Monday, May 10, 2010

Interesting goes inversely to Important!

Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 years by John Philip Jenkins: "- Sent using Google Toolbar"

I've been reading this book by Philip Jenkins, who is quickly becoming my favorite church historian. According to Jenkins, the Church eventually lost half the world by persecuting the Monophysites and Nestorians who dominated the Christian heartland--Egypt, Syria and Asian areas that eventually fell to Islam.

Why, he asks, did the Chalcedonian faction that became "orthodox" beat up on fellow Christians who disagreed about fine points of theology? Because both orthodox and heterodox Christians, Monophysites and Nestorians as well as Chalcedonians, believed that getting the metaphysics right was important. They were convinced that God cared about people's theological views and that he would not only punish individuals with wrong-headed metaphysical commitments but punish whole nations, the just and unjust alike, with famines, earthquakes, plagues and other natural disasters for harboring heretics.

I suppose it was only natural. The Byzantines were interested in metaphysics: shopkeepers argued theology in the streets. And I suppose it's natural to imagine that what is interesting is important.

Waking up this morning though I was struck with the blinding insight that the opposite was the case: the more important something is, the less interesting. And conversely, the things that are most interesting are utterly trivial and inconsequential. The paradigm case in point is philosophy, in particular my specialty--metaphysics. Philosophy is of utterly no importance whatsoever. It is trivial, inconsequential and utterly useless but, for those like me who have the taste, wildly interesting. On the other hand those aspects of life that are of vital importance--money, health, "relationships," business, household maintenance and such--are utterly boring. These are the aspects of life that we want to have settled in some minimally satisfactory way so that we can avoid any further dealings with them.

There is the beginning of all wisdom! We'd have saved ourselves any amount of grief in the past if we'd just recognized that the very idea that God gives a damn whether we believe he exists or not--much less whether we get the Christology right--is simply ridiculous. Theology is interesting--therefore inconsequential.

And, arguably, we'd save ourselves much grief now if we just realized that dealing with the practical business of life is precisely what we should aim to avoid. We should aim to get it settled in a minimally satisfactory way so that we don't have to deal with it. We need enough money to be secure so that we don't have to deal with money. We want to be healthy enough so that we don't have to think about our bodies. We want to lock in secure relationships so that we can forget about relationships and get out of the people-pleasing business. "Working on relationships," worrying about diet and exercise, working harder than we have to to make more money than we need is what makes us miserable.

Now that's philosophy, i'n'it?

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