Friday, 4 March 2011

In Defence of Difficulty

Everybody knows that ideas can be dangerous. Dionysius the Areopagite spends a lot of time urging his reader to make sure that his text doesn't fall into the hand of immature people, who will inevitably misunderstand what he was saying and be damaged by it. I once led a church service based on Dionysius' Mystical Theology, which proved to be even more controversial than anticipated. After I led the congregation in a hymn which began 'God, you're not our God, you were not before all things', several people complained to the church leader, and there was a heated debate on the church website about why people were so unhappy with what had happened. What none of the unhappy people did was to come and talk to me and say 'Hey, we felt uncomfortable in that meeting. We think we might not have understood what was going on. Can you explain yourself better?' (Bitter much?)

So the point is this: ideas can mess with people's heads, and even if we think that sometimes that's a good thing, that doesn't necessarily mean that it's always a good thing. Sometimes people just misunderstand or get hurt and instead of being challenged and transformed; they hunker down into a more rigid version of the world they were living in anyway. One way to avoid this is to try to control who has access to dangerous ideas. That was easier when Dionysius was writing, when most people couldn't read anyway, and as there were only a few copies of any given book it was pretty straightforward just to keep them all away from the wrong people.

We don't like the idea of keeping books away from people any more, and even if we wanted to, it would probably just end up leaked on the internet (cough cough, Julian Assange). But there's another way of making sure that the Wrong People don't have access to your ideas: make them really difficult to understand. You can do this in several ways: you can build in lots of references to other thinkers, so that before people can read your book, they have to read and understand lots of other books. You can use complicated technical terms to ensure that people have to have a certain degree of knowledge about the subject you're writing on. There are probably more, but my point is this: whether intentionally or unintentionally, a feature of a lot of theology and philosophy books these days is that they are really inaccessible to the uninitiated.

You could read this inaccessibility as elitism: academics think they're better than us so they deliberately keep their ideas out of our reach. But here's a more charitable, Dionysian way of reading the situation. The thing with Dionysius was that he doesn't think that there are people who fundamentally aren't good enough to be allowed to read his books. His worry is about immaturity. Some people just aren't ready to read his work yet … but they could become ready. Some ideas really do require a certain degree of education and maturity: you wouldn't teach quantum physics to someone who had never studied any science at all. You can't just sit down with Hegel and understand him straight away: you have to really work at it, and maybe it's ok to ask people to work hard at understanding what they read.

Have I persuaded you yet?

Photo credit: zebbie


maggi said...

very nicely put, Marika.

Plessey said...

Any ideas on how to read Hegel. Or what to read before reading Hegel. Or is there a Hegel for Dummies kind of book somewhere that you would recommend.

Daniel Sladen said...

I can't find the words to express my admiration that you even tried to lead a service like that, and would love to know exactly how you managed to underestimate the level of controversy that would result as I'd probably have been prepared for levels up to and including being burned as a heretic.

Obviously I'd join you in defending the concept of difficulty, but I think it might be more about the binary difference between an environment that permits doubt, exploration, creativity and questioning, and one that attempts to depict a pre-set certainty to be shared out to the currently uninitiated. Once the idea of uncertainty and enquiry is allowed in, people are a lot more tolerant of the idea that a particular line of discussion is currently to difficult for them, and that's fine. I'm just not sure that this is where most churches are at.

Anyway, the biggest mistake was an unfamiliar opening song - if you wanted to do negation you should have gone for "Come, now isn't the time to worship" - few people would have even noticed...

Marika said...

Thanks, Maggi!

Plessy, I'm still pretty far off understanding Hegel. I'm currently reading Peter Singer's 'Very Short Introduction to Hegel', which is a good beginners guide. Stephen Houlgate's Introduction to Hegel is also pretty accessible. Having said that, Hegel still makes my head hurt, so I can't promise that even the power of a good introduction will make the Phenomenology of Spirit comprehensible. I guess I need to work harder before I get there!

Daniel, I think you're right that it's not just about how much you know, it's also about how much you're able to cope with having your ideas challenged. But I'd hope that that would come with the sort of education that would prepare you to read, say, Hegel or Derrida or Butler, to name a few difficult contemporary thinkers. I wish churches were better at encouraging that sort of maturity in their members.

Paul said...

I'd just make the perfectly pedestrian and uninspired comment that the inaccessibility of philosophy/theology/physics/whatever texts is more a result of the increased specialization of studies rather than an attempt to shut out large swathes of the population. Don't academics often wish that "regular people" had more of an understanding of their pet topics, not less?

I also wonder in what sort of political environment Dionysius was writing, and how that may have shaped his desire for a degree of inaccessibility - whatever things were like for him, I think (I hope) that in many parts of the world it is generally less dangerous now for people to have disagreements over the finer points of theology. At least, in many "Western" (do I need the quote marks? not sure) countries, it seems to be the case that dissenting religious opinions are not regularly punished by the state. My Dionysian history is rusty (read: pretty much nonexistent), so I can't say if this was the way of his world, but if so, maybe his model is not quite applicable to today, at least in the same way.

Finally, I'd say that there is a difference between suggesting that some works are too difficult to be absorbed without preparation and actively shutting people out. You're right that you can't just sit down and understand Hegel - but does it follow that you shouldn't be able to check him out of the library until you first read... um.... whatever it is that would prepare you for Hegel? Well, ok, we do that sort of thing all the time in universities. But how far should we take this idea? I'd say not very far at all beyond the institution whose structures and prerequisites the student/customer is (ideally) resigned to. I mean, I'm as elitist as the next guy and all, but...

Annie Holmes said...

I still say it was a genuinely awesome church service(!) Needless to say, Tim asks a lot more questions before he lets anyone lead a meeting these days! (Sigh.)
But yes, definitely persuaded.

Information may be (universally-ish?) accessible, but real engagement and understanding have to, will always take effort. The clue's in the name.

Perhaps the modern application of Dionysius' caution should be a statutory health warning on theology/ philosophy writing: "come and have a go if you think you're hard enough"?