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first draft of the opening address of a debate with Professor Richard Norman



Countless Christians – and former Christians, subscribe to an odd mix of greek mythology, Roman religion and decontextualized bible verses to produce a grand finale to human existence: at the end of the space time continuum, all humanity will be paraded in front of a supernatural mind-reading Jeremy Kyle – and every bad thing you have ever done, and every bad thing you have ever thought of doing, and every bad thing you have ever thought of thought of doing, is going to become part of a grotesque power point presentation.  Everyone who’s ever lived – including your grandmother – will be there to watch in disgust and shake their heads in condemnation – so you’d better stay in line and comply with the dictates of the Christendom ideology.  What does this have to do with open-mindedness?


Well, it’s difficult really to get much of a grip on what we mean when we talk about open-mindedness – because without some context, we can’t even decide whether it’s a good thing:  Being open-minded about which party to vote for, is different to being open-minded about genocide!  


If youtube comments are anything to go by, more often than not, it is used to separate a rational, thoughtful, sensible us – from an irrational, unreflective, slavishly weak-minded them.   If you don’t share my worldview, it’s because you’re closed minded…  Not like me, and those who agree with me, we are open-minded, holier than thou…  


More importantly, you can only be genuinely open minded about stuff you care about.  You have to form a view of something, invest yourself in something in order then, to have the capacity to change your mind about it.  Being open-minded about stuff you don’t really care about, whether it’s god, or football, Eastenders or Al Gore: We already have a word for that: open-mindedness about stuff you don’t care about is called indifference.


So, let’s take attitudes towards religion – it is often assumed that if you belong to a religion, then you are a religious person – a different sub-species to a non-religious person.  So, the religious person, belonging to a religion, has decided to live by absolutes, by moral codes, rights and wrongs, certainties about the existence of deities and so on.  And since you are religious, you cannot question the belief system of your religion, therefore you cannot be open-minded.  


On the other hand, it is widely assumed that if you are a non-religious person, you don’t have any commitments that suffer this way or that, so you may like to regard yourself as a free-thinker.  You can change your mind about the universe in a flash – without any danger of an angry god doing nasty things to you…  Is it really true, that if you’re not religious, then you are a free-thinker?  This has certainly been claimed since the 17th Century – as though, once Christendom’s malevolent god has been shuffled off centre-stage and bundled into a retirement home, then we are free to think whatever we like…  And indeed, history has shown that rather being immersed in some mass delusion, we are now all individuals  (at which point, if you know Monte Python, you respond in unison – “Yes, we are all individuals)


Of course, history has shown that without religion, we do not live in an ideological vacuum.   But… we’re still told that we’re free thinkers:  you only need to look at advertising.  There are currently two motor-car manufacturers whose adverts encourage us to think freely and act freely and DEFY CONVENTION.  And how do we do that?  Well, we prove how free of convention we are by purchasing mass-produced motor vehicles… you see the problem here?   It’s not a critique of advertising, but a window into the extent that our views, our self-perception, our desires are shaped in ways that we may be largely unaware of.


In the absence of religion, we do not live in an ideological vacuum. So – take a look, for instance, at the medieval practices of priests selling forgiveness to guilt-ridden, shallow-minded peasants. (Indulgences, famously critiqued in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales)  This rests on the notion that Christians are created sick and commanded to be well, that famous line so frequently used by Christopher Hitchens, but plagiarized actually, from Fulke Greville, a deeply committed protestant Christian poet.  


Isn’t this the narrative of modern economics, reaching into the identity of modern individuals far more effectively than eternal guilt shaped the identity of the medieval Christian believer:  In 1957, a book called The Hidden Persuaders, unmasked the workings of the advertising industry – showing how if you want your product to sell, then you have to shape consumers to feel too thin, too fat, too ugly, too outdated, too behind, too stupid, too poor.  But… they can redeem themselves by buying your product: and then a few months later – once you’ve flooded the market - you upgrade your product and the game begins again.  


You – the consumer – are forever unworthy, until you buy your way out of social unworthiness and comply with what convention you dictates you should be.  The modern consumer, in other words, is thrown into a world in which they are created and kept sick and commanded to be well… The medieval practice of indulgences is alive in well in the modern west.  Of course, since 1957 people have learned a little about advertising technique – so marketers have to change their tack – leading a new technique: Murketing, where you tell the consumer they are too smart for the manipulative advertiser: that’s it, you encourage them to … DEFY CONVENTION.  


All that is to say, that the economic environment in which we live, drills its ideologies deep into our cultural psyche, in order to get us to act in certain ways.  The passing of religious influence in the modern secular west, does not mean that we are all now free to do as we please.  Sure, we are free to choose between car manufacturers.  In the ballot box, we are free to elect either Tweedle Dum or Tweedle Dee.  And sure, we are free to believe or not to believe   Within the confines of our worldview, of course it is possible to be open minded.  But is there a freedom beyond the confines of our worldview?


Unacknowledged Beliefs

Here I’d like to follow Slavoj Zizek, in citing one of the most influential pieces of poetry of our generation: There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say there are things that, we now know we don’t know.  But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.

Now, if you haven’t already drowned in the sheer genius of Donald Rumsfeld’s word-craft, you will notice a gaping logical absence in the sequence: there are known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns. But where are the “unknown knowns”? The things we know, that we don’t realise we know. I don’t know if Donald Rumsfeld was familiar with medieval Persian literature, but if he was – he would have found a clearer version of his own poetry, without the logical gap: The poet says there are four kinds of individual:

One who doesn’t know and doesn’t know that he doesn’t know... He will be eternally lost in his hopeless oblivion! One who knows and knows that he knows... His horse of wisdom will reach the skies. One who doesn’t know, but knows that he doesn’t know... His limping mule will eventually get him home. And, most importantly, there is One who knows, but doesn’t know that he knows... He is fast asleep, so you should wake him up!

So, this idea of waking up, to the things we know – that we don’t know, we know!  And here we are in the realm of ideology.  Now – if you’re religious, then of course – your stated beliefs are all up front.  But beliefs that we treasure, that help to make sense of who we are and what is our place in the world, are not always explicit.  There are all kinds of values and virtues that form our mindset, our worldview.


Neil Postman famously asked a similar question by comparing the worldviews of George Orwell’s 1984 (in which Big Brother explicitly and violently forces citizens into compliance) and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (in which the masses are subconsciously conditioned by subtle programmes of mind-conditioning.)


Orwell feared those who would ban books; Huxley feared there would be no need to ban books, because no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared we would be deprived of information. Huxley feared we would be so overfed with information we’d be reduced to passivity and egotism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture... Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that our desire will ruin us.


What is it that we treasure without realizing it, that we cease questioning because they are so deeply instilled within us that we simply assume they are morally right or wrong?  Anyone can be open minded about things we don’t care about that much – but the more interesting question is the extent to which we are aware of the things we care about, and why we care about them.  I think we can leave this for now, and suspect that Richard may have more to say about this.


Christianity and Open-mindedness


The whole notion of open-mindedness as I have critiqued it is simply not part of any biblical worldview, and I suspect, any ancient worldview.  On the other hand, from the modern perspective, I believe Christianity attempts to offer one particular way of being open.  


In the first instance, the bible assumes that open-mindedness is a virtually impossible virtue.  Human beings are in a default state of retreat from that which threatens us, disturbs or discomforts us, a retreat from otherness, an inability to hold the stare of the other.  This is why, in the garden of Eden, Adam and Eve withdrew from one another (behind fig leaves) and from God (who had to go looking for them.)  And this, withdrawal from engaging well with the other, is fundamentally what the church once meant when it spoke about sin.  Not the sorry condemnation-worthy state of our immortal souls before a supernatural mind-reading Jeremy-Kyle who will take sadistic pleasure in condemning you to an eternity of pain and suffering.  To sin is to make yourself less than human, by trying to make yourself more than human: by withdrawing so far into ourselves, that we lose our capacity to engage with anyone who is genuinely other.


There is a sense in which, this is part of a universal human condition – that we are thrown into a world, enmeshed in sets of relationships and commitments and ideologies and assumptions.  And the language of fallenness, is concerned with highlighting humanity’s plight – that on the one hand, our natural state is self-preservation, and preservation of those near to us, our preoccupation with instant, ready-to-hand, pragmatic carrot-and-stick concerns of daily life.  Distracted so deeply inside present concerns, that our capacity to grasp anything outside our little networks of commitments, assumptions, people, politics – anything genuinely other is simply not on our radar.  


And to be open, to engage well with the other – be it the divine other you imagine out there – or the neighbour on your doorstep, or on the far side of a news headline, to listen radically, is a deeply disturbing, painful, traumatic experience.  And virtually impossible – so much so – this way of escape from this sorry state of affairs is encouraged with the widespread use of a Greek concept.  Nous is the Greek word for your mind, and Meta is the Greek word for after.  And Meta Noia – is this painful but liberating activity of moving from one hard-won mindset to another.  Metanoia in Greek, but disastrously translated into English as the now religious word, repentance.


Metanoia is not the act of wiping your moral slate under the eyes of a supernatural judge – but a radical reorientation of the mind, the affections, and the will.  Metanoia – after-thought, is a painful disturbing, subversive practice.  Not the charming and socially acceptable pseudo-virtue, of open-mindedness: it cuts much deeper and travels much further.  But it hurts – metanoia, to move on from one worldview to the risky business of adopting another, entails a mini-death.


It was the philosopher, Montaine, who famously declared that to philosophize is to learn how to die – and that experience of death is where the Christian story begins.  Not death as a metaphor, or a theory, or something we might – but death as the dark, mortifying, terrifying experience of being radically cut of from what we love or treasure, being torn away from all we hoped and the people we loved.   Of course, that is not where the Christian story ends – but I have no desire to try evangelizing you all evening.  


Simply to say that in Scripture, the notion of changing your mind is viewed as a much harder, tougher, traumatic task than the contemporary glib virtue of open-mindedness. There is a disturbing, disruptive, terrifying dimension to undergoing a shift in worldview.  In fact, Scripture seems to suggest that open-ness at this level is virtually impossible… and historically the church has done a pretty good job of demonstrating it.


Equally, throughout history, there have always been pockets of the church that have laboured to treasure this, and my hope is that those pockets of the church will grow.