What does a cinnamon roll have to do with virtue? What are the motivations that we have for being good? Just how much can we know what motivates us to be virtuous? In this podcast , Travis Coblentz and Matthew Burford talk to Christian Miller about his book “The Character Gap“.
Ignorance and the Good
The last entry in this series noted that recognizing our own ignorance—the simple recognition that we do not possess the Truth, but that the Truth possesses us—may be essential to be good, even for Christians. But how can Christians both claim to know the Truth and be ignorant? Let’s begin with Socrates again, and then show how similar ideas are evident in Christianity.
The recognition of one’s own ignorance relates closely to what Socrates obsessed about: ethics. Ethics isn’t simply what tells you what to do. In fact, that is a rather simplistic view of ethics. In reality, ethics gives the why of everything, explains how it all fits, and because it puts it all together, it shows us how to navigate through this life without stubbing our toes or falling into a pit.
According to Socrates, all things exist by virtue of their “participation” in the Good (or, which is the same thing, the Beautiful). While that sounds too metaphysical to be meaningful, it includes something a little more down-to-earth: To understand something, you must understand what good it is, and what is good for it, and where it fits into a life directed toward good things.
Think of any piece of information in the world: From information about a friend’s struggles with self-esteem to information about the incredible power released when splitting an atom. We can learn this information, but what is the point of this information? If I have no aims at all, then the information is meaningless. It could just as well be a jumble of nonsense words, easily ignored or forgotten or misused. If my aims are destructive, then I could use my friend’s struggle to destroy her, and my knowledge of atom-splitting to kill multitudes. If my aims are good, then I may build my friend up and help develop safe nuclear power plants and work to make sure use of nuclear weapons remains unnecessary, a thing of fiction alone.
The ethics one possesses tells where the information belongs, how it all fits. Plato believed, in fact, that all things derive their being from the Good itself, and thus truly to know something meant in fact to have familiarity with the Good. And this familiarity with the Good was not the possession of mere facts about the Good, but required living a life of virtue—a life, so to speak, in the Good. Socrates’ interlocutors, insofar as they suffered from vice, are shown to be utterly lacking in knowledge of things, most glaringly they suffer from that most destructive of vices: Unawareness of their own ignorance.
Why did they suffer so badly from this unawareness? Not because they were ignorant in the sense that we use the word today. Many of the characters in Plato’s dialogues stood at the tops of their fields of study—many of the rich paying enormous sums (equivalent to what we pay for college) to learn from them. What they suffered from was not lack of information or knowledge, but wisdom. And their wisdom failed them because they did not live virtuously, pursuing the Good.
A life of vice leads one to be unable to see how things fit together. Plato shows us this vicious failure of understanding through Socrates’ elenchus, that rather unpleasant process through which he showed glaring inconsistencies in his interlocutors’ claims. Plato’s purpose was not to suggest that these people needed to study more or learn more facts. Quite the opposite: They had become so enamored of their knowledge and skill that they found the whole of virtue unnecessary.
Transforming Self-Justifying Pigs into Forgiven Humans
Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 8:1 that “‘knowledge’ puffs up, but love builds up” (ESV). He is writing about those who understand that an idol is nothing, and so eating the food sacrificed to an idol is acceptable. But to grab hold of this knowledge and to act in accordance with the freedom one feels in possessing it can lead to the destruction of a fellow believer: “And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died” (1 Cor 8:11 ESV).
It is clear in this context that knowledge of the facts is insufficient. Knowledge must be directed by love, otherwise it can be used for evil. Just as knowledge of nuclear physics or another’s weakness can be wielded for good or evil. I believe that this can be true even of the knowledge that God exists: Even the demons believe.
What the demons, the bad physicist, the manipulative friend, and the knowledgeable, but uncaring idol-carnivore are all missing is the proper framework into which to place the facts they possess. This framework is really less a simple framework, and more a stance, an aim, a direction in which one is moving. In Plato’s language, a pursuit of the Good. In biblical language, love (of God and neighbor).
This perhaps is why Jesus warns us: “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you” (Matt 7:6 ESV). A pig can see a pearl, can experience that pearl’s hardness, shape, luster, but the pig does not have the framework to recognize the value. The pig’s values are unswervingly directed toward other things. The same goes for the dog and the sacred.
The pig represents the one whose aims are vulgar, worldly, or simply full of malice. When you hand them anything of value, whether that is a fact or one’s time, the “pig” will recognize the fact, but not interpret it correctly. Have you ever shown someone a kindness, and that person immediately became angry or bitter? I myself spent a good portion of my life as that very kind of pig—genuine kindnesses shown to me would cause me both intense prideful anger and a festering self-loathing.
Before something of value could be given to pig-Travis, I had to be transformed into a human. How did this happen? Through a crisis. This crisis was a kind of ethical-epistemological crisis—I experienced the collapse of the system that included my way of living and my beliefs: the framework (my life) fell apart, and the beliefs scattered into a confusing mess. I found myself confused, lost, ignorant—but not “ignorant” in the normal sense that we usually use that term. I mean “ignorant” in a broader sense: I knew facts about life, I was relatively “well-educated,” had experienced a decent amount of life, I had worked and even taught. But this ignorance was that feeling that nothing I knew seemed to fit anywhere anymore—as if all that I was, did, and knew had been tossed into space, floating scattered about.
But that was a starting point. I was able to recognize how un-directed and confused, how ignorant, I was, and so I was able to look back and see myself more clearly than I did before. For our ethics are most often attempts to protect ourselves and blame others. After all, what did Adam and Eve do immediately upon receiving the knowledge of good and evil (arguably, the very definition of ethical knowledge)? They blamed others for their actions—Adam blaming Eve (and God), and Eve blaming the serpent (and, implicitly, God)—and they did this to protect themselves. Our lives form around our attempts to justify ourselves—if you are poor, you will surely see your position as more holy than that of the rich, and if you get a high-paying job, you will surely believe that God is calling you to that job and learn to live quite comfortably with your much higher wages. So, too, if you are having sex before marriage, you will likely convince yourself that your love is so rich that you are an exception to traditional sexual morality (or that traditional sexuality morality is simply wrong). If you despise someone, you surely come to believe that they are so bad as to deserve being hated, or, more likely, you will be quite convinced that you do not “hate” them, but “love” them, and so like a kind of monstrous transubstantiation, all the accidental properties are that of hatred, but the essential nature is love. Our ethics are largely wielded to justify our lives and to condemn those we don’t like. No wonder original sin consisted of eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil!
But when we have that moment of confusion, of being at a loss about our own lives, in that dangerous moment in which you lose the grasp on your own life, you are free to see yourself without the haze of your self-justifying ethics standing in the way. In that moment—a moment dangerous, as if balancing on the edge of a precipice—I saw myself as the pig I was. I saw that I was trampling on pearls and the sacred.
I hope you do not miss that this is, in some ways, precisely what recognizing the grace of God does to you. If your view of ethics and way of life are largely built around self-justification, then Jesus’ forgiveness is not some pleasant experience. It is surely full of mercy and grace, but it can destroy your life, throwing all your previous ways—not just sinning in the obvious ways, but sinning in that most sinister and sneaky manner, self-justification—away. And if this gave your life order, a confrontation with Jesus’ mercy will throw you directly into chaos. Like being baptized into death, or picking up a cross, or drinking the cup that Jesus drank. Through that, comes life.
And so it did for me: those pearls and the sacred suddenly began to re-form a framework into which the bits of floating facts surrounding me started finding their places. I saw moments in which people loved me that I had never recognized before. I saw the hand of God in my life, working even as I tried to shove Him away. My eyes were opened again, a little more to the beauty of God.
The point? The difference between a pig-Travis and human-Travis is that the human had come to recognize his ignorance. A pig does not know that it is ignorant. For a pig to become a human, that pig must lose its ethical-epistemological system of self-justification. In the language of the New Testament, the pig must die, must lose its life, and so be raised with Christ as the new man.
And we must not come to believe, even as Christians, that we have outgrown that ignorance. We have been gathered up by Christ. We do not own Him anymore than a fingernail owns the head. Or, put differently, we must not think that we have come to understand God any more than a man should ever come to think that he has understood his wife. For though I may understand my wife to some extent, if I ever have her completely figured out, completely nailed down, I would lose all desire to listen to her, to pursue her, and, well, to try to understand her. More fundamentally, it would show that I am ignorant of my own ignorance, for only a corpse can be completely understood. How much more does God stand above our understanding—yes, even if your theological knowledge is so grand that sermons are dull and the “average Christian” is not worthy to untie the thongs of your intellectual sandals.
God stands above us. Way above us. Recognition of our ignorance is a necessary condition for trusting in Him. That’s true for every human, even an impassioned, educated, Bible-memorizing, praying, fasting, activist, evangelizing-daily, feeding the hungry and clothing the naked Christian. And definitely for me.
But here’s the beauty of all this: Recognizing one’s own ignorance is not, as it may first appear, a kind of dead end, a stalling of learning and pursuit. It is just the opposite: It opens the door for greater understanding, a passionate pursuit of that which you don’t understand. And this passionate pursuit is contingent upon a trust, a faith, that the One whom you pursue is worth the pursuit.
 Note here that if you in fact hate John, you may quite easily remember and “understand the fit” of information about John’s weaknesses. Of course, you can do this because you see injuring John as “good” (you might not say that it is good, but you nevertheless, in a sense deeper than your words, believe it to be a good thing). Of course, this “good” and this “fit” are weak and shallow—easily acquired and cheaply held. Socrates’ elenchus, which I mention just below, works to undermine such cheap understandings of “good” throughout Plato’s corpus. For these vicious forms of “good” can very quickly be shown to lead to fatal inconsistencies. Love of John, even if he is your enemy (and may even need to be made incapable of acting), gives to one the true good and true fit, which is difficult to acquire and held at a cost to oneself. The valuable, of which the Good is the source, always requires sacrifice to acquire. Of course, while a believer may not hold to Plato’s metaphysic of the Good, it is not difficult to recognize that love of neighbor and love of God are not merely two unrelated commandments, but that they are organically united. You can’t have one without the other. So, too, we might say: The valuable, of which God is the source, always requires sacrifice to acquire. For to love John is to better know him than to hate him, for to love John is to better love God, who is the source of all truth, understanding, and good. And to fail to know and love God, no matter how much information you possess, is to walk in darkness, (arrogantly) stumbling about blindly.
 Plato seems to have believed that virtue was largely an all-or-nothing thing. To have one virtue properly is to have all of them. And so while his interlocutors may have exhibited a virtue, it was really a sort of reflection or adulterated image of the virtue. It was this holistic virtue that Socrates’ interlocutors seemed incapable of embracing, not the specific (semi-)virtues that they practiced.