I have been thinking a lot about stupidity lately, largely, I suppose, because I spend a good deal of time online. I define stupidity as “remediable but unremedied ignorance,” and few human traits are more evident to a reader of your average website. It is relatively easy to discover that Barack Obama is not a Muslim; that the government of Israel was not responsible for the 9/11 attacks; that the Christian God does not hate fags; that your average everyday evangelical Christian is not simply itching for his chance to take over the government and impose theocratic law upon a nation of vile unbelieving reprobates. Yet people who could remedy their ignorance on these and many other matters consistently fail to do so. This is curious and significant.

Now, many people who hold wrong”even bizarrely wrong”views are not stupid. We do not all possess the means to remedy our ignorance. Throughout the world there are people who are badly educated, who have been taught many untrue things by the only authorities they know, and who have little or no opportunity to check up on those supposed facts. But a great many are culpably ignorant, who, because they do not take the trouble to investigate their beliefs and assess their accuracy, are also (according to my definition) stupid.

Now, many good and kind people are uncomfortable with words like stupid and stupidity ”hurtful and insulting words, I am told. Good and kind people cry out against Harry Allard Jr.’s books about Stanley Q. Stupid and his family: The Stupids Step Out , for instance, or The Stupids Have a Ball , or (best of all) The Stupids Die . The more sensitive-souled among you may be consoled to learn that the Stupids do not in fact die, though they think they’re all dead when the lights go out and they are left in the dark. (When the lights come back on they quite reasonably infer that they’re in heaven: “?‘It has a nice homey feeling,’ said Mrs. Stupid.”)

One anguished reviewer on Amazon.com writes: “My seven-year-old recently brought this book home from his school library. I found it very offensive, because I think it teaches children that it’s funny to call others ‘stupid.’ I cannot think of a circumstance in which it is appropriate for a child or an adult to use this word towards another person. I was so upset that I wrote a note to the school librarian.” And another: “How can people give praise to a story that makes fun of stupid people. Stupid is a very hateful word. Kids shouldn’t use the term stupid at all.” There is probably a good word to describe such protestors, but at the moment I can’t think of what it might be.

Anyway, among these sensitive souls there are some Christians. Christians certainly like to be nice; they prefer to avoid harsh language. They remember that Jesus was quite upset with someone who called his brother raca , which is Aramaic for “stupid,” more or less. And this is true, though on the other hand he does refer to some people as a “generation of vipers” and others as “whitewashed tombs,” and the book of Proverbs talks a good deal about “fools” and doesn’t have one nice thing to say about them.

I am verging on mockery here, but in fact there are serious, and seriously Christian, reasons to shun wrath and bitterness. For those of us inclined toward anger at stupidity, there is a telling moment in T. S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding” when the poet is confronted by the ghost of “some dead master” and given a glimpse of “the gifts reserved for age,” which include, among other unpleasant experiences, “the conscious impotence of rage / At human folly.” Clearly this is a dangerous condition, one we dare not court.

And yet: Stupidity is bad. Ignorance should be remedied when possible, and those who are too lazy or bigoted to remedy theirs should be warned, even chastised, if that can be done in charity. Christians, and religious believers in general, have no investment in the perpetuation of unnecessary ignorance: In the long run, and probably in the short as well, it’s going to hurt us more than help us. And while I devoutly hope that God will be gracious to the helplessly ignorant, I’m not confident that his patience with the stupid is limitless.

I am perfectly serious when I say that we deeply need a theology of stupidity. I am not capable of contributing to such a project, but as an Anglican I believe in the old motto Lex orandi, lex credendi ”so why not begin to address the plague of stupidity, and the counter-plague of “the conscious impotence of rage at human folly,” through liturgical means? We need rites to set us straight about all this. Perhaps we need a saint ”a patron saint for the war that must be fought against stupidity.

My suggestion: Jonathan Swift. He was constant in his struggle against stupidity, if sometimes a bit on the fierce side, and he was an Anglican clergyman as well. (Not a very good one, to be sure, but how many good ones have there been?) We should forgive him his extremities, since they stand at the opposite pole from those characteristic of our time; perhaps his outrage can counterbalance our indifference, our easy toleration of remediable ignorance. I hereby advocate his canonization, and as an aid to the success of my plan, I have written a collect and a litany for his feast day. I commend his wisdom to you all, and I commit us all to the mercy of a God who may not be as nice as we’d like to think he is.

THE COLLECT:

Almighty and most wrathful God, who hate nothing You have made but sometimes repent of having made Man; we thank you this day for the life and work of Your faithful servant Jonathan Swift, who constantly imitated and occasionally exceeded Your own anger at the folly of sin, and who in his works excoriated such folly with a passion that brought him nigh unto madness; and we pray that You may teach us to be imitators of him, so that the follies and stupidities of our own time may receive their proper chastisement; through Christ our Lord, who reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. amen .

THE LITANY:

That we may know what folly is
and call it by its right name,
St. Jonathan, intercede for us;
That we may be preserved from folly, St. Jonathan, intercede
for us;
That we may in due season answer the fool according to his folly,
lest he be wise in his own eyes,
St. Jonathan, intercede for us;
That we may in due season refrain from answering the fool
according to his folly, lest we become like him, St. Jonathan, intercede for us;
That we may remember that Christ died even for fools, St. Jonathan, intercede for us;
That we may know what unteachableness is and call it by its
right name, St. Jonathan,
intercede for us;
That we may be preserved from unteachableness, St. Jonathan, intercede for us;
That we may love truth so deeply that falsehoods grieve us, St. Jonathan, intercede for us;
That our own falsehoods may
grieve us most of all,
St. Jonathan, intercede for us;
That we may love righteousness
so deeply that sin grieves us,
St. Jonathan, intercede for us;
That our own sins may grieve
us most of all, St. Jonathan,
intercede for us;
That we may be wise as serpents,
St. Jonathan, intercede for us;
That we may be innocent as doves, St. Jonathan, intercede for us;
That we may keep our wits always sharp, and let not the sword
sleep in our hand, St. Jonathan, intercede for us;
That we may come at last to
know true charity, St. Jonathan, intercede for us.
amen

Alan Jacobs is the Clyde S. Kilby Professor of English at Wheaton College.

Articles by Alan Jacobs

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