"Let unity, the greatest good of all goods, be your preoccupation." - St. Ignatius of Antioch (Letter to St. Polycarp)

Monday, April 28, 2008

Trivial Pursuit

Nescire quaedam magna pars sapientiae est. [Ignorance of some things is a large part of wisdom.] -Hugo de Groot

"We should give no more than a side glance at all that happens in the world, but the eyes of our soul are to be focused right ahead; for our whole attention must be fixed on those realities which constitute our goal." -St. Gregory the Great

While growing up I attended church weekly with my family and often Sunday evenings as well. And yet, out of all the sermons I heard from infancy to the time I went away to college, I can remember only one sermon distinctly. The others, no doubt, remain unconsciously in my patterns of understanding Scripture and life. But only one sermon remains in my conscious memory. It was preached by a visiting missionary on furlough. Coming back to the US after a number of years away, he noticed the popularity of a new board game: Trivial Pursuit. This was somewhere around 1984 or 1985. The board game 'Trivial Pursuit' had been introduced in late 1981 or early 1982, and by the mid-80s, it was the rage. In his sermon the missionary said that this game seemed to capture quite well the state of our culture. We pursued trivia, and neglected or ignored the important things. The popularity of the game, he pointed out, was a self-indictment. We were revealing ourselves to be the-people-who-pursue-trivial-things.

The sermon was a like a seed that gradually grew in my way of seeing the world and evaluating our cultural practices. I started to notice that he was right. We focus a great deal of attention on actors and actresses, Hollywood gossip, television shows, sports figures, pop artists, and all sorts of trivial information. This trivia we attend to is generally not in itself harmful or evil. So what was the missionary's objection? It was that the pursuit of trivia tends to displace and distract us from the awareness and pursuit of that which is meaningful, weighty, worthwhile, and eternal. Like the prisoners in Plato's Allegory of the Cave, we come to think and live as though the trivia about which we quiz each other is the fundamental substance and activity of the real world. In an era of social media even more so, attention to every tweet, post, comment, 'news story,' etc., results in nothing less than a life of dissipation. The wise man says no to the stream of trivial information flowing toward him, nor does he contribute to that stream as it flows to others.

So far as I can tell, there are two reasons why people pursue trivia: either they are trying to avoid facing the important truths, and/or they are simply unaware of anything more important than the trivia they pursue.
But the two reasons are not so entirely distinct. Recently I spoke with my ethics students about the traditional virtue of silence, and being present to oneself, knowing oneself. I had one student respond by telling me that he must constantly fill up the silence, because he can't bear to be alone with his thoughts. Another student told me that to allow oneself to think about the big questions in life (e.g. the afterlife, God, etc.) is to lose sight of what we are here for, which in his opinion is to focus on the present moment. For such persons every waking moment (and even during sleep) is often intentionally filled with noise from a radio, or an mp3 player, television, etc. David Hume did this as well, in a way. To cure himself of "this philosophical melancholy or delirium" brought about by deep meaningful questions, he resorted to diversions: "I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and I am merry with my friends, " so that his speculations then appeared to him as "cold, and strain'd, and ridiculous". (Treatise I, iv, 7) The habit of filling up our lives with the pursuit of trivia is not only a way of avoiding the more important matters, it can even keep us from realizing that there are more important matters.

Of course none of what I am saying should be taken to imply that entertainment and fine art are intrinsic evils or intrinsic distractions. Not in the least. The danger is in ourselves, in our tendency to let trivia become our primary pursuit, to let the values and priorities of our popular culture's pursuit of trivia become our values and priorities, in short, to let ourselves succumb to the delusion that life is as the pursuit of trivia depicts it to be. We become what Plato referred to as the "lovers of sights and sounds". To succumb to that delusion is to become a prisoner in Plato's Cave, lulled into a delusion that sweeps the truly important questions of life into some secluded recess of our minds.

What does this have to do with the pursuit of unity among Christians? We can very easily allow the pursuit of trivia to become more important to us than the pursuit of unity among Christians. That is obvious when the trivia is something to do with Hollywood or professional sports. But it is less obvious, yet no less true, when the discussion is a theological dispute about minutiae unrelated to (either intrinsically or instrumentally) the goal of unity among Christians. Of course there is a place for disputing theological minutiae. The relevant question, however, is where the importance of pursuing unity ranks in relation to such disputes. It seems to me that the goal of Christian unity is so important, that a good deal of our theological energy should be devoted to and focused on precisely those meta-level points of difference that underlie the other differences presently dividing Christians from one another.

Today is the 100th birthday of Oskar Schindler, who came to see the incommensurable value of persons in relation to cars and rings and other such material goods. For me this scene from the film symbolizes the essence of philosophy as the pursuit of wisdom, for it shows a man coming to see things for what they really are, how what he had thought was valuable was in actuality of so little value in relation to that which is truly valuable.

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking fine pearls, and upon finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. (Matthew 13:45-46)
My brothers and sisters in Christ, may our Lord Jesus help us all come to see the true value of the pursuit of unity among Christians, in relation to the trivia which we otherwise pursue.


Oso Famoso said...

Very good words brother. Though I wonder, practically speaking, how we should practice avoiding trivial pursuits in discourse about unity. And, what constitutes a trivial matter in Christian dialog?

Bryan Cross said...

Thanks Oso. It is not so much "discourse about unity" that is subject to this, because such discourse tends to be directed by its end.

It applies rather to theological activity as a whole in which "discourse about unity" is absent, neglected, or otherwise treated as unimportant.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan