As my classmates and I were preparing for our study abroad in Rome, we had one professor tell us ladies in particular that we had to wipe those happy American smiles off our faces and proceed to greet the opportunistic foreign types with “looks of unmitigated hostility.” Americans are often known for being friendly happy sorts (remember the American soldier at the end of Life Is Beautiful?), and therefore present themselves as unsuspecting victims to certain unwelcome wiles. After one of my roommates had an overly-friendly man cat-call across the street at her, “Hey! Cali-fornia!” she started wearing a huge ring on her left finger in an attempt to ward off the creepers. Cue American Girl in Italy, a portrait personally and infamously known to myself and many of my classmates:
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as the reserved German Lutheran theologian that he was, found himself a little in awe of this American friendliness during the year he spent studying in the States:
Living together day by day produces a strong spirit of comradeship, of a mutual readiness to help. The thousandfold “hullo” which sounds through the corridors of the hostel in the course of the days and which is not omitted even when someone is rushing past is not as meaningless as one might suppose. . . . No one remains alone in the dormitory. The unreservedness of life together makes one person open to another. . . . One says nothing against another member of the dormitory as long as he is a “good fellow.” (104)
Beyond this genial good nature that existed in the hallways, he also noticed a great tendency towards generosity in his American classmates, a generosity in national character that did great things for all of Europe in the years following World War II (see the Marshall Plan):
The student body of Union Theological seminary has, over the winter, continually provided food and lodging for thirty unemployed — among them three Germans [Remember, this is in 1931. Memories of the Kaiser and hatred of the German nation were fresh and real in much of America]. . . . This has led to considerable personal sacrifice of time and money. (105)
Americans are friendly, he says. They’re generous. They’re kind and giving. They speak well of their comrades, and take care of people who need help. Aren’t we great? He even goes so far as to note that “in the conflict between determination for truth with all of its consequences and the will for community, the latter prevails” (104). Spectacular! We care so much about getting along with each other that we sacrifice truth! Wait. Hold up. Something is very wrong here.
Bonhoeffer was a clear, very rational, logical and dispassionate thinker. In an earlier passage of this book, his biographer speaks of the withering eyebrow raise of Herr Bonhoeffer, used to full effect when any of his children uttered an opinion that was ill-founded or irrational, teaching them with gentle exactitude the necessity of tight thought processes. And so, in his observations of American students, Bonhoeffer is happy to see their good qualities, but, as always, looks at the circumstances of their affability from all points of view, and thus comes to the sound conclusion that there is something rotten within; there is an unintended and thus devious result of their focus on social needs. The great thinkers of America had come down from the mountain of intellectual stimulation and achievement to be with the people, but in doing so had forgotten the vital importance of intellectual discipline, learned on those heights, and so had forgotten their principles, all for the sake of being friendly. Being friendly and generous is good, of course. But if it comes at the expense and to the exclusion of the reasons behind it, you better watch out. This is when something unsavory hits the fan.
American theological students knew more about “everyday matters” than their German counterparts and were more concerned with the practical outworking of their theology, but “a predominant group [at Union] sees it in exclusively social needs.” He said “the intellectual preparation for the ministry is extraordinarily thin. . . . the theological education of this group is virtually nil, and the self-assurance which lightly makes mock of any specifically theological question is unwarranted and naive.” His conclusion was withering: “I am in fact of the opinion that one can learn extraordinarily little over there . . . but it seems to me that one also gains quiet insights . . . where one sees chiefly the threat which American signifies for us. (105-106)
Worrying about the needs of society is, obviously, not something that can be shunted aside. Of course we need to worry about them, and, more importantly, we need to do something about them. But without a solid philosophy and well thought out understanding of why we should worry about our fellow man, and a rationally arrived at conclusion of how we ought best to help the physically, emotionally, intellectually or spiritually suffering individuals around us, we are going to make some big mistakes. In other words, our love, which is a good thing, will be confused, misguided, and ultimately not accomplish as much as it might in its finest form.
Anecdote: I took an elective course in Child Growth and Development when I was in college. In one exercise, the professor asked us each to draw a picture of a man behind a house. Suffice it to say, I am no artist with a mechanical pencil, nor have I ever taken a proper studio arts class. Quickly sketching a box house with a chimney, two windows and a door, I then drew a stick figure man, circled him, and drew an arrow pointing behind the house. Thinking myself very clever, and a little bemused at the exercise, I waited fifteen or twenty minutes while my classmates were hard at work. As our teacher finally collected the drawings, she shuffled them so that neither she nor any of us would know who had drawn each one, then proceeded to the front of the room to analyze each picture for the class. Apparently, this is one way to judge the developmental stage of children; the more detailed their picture, the greater their development. When she got to mine, she said, “The person who has drawn this is at the same developmental stage as an average 8 year old.” Well, a little chagrined, but laughing just the same, I claimed my picture and offered my lack of training in the fundamentals of drawing as an excuse for my poor performance.
Do you hear what I’m saying? Do you hear what Bonhoeffer is saying? What exactly is that “threat which America signifies”? It is that self-assurance making a mockery of specifically theological matters and proceeding to social exercises without the proper training in the fundamentals. Remember, again, he is writing this in 1930, over eighty years ago. He was diagnosing a lack of intellectual rigor in Americas universities as a serious threat to social well-being, a threat which, “The enlightened American, rather than viewing . . . with skepticism, instead welcomes . . . as an example of progress” (106).
And now look where we are. Bonhoeffer’s biographer calls him a prophet. The threat which he spoke of has, in our day and age, come to fruition. And why? Because we’re all so damned friendly all the time. We’re freakishly, progressively, nonjudgmental. We’d rather just get along than dig in our heels and have an uncomfortable conversation about real truth. And what is the result of that? Everybody has their own truth which they are rarely called to defend or examine because any questioning of it is offensive and therefore not socially acceptable.
I’m an American. Guess what that means? I like smiling. I like being friendly. I like getting along with people. I like feeding people. It bothers me, a lot, when there’s somebody who for some reason doesn’t seem to like me, and I find myself agonizing over what I might have done to upset them. I like the idea of winning people by love, rather than with intellectual proofs. (And yes, part of that is the whole “cunning as serpents, gentle as doves” line — as in “You don’t realize it, because I’m being so nice and friendly, but I’m getting you closer and closer to my side!” Now my secret is out.)
I’m an American. Guess what else that means? I have a tendency to let things slide that, thanks to the education my parents gave me, I know I should object to. I have a self-cosseted naivete that likes to believe that everyone is “a good fellow,” that each person is doing the best they know how, and that I have no legs to stand on to tell them, however kindly, to shape up and start living up to their full potential. Thanks to poor sots like myself, we find ourselves in this cesspit of relativistic confusion where each person, in his misguided and poorly founded pursuit of love and happiness, to which the laws of nature entitle him (here in America, we’re really good at talking about our individual liberties), has become a god unto himself. We are ready to follow emotion rather than reason, and to reject a call to cold and unimpassioned examination of facts. Such a course of action would undoubtedly lead to all kinds of unpleasantness, after all. It’s much nicer to let people who maybe don’t know any better do irreparable damage to themselves, their children, and the people they love, than it is to convince them that they might have made a mistake. It’s easier, too. Believe it or not, I don’t exactly fancy someone spitting on me and throwing lit cigarettes at me.
So, what will it be, friends? Comfort, or truth?
This post appeared previously on Taking Back Our Brave New World.