The Struggle To Know Ourselves

The Struggle To Know Ourselves

The Struggle To Know Ourselves 150 150 Brian Niece

Why do so many of us prefer to remain willfully ignorant or at least blissfuly unaware?

We develop assumptions. These assumptions, or opinions, are formed over years, through experiences, through what we are taught, through how we are shaped by our societal, cultural, familial, and religious traditions. The sum of what has made us seems to be insurmountable in the face of any doubts we may have.

So we relent and relinquish our life of the mind. We submit to the inertia of time and the voices around us. We stop thinking. Or when we do think, difficulties flood us like a flow from a faucet, so we staunch the torrent by quickly closing the valve. We know the maelstrom that awaits us if we let the mental faucet begin to drip. So we deny that it is even there. “Look!” we say. “The faucet is turned off.”

Raising a Critical Thinker

My father used to be quite the social progressive. When I was just a child, he once preached a message against capital punishment, against the death penalty in the US. This happened to be the very Sunday in Tennessee where at midnight a man had been put to death for his crimes, having exhausted all appeals.

It wasn’t a very popular sermon. But my dad always stressed the importance of critical thinking, of examining our opinions. And he not only talked about it during my formative years, he practiced it.

This un-Southern type of thinking shaped me. This is the same father — who I deeply love and admire, by the way — who today quotes talking points from conservative pundits as to why capital punishment is necessary and, indeed, a good for society.

One might argue that my father rejected the “liberal” voices of his youth, or his schooling, or his peers and finally smelled the realistic coffee. He used his mind, and made a different decision. Perhaps.

But the focus for this post is on how my father shaped me. I was shaped to be a critical thinker.

A critical thinker is someone who looks at the prevailing societal winds and does not take them as evident truth. Instead, I was raised to be someone who asks many questions about what many others take for granted. To really get to know the history behind an idea, to consider different angles about it, and only once I was sure what my conviction was, to decide how I felt about it.

In other words, I was raised and shaped to not be ignorant, but to be a critical thinker.

I don’t say this haughtily, as if I am somehow above ignorance. In fact, very often I react emotionally to a concept, assertion, or societal prevailing wind, without engaging with my critical-thinking upbringing. I blow off steam, I might post an unwise venting on social media, I might let someone know how frustrated I am.

I’m ashamed of those moments. It’s at those times I am indeed ignorant.

Why do we so often opt for the emotional release, rather than doing the hard work of self-reflection?

The Myth of the “Christian Nation”

Unfortunately, there are so many societal examples of ignorance winning the day, it’s difficult to choose one here. And any narrative I choose will inevitably upset people. Alas, such is the nature of communication. So here goes …

The strong and resounding narrative that gained preeminence in the 20th-century, and continues today, of US America being a “Christian” nation is a display of ignorance. The tired plot goes like this: our country was founded by Christians upon Christian ideals and as “one nation under God.” If we ignore these Christian ideals and shut God out of our narrative (presumably by doing things like banning prayer in public settings, by not allowing businesses to deny service to certain customers on “religious” grounds, by not electing God-fearing politicians, or any of dozens of other illogical steps) then God will no longer bless this nation, this supposed light on a hill.

This concept is rife with ignorance. Yet if we were to have doubts about the veracity of this narrative, if we were to question the stuff of this story, we would be drowned out with angry diatribes of so many who like to keep the faucet shut off.

Defining the concept of “Christian” is perhaps the trickiest and most fundamental slippery slope in this narrative.

Since the 4th century, when Roman emperor Constantine usurped Christianity and made it the state religion, the concept of “Christianity” has been tied in Western tradition to something other than simply followers of a guy named Jesus who was the incarnation of the divine God he called Father. “Christianity” carries all kinds of societal trappings, power structures, diverse and possibly unending theological frameworks, and undercurrents of particular cultural climes. Today, when many white, evangelical Americans hear the terms “Christian” or “Christianity” the sense is something other than following the Jesus of sacred texts. It includes many cultural conditions, moral imperatives, assents of certain beliefs, historical power structures, and so forth.

Even with this parsing of the concept of “Christianity” it is important to understand the difference between any definition of Christianity and the definition of Deism.

A Deist is not a Christian in the classical, or any real, sense. Many of our country’s founders were Deists. One needs only to read the writings of Adams, Jefferson, and Washington to see the proof. A Deist does believe in a divine entity that creates, but once that God has created, he steps back from his creation and is uninvolved with its unfolding. A Deist does need the historical personage of Jesus to be part of the faith equation.

Classically, a Christian is someone who follows the risen Jesus Christ. A God who shows up in a specific person, Jesus, who lives as an outcast, dies as an outcast, and defeats death through resurrection is hardly a God that is uninvolved with the unfolding of creation.

Additionally, Jesus-followers (a term I am using to differentiate from the culturally acclimated “Christian”) would be adverse to things such as armed revolt, institutional slavery, systems of class hierarchy, denying basic human rights to any portion of humanity. Our nation was founded by, through, and on such things.

Many would argue the United States was founded on “Christian” ideals. No, it was not. Deist principles, enlightenment philosophy, and treasonous revolt (at least to the English king of the Colonies) were far more the shaping tenor of this nation’s founding. We could assert that the United States was founded on a Judeo-Christian heritage and tradition. There is more evidence for this. But a Judeo-Christian heritage has little to do with following Jesus Christ (see above).

Finally, the notion that this nation, or any nation, is somehow exceptional or blessed by God is anathema to the way of Jesus. Jesus shows us that the God he calls Father was clearly trying to bless the entire world through Abraham and his descendants. No one is special, no tribe, no nation.

Know Thyself

To not see the veracity of this history I’ve unfolded is at least to be blissfully unaware, and at worst to be willfully ignorant. If one does not investigate the story themselves, by doing the hard work of reading and thinking critically, then that one is choosing to be unaware or ignorant.

It is so much easier to escape doing the real work of educating the self and thinking critically about what has been learned in order to form judgments.

This is why ignorance contains so much bliss, particularly if the ignorance is not willful.

To not know, is to be able to easily accept what is handed to us without question. To not know, is to live the unexamined life of happiness which does not mess with our simple realities.

One of the most important shrines in ancient Greece was the Oracle at Delphi. The oracle was not so much a prognosticator of the future, but an impetus to think critically about all manners of life. It was a place of intellectual inquiry. Inscribed in the front of the court of Apollo’s Temple at Delphi was this simple phrase: “Know thyself.”

To know ourselves, to know what is about ourselves, we must first know what is not ourselves. We must know what is other from us.

The most dangerous curse of ignorance is that the ignorant person will not only not know himself, but he will not know what is not himself.

Interestingly, it was under the rule of Constantine, the “Christian” Emperor, when Christianity had finally become the state religion and the lure of religious power crept in, that the Oracle and Delphi was demolished and deemed “pagan.”

Ever since, we struggle to know ourselves.

A More Robust Joy

Perhaps there is no bliss in ignorance at all. Definitely, there cannot be anything but forced happiness in willful ignorance. And bliss for the completely unaware is likely fleeting.

This is because full happiness only comes through struggle. Robust joy only comes through strife. I admit, these statements are colored by my assent to the notion that authentic life requires some sort of death.

The life of the mind is not an existence of blissful ease. Rather, to know ourselves we must struggle with the strife of letting our unexamined opinions die.

Only then can we know the fullness of joy that comes by really knowing what is.


To know ourselves we must struggle with the strife of letting our unexamined opinions die. @brianmniece Click To Tweet


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Brian Niece

Brian Niece is a former pastor, who was a former actor, now navigating the fringes of all things institutional. He is a speaker and author communicating to and for outsiders and outliers. He hosts the Reimagining Podcast about rethinking ourselves, our culture, our faith … maybe everything. Find out more at

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