Many would be wise if they did not think themselves wise.
– Baltasar Gracian, SJ
When Jesus spoke to his disciples at the Last Supper, I’m sure there was a great deal of anxiety among them. Their master had been speaking a lot lately of an unavoidable sacrifice, of being taken by the authorities, of his departing from them. What we read today in the gospel is part of a long talk that he gave to his inner circle that fateful night, and it indeed conveys the sense of Jesus wanting to prepare his followers, not just for the looming crisis they will experience in his arrest and execution, but for the long term. So, he tells them, “I will not leave you orphaned,” and explains how it is that they will manage without his presence as they have experienced it up until then. He has already spoken of the Spirit, of the Advocate (in Greek, paraclete, literally “one who accompanies”) and so is trying to connect his leaving with that new manifestation of the presence of God in their lives, and how this relates to him, and what will come into being through this Spirit of Truth: the Church. I can imagine it was hard to get a handle on it then, and I know it’s something many people still can’t wrap their heads around now. Yet it is an essential in Christian life because apart from the Spirit, the Church, as the bark of Peter, is rudderless; and we as individuals are like lost sheep, scattered in the wilderness of the world. Who should we trust? Well, trust in the Lord. I guess. But just how do we do that? And what does the Holy Spirit have to do with this present crisis we find ourselves in, or any other?
Today we live in anxious times. It’s not just the pandemic, but the effect the measures to address it taken by civil authorities both here and around the world have had and will continue to have. Our leaders direct our lives in a manner hitherto unimaginable as our freedoms are abridged in hopes of containing this disease that swept out of China and has gone around the world with frightening rapidity. These leaders are surrounded by experts who offer their knowledge and experience to guide the difficult decisions that must be made. We know that what weighs heavily in these decisions isn’t simply the facts and informed speculations, but politics and the calculation of electoral consequences; that the experts themselves have their interests in mind when offering their counsel. As a society we aren’t naive about how decisions are made, and with regard to how to respond to the threat of pandemic, questions and criticisms abound concerning the assumptions, models, theories, etc. upon which those decisions were based, especially as the collateral damage begins to accrue.
Yet this is how we are governed day-to-day, how the priorities are set, how federal and provincial governments go about their business. To quote the economist Thomas Sowell, “there are no answers, only trade-offs” and that is the work of our governing class to make those trade-offs under the guidance of their expert advisers. It’s been ever thus, and worldly authority is vested today in the scientific expert and the technocrat who have the ear of the leader. Yes, with our democratic processes, there is from time to time public consultation. However, the vast majority of the thousands of decisions made based on the advice of experts to bureaucrats and elected officials never involve the great mass of the public. A crisis just makes it more apparent and highlights both the efficiencies and inadequacies of this arrangement. That we have a process of democratic elections ideally makes the system more accountable, but as the technocratic state has grown and developed through the modern era, the voice of the people must contend with the experts; in our own minds, our own reservations about public policies are set against our fear of the unknown and desire to find someone who can show us the way to safety and success.
As Christians we live in the tension of being, to reference our parish patron St. Augustine, citizens of both heaven and earth. When things are good, there is little dissonance in this dual existence. However, when they are bad, we live in the tension of being pulled one way by worldly authority as we try to remain obedient to the divine mandate given to us. The apostles and first generation of the Church experienced this as they found themselves growing apart from the Judaistic community as the full meaning of Christ grew in their hearts and minds. Yet they were understandably pulled back to what they knew as Jews, and internally struggled in the face of the old religious authority that was actively trying to reassert itself. As you read the Book of the Acts of the Apostles this subtext should become apparent. As much as it conveys the excitement of early evangelization and conversion to Christ, it also speaks of division that came from rejecting some of the defining norms of Judaism like circumcision and abstaining from pork. The “experts” of the day weren’t scientists with Ph.D’s but rather the scribes of the Temple surrounded by the scrolls of the Hebrew scriptures, as well as a vast library of commentary on the sacred texts. Their power over people, opinion and law came from their being regarded as the arbiters of what was truth, and they demonstrated their competence in the learned manner of their speaking, the evidence of education in their argument. And yet, as Jesus thoroughly demonstrated, they had led Israel into a dead end and a crisis was looming that would resolve into catastrophe: the Temple destroyed, the people of Judea massacred and the survivors dispersed.
We know that in the 1st century there was an expectation of a Messiah who would be the saviour of Israel. I don’t think that at all surprising, even if there had been no scriptural prophecy for it. Throughout history people have looked for a saviour, and empowered individuals to lead them out of crisis and into the promised land, with very mixed results. For every Moses and Pericles there have been far more tyrants, of whom many were quite murderous. Yet when the populace comes reluctantly to the conclusion that the ruling class and their “experts” no longer know what they’re doing, this is the option often pursued, to find a saviour and confer absolute power upon this anointed one. Skepticism toward our experts has been growing in recent decades, dividing national constituencies and Western society more generally.
A few years ago a lament for the waning of the authority of the expert class of our times was published entitled, The Death of Expertise, by Prof. Tom Nichols who teaches at the U.S. Naval War College (and is a five-time Jeopardy champion!). One of his central observations was that the internet gives the average person the illusion of knowledge through their perusing of websites and online publications such that they feel qualified to question, nay challenge, experts. This plays into an existing cultural disposition to be suspicious of authority that has developed through the modern era (the “sixties” being one such time of anti-authoritarian flare up) and the democratic egalitarian conceit that everyone’s opinion is of equal value (sorry, it ain’t).
As much as I agree with Nichols’ thesis, I think that he didn’t really grasp the totality of what has happened. It’s not just the fault of Wikipedia and the growing legions of internet trolls in a virtual world devoid of gatekeepers such as we had in the legacy media of newspapers, television and radio. No, I think the experts have brought quite a lot of this on themselves just as the Church had done in the 15th century, and we are looking at something that is more than a generalized lack of respect; rather, the masses are in rebellion. What the internet has provided is a forum for dissent, and an exchange of information that reveals that just as our governing class has its experts, there are still more experts out there who aren’t simply crackpots but have serious arguments that hitherto would have never been heard.
To be clear, we need experts. However, as Nichols writes in his book, we forget that experts are fallible human beings, and the experts forget that as well! They make mistakes and are very slow to acknowledge them, and that breeds suspicion. The technocratic society of the West did put a man on the moon, but it also gave us a plethora of public policy disasters. One that I am better acquainted with (although I’m no expert) is the disaster of public housing estates in the latter half of the twentieth century–think here about all those people who “grew up in the projects” – the public housing for the working poor and those on assistance that went from being communities of a bright future to violence-ridden slums within years of their being built. A more immediate example has been that at the outset of the lockdown, several U.S. governors, including Andrew Cuomo of New York, heeded expert advice and had nursing homes take in covid patients (they were seen to have facilities similar to hospitals)–a huge mistake. Anger is considerable among those who lost elderly parents who lived in those facilities that housed the most vulnerable population threatened by the virus, and both the politicians and the health advisers are very slow to acknowledge the error. So, while we have seen tremendous technological advances that in one way improve life, there has been so much done to the detriment of community, family and nation that anxiety and depression are rampant among us even as we enjoy our devices and conveniences. Indeed, the enforced isolation is making apparent how little comfort and consolation the latest generation of gadgetry truly is.
So, is it time for a revolution? Let’s put up the scaffolds and roll out Madame Guillotine? No. That is not the Christian way. Rather ours is the way of the Spirit.
Catholics have a very well developed theology of the Holy Spirit with respect to just how it works as that essential helper in our daily lives, how the paraclete counsels us as the Spirit accompanies us. Truth does not come simply through prayer, a calling upon the Spirit. As Catholic Christians gathering facts, opinions, calling on the experts, but also making reference to common sense, we sift all this by applying the many gifts that the Spirit conveys to those who open themselves to the paraclete’s ministrations. The gifts are:
- Wisdom – both the knowledge of and judgment about “divine things” and the ability to judge and direct human affairs according to divine truth
(Catechism: I/I.1.6; I/II.69.3; II/II.8.6; II/II.45.1–5).
- Understanding – in the sense of insight into the heart of things, especially those higher truths that are necessary for our eternal salvation—in effect, the ability to “see” God (I/I.12.5; I/II.69.2; II/II.8.1–3).
- Counsel – we allow ourselves to be directed by the Spirit in matters necessary for salvation (II/II.52.1).
- Fortitude – a firm resolve to do good and avoid evil, especially when it is difficult or even dangerous to do so (I/II.61.3; II/II.123.2; II/II.139.1).
- Knowledge – the ability to judge correctly about matters of faith and right action, and so act justly (II/II.9.3).
- Piety – revering God with affection of a son or daughter, offering worship and what is due to God, but also what is due to others because of their relationship to God (I/II.68.4; II/II.121.1).
- Fear of God – in this context, a fear of separating ourselves from God as opposed to fear of punishment (I/II.67.4; II/II.19.9).
What reliance on the Spirit means is that our proper disposition in life should be toward a constant mindfulness of our limitations and our absolute need of God. Through His Spirit, the gifts will keep us properly grounded in this life and able to navigate its difficulties. Would that our society lived in that Spirit, political leaders, experts, all of us, we’d be in a much better place now and enjoy a true sense of solidarity rather than yet another divide. I fear it will be some time before we see our public officials return to the kind of humility required, the kind that was once exemplified by legislatures and councils opening their sessions in serious prayer for guidance. In the meantime, the councils of the Church, the Christian family at home, each one of us as individuals, we can all act to make the Spirit live in our lives as a vital and guiding force through prayer, mindfulness, personal humility and charity towards others even in our disagreements.