“The fundamental cause of the trouble in the modern world today is that the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.” – Bertrand Russell

 

Lord Russell wrote that back in 1933 just as Adolf Hitler was being installed as the duly elected chancellor of Germany. Benito Mussolini had been ruling Italy since 1922, and fascist dictator Franco was on the rise in Spain.

Moderates like the UK’s decent leader Ramsay McDonald sought appeasement, but they were no match for Hitler’s fanaticism.

Russell had put his finger on an issue of his day, but he had also voiced a timeless truth. Fanatics are always so certain of themselves, while wiser people, aware of various possible solutions to any problem, struggle with self-doubt.

The latter know that immigration policy in a globalized world is complex and vexing. They know that overhauling an entrenched system of cronyism and lobbying in modern politics will take time, tact and resolution.

But fanatics can just chant “Build that wall!” and “Lock her up!” and “Drain the swamp!” And they do so with great gusto and confidence. They seem so… to use Russell’s term, cocksure.

It’s the same in the church.

Some of us believe we need to do the work of developing a detailed and compassionate biblical response to issues like gender roles or homosexuality or gun control or Israel and Palestine.

But fanatics demand a yes or no answer. Are you in favor of same-sex marriage? Do you support Israel or not? Yes or no!!

They can put a single Bible verse on a placard and know that it explains their whole belief on any given topic.

But it’s hard to get a detailed and nuanced theology of human sexuality on a placard. It’s hard to get a detailed and nuanced theology of anything on a placard.

The wise among us don’t mine the Bible for proof-texts. They examine it in detail and put each verse into conversation with the broad biblical themes of the Kingdom. And they take the time to explore complex answers to equally complex issues.

The bitter irony is that the more access we have to information – good information as well as dross – the more some people prefer simplistic answers and trite solutions.

Hey, I’m not opposed to brevity where appropriate, but I always remember Albert Einstein’s caution: “Everything should be made as simple as possible. But not more so!”

Not more so. Not three-word slogans so.

Garrison Keillor once wrote, “When the country goes temporarily to the dogs, cats must learn to be circumspect, walk on fences, sleep in trees, and have faith that all this woofing is not the last word.”

 

In other words, the wiser heads can’t compete with fanatics on their own terms. You can’t reduce the irreducible. You can’t counter one simplistic slogan with another. You can’t not know the alternatives and limitations to any proposal you make. Doubting yourself – or at least being open to correction and improvement – isn’t a bad thing. It’s a good thing. But it’s not a popular thing these days.

Build your case. Do the work of exploring meaningful, useful responses to vexing problems. Resist the temptation to be simplistic. Don’t be drawn into dueling slogans at ten paces.

The dogs are barking. The fools and fanatics are cocksure.

Some of us need to learn to walk on fences for a while until the woofing dies down.

 

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