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This is the main road God takes to come to us: our recognition of our own ignorance.” So said Stephen of Muret, a medieval hermit and purported founder of the Grandmontine order of monks that disappeared in the eighteenth century. The idea that wisdom comes from admitting our own ignorance was long-standing. ­Socrates said as much. But Stephen’s version of the adage was radically Christ-centered.

Here is his paraphrase of Matthew 10:39 and ­Philippians 2:7:

An indispensable counsel of the first order is never to take your own advice. In other words, if you want to follow the Lord Jesus Christ, have enough sense to let go of your own “good sense” since you will only find yourself when you have thrown yourself away. If it is the Son of God you wish to imitate—he who emptied himself—you will have to reduce yourself to nothing.

Stephen distinguished himself from Benedictines and Augustinians by insisting that the only religious “Rule” to adopt was the gospel of Jesus: God is everything, we are nothing, and following the words and path of Jesus is how our nothing can be grasped by his everything.

I would like to get rid of the category of “genius.” It is not only confusing, but may also be pernicious, certainly in the religious sphere. Is there really such a thing as a “religious genius”? It seems not, if Stephen is right that religious wisdom lies in giving up one’s own claim to knowledge.

As for “geniuses” in general, it’s not clear what that notion involves. The nineteenth-century critic William ­Hazlitt’s famous reflections on genius were subtle and rich, dwelling on its embrace of reason, common sense, and unconscious energy. But Hazlitt was perhaps too subtle. Popular views of genius are straightforward, if varied: figuring out tough problems; wowing popular sensibilities; arguing matters with an astonishing architecture of concept or beauty. Newton and Leibniz. ­Beethoven. Frederick Douglass. Madame Curie. In our day, geniuses are linked with “creativity,” “intuition,” seeing beyond the expected. Novelty is a basic element of genius in the common usage of the word, as Hazlitt suggested.

This is certainly true for philosophical genius, too. Those who see the world in a newly compelling way that sways our attentions and reorders our ways of thinking are praised as seminal thinkers. We hear a lot about geniuses of this kind today. It need not involve entirely new ideas, just getting people to look at common issues in a “fresh” way, according to a “new paradigm.” Isaiah Berlin held that this was all that philosophers do: They state the unchanging, perennial questions in a fashion fit for changed times. The academic world is filled with both the inventors and the fresheners: Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, Giorgio Agamben, Ivan Illich. The wider world of the internet facilitates mass theater, and it is also filled with geniuses of one sort or another, at least as measured according to the number of YouTube hits, podcast downloads, TED talk views: Jordan Peterson, Sam Harris, ­Cornel West, Noam Chomsky, Camille Paglia.

When it comes to theology, Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth were no doubt geniuses. I tend to see their singularity in terms of sheer energy rather than pure intelligence or acuity. That is, the difference between genius and mere brilliance lies, partly, in their work, but also in the clarity and incandescent focus of their production. Early scholars of high intelligence, such as Francis Galton, used the terms “drive” and “persistence” to characterize genius. “Theological genius” of this kind certainly exists.

But a “religious genius”? Surely, those who glimpse the divine need not be productive or energetic per se. The very phrase betokens a more modern, romantic notion of genius: someone inspired, penetrating, literally filled with the Spirit, and of course persuasive, “powerful” in his views or “visions.” Plato had the idea of a daimon that accompanies the wise man (and there was, in his view, such a thing as a good daimon). The Romans had their own sense of personal, “tutelary” spirits, whom they actually referred to as this or that “genius.” ­Michelangelo dismissed all the training he received from skilled ­teachers: He insisted that he was “born” a genius, given the power to create directly from the hand of God.

It took modernity to appropriate these ideas and put them into a religious-anthropological framework. In the nineteenth century, people began speaking of St. Paul as a “religious genius.” His contribution to world culture was to advance the human grasp of “the divine” (or, more recently, universalism). Which brings us to the present era, where we encounter something called “The Religious Genius Project,” sponsored by an interfaith organization. It proposes to engage the (human) geniuses of various religions, each of whom is marked by qualities such as being tuned to “a higher state of consciousness,” having “deeper insight into Being,” manifesting love, and teaching wisdom.

Some of this applies to those whom we might simply call “saints” in our context. Mother Teresa comes to mind, or, if one is part of the “wider ecumenism,” the Dalai Lama. But a leading element among these various religious “geniuses” that sets them apart is their ­influence, their ability to “make a difference.” George Fox, founder of the Quakers, was a genius in this sense. John Wesley wrote, preached, and organized with astonishing effect. Abelard, Luther, and Zwingli certainly “made a difference” in their own ways.

But questions arise. How much “effect” is necessary for genius? Would Sergei Bulgakov or even Thomas Altizer count? They pulled many in new directions, perhaps those not favorable over the long run. Projecting backward, why not Mani or Arius? To be sure, the distinction between theological genius and religious genius breaks down in these lists. (I count this as a warning to people like me!)

My main concern in all this is the relationship of religious genius to the heretical mind. Stephen of Muret held that the true Christian, and in this sense the one closest to God, was happily ignorant of all things except following the words and body of Jesus. If this is so—and I suspect it is—the adding of “my own good sense” to this Christ-centered reality can only obscure and distort it. Stephen himself wrote nothing. What we have of his words (“maxims” in modern translations) was written down by listeners.

Thus, it may be that a religious genius in a modern sense is, in truth, a heretic, almost by definition. A heretic, we are told, is someone who “chooses” (from the Greek root haireo). He makes a personal choice (through good sense or bad) about a belief that runs against the commitments of the group (the Church, the academy, the guild). Paul alludes to this in 1 ­Corinthians 11:19 as he ponders the significance of faction. Modern notions of genius trade quite a bit on this idea: marching to one’s own drum, breaking taboos, ­transgressing norms, coming up with new ideas. All of this is deemed a great achievement, a blow against the power of oppressive custom. It fits nicely with the expansive realm of the “unique individual” that remains especially a staple of our self-value as Americans. Perhaps we, as a group, are all heretics. Harold Bloom wondered about this.

Not all heretics are geniuses, though. Most go unnoticed. If they are not prone to self-assertion and keep their views to themselves, no one knows, no one cares. It is when these personal or idiosyncratic views are pressed, advocated, and propagated in a way that seems to gain traction in the minds of others that “­heresy” becomes identifiable. Influential heretics ­usually are geniuses. But being influential is in itself no sign of heresy, of course—otherwise we would need to write off Augustine, Aquinas, and Barth. Nevertheless, ­influence brings risk. Voltaire inundated Europe with his prolific energies. (His writings have been collected in a critical edition of more than two hundred volumes.) It is pretty clear that his genius (in a modern sense) peeled the minds of many away from the Christian faith.

Genuine heretics are always loud—and persistent. Meanwhile, few of the faithful reach the level of ­Aquinas. What is the moral here? Better to be quiet, as a rule, and give up on the aspirations to genius altogether. Never take your own advice; give up on your own good sense.

The Hebrew writer Hayim Nahman Bialik (a ­celebrated genius in his own right) wrote a wonderful poem on quietness. It begins: “That I could be one of you, humble of the earth, mute being, / weaving your lives in secret, modest of talk and deed / hidden dreamers, minimizers of word and maximizers of beauty.” Life lived in this way will last beyond all the great poems and writings of the sages. I, too, long for the qualities of humility, modesty, and keeping things secret, or at least not blabbering about them whenever given a chance.

Sadly, in the modern panting for genius, Bialik’s desire has no home. But it is not less true for being ­unrecognized. Only God truly knows and sees. Only the “beauty” of the modest life “pours to the hollow of the world,” as he puts it. Such a life is real and powerful, however hidden, because it gives way to God alone. That giving way, not genius, is what gives rise to a beautiful mind, heart, and life.

Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College.

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