When I was in elementary school, my teacher announced, “Kids, I have a test to give you today. It will test your ability to folow directions. When I pass it out in a moment, read the whole thing and then you may begin.”
I got my copy and it went something like this:
- Put your name at the top of this sheet of paper.
- Stapled to this sheet of instructions is a blank sheet. On that sheet, draw a rectangle whose sides are one inch from the edges.
- Draw the largest circle you can that fits inside the rectangle.
- Draw a line from the top of the circle to the bottom, and another line from left to right.
- Inside each quarter of the circle, draw a square.
- Fill in two of the squares.
- Inside the squares that you have not filled, draw a figure of your choice.
And so on, for a couple dozen steps.
It was simple enough, but obviously it was going to take a while! Wanting to do my best work and finish in time, I began.
Step 1: I put my name at the top of the first sheet.
Step 2: I drew the large rectangle.
And so on, faithfully executing each step.
Then I came to the end. Step 25 was, Ignore steps 2 through 24. Just hand in this test with your name at the top of the first page, and the second page blank.
Frantically, I started to erase all the work I had done. Of course this was pointless because I had already failed. My teacher had instructed us to read the whole test before beginning. I had not done that and now there was no way I could erase the second page thoroughly enough to fool her. Yes, it was a test in following directions, but the directions were the teacher’s oral instructions — which I had ignored! I felt so stupid!
In my profession of software development, we would call the teacher’s instructions before the test the meta-instructions: instructions about the instructions. In software, meta-something exists to help make sense of that thing.
Now I have a thought for my readers who believe in God (in the traditional, Judeo-Christian-Islamic sense of God). Perhaps some aspects of your tradition make you uncomfortable but you feel you must believe them because God gave clear instructions in your sacred text or holy tradition. Maybe, left to yourself, you would arrive at more-generous answers for questions such as Who will go to heaven? or Are LGBTQ people fine just the way they are? or What can I learn from other traditions? However, you want to pass God’s test. He has given you the correct answers so you feel they must be your answers, too.
But what if the test is not what you think it is? What if God, like my teacher, has given you all sorts of instructions he wants you to discard in favor of meta-instructions of radical acceptance and love such the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37)? What if the real test is not whether you are willing to obey and believe the doctrines that make you cringe, but whether you have the moral strength to disobey and disbelieve?
This all came to my mind as I was rereading an old post, Plato’s Truth-Loving Test. Plato had proposed a test that would reveal who had the wisdom and strength of character to be part of the ruling class in his utopia:
What I proposed was having our children be told glorious tales to stir their imaginations, very much stressing all the time that these tales were true, and then seeing which among the children can resist them, can see the logical inconsistencies within these tales, and see all their inconsistencies with other truths that they have been told.Republic 413c-414a
Just a thought.