“Windows to transcendence” is the metaphor the brilliant sociologist Peter Berger offered, describing the way we see and don’t see the reality of the world around us. He argued that the Enlightenment vision of the modern world has closed those windows, believing that human beings do quite well, “enlightened” that we are as material accidents in a chaotic and closed universe.
Are there consequences in this for ordinary people in ordinary places, or is it “just academic”? The great scientist-become-philosopher Michael Polanyi, a Hungarian Jew, after watching Europe disintegrate through the world wars of the first half of his life, protested the arrogance of the 20th-century, “How dare we call ourselves ‘enlightened’!”
He lived in Berlin in the 1930s, working in the same research institute as Einstein. Both were Jews, and both left before the Holocaust began. When the second war finished, Polanyi left his laboratory to ask and answer one question: why it is possible that brilliant people can be bad people?
I have written about him extensively in other places, and even contributed to a Mars Hill Journal examination of his life and thought, “Tacit Knowing, Truthful Knowing.” In profound ways he has formed my mind and heart, teaching me about being human, especially about the integral relationship of knowing to doing.
I thought of Polanyi this morning, leaving for home. He spent the last years of his life in Oxford, continuing to work out his more personal and therefore more human understanding of knowledge. What does it mean to know? And how do we learn to become responsible for what we know?
The best questions, and the truest answers are never cheap. It is not too much to say that Polanyi placed his life on the line over this one question, leaving his Nobel Prize-pathway in chemistry because the answer mattered so much to him and the world.
By strange grace, after years of searching, he found his way through the door of transcendence, coming to believe that the truth of the universe could be found in the Incarnation, viz. that in the imitation of Christ we find our own deepest vocation as human beings, and therefore it will be in knowing as God knows that we find our own truest selves.
The best of us, the very best of us, can get all A’s and still flunk life, as Walker Percy always reminds us. Brilliant people can be bad people, simply said. But truth be told, no one, almost no one, imagines themselves as “bad.” We tell ourselves other stories about the whys and whats of our lives, justifying ourselves to ourselves and others, sometimes even to God. The harder truth, the more difficult truth, is of course that everyone of us stumbles, and sometimes badly.
Which is why doors like this matter. This one leads into St. Aldates Church in Oxford, a congregation begun about 1000 years ago, and on a wonderfully-sunshiny morning in May still draws sons of Adam and daughters of Eve into its worship. In Anglican liturgy, we first of all confess that we fall short of the glory of God– painfully aware that one more day, one more week, we have not known as God knows, nor have we loved as God loves.
What does it mean to know? Human beings have been perplexed about this for as long as we have been. In Oxford especially, there is perhaps the temptation to see academic excellence as moral excellence, that being smart is enough. But Polanyi saw it differently, and for a thousand important reasons written through history and in every heart, we all should.
Because we can get all A’s and still flunk life.