Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess players do… Perhaps the strongest case of all is this: that only one great English poet went mad, Cowper. And he was definitely driven mad by logic, by the ugly and alien logic of predestination. Poetry was not the disease, but the medicine… He was damned by John Calvin… Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion… The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits… The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason… Materialists and madmen never have doubts… Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have the mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity.
G.K. Chesteron, Orthodoxy
This is a fascinating quote on so many levels. Eat around the bones when it comes to the anti-Calvin bit. The overall point holds true. And agreeing with that point, I wouldn’t say it was Calvin that damned Cowper, but that there is danger in approaching a revealed mystery such as predestination too much like a logician and not enough like a poet. Perhaps this is why so much of scripture is poetry. We are given truths about God that are too great to be fully understood by the human mind. But they can be truly understood in part, as through a mirror dimly. And metaphor, simile, analogy, poetry – these are wonderful tools we have been given by which to better understand God and his creation… without going insane in the process.
What is one of the more frustrating aspects of working in Central Asia? Conspiracy theories. Yes, every westerner on social media has that one relative relative or friend given to indulging in, spreading, and defending conspiracy theories. But in the West these conspiratorial types appear to be the minority (at least for now). There seems to be a general belief in the principle of Occam’s Razor, that when faced with a simple vs. complex explanation, the simple is most often the truth of the matter. Unfortunately, the Central Asian/Middle Eastern mindset is the exact opposite. When faced with a simple vs. complex explanation, most from our region believe that greater complexity means greater plausibility. By way of example, the vast majority of locals from our region believe that the US created ISIS for the completion of its own finely-crafted schemes. Very intelligent and otherwise thoughtful people chuckle at the perceived naïveté of anyone (like me) who believes that America actually wants to destroy ISIS. This can lead to some very interesting conversations. Now it seems that this regional preference for the complex over the simple has gone global as arguments over Covid-19 conspiracy take over social media.
The frightening thing about those given to conspiracy theories is that so many of them are smart people. The line between those who give credence to such theories and those who don’t is not mere intelligence. Sometimes it seems like it’s actually those with the more active minds that are the more easily entrapped. I have had to think long and hard about this reality as relatives and good friends have been sucked into the whirlpool of conspiracy theory and pulled away from steady Christian faithfulness. Rather than intelligence, the dividing line seems to fall somewhere along the mind’s ability to recognize which patterns are real and which patterns are of its own creation. Let me explain.
The human mind is incredible at recognizing patterns. The mind is so strongly wired to recognize patterns that it can even find them in places where they don’t exist. The mind can in this way impose patterns and connections onto things where there is no pattern and where there are no connections. It is at this point the mind must perform another crucial function – it must differentiate between the true pattern and the pattern of its own creation. I believe this is where conspiracy theorists and others part ways. The wise are able to see when a pattern is not really there.
Anyone who has read C.S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet will know that much of the story takes place on the planet Mars, within large canal-canyons, populated by various alien species. The presence of these canals was no product of fantasy writing, but an aspect of Lewis’ foray into science fiction. In the 1940s, the possibility of extraterrestrial-built canals on Mars was accepted science by many. Early astronomers claimed to see these canals criss-crossing the planet. Others, as they looked through their own telescopes, went on to back up these claims. They saw straight lines scarring the surface of Mars. They saw canals. However, later telescopes improved such that astronomers could clearly see that the canals were not present on Mars and had never been. What happened? The human mind, powerful pattern factory that it is, created or imposed these lines as it sought to interpret the diverse surface of Mars through telescopic lenses. Shadows, canyons, and craters were connected by the mind and eye and paired with the power of suggestion to create an idea that was accepted as scientific fact by many. But it wasn’t real. The connections were imposed, and not actually there. If this can happen with Mars, where else might it be happening?
It is relatively easy to spin a convincing tale of supposed connections. I remember messing around with some of my English students not too long ago as we discussed the connections between their Central Asian language and English. “Do you know that the English word business comes from your language? Take the word for goat in your language, bizin, and add the English noun suffix for a female, -ess, and you can clearly see how long ago you had a woman who sold goats, a bizin-ess, and that’s where the term business comes from in modern English!” My students thought the connections I had just spun quite convincing until I went on to tell them that I was just joking and asked them to please not share this as legitimate English etymology.
Our world is chock-full of true patterns and connections, but also full of spurious patterns and connections (Hence the proverbial “correlation does equal causation”). The ability to distinguish between the two is a crucial part of living in reality. Yes, it is that serious. Those who believe false conspiracy narratives are partially living in a world that is not the real one. And that is a terribly unchristian way to live. Christians are those who live in the real universe, having had their minds enlightened to the truth and their hearts realigned with God’s eternal wisdom. Yes, we imperfectly labor to daily fight off the twisting of reality by the world, flesh, and devil, but we are a people characterized by walking in the light – seeing and living in the patterns of the real world.
It is dangerous for a Christian to flirt with conspiracy theories since they are things that “promote speculations, rather than the stewardship of God that is by faith” (1 Tim 1:4). Like a drug or a good story, our mind enjoys conspiracy theories for the stimulation they provide. But they can grow mutant and even take over. I have seen it happen to one of my best friends. The best evangelist I’ve ever known among our people group is now a wild-eyed laughingstock, convinced he is the true king of a nation that does not exist and that the spies of the UK and New World Order constantly tail him. He once gathered dozens and dozens to hear the good news of Jesus, packing them into a vibrant house church where they renounced Islam and professed allegiance to Jesus. He now wanders the city, dropping in on his few remaining friends to see if they have any secret intel on Trump and Boris Johnson’s next moves. He played with the conspiracy theories. Over time they came to seem more plausible. Then they took over his mind. He does not know that he does not live in the real world.
Will everyone who continues to entertain conspiracy theories end up like my friend? No, but some will. Playing with reality is a dangerous game, especially since we often have underlying motives such as guilt, shame, and trauma that might nudge us to believe a meta-narrative that we prefer to the real one. Conspiracy theories make us feel important, they get us off the hook, they tap into our desire to see meaning in everything, to see a sovereign hand behind all the events of our lives. Sometimes we are duped into believing a false pattern. Other times we want to.
What can we do to grow in wisdom so that we are able to better recognize true patterns and connections from false ones? Here is one crucial part of the answer: We must immerse ourselves in the biblical wisdom literature and its worldview. The wisdom literature of scripture (Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Sermon on the Mount, James, etc.) aggressively pursue the answers to hard questions about reality, cause and effect, and the eternal wisdom of God present in creation and revelation. Many conspiracy theories are dependent upon a view of man that is frankly incompatible with what we see in the wisdom literature. The Bible teaches that a wicked man might have his way for a time, might seem to flaunt all justice and still prosper, but sooner or later he will come to a sudden and terrible end. Sin is self-destructive by its very nature. This means that many theories that are dependent on vast multi-generational organized networks of secret power simply can’t be true. Sin always implodes things before it can get that far. Someone makes a run for the money. Someone sells his birthright for fleeting moment of illicit pleasure. Someone loses his temper and people get killed. It’s the end of The Godfather over and over again. Men are just too broken to be able to pull off what the conspiracy theories often demand – not to mention divine justice, that will sooner or later intervene and bring Babel crashing down. At the root of many conspiracy theories seem to lie an inflated anthropology and an underdeveloped theology of the justice of God. A proper anthropology and theology of God’s justice are built from soaking in the poetry and wisdom of the scriptures.
I’m not saying that all conspiracy theories are bunk. Sometimes those with money and power manage to sin secretly on an elaborate scale. The CIA really did topple the government of Mohammad Mosadegh in Iran. There is also the influence of the enemy spiritual realm to consider, a la Screwtape Letters. They might have the ability to pull of something on a scale mere humans don’t with our short-sighted sinful desires. But I am saying that most conspiracy theories are bunk. And there are far better ways for Christians to spend their time than entertaining them. All Christians need to be able to distinguish between real patterns and patterns projected. This is one important way we can fight for truth in a very confusing world.
I’m not sure where exactly I first came across that saying. But it has yielded good fruit in my life over the last few years. One fruitful application of which has been in language learning. I’m a Native US English speaker who grew up also speaking a Melanesian creole. I’ve been learning the language of our Central Asian people group for about five years now and am at an advanced level, but seeking to push toward true fluency. In addition to this, I’m trying to learn biblical Greek and Classical Latin. I hope to be able to read and understand at least four more historical languages and my dream is to be conversant in several more living languages of my area (an area which is quite the linguistic stew). Contrary to some, I’m convinced that the key to learning multiple languages, whether dead or living tongues, has less to do with natural ability and more to do with simple daily practice and exposure and delight.
There is a city about an hour and a half from where we live where almost the entire population is trilingual. People from this city have a reputation for being sharp with language. But I don’t think it’s because they are any more intelligent or gifted than those from other nearby cities. This trilingual city is unique in that it is divided ethically into three more-or-less equal populations, each of which has its own language, and that from a distinct language family. One population speaks an Indo-European language, another speaks a Semitic language, and the third speaks a Turkic language. So while vocabulary is shared generously between these languages, the underlying structures of these languages are not at all the same. And yet virtually the whole city can speak all three, with other residents throwing in other minority mother tongues and English to boot. How is this possible? I believe this is what is going on: When a resident of said city leaves his home where his mother tongue is spoken and goes to a neighborhood store, butcher, or barbershop, at each location a different language may be the primary tongue used in that establishment. When he goes to work, he may use mainly the Semitic language. When he is the bazaar, he may primarily use the Turkic. And at home, he speaks to his family in the Indo-European. The simple daily use of these diverse languages keeps the brain capable of learning, retaining, growing, and code-switching between these very different systems of speaking and understanding.
In this, I believe, lies an important key for anyone seeking to learn a new language or multiple new languages. Simple daily exposure and practice is remarkably powerful. Daily learning and upkeep is the key to not only acquiring, but also preserving and advancing languages already learned. And who wants to learn a language only to later lose it? Why should I keep up my Melanesian creole when I am the only one in this entire country to speak it? Well, personally, there is something about losing a language that feels akin to losing a friend. Each language is a unique way of viewing the world, of using different forms to communicate meaning. My Melanesian creole contains fun and creative ways of expressing meaning that just don’t exist in English. It contains ways of communicating with and about God that are beautiful and distinct. I don’t want to lose that even if by worldly standards keeping up this language is not “practical.” Thankfully, I have learned that I don’t have to lose it if I can fit in a few minutes of exposure to the language every day that can also lead to daily incremental growth. And daily incremental growth means substantial growth when thinking in terms of months and years.
So, prioritize the daily over the occasional for language learning and language retention. Ten minutes per day is better than a two hour lesson once per week. Ten minutes per day is also sustainable. And finding a sustainable practice leads to hope in language learning, and hope is key to perseverance. Smaller daily doses of language also keep it in the realm of the enjoyable and out of the realm of the drudge – another key to persevering in language learning. My current daily routine involves reading a few verses of the New Testament in parallel Melanesian creole, my adopted Central Asian language, New Testament Greek, and in Latin. The YouVersion Bible app allows you to compare different translations or languages side by side and is very helpful for this. I’m also finding helpful a book called Keep Up Your Biblical Greek in Two Minutes a Day by Jonathan Kline. I do this comparative Bible reading in the morning, then later on in the evening I’m working through the Duolingo Latin course, spending maybe 10-15 minutes per day in that app. Throughout my day I also have multiple opportunities to practice the Central Asian language I’m learning. My hope is to get multiple historical languages to the point where I can read in them a little bit everyday, thereby insuring incremental contextual learning – picking up new vocabulary and grammar as I go along as I continue to do in the endless ocean of the English language. However, I know that mere reading will not be enough for languages I hope to be conversant in. That will take daily conversation. I’ll have to develop my own rhythms that enable me to metaphorically drop in at the Turkic store, visit the Semitic butcher, and speak to my Indo-European relatives on a daily basis.
If you are daunted by the thought of learning a new language or retaining one that is slipping, take heart and take the pressure off. If you can find a sustainable method by which to be in that language a little bit everyday, then your growth in that language is guaranteed.
They have known it then, I know not how, and so have it by some sort of knowledge, what, I know not, and am perplexed whether it be in the memory, which if it be, then we have been happy once; whether all severally, or in that man who first sinned, in whom also we all died, and from whom we are all born with misery, I now enquire not; but only, whether the happy life be in the memory? For neither should we love it, did we not know it. We hear the name, and we all confess that we desire the thing; for we are not delighted with the mere sound. For when a Greek hears it in Latin, he is not delighted, not knowing what is spoken; but we Latins are delighted, as would he too, if he heard it in Greek; because the thing itself is neither Greek nor Latin, which Greeks and Latins, and men of all other tongues, long for so earnestly. Known therefore it is to all, for they with one voice be asked, “would they be happy?” they would answer without doubt, “they would.” And this could not be, unless the thing itself whereof it is the name were retained in their memory.
Augustine, Confessions, Book 10.29
How do we all have some sort of inner knowledge of the happy life, enough to know that we do not have it and are always secretly longing for it? Perhaps, Augustine says, we have all inherited the memory of true happiness, the memory of Eden, from Adam. I have read that research shows the effects of trauma can be passed on to generations of those who have not themselves experienced that trauma. What a powerful thing then, Eden, and its loss, must have been such that seven billion humans, when they are honest with themselves, still feel it in their bones.