Vail Daily column: Flex your mind in a complex world
Locking intellectual horns with St. Augustine and Thomas Jefferson, Sen. Ted Cruz loses. Cruz charges into a black and white universe where he pitches simple answers. In contrast, St. Augustine and Jefferson viewed life through lens revealing a complex world. Whereas Cruz closes options, St. Augustine and Jefferson kept them open.
Cruz doesn’t believe two people can size up the same topic and see it differently. He objects to author Anton Chekhov’s conviction: “We will declare frankly that nothing is clear in this world. Only fools and charlatans know and understand everything.” Cruz chops life into two camps; the villainous half he abhors and the virtuous half he supports. In a complex world, however, villainy and virtue are entangled, like strands of rope.
Lacking mental flex, Cruz blasts opponents by using a verbal tic that justifies his certainty about all topics. “Finally, finally, finally,” Cruz repeats each time he lays down the law. Using three finallys, he voices few reservations about securing the borders. He’ll abolish the Internal Revenue Service, rip to shreds the Iranian nuclear deal, repeal every word of Obamacare, force Congress to adopt a “simple flat tax,” and roll back President Obama’s “illegal executive amnesty” for Mexicans.
Forceful, inflexible rhetoric gets a wide hearing in this fanciful clear-cut world. Cruz practices political and religious fundamentalism. A fundamentalist claims convictions straight-on, with no chance of using a different slant to size-up a topic. Fundamentalists reject differing perspectives. There’s only one right way of thinking—their way, which happens to be God’s way, too.
A maturing St. Augustine, born in 534 A.D. in today’s Algeria, backed-off from Christian fundamentalism. He ditched an all-explanatory faith. In his religious odyssey, “The Confessions,” Augustine prayed what Cruz can’t bring himself to utter: “You have made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless, until they find their rest in Thee.”
Vital Christian faith cultivates restless curiosity that Cruz rejects. Not restlessness that leaves us hanging over an abyss of uncertainty. But restless curiosity that sparks vivid interest, searches for new angles and cultivates humility in a world lacking clear answers.
Cruz is smart but not wise. His mind is captive to sureness. He lacks restless curiosity.
Thomas Jefferson’s mind ran in an opposite direction from Cruz’s. Monticello’s sage embraced options that Cruz negates. Jefferson believed what the Good Book taught, that we dimly see “through a glass darkly” (I Corinthians 13: 12). Ancient people used burnished copper or bronze as mirrors. Shadowy reflections left indistinct images. Cruz sounds as if his faith acts like a modern mirror in which all things are perfectly reflected.
He contrives a slanted history of America’s freedom. God is freedom’s author, he barks, not the Constitution. Patriots fought for freedom against the British in 1776 and won.
Jefferson framed the history of American freedom’s origins differently because of complex core dynamics. Not all patriots were freedom fighters. Only a third hard-core resisters detested King George III’s taxation. Another third were opportunists. If George Washington was winning, then they sold crops to feed his troops. When the Crown won battles, then colonials harvested food for the Redcoats. On the outskirts of and in New York City, another third of colonials sided with Britain. They didn’t want to lose property by offending the British. The Revolutionary War was fought in uncertain times. The path to freedom wasn’t clear.
“To treat the Revolution as a set piece pitting an evil empire of Englishmen against the noble band of Americans (as Cruz preaches) does a disservice to both,” writes Jefferson historian Jon Meacham, “for it caricatures Britain and it minimizes the anguishing complexities that Jefferson and his contemporaries faced in choosing accommodation or reform or rebellion. Most Americans were, after all, of British descent. And American culture in the decades leading up to the Revolution was deferential to, and even celebratory of, monarchy” (“Thomas Jefferson Then and Now: the Legacy and Lessons of an American Original,” June 29, 2015, 2015 Aspen Ideas Festival).
Cruz sounds like a pit bull that locks its jaws on a bone and won’t let go. Cruz doesn’t back-off from clarity in all things that serves his political advance. He detests the give-and-take of politics. He disdains compromise. Like a dog returning to its bone, he can’t resist a comfort zone of debate where his right answers prevail. His inflexibility thrives in a win or lose universe.
In her commentary “Too-Smooth Cruz,” Peggy Noonan finds troubling Cruz’s absolute certainty in an uncertain world. “Mr. Cruz knows his reputation as the angry surly-face of the dark side of conservatism. He’s the government-shutdown artist, the living answer to the question, ‘What if Joe McCarthy went to Harvard Law?’ He says it’s a caricature” (The Wall Street Journal, p. A-13, Saturday/Sunday, March 28-29, 2016).
Cruz rarely flexes his mind. He’s never clueless. St. Augustine and Jefferson searched for clues in uncertain times. Their intellectual curiosity wins against Cruz.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries.
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