Herbert Spencer was one of Europe’s most famous intellectuals in the closing decades of the nineteenth century. But this philosopher, sociologist, and evolutionary theorist lost plenty of favor in his later years. Critics assailed him for his absence of humility. He lacked the tireless curiosity of one of his contemporaries, Charles Darwin, preferring instead to collect facts useful for illustrating theories he had already preconceived. As one historian put it, he was “enslaved to preconceived notions about all kinds of matters.”
When Spencer wrote his autobiography, he assembled the letters from his life and drew upon only those passages that confirmed his own view of himself. He edited out the inconvenient portions and destroyed them.
I suppose this instinct to want to edit out inconvenient experiences and memories is common to all of us. Like Spencer, we tend to see a world that we have come to believe. We find what we are looking for. This is true not only in the realm of self-assessment, but also in evaluating other people, sizing up politics, and interpreting culture.
Increasingly, I am discovering that the people who most impress me are those reflective souls who try to take stock of a much larger picture than their own minds can manage. They have undying curiosity to try and see what they cannot see, and learn what they do not know. These people are not unprincipled or without conviction; their certainty is merely tempered. They lack the arrogance of someone who knows it all. They track different news sources not to learn how to fortify their own opinions but to enlarge personal perspective. They listen extremely well.
When the neurologist and author Oliver Sacks was dying, he spoke of wanting to keep growing new insight and understanding throughout his remaining days. As cancer invaded his own brain, he probed his legacy. “I would like it to be thought that I had listened carefully to what patients and others have told me, that I’ve tried to imagine what it was like for them, and that I tried to convey this. And, to use a biblical term, bear witness.”
Those of us whose primary identity is Christian understand this job description of bearing witness. We may not be very good witnesses on any number of fronts. But we’ve at least heard the words of Jesus, who in summing up the character of his own life, was able to say to those nearby, “You are witnesses of these things.”
To be a good witness is to listen well, to try and imagine what life is like for others, and to get outside of our own limited perspectives. None of this is particularly easy to do. But Jesus’ own life, death, and resurrection provide some bearings. When we succeed in bearing thoughtful witness, others will benefit from the testimony of our lives, and perhaps from autobiographies of ours that will read really well.
Copyright © 2017 Peter W. Marty. All rights reserved. Any use of this material must be attributed to Peter W. Marty. To reproduce this material in published format, please contact Peter.