I encountered a sentence this morning that made me stop reading and think.
I’m reading Francine du Plessix Gray’s memoir of her life with her Russian émigré parents, Them.
Francine’s mother was an icon of fashion in New York in the middle years of the 20th century—and before that, famously she was the Paris muse of the intense Russian poet Mayakovsky. Francine’s step-father was the inspiration and the controlling authority behind the Conde Nast magazine publishing empire.
Channa and I met the cordial Francine through New York art-and-academic friends, and it has been informative to learn more about her in her book.
At one point in Francine’s book (page 352), she refers to a certain woman in the 1950s as “one of those British dilettante expatriates to whom lightly learned wanderings—be it in Afghanistan, Tibet, or North Africa—was an essential part of their identities.”
“Lightly learned.” Juxtaposed with “essential part of their identities.”
That’s what got me thinking…and not happily.
Correctly, Francine cites the existence of a sophisticated mannerism which serves the dilettantish in place of wisdom. Remembering my youth and dinner table conversations at our houses, I recall their swell talk. They didn’t know much about Afghanistan, Tibet, or North Africa, but they had trekked on through.
This provided them with conversational self-satisfaction, with offhand stories to tell, and with an air of world-weariness to adopt when their point was, “Oh, yes, everything is just the same.”
Even as a youth, I preferred world-enthusiasm and not world-weariness.
As I say, I read Francine’s sentence, and stopped reading, to think. Channa and I do know the sort of person Francine describes, however from a different world than hers. Our world is the world of religious faith.
One can display world-weariness within the world of religious faith just as well as within other worlds.
Formerly, when we were Jews, Channa and I knew that sort of person. Latterly, now that we are Christians, probably we know that sort of person again.
That sort of person is lightly learned about the religious landscapes through which he or she treks. He or she is content with wandering. The more sophisticated of them may even impute to their wanderlust the existence of an aesthetic. They may say of themselves, while traipsing among religions, that theirs is a higher, a wiser perspective.
Now, to be fair, let it be admitted that Channa and I are recent converts to Christianity from Judaism (ten years in), and converts are sometimes over-intense. If Channa and I suffer from over-intensity ourselves it is due to the conviction that we have been led to truth, and that orthodox Christian truth calls out to us to be studied with passionate urgency.
That being said, what puts my teeth on edge is the notion that light learning might be accepted by any religious wanderer as essential to identity.
Be convicted at least of the existence of truth; not a dismissive wanderer be.
You are free to wander lightly, of course.
You are free that such wandering should be essential to your own identity, of course.
Despite today’s popular stance that human interactions must be based merely on niceness, and not on anything more demanding than that, nevertheless there is a hard, cutting, uncongenial, and implacable wall which stands between skepticism which is light learning and piety which is not.
That is because the powerful interaction to which we should turn our attention is not the interaction of human to human but the interaction of human to God.
Those lightly-learned wanderer’s souls are at stake.
A lightly-learned wanderer in the religious landscape might come right back at me with the statement that he doesn’t believe he has a soul, so what difference does any of this make?
Well, he might be right. Perhaps we don’t have souls.
He’s free to believe that we don’t have souls, despite the thousands of years of evidence that we do.
But what if he’s wrong, and we do?
What then, oh, wise one?
Well, alas, indeed.