Today’s guest post is by Jake. “It was on Thursday, July 20, one week after he left the hospital, that Antoine announced to his friends his plan to become stupid.” Martin Page, How I Became Stupid, 2001.
Recently a post that spoke about ‘Mormon Intellectuals’ said that intellectuals need to stop thinking about bringing ideas to church or how intellectual gifts can be consecrated to the church. As the post states:
“perhaps intellectual gifts, like most of what we bring to the altar, are not nearly as valuable as we think they are.”
The assumption that underlies this post is that being ‘intellectual’ is a gift from God. But sometimes I wonder if intellect is a gift at all. As a philosopher I question and think critically about things, but is this really a gift from God? Sometimes when I sit at church, my mind ploughing through all the questions and problems that I see, I can’t help but think that the ability to think critically is in fact a curse not a gift.
A book that covers this theme is How I Became Stupid by Martin Page. It narrates the story of Antoine who sees his superior intellect as being a curse that makes his life unbearable. Antoine assigns a deep moral value to everything that he does, sees, and says; as a result, he is tormented and depressed by his own self-awareness. He wishes to be a normal, everyday person who fits into society. For instance, he is paralysed by a yes/no survey form because he believes that such questions are not as simple as they look, and that he must critically analyse each question. Antoine becomes convinced that the source of all his unhappiness is his intellect. As he says:
“Intelligence makes you unhappy, lonely, and poor, whereas disguising it offers the possibility of immortality in newsprint and the admiration of those who believe what they read.”
He decides to commit intellectual suicide and become stupid. Antoine first tries to become an alcoholic to deaden his mind, but he isn’t physically suited for that. Suicide doesn’t appeal — and his doctor refuses to perform a lobotomy. His doctor is, however, willing to prescribe Happyzac, with its “tranquilizing, antidepressant effect” which works for a while. Antoine avoids everything that has even a whiff of intellectual stimulation. He goes to McDonalds, a “symbol of the standardization of different ways of life” (as a French book this location has loaded meaning), and instead of part-time teaching work at the university, he takes a job as a stockbroker where he can escape intellectualism by embracing consumer culture.
Notwithstanding the pervasive snobbery and that the book breaks down into half-hearted generic narratives that seem to be a bad copy of Voltaire’s Candide, the central themes of intellect and critical thinking are worth further discussion.
Intelligence vs. Intellectual
Do we conflate intelligence with being an ‘intellectual? Perhaps an intellectual is not someone with greater intellect but someone who uses this intellect to think critically. Maybe Antoine’s problem was not his intelligence but his misuse of it in applying critical thinking to trivial matters. Intelligence is not the same as being intellectual; an intellectual, in my opinion, is someone who uses what intelligence they have to think in a certain way about the world.
Can We Shut It Off?
Antoine’s failure to become stupid begs the question whether it is possible to turn off our cognitive faculties in certain situations. Its easy to tell someone to stop thinking about a certain problem, but is that easy to do? Can we really demarcate certain fields as impervious to critical examination, and live without a niggling feeling of being inconsistent? Sometimes like Antoine I wish that I was not tormented by my questions that come from critical thinking. It might be nice to not be thinking: ‘You can’t really be that sure about that,’ ‘that’s historically inaccurate,’ ‘that is inconsistent and logically flawed,’ ‘but what does that cliché phrase really mean,’ ‘what’s beyond the metaphorical language’ and ‘which version of the first vision do you know is true?’ These questions seem more like a curse that prevents me from embracing the simplicity of the gospel. Perhaps I am just misusing my cognitive abilities.
Is Ignorance Bliss?
Sometimes I wish I was more ignorant and less conscious of the problems and questions related to the church so that I could function as a normal uncomplicated member. Maybe intellect is a Pandora’s Box that once opened cannot be closed, unleashing the bad and the good.
What do you think? Is the ability to think critically a blessing or a curse? How should we use our intellect in a church setting? Does it all come down to context and how we use it? Is there a difference between intelligence and critical thinking and is there a difference between a person with intelligence, and an intellectual? What are the advantages to avoiding critical awareness? Can it be done?