If insanity can be defined as not having a complete grip on reality, then I think all of us (except the saints) are at least a little bit crazy some of the time and some of us are crazy a lot a lot of the time, and a few of us are crazy all the time.
Remember that it is only the ones who have lost total grip on reality who are confined to a hospital or prison somewhere. Most of the rest of us crazy people are wandering about living lives of quiet desperation not sure if we are really grasping all of reality all the time, and the ones who I worry about the most are the ones who think they are never crazy not even a little bit, ever and have everything sewn up and are think they are totally 100% sane and in control all the time.
Those folks give me the creeps.
In fact we see all sorts of craziness around us all the time. Increasingly in our society across a range of issues we are witnessing people whose grip on reality is slipping. In other words, they have lost the plot, they are ignoring facts, they are blind to evidence and denying not only complicated truths, but simple, ordinary common sense truths.
How do we get into such a state? Through faulty thinking. There are lots of different types of faulty thinking, but here are four to consider which are at epidemic proportions not only in our society, but in our church too.
The first way of thinking that will drive you (and other people) crazy is what might be called the “chronological error”. This is the idea that a particular thing is good or bad because it is either new or old. A conservatively minded person might imagine that anything before the 1960s, for example, is good and anything after that is bad. A progressive would think exactly the opposite. This error in thinking could take place in most any sphere of activity or thought. It might affect a person’s political views or their family relationships or it could affect their religious opinions. So a traditionalist Catholic might get it into his head that the only liturgy or papal documents or devotional books that are legitimate are from the papacy of a certain pope and earlier while a progressive Catholic might rubbish anything pre-Vatican II. I had a bishop in England once who mandated that at liturgies where he was officiating no one could sing hymns that were composed before 1963. Really.
The chronological error is obvious to anyone with a smidgen of common sense. A thing is not good or bad because it is either new or old. There is some good old stuff and old stuff that is junk. There is new stuff that is junk and new stuff that is good. Not only is the chronological error obviously stupid to anyone with common sense, when you push it further it becomes even more absurd because who is to say where the cut off point is? Does the Catholic traditionalist who is inclined to the chronological error say that it is the papacy of Pius XII which is the point when the rot began? Why Pius XII? What about all the rotten popes and corruption before Pius XII and what about all the good people and good stuff that has happened after Pius XII? Likewise, where does the progressive begin his era when all things suddenly became good?
No. The chronological error is a form of relativism–in which individuals decide for themselves that something is good or bad simply because of it’s sell by label.
The second way of thinking that will drive you (and other people) crazy is “the fallacy of size.” On social media earlier this week some atheist put up a meme which said something to the effect, “Christians believe God created a universe 13.79 billion years old, 93 billion light years in diameter consisting of over 200 billion galaxies each containing an average of 200 billion stars only to have a personal relationship with you.” Again, just a smidgen of common sense will reveal this to be idiotic. We don’t judge value of something by size alone–even if that size is very, very, very, very big or very, very, very, very tiny. An elephant is not more important than an infant. A virus can kill more people than a big bomb. The Sahara has many grains of sand, but one diamond would be worth ten trillion grains of sand.
Yet, we fall for the fallacy of size all the time. This person is better because he has more money. That person is better because she has more Twitter followers. This person is better because he is more famous. Size has very little to do with intrinsic value. The universe could be ten times the size it is, but God’s relationship with you might be the most important thing in that cosmos. My daughter may be miles and miles away, and living in a big city with millions of people, but she is still the most important young lady to me.
The third way of thinking that will drive you crazy is sentimentalism. This is judging something only on your feelings. Note that feelings are not to be ruled out completely, but they are not the sole reason for making a judgment. Usually we think of sentimentalism as being nice emotions…kind emotions…gentle and loving emotions. So we say, “I can’t really judge Janet for living with her boyfriend because they are both such nice people and they are such good friends and I really don’t want to offend them and what they’re doing is not really hurting anyone!” It is certainly good to be nice and kind, but if we make moral judgments only on that basis it will end in tears and insanity.
What we often forget when we get locked into sentimentalism is that the nice, sweet, kind and merciful emotions are not the only ones. Furthermore, like chocolate, they will melt in the heat. In other words, when things get stressful the other emotions burst out. The ugly scenes we see on college campuses and in street riots are a form of sentimentalism too, only the emotions ruling the actions are ugly emotions of hatred and rage rather than sweetness, light and tolerance.
Furthermore, if you begin with nothing but sweetness, light, tolerance and indulgence you will almost invariably end up with the other emotions which are anything but sweetness and light. This is why Flannery O’Connor’s pithy quote “Tenderness leads to the gas chambers” hits home. More about this idea here and here.
The fourth way of thinking that will drive you crazy is utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is the idea that what is best is what brings the most people happiness. Another definition is “what works is best.” Like sentimentalism, using this criteria for judgement is not all bad, but if it is the only basis for judgement of a thing being good or bad you’ll end up crazy and probably murderous. There are simply to many variables to such a methodology. Who is to say what makes a person happy? What do we do with the people who do not with to sacrifice their material goods or their ideas or their religion or their way of life in order to make the majority happy? Shall we eliminate them? That is what tyrants have tried to do, and that’s what we do with inconvenient people like unborn babies, criminals and most anybody who inconveniences us.
Utilitarianism, in the end, can’t help but be a lowest common denominator, cost efficient, cheap and brutal solution to a problem.
What kind of thinking does not drive you crazy? How can one make proper decisions? The criteria is not size or age or usefulness or how we feel about a thing. Instead we judge according to whether a thing, a course of action, an idea or a decision contributes to what is beautiful, good and true. Where do we find the standards of what is beautiful, good and true?
I think the standard for what is good are the lives of the saints. There we find individuals who are truly sane and truly good. If we studied the lives of the saints we would find human beings who are not swayed by the four ways of thinking that drive you crazy. They live according to a higher value of goodness and because their lives are not theoretical, but solid, concrete and real they offer a positive and tangible example and standard of goodness.
Where do we identify what is beautiful? In all the art, music, poetry, architecture and literature that has stood the test of time. This is not a hidden form of the chronological fallacy. We’re not saying these things are good just because they are old. We’re saying that any art, music, poetry, architecture and literature from any culture and religion tha has stood the test of time has within it some transcendental beauty that helps us to determine what is beautiful and what we should aim for.
Finally, what is True? We find Truth within common sense and human conscience. Deep down people know what is true and what is not, but when we are pursuing a lie we should turn to the people who are most blessed with common sense: little children and the poor. This is not to sentimentalize either the poor or little children, but only to recognize that very often they are the ones who see clearly and who have a vision that is unclouded by an over intellectualized and deceitful approach.
These three ways of discerning beauty, truth and goodness are available to anyone, but for Christians our standard is, of course, Jesus Christ himself and his blessed Mother. He said, “I Am the Way, the Truth and the Life.” He might just as well have said, “I Am the Beauty, Truth and Goodness” for beauty, truth and goodness are interwoven like three braided ropes with the Way, the Truth and the Life.