Brilliance in Pursuit of Futility

10 July, 2008

Today I had an off-site program up at a scout camp to the north.  I used my own vehicle, so (((Wife))) could come along.  It gave us a chance to talk without the normal household interruptions, which was kind of nice.

We talked about the church she attended while in Junior and Senior High — a UCC church just outside of Boston.  Her minister (for whom she also occasionally babysat) had a Doctor of Divinity from Harvard.  The man was absolutely brilliant.  Intimidatingly brilliant.  He had devoted most of his life to the study of one set of books written between 1800 and 3,000 years ago.  He spent a large chunk of his life arguing which version of the Bible, which translation of the Bible, which pieces of which story, were the actual word of God. 

Well, I’ve heard it said that, in any discipline, the further along you go in your education, the more you know about less and less.  I admire anyone who can manage a doctorate from Harvard.  That is impressive.  But, I have to wonder.  Could he have devoted his intelligence to a less useful discipline?  A doctorate in divinity strikes me as an absolute waste of brain power. 

I majored in history (specifically European military history (focusing on the modern period (ca 1500 to present))), so my comment may seem a little hypocritical.  After all, does the study of the Bible or the study of real history have any real effect on the world?   I can show at least one instance (off the top of my head) in which the study of history has had a real effect — during the Cuban Missile Crisis, John Kennedy read Barbara Tuchmann’s The Guns of August which laid out an effective argument showing that the First World War had been an accident.   Kennedy altered his approach, consciously trying to avoid an accidental war.

Arguing about a set of anonymous stories collected in it’s (approximate) current form 1800 years ago really doesn’t help today.  If anything, by narrowing the options available to only what is found in those few pages, the study of the Bible forces decision makers into an us-versus-them mentality which, had Kennedy thought along those lines, would have made a catastrophic war more likely, not less.

Now for the question which may generate flames:  Did (((Wife)))’s brilliant minister, with a Doctor of Divinity from Harvard, possessed of an insightful mind, really believe the ‘miracles’ within the Bible?  Would not study have exposed the contradictions, mistranslations, complete lack of contemporary historical references, bowdlerizations, or outright impossibilities?  What selective cognizant dissonance allows an otherwise brilliant person to swallow that one piece of absurdity on faith when all other education focuses upon proof?



  1. Intelligence also equips one to be quite a rationalizer.

  2. Damn! How do you do that? You (or some other of my frequent visitors) always come up with exactly the salient point I missed.

  3. It’s probably a good thing that the research on the first world war since 1963 wasn’t available to Kennedy. If I’m understanding my reading correctly, it was no accident. Of course he might have come to the same conclusion, but on the grounds of seeing it as arrogance, stupidity, and bigotry.

  4. Ric: Agreed. A very good argument can be made that Germany intentionally expanded a Balkan war into a European war out of fear that Russia was expanding too quickly. Better a war now than in five or ten years was the thought of the German General Staff. A good book on the subject, incorporating some of the post-cold-war archival research is “Europe’s Last Summer” by David Fromkin.

  5. Nice point. I agree that we live in the age of the specialist.

    But I also wholeheartedly agree with Ric’s idea of rationalization. The flip side of the coin: an educated specialist might not be knowledgeable in a particular subject, but can approach it rationally without any existing biases in place.

    Wow, that’s too much thinking for a Friday.

  6. () –

    I read the Fromkin book last year, along with reading and skimming a bunch of others for a history group I started at the local bookstore. Interesting stuff. WWI always fascinated me more than any of the other modern wars for some reason.

  7. Ric: I feel the same way. I started as a WWII buff, but trying to understand that war without understanding WWI didn’t work. Some of the historical threads I’ve followed (in a roundabout way) back to the 14th or 15th centuries.

    Tuchmann’s conclusion was based on the available research and, for its time, was good. It’s still one of the most enjoyable histories of the outbreak.

    Another good one (not as readable as Fromkin or Tuchman) is “Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy” by David Stevenson. He also leans toward the ‘intentional’ synthesis, but also focuses a great deal on the political and economic intricacies.

  8. Damn! How do you do that? You (or some other of my frequent visitors) always come up with exactly the salient point I missed.

    That’s just how I roll.

  9. ()-

    I tried Cataclysm, but it was so dense that I couldn’t make headway in it in time for the group. Only two people in the group managed it. It’s one I’ve been meaning to go back to because what I managed to read was fascinating. Of course it doesn’t help that I can’t seem to read with the speed and appetite I had for it twenty or thirty years ago, when I read Tuchman, which was definitely enjoyable. I have a whole shelf of WWI books that I’ll probably never get through – just like all the other shelves of this stuff or that stuff. I’ve become a bookrat, the close relative of the packrat.

  10. Ric: I’m actually on Cataclysm for the second time. Turgid, but good. For the ultimate in turgid prose, though, try Sidney Fey’s two volume Origins. I think there are a couple of pages with only one sentence and five or six foot notes.

    Philly: With a roll bar?

  11. WWI generally interested me less than WWII or other wars because it just seemed so bloody pointless. All those people died for what? And the forces set in motion in the war’s aftermath, the rise of Bolshevism, fascism and Nazism.

    There was a good movie made a few years ago that I saw a number of times about “The Lost Battalion” that was set during the end of WWI. Another one I recall but don’t remember the title was about Siegfried Sasson and some other British guy recuperating in a hospital before being sent back.

  12. My father in law was a WWI vet, and I had an eighth grade teacher who was, too. I also knew several in German the times I was stationed there.

    Here is something I heard posited seriously by a German professor: that German High Command considered it less of a problem to roll ahead with the planned agression than to pull in its horns when the opprotunity presented itself. He showed me some documents which stated that the loss of face to the public and the time and cost of a stand down would be too much to absorb.

    Whatever the weight behind that theory, as a former army brat and career soldier I wouldn’tbe a bit surprised.

    That’s the thing about the military, just when you think you’ve seen and heard the most ridiculous, absurd, senseless, cake headed, squirrel brained thing it’s possible to observe, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

  13. Sarge: I think that fear of the future may have driven the German high command more than fear of loss of face. The German officers were convinced that in 1911, they could have won easily, in 1914, they might win, but by 1917, there was no way that they would be able to defeat Russia. Loss of face would have been a factor withe the middle levels of the German officer corps, but fear fo falling behind seems to have been the driving force at the strategic level.

    The military can be bizarre. If left to themselves, the military will develop an incestuous cliqueishness (if that’s a word), isolating themselves so thoroughly that they are cut off from reality — the French ‘attack, attack, attack’ philosophy is a good example of this. If the military is too integrated with the civilian world, too integrated with the government, the military will be tempted to show the civilians how it should be done. A healthy distance between the civilian world and the military, coupled with a free flow of officers and enlisted between the civilian and military world leads to a pretty good balance — a military with proper traditions (the NCOs) coupled with new ideas to deal with new situations. Despite the abuse suffered under the Bush administration, the US military (especially at the middle and lower levels) shows (to me) the proper mix of tradition and independent thought. Unfortunately, failure is the best teacher to separate out the ridiculous, absurd, senseless, cake headed (never heard that one), and squirrel brained from the brilliant. Bush is pretty damn good at providing the failure, though.

    Tommy: I strongly suggest a couple of books: Europe’s Last Summer (mentioned above) and Tuchmann’s The Proud Tower. These two help one to understand what it was for which people thought they were fighting. I started studying WWI to understand WWII. Then I studied the Franco-Prussian war to understand WWI. Then I studied the Napoleonic wars to understand the Franco-Prussian war (I tend to follow threads to illogical extremes).

  14. () –

    Let me know when you get to Gaugamela.

    And please, folks, let’s not insult squirrels. They’re a damn sight smarter than Bush’s brain and apparently the brains of most of the Republican Party leadership.

  15. Right on the squirrels, Ric. But just ten minutes ago I saw the squirrel gene pool get skimmed.

    One was running down the power lines and stopped to challenge another in a near by tree.

    Bad mistake. A red-shouldered hawk came (seemingly) out of nowhere and had him on toast.

    Yet another example of the truth of the cliche’, “keep your ass off the skyline”.

  16. sarge –

    Was the hawk carrying toast or did he have a toaster with him? Solar powered toaster maybe?

    Don’t ya love the war movies where the heroes are trekking along the ridgeline? ‘Nope, nope, nope, no Nazis within a mile of us here, but a great camera shot, eh boys?’

  17. Sorry, Ric, just using an expression. No grain products or battery powered toasters were in evidence.

    (aside: when I was last in England I got a tasrte for beans on toast and Welsh rarebit…Thinking about it has stimulated the jones for those items yet again…)

    I live pretty well inside of town, but we have quite a bit of wildlife, and Big wildlife at that, that is very much in evidence.
    We see the usual racoons and possums every day, but we also see foxes, coyotes, and deer. Every now and again a bear waltzes through town as well. A few years ago we had one nake it almost to the one hospital.

    As a former grunt I always get a charge out of war movies. They’re good for a laugh, then nightmares remembering seeing what happened to people who actually DID act like it was a John Wayne movie. And even worse, the people around them.

  18. Damn, I was really hoping for a toaster-shouldered hawk to add to my bird list.

    I get the occasional possum, some raccoons, an occasional coyote, and cats in my yard, and the occasional hawk strike on birds that come by for the cat kibble. No deer or naked women, but one can hope.

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