave it some space. Lots of space. I didn’t even really want to think about it until I “had to” read it again. And then one day when it was the furthest thing from my mind, I got stuck on a bit of a mental rant. I’ll spare you the details, the short form is that I was frustrated by a lot of things related to perceived intelligence and education. And it took me awhile to realize that I was acting like I thought education or intelligence made me better than other people. If someone who didn’t know me could look in my head right then, that’s what they’d have to assume about me. And it’s not true, or at least I don’t believe in that. It goes completely against my values. And I slowly started to realize that I wasn’t approaching education in the right way at that moment. I’d let my ego inflate, taking it to heart when some people found out about my education and said I should be doing more with my life. Like I deserved more.
And just like that, the Tao Te Ching came to mind. The bits on knowledge and also the parts I liked more. To quote one of my favorite sections (11) – “Shape clay into a vessel; It is the space within that makes it useful.” It’s not knowledge that’s bad, but the idea that knowledge on its own is useful. Knowledge provides structure, it has no purpose on its own. Learning is fine, but to make use of it I have to leave the space so that it can serve others, not fill it up with my ego and desires.
This is usually what happens when I give a text or even a person the space to be “wrong.” If I don’t throw it out immediately, if I can accept that we can disagree while still respecting each other, I get to hear more. Maybe I’ll eventually come to appreciate it or even agree, maybe I won’t. But in any case I gain the benefit of another perspective and another relationship. An all-or-nothing approach doesn’t allow for that. I learn from other people, and other people are flawed just like I am, just like the world is. The imperfections let me know it’s real.