When I read Philadelphia Archbishop, Charles J. Chaput’s recent article entitled, How Catholics Can Save Civilization, I was reminded of Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s concept of “irony” which he developed in his 1952 book The Irony of American History.
Niebuhr wrote irony was, “apparently fortuitous incongruities in life which are discovered, upon closer examination, to be not merely fortuitous.” That definition sounds much like the literary device authors employ to create humorous situations. However, Niebuhr did not use irony in his book for comedic reasons but as a foundation for an ethical construct. He wrote:
But irony is something more than a comedy. A comic situation is proved to be an ironic one if a hidden relation is discovered in the incongruity. If virtue becomes vice through some hidden defect in the virtue; if strength becomes weakness because of the vanity to which strength may prompt the mighty man or nation; if security is transmuted into insecurity because too much reliance is placed upon it; if wisdom becomes folly because it does not know its own limits – in all such cases the situation is ironic.
In summation, Niebuhrian irony is concerned with the unintended consequences of human action brought about due to a lack of vision.
A commentator on Niebuhr’s book, Jeremy Plant, wrote: “For political and administrative leaders, it is especially tempting to underestimate the ironic element in favor of action that seems on the surface to be both effective and ethical.”
I believe we can point to numerous examples where political leaders rushed to accomplish something, most times just to please a constituency, without taking adequate inventory of the potential long term outcomes (e.g. invading Afghanistan, Obamacare, gay-marriage). They may have believed, really, truly, believed, their actions were “effective and ethical” (i.e. retaliation for 9/11, providing health insurance, equal “rights” for gay Americans) but unforeseen (or ignored) consequences show the “irony” of attempting to act effectively and ethically when using only a limited vision.
What follows now is the beginning of Archbishop Chaput’s article, How Catholics Can Save Civilization. One can gain a sense of Niebuhrian irony, even if not explicitly mentioned by the archbishop, in sentences like this: “We pay for our overconfidence and self-absorption just like everyone else. Fools with tools are still fools. Technology, wealth and power may feed our vanity, but they’re not the same as wisdom, moral purpose and character.”
My task today is talking about our culture, and how we might change and renew it. And I’m glad to do that. But I’d like to begin with a few observations.
Some years ago I was browsing through the newspapers, and I came across a story from The New York Times. The headline read: “Why the ignorant are blissful: Inept individuals ooze confidence, study shows.” It turns out that David Dunning, a professor at Cornell University, did a study of incompetence. And what he found is that most incompetent people don’t know they’re incompetent. In fact, people who do things badly tend to be very confident about their ability. They’re often more confident than the people who do things well.
Dunning went on to find that the ignorant overestimate their abilities for a good reason. The skills they lack for competence are usually the same skills they need to recognize their own incompetence. In fact, according to one of Dunning’s colleagues, “not only do [incompetent people] reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it.”
I should add that, as a result of his study, Dr. Dunning soon began worrying about his own competence.
Now that’s a true story, and we can smile at it. But the lesson we need to draw from it today is a serious one. As a nation and as individuals, we’re not as smart as we think we are. What we learned — or should have learned — from 9/11, Iraq and Afghanistan, is that we stumble and bleed just like everyone else. We pay for our overconfidence and self-absorption just like everyone else. Fools with tools are still fools. Technology, wealth and power may feed our vanity, but they’re not the same as wisdom, moral purpose and character. And they don’t give us any security, because only God can do that.
I believe that Americans are a great people, a good people, and that even today, America remains a great experiment in human dignity. But it’s an experiment that depends on our respect for the sanctity of the human person. And “sanctity” is an idea that makes no sense without God, who seems less and less welcome in our national discourse.
The historian Gertrude Himmelfarb once noted that America in our lifetime is “living off the religious capital of a previous generation, and [that] capital is being perilously depleted.” When the capital is gone, we may not like the results, because the more we delete God from our public life and our private behavior, the more we remove the moral vocabulary that gives our culture meaning.
We need to understand that the more secular we become, the more our sense of community erodes, and the more we feed four problems that cripple us as a society.