Society: Are Ideas Like Mutual Funds?

There is much to be said, socially and intellectually, for bringing together people of different outlooks and beliefs; but there is not rational basis for the notion that by mixing a number of conflicting views you are likely to arrive at the truth. You cannot construct truth from a mass of dissonant and disparate material. You cannot construct truth at all: you can only discover it. And the more noisily opinionated people intervene with their contributions, the less likely you are to discover it.
~Harry Blamires, The Christian Mind. Servant Publications, p.112.

Jody and I have been away for a couple of weeks to the Midwest. The first week we facilitated Prayer Summits for pastors—Jody in Chicago, and I in Wisconsin. After that was done we slipped away to the Door Peninsula in northern Wisconsin for a little R&R. We had a restful time. The weather was windy, cold, and sometimes rainy. It even snowed lightly. No matter. The weather was a good excuse to sit by the fire and read a book, browse the gift shops or hang out in a local Internet café.

I’m thinking about a conversation at the Internet café.

Chit-chat with the owner of the shop turns toward the war in Iraq. Since Caleb just spent a year there (it seemed like a hundred) I know something about it; I even have some opinions. As we talk, another guy comes into the store. He buys a coffee, sits down behind me next to the door, and quietly ponders his Americano. He listens to the discussion as the topics flow: the insurgency…the shaky Saudi monarchy and how handy it might be to create a friendly government with reliable oil reserves …troop strength and long-term prospects for withdrawal…equipment needs and pressure on industrial output…spent uranium war materials on the Iraqi landscape.

I pick up on that last subject. Not qualitatively different than the danger of landmines in other war-torn regions, I suggest. Mr. Americano, the guy behind me, chimes in with observations about the CIA and clandestine operations. The subject takes a left turn into the Viet Nam war. He wonders how many guys died in Viet Nam, and then suggests an estimate that doesn’t seem right.

“I’ll find out,” says the owner and turns to his keyboard—tappity, tappity, tap. “Uhhmm—uhh …says here, around 58,000…Says it’s a myth that most of the guys over there were drafted. Says two thirds were volunteers.”

Mr. Americano: “What web site are you lookin’ at? Sounds like it’s right-wing. You need to get a different web site.”

It turns out the web site was sponsored by an association of Viet Nam helicopter flight crews, but that’s beside the point. It was Mr. Americano’s response that intrigued me: find a different web site. He hears information that doesn’t square with his point of view—get a new web site; get another source, one that matches my leftward idea of the world. The thing is, I’ve heard the similar things said by the right leaners. “Where’d you hear that? NPR?” say my conservative friends. “That’s liberal. Get another source.” Whether right or left, blue or red, liberal or conservative, it’s about staking out the territory of truth and standing with the lot that agrees.

I don’t know who coined the phrase, “the marketplace of ideas,” but the term seems particularly appropriate. Actually, we live in a world that is more than a marketplace of ideas; it is a supermarket—ideas for every preference, worldview, and ideology; for every opinion, position, and point of view. The search for truth has been all but abandoned and replaced by a quest for validation.

Where is the Christian mind in all of this?

In the dominant American culture ideas are often like mutual funds. They come bundled together, marketed and managed. Property rights and pro-life are a package deal that comes in the same portfolio with second amendment rights, privatizing social security, and welfare reform. The environment, abortion rights and gun control come packaged with subsidized housing, stem cell research and the welfare state. But are ideas like mutual funds? If we buy one do we have to buy the rest? Is it really up to the idea mavens to decide our agenda? I think not. As Christ followers our task should be to discern what is relevant to our Master and to us and then live consistently with that regardless of the direction of the market. That will require abandoning the crowd and sifting through the prospectus of society—the dominant culture and the sub-cultures, even the evangelical one.

I don’t think we can afford to let our ideas be managed by the spin masters and pundits any more than we can afford to protect those pre-packaged worldviews by seeking out only sources that agree with them. We have to demonstrate more independence and certainty than that. We have to live the reality of “human life held in the hands of God…the whole universe sustained by his power and his love…the natural order dependent upon the supernatural order, time contained within eternity…this life as an inconclusive experience, preparing us for another; this world as a temporary place of refuge, not our true and final home.” (Blamires, p.67)

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