Sunday, April 13, 2008

Long live fiends

While trying to write about the events that led to my birth, I made reference to my grandfather, Wally Deuel, and his book, People Under Hitler. In a review of this book, Ida Nasatir wrote: "As a journalist Deuel was a fiend for facts, for detail, for documentation. His book, People Under Hitler, is packed with them. He doesn't ask you to take his word for anything. He gives you chapter and verse, the name of the law, the text, the exact number of victims."

This characterization struck me -- for a couple of reasons.

We can see now, among intellectuals, a disturbing disregard for facts. Instead, we see what Pope Benedict calls "the triumph of relativism" and "a surrendering before the question of the truth." To be "a fiend for facts" you must love the truth more than your ideas and opinions. In other words, there is something outside you that is more important than what you think about it. But it is my observation that today's academics are trained to believe (from an early age) that what they think about something, anything, is the only thing that matters. "Research" involves finding little bits and shards of evidence to support a claim that originates in the subjective musings of one or more thinkers -- or, in an ideal scenario, the claim is original to themselves. Whether these musings correspond to reality means nothing at all. In fact, I have heard more than one otherwise intelligent scholar opine that there is no such thing as objective reality.
Excellence, in this view, boils down to a question of the most inventive grammar, or the boldest con that can garner the most suckers.

So first of all, this characterization of my grandfather makes him seem unfashionable. Unfashionable.

My grandfather was also an atheist, and proud to be a free-thinker. He and my grandmother didn't have their children baptized (my father, Mike, decided when he was a teenager that he wanted religious instruction, so he biked to a Presbyterian church near his home to have conversations with the minister and was baptized there). So, why does it strike me as odd that he was a "fiend for facts"? He would probably say (if he were alive to argue the point) that it is precisely his atheism that made him so faithful to facts. After all, we know that out of a misunderstanding about what it means to be faithful, Christians have sometimes had difficulty acknowledging facts.

And yet, a Christian (or any truly religious person) would not reject facts in favor of a personal, subjective construction. Rather, out of loyalty to one fact (God), a Christian who has difficulty reconciling other facts with his understanding of the divine, might refuse to engage other facts, which seem less important in the scheme of things. This is an unfortunate tendency, which indicates, in the end, a lack of faith (because if I am certain of a fact, the fact of Christ, then I am confident that reality, in all its factors, is not only true, but also points to and illuminates my understanding of Christ -- even if, at first, I don't see how). Only people who are willing to treat all facts as irrelevant can proceed to subject the truth to their own personal whims. But my grandfather (and others in his generation, too), was devoted to the truth, without ever acknowledging the Truth.

In the primary place where my grandfather worked, carved into the high, white marble wall, with letters painted in gold, are the words, "And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free." When I first saw this phrase on the wall, I shivered a little at the audacity, the blasphemy of it. Because my grandfather worked for a government agency that has no regard for the One who spoke these words. It is an agency dedicated to collecting and interpreting facts. Accuracy in this endeavor is essential; lives hang in the balance. The knowledge derived from this activity is used for many purposes, but furthering the Kingdom of God isn't one of them. The "truth" that those who enter that building seek to know leads to a freedom built by human hands, arbitrated by human intelligence, and decided by human power. It is an anemic, attenuated freedom that can be doled out or rescinded, and the lion's share of it is reserved for those who carry the correct identity badge.

But it strikes me that my grandfather, even without dedication to the one Fact that makes sense of all the others, could make so much sense of the facts he gathered. While many refused to look at or to believe the evidence, he saw the dangerous evil that was gathering in Nazi Germany and was convicted enough to sound a warning.

All of which reminds me of what I tried to write about Emmanuel Ax's performance of Chopin's Piano Concerto #2. If there were no one to be such a fiend for musical notation and for the manual techniques that allow a pianist to wring exquisite sound from his instrument, Chopin's genius would disappear from our lived experience. In fact, an entire stage must be filled with these fiends, in order to realize a single measure of beautiful music.

How we are indebted to all these fiends!


clairity said...

Thank you for this great story, Suzanne. I'm giving a talk on Faith and Reason for one of our local communities, so this comes in very handy for its thoughts and example. Sharon

kabloona said...


Dumbstruck by the Mystery

...our temptation is always to impose our prejudices or our measure on reality -- except when we are faced with a fact that leaves us dumbstruck, and instead of dominating the fact ourselves, we are dominated, overcome by it. If there were no moments of this kind, the Mystery could do anything, but in the end, we would reduce everything to the usual explanation. But not even a Nobel Prize winner can stop himself from being dumbstruck before an absolutely gratuitous gesture. If there were not these moments, we would find answers, explanations, and interpretations to avoid being struck by anything. It is good that some things happen that we cannot dominate, then we have to take them seriously, and this is the great question of philosophy. If the conditions for the possibility of knowledge (see Kant) impose themselves on reality or if there is something that is so powerfully disproportionate that it does not let itself be "grasped" by the conditions of possibility, then the horizon opens. If this were not the case, then we could dominate everything and be in peace, or at least without drama. Instead, not even the intelligence of a Nobel Prize winner could prevent him from coming face-to-face with a fact that made him dumbstruck -- instead of dominating, it was he who was dominated. Here begins the drama, because I am called to answer. It is the drama that unfolds between us and the Mystery, through certain facts, certain moments, in which the Mystery imposes itself with this evidence. These are facts that we cannot put in our pocket, which we cannot reduce to antecedent factors.
-- Julian Carron in "Friends, that is, Witnesses."