The Works of Mercy: Instruct the Ignorant

Back in 1971, when experiments in educational theory from pointy headed intellectuals with no children were just starting to become all the rage, my fellow seventh graders and I were pulled out of what used to be called a “junior high” and packed off to a newly built experiment in education called “Eisenhower Middle School”. It was the latest thing: a school without walls where education would miraculously unfold as the natural instinct for learning that swells in the breast of every child was to be watered and nourished by a whole panoply of audio-visual materials, media resources, and the free exchange of ideas between the different aged children who studied together in a great wheel-shaped building that had no partitions between the various “learning areas”. The idea was that, left to ourselves, we young skulls full of mush naturally ached to unlock the mysteries of the Stamp Act, the Hanseatic League, pre-algebra and sentence diagramming.

It turned out we didn’t even want to learn about Lord of the Flies, which our nifty new experiment in learning soon came to resemble. We ate weary teachers alive. We found the verdant wood surrounding the school grounds an excellent hideout for skipping class and learning to smoke. I strongly suspect we brought on the early death (from sheer exhaustion and frustration) of at least one of our aging math teachers. We wasted lots of time making “video productions” that basically consisted of shooting each other making faces. Sure, there were undoubtedly some students way out at the end of the bell curve who, like Lisa Simpson, wanted to slake their burning thirst for knowledge. But for most of us, given the choice between actual education and what the young folk today call “hanging out with our friends”, there was no choice at all: An hour spent cracking jokes with your buddies about how stupid everybody (especially your teacher) is turns out to be highly preferable to a week spent learning things we don’t know anything about. Ignorance truly was bliss.

This experience more or less sums up the problem that faces anybody who attempts to live out the first of the spiritual works of mercy: Instruct the Ignorant. For it turns out that ignorance and arrogance seem to virtually always be twins. The less you know, the more likely you are to be cocky about it. And so C.S. Lewis remarks somewhere that the main task facing anybody attempting the project of education is not that they must cut down jungles, but that they must irrigate deserts. The educated person who really knows what he is talking about, who has seen quite a bit of the world and who knows (either by personal experience or by a deep and appreciative reading of the experience of others) something of the beauties (and horrors) the world has to offer can find himself stymied by the sheer bullish indifference of the ignoramus—especially the ignoramus brimming with the insolence of youth—who cannot be coaxed out of his tiny world to feel the slightest spark of interest in the immense and heart-breaking vision of Pickett’s troops marching straight into a Union fusillade at Gettysburg, or the fascination with the structure of reality that motivated Einstein to play with water fountains and study the way the droplets behaved when he waved his fingers through them, or the brilliant sonic architecture of Bach, or the incredible and compact economy of Dante, or the bottomless genius of Shakespeare—or the densely layered and limitless revelations poured out in the Scriptures.

The more ignorant somebody is of such things, the more proud they often are of their ignorance and the more certain such people tend to be (in our age dominated by the myths of progress and evolutionism), that because can hit the “on” switch on a computer, we are therefore more “advanced” than the people who built the immense edifice of civilization the ignoramus sits upon with his fat butt, blathering nonsense about how we are 5000 years smarter and more evolved than those who report or believe in religious experiences, revelations, and so forth (which is to say, 99.9999% of the human race throughout history).

This correlation between ignorance and self-satisfied arrogance is not, of course, something seen merely with the rise of that spectacularly arrogant form of ignorance called modern atheism. The precept to instruct the ignorant predates this by centuries and no culture or religious tradition (including ours) is immune from it. It was into a deeply religious world that Christianity was born and it was this world that Christ instructed. He did not (humanly speaking) inaugurate the practice of instructing the ignorant (though, of course, his Holy Spirit has been behind the whole project from the start). Again and again, the Hebrew scriptures call Israel to, as we moderns say, “get a clue”. Moses appeals to the fact that the law of God is not rocket science as he promises good things if they obey the terms of the covenant with God and bad things if they don’t:

For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?” But the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it. “See, I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you this day, by loving the LORD your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his ordinances, then you shall live and multiply, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land which you are entering to take possession of it. But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you this day, that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land which you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying his voice, and cleaving to him; for that means life to you and length of days, that you may dwell in the land which the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.” (Deuteronomy 30:11-20)

This habit of the Hebraic tradition to append very clear threats and promises to the terms of the covenant irritates sophisticated moderns (including Catholics who proudly announce that they “don’t get much from the Old Testament” and don’t think we need such downer stuff, much as it irritates sophisticated teenagers. But it’s not really such a riddle. As Flannery O’Connor pointed out, “When people are deaf, you shout.” So the prophets continually shout to Israel (and to us) that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10) because Old Testament Israel is (as her history attests) deaf with the deafness of the mule-headed—the most profound kind of deafness. So Isaiah must open his great book with the cry of frustration:

Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth; for the LORD has spoken: “Sons have I reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its owner, and the ass its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people does not understand.” (Isaiah 1:2-3)

(This cry, by the way, is echoed in the tradition of Christian iconography. That’s why there is always an ox and an ass pictured in the stable: because the “welcome” given to Christ upon his arrival on earth is foreshadowed in this passage—and still lived out today in our failure to welcome the poor.)

Isaiah’s pedagogy of the ignorant is, emphatically, directed at a people who are not ignorant because of lack of information, but because of a willed and deliberate choice to be ignorant:

To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him? The idol! a workman casts it, and a goldsmith overlays it with gold, and casts for it silver chains. He who is impoverished chooses for an offering wood that will not rot; he seeks out a skilful craftsman to set up an image that will not move. Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? (Isaiah 40:18-21)

Indeed, one of the marks of the prophets is that there is a curious note of gentleness to the Gentiles who, while often unbelievably brutal and blind, are also cut more slack than Israel because their ignorance is due precisely to the fact that they have not enjoyed Israel’s privileges. As Paul notes:

First Moses says, “I will make you jealous of those who are not a nation; with a foolish nation I will make you angry.” Then Isaiah is so bold as to say, “I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me.” But of Israel he says, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people.” (Romans 10:19-21)

Some people are inclined to read this as though Paul was sucking up to the Gentiles and kicking Israel down the stairs. On the contrary, for Paul, Israel is the custodian of the “oracles of God” (Romans 3:2) while the Gentile pagans live in stygian darkness. For Paul, the truth is that, in Christ, each depends on all. So while Israel is instructed and provoked to faith in Christ by the conversion of the Gentiles, the Gentiles receive their instruction for their salvation from the oracles of Israel as fulfilled in Christ. As Isaiah says:

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising. (Isaiah 60:1-3)

For Paul, the notion that Jew or Gentile get to claim the position of Top Dog in the pedagogy of salvation is sort of like the idea of the denizens of a cancer ward squabbling about who is the least terminal. Our position, under God, is that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). But that’s the problem when it comes to instructing the ignorant. For just as the ignorant can be proud of their ignorance, so the educated can be even more proud of their education. Indeed, that was the problem which had come to poison Israel’s relationship with the Gentiles. As Paul put it:

But if you call yourself a Jew and rely upon the law and boast of your relation to God and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed in the law, and if you are sure that you are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth– you then who teach others, will you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” (Romans 2:17-24)

In short, the problem which faces us in implementing the command to instruct the ignorant is not The Virtuous Bringer of Light versus the Arrogant Ignoramus. It is the Arrogant Teacher versus the Arrogant Ignoramus. And the Teacher’s arrogance can be even more deeply sinful, because he ought to know better. That’s why Jesus has more words of rebuke for the pride of the scribes and teachers of the law than he has for the Gentiles who worship rocks or stars. Indeed, so strongly does Jesus warn against the temptation to imagine one is the Superior Teacher to the Nations that he actually goes so far as to say:

The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice. They bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by men; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues, and salutations in the market places, and being called rabbi by men. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brethren. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called masters, for you have one master, the Christ. He who is greatest among you shall be your servant; whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. (Matthew 23:2-12)

These words are not meant to be read literalistically any more than the command to “call no man your father on earth” means that sending your Dad a Father’s Day card is a sin. We call people “teacher” every day, and rightly so. Jesus’ point is that we are not to imagine that our knowledge of some particular field—and above all, our knowledge of the revelation entrusted to the Church—is our personal property. We are emphatically not to see our knowledge as a sign of our spiritual superiority to those whom we may be called to instruct. As Paul says, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1). Jesus’ point is not to erect some weird taboo against calling people “teacher”. And we can know this because Paul specifically tells us that God’s “gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-12).

Knowledge in the service of love rather than pride is, then, the goal of the Christian who seeks to do the spiritual work of mercy that is instruction of the ignorant. And it is, in a certain sense, a work that must be (and is) done by all of us, sooner or later. Every parent, for instance, is a teacher, willy nilly, to his child. The world groans with the need for those with competence in an area of knowledge to impart that knowledge to those who lack it. That’s because humans are not ponies and dogs. Beyond the swallow reflex, virtually every human activity is taught us by somebody and we are therefore all raised as debtors to a civilization we shall never be able to repay. Each of us has had a thousand teachers, not merely at school, but from myriad other sources. Each of us can point to a person or persons who “taught us everything we know” or “had a huge impact” or “showed us the ropes” about our jobs, our passions, our relationships—and about God.

The interesting thing is that, when it comes to the office of teacher (and, in particular, that teacher who is given to us by Christ himself, our bishop) Christ chose to distinguish that office from those whom we call “saints”. Indeed, he seems to have gone out of his way to do so. As Chesterton remarked concerning the establishment of the office which, above all others, is the supreme teaching office in the Church:

When Christ at a symbolic moment was establishing His great society, He chose for its corner-stone neither the brilliant Paul nor the mystic John, but a shuffler, a snob, a coward—in a word, a man. And upon this rock He has built His Church, and the gates of Hell have not prevailed against it. All the empires and the kingdoms have failed because of this inherent and continual weakness, that they were founded by strong men and upon strong men. But this one thing — the historic Christian Church — was founded upon a weak man, and for that reason it is indestructible. For no chain is stronger than its weakest link.

Over the past several years we have heard a massive amount of nonsense spoken about how the Pope or the bishops have “lost their moral authority to teach” when it turns out that they are schleps, dunderheads, slimeballs, or weenies. The choice of Simon Peter for first Pope makes it screamingly clear that no Pope or bishop was ever appointed to teach because of their “moral authority”. All—and I mean all—a bishop does insofar as he teaches is hand down a body of doctrine that he did not invent, that he cannot subtract from, and that he cannot add to—and that does not depend one iota on his “moral authority”. A saint teaches by moral authority. His essential teaching when it comes to sanctity is this: “Imitate me as I imitate Christ”. We are attracted to his personal charisma and the way in which he embodies the message of Christ. And so, when by happy chance a bishop is also a saint his sanctity certainly sweetens the message that he brings. But a bishop’s teaching office does not depends on his personal sanctity. All he has to do is pass on the message. The truth of that message no more depends on his personal charisma than the truth of your lover’s love letters depends on the “moral authority” of your mailman. Likewise, as Peter makes clear by his rash promise, his cowardly betrayal, his vacillating wimpiness and his general thick-headedness, the truth of his message no more depends on his personal qualities than the truth 2+2=4 depends on the personal holiness of your second grade math teacher.

This essential unity of truth and holiness is paradoxically why the Church has always insisted in the unity of the truth and holiness she proclaims and likewise has always warned against predicating our faith in the gospel on the quality (or lack thereof) of the episcopal messenger who proclaims it. To be sure, a bishop or priest or lay evangelist should be holy. But if they are not, this does not affect the truth of what they say one bit. The danger of ignoring this paradoxical warning is quickly seen whenever the factional fanboy arrives on the scene to shout “I am of Paul! I am of Apollos!” or (in a modern vein) something like:

It’s clear. The Bishops and their bureaucrats are uncomfortable. They see lay people demanding and requesting orthodoxy, consistency in teaching the WHOLE truth.

It’s sad that we must look to lay Catholics for apologetics, firming up of the soul and for courage.

Different factions in the Church tend to anoint different celebrities as the real teachers of the Faith due to a perception that Their Hero(es) are more competent to teach (and a damn sight holier) than “the bishops” (the vague plural is essential to such rhetoric). It might be the Fave Rave Apologist (common with the apologetics subculture). It might be Speaking-Truth-to-Power Peace ‘n Justice Guy. It might be Utterly Pure and Perfect Liturgy Guy. It may be Theology of the Body Guy. It might be Angry Nun with a Conscience That Trumps the Teaching of the Church. It might be the celebrity popular with half a dozen other little subcultures in the Church. But the fact remains, the primary teachers of the Faith are (and always will be) the bishops. Hive off after your favorite Hero and elevate him or her above the full-orbed teaching of the Church and you will, it is absolutely guaranteed, wind up with a mere fragment of the Faith instead of the full meal deal Jesus intended. In short, you will wind up ignorant, not fully Catholic.

Instructing the ignorant (particularly with respect to the Faith) is, like all things pertaining to the faith, risky business. Knowledge puffs up and knowledge of holy things puffs way up. The gratifying thought “I am instructing the ignorant. Get me!” can steal in very subtly and insidiously. The exasperation with those who are proud of their ignorance can be a fine catalyst for pride in one’s knowledge, puny though it must always be when it comes to God. But the thing, nonetheless, must be done and can be done with the help of Christ. For the layperson to whom the task of teaching falls, what must always be held in mind is that we are, at best, merely helpers of the bishops and never their replacements. For the ordained, the grace to teach, sanctify and govern places them, as our Lord said, in the position of the servant and not the Master. And for all of us, the fundamental reality remains that we are—every last one of us—the Ignorant whom the Divine Instructor is patiently teaching till the School Bell rings on That Day and we enter into the Greatest Summer Vacation of all Time.

(For more information on the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy, see my book The Work of Mercy: Being the Hands and Heart of Christ).


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