The world against me rages, its fury I disdain;
Though bitter war it wages, its work is all in vain.
My heart from care is free, no trouble troubles me.
Misfortune now is play, and night is bright as day.

--Awake, My Heart, with Gladness (Auf, Auf, Mein Herz, mit Freuden), Paul Gerhardt

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Should libraries ever be “neutral”? Can any library? One Christian’s perspective (part III of III)

Picking up from part I and part II

There is no doubt that all of us have the desire to know. It has been said that “knowledge is power” and while that is undoubtedly true, we are not only trying to simply gain more control of the cosmos when we endeavor to learn.  There are many things in life that we are simply curious about.  We seek “knowledge for its own sake” even as we sometimes seek to know things that others around us may not deem to be appropriate, relevant, or even true.   This was true of human beings even before the Enlightenment. 

That said, perhaps even this should give us pause, especially after considering the metaphysical claims of the Sprint ad embedded here (take some time to look at it).  Consider these challenging words from Parker Palmer’s To Know As we Are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey:

Curiosity sometimes kills, and our desire to control has put deadly power in some very unsteady hands.  We should not be surprised that knowledge launched from these sources is heading toward some terrible ends, undeflected by ethical values as basic as respect for life itself….  If curiosity and control are the primary motives for our knowing, we will generate a knowledge that eventually carries us not toward life but death.

But another kind of knowledge is available to us, one that begins in a different passion and is drawn towards other ends.  This knowledge can contain as much sound fact and theory as the knowledge we now possess, but because it springs from a truer passion it works towards truer ends.  This is a knowledge that originates…. In compassion, or love (pp. 26-27, HarperSanFrancisco, 1993, quoted in Christensen, p. 99)

In addition, wisdom would tell us that some knowledge is dangerous in the wrong hands, some knowledge is simply dangerous, and all will agree that there are at least some things we know (until they are shown to be false!) that need not and perhaps should not be doubted!  All this said, what does this mean for our conversation about this issue of neutrality?  Can more be said?  Is this something that we should strive for at all, even if it is nothing more than an ideal?

While there are certainly times in life where it is wrong to be “neutral”, I do think that there are times and places to strive for this – and to encourage such efforts – as much as possible.  By “neutrality” I simply mean giving a voice to persons who attempt, by their education and reasoning, to persuade others regarding issues that are very important to them and others.  In times such as these, it is a very special teacher who can hold student’s interest and is able to not tip his or her hat as to which way she leans about what she thinks about this or that – even if it is philosophically naïve to say that any person can truly be neutral!  As regards libraries, striving for some kind of neutrality – across a narrow or broad selection of topics – may not be able to be much of a focus for some as their missions will understandably guide the material that they select.  That said, libraries in aggregate can get very close to just this ideal, via the modern marvel of interlibrary loan, allowing the exchange of perhaps very disparate materials from very disparate institutions!

In the end, I think all real neutrality is impossible: we are all idealogues, every one.  The fact that evidence which is public, relevant and convincing is (evidently) important to many of us cannot change this fact – a fact that I do not think is necessarily bad.  The real problem and question, I suggest, is what kind of idealogues are we?  It seems to me that libraries are often made up idealogues who at least occasionally like to have their views challenged, which is another thing that attracted me to the profession.

That said, I can’t necessarily say the same thing for some other persons of the “liberally educated persuasion”.  Just the other day while listening to N.P.R., I heard a program in which highly educated men – men whom I have generally found to be quite reasonable – made it clear in no uncertain terms that “religious freedom” – that is the practices which flow from the beliefs I have discussed in this series – will need to be a casualty of the continued march of progress (ah, progress).  It was a jarring and disconcerting experience, even as I certainly am not ready to resort to feverish language about persecution. : )

Nevertheless, experiences like these makes statements like the following, from Wayne Bivens-Tatum’s book “Libraries and the Enlightenment”, all the more interesting to me: “Devout religious believers who also believe that everyone should worship as they do understandably dislike or even fear freedom and autonomy” (p. 35)

Is it possible that the “devout religious believers” Bivens-Tatum mentions might be a broader category than he thinks?  Is it possible that the number of those who fear “freedom and autonomy” might be more than he suspects?  In any case, I am always curious to know where men and women who sign on to the purely secular version of Enlightenment think “the rights of man” came from – if not simply from the “will to power”!  It seems to me that even highly educated persons can be as unreflective about questions like these as can those who produced the mind-blowing (or destroying!) Sprint ad above.  No, if this series of posts has caused anyone to even doubt the veracity of Bivens-Tatum’s statement above – as regards some devout Christians at least – it will have been worth my efforts. 

Just because I, for example, might have extremely strong convictions about what is true – that I generally don’t think are good to doubt – does not mean that I can’t genuinely engage other’s views and “learn from the disagreement” (the Catholic Christian and librarian Gabriel Naude [1600 – 1653] said: “God permits us to profit from our enemies”, quoted in Bivens-Tatum, 153).  And it definitely does not mean that I do not sometimes wonder whether I could be wrong about this or that.  And if even after confronting numerous persons and books of the contrary opinion I continue to hold on to a fierce conviction that everyone should indeed worship Christ, this certainly does not mean that I need to, as Christensen says, “beat someone over the head with [my] version of reality, truth, beauty, or goodness”.  Much less that I need to, as some frequently imply, pick up the sword about it if we disagree, i.e. be a “human[] willing to destroy for the sake of their abstractions”!* (p. 79, 80, The Gift and Task of Lutheran Higher Education, 2004 ; see p 123 and 192 as well)  The New Testament, after all, informs those who believe that Jesus Christ is God speaking to them in these “last days” that their weapons are not fleshly, but spiritual.  There are some judgments that only God is meant to administer.

But here is one judgment I feel confident in making: libraries – and perhaps “Enlightenment libraries” most of all – are a wonderful gift of God.

Soli Deo Gloria.

*though I certainly consider Christian doctrine more than an abstraction!

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