“Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates and Jesus and Luther and Copernicus and Galileo and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
Emerson was right. If to be great is to speak the truth as God gives you the light to see it, with faithfulness and courage and without regard to fashion or political correctness, then the risk of misunderstanding is one we must just make up our minds to live with. The mass of humanity, including intellectuals–maybe in our age, especially intellectuals–do not live by Pope’s excellent advice: “The perfect critic reads each work of wit / By that same spirit that its author writ.” Until they do, we must be prepared for misunderstanding. Sometimes it will be willful and malicious.
But Emerson was also wrong. He includes Jesus as just one more member of the list of “pure and wise spirits.” But Jesus was the only one in that list who was “pure.” And in so far as the others were wise, their wisdom was derivative from His–even the ones who did not know of Him. For John tells us that at His incarnation it was the Logos, the Light that “enlightens every man,” who was coming into the world. If God were not such that the Second Person of the Trinity is rightly designated as Logos, as Word; if Man had not been made in His image to inhabit a world designed by His mind; and if the light of Christ did not shine in that creation, even in some sense to those who do not have the more focused gleams of it that come from the written Word–unless all this were true the world would be unintelligible to us. Therefore, all true wisdom, from whatever source it comes, is His, even if the carrier of it does not recognize this. Emerson would have been more truly wise if he had recognized it.
Emerson is also incomplete. To be great is indeed to risk misunderstanding; but to be truly great is to be capable of right understanding for those willing to listen with sympathetic ears. Part of Emerson’s greatness is that he was one of the finest architects of the Sentence who ever lived. And part of the smallness of so many modern and post-modern minds touted as great by our decadent academic establishment is their addiction to jargon. The inability to communicate without jargon is the sign of a mind sick, small, and self-consumed. It is a marker of the diseased state of current scholarship that so many post-modern writers are actually proud of their self-consumption and jargon-dependency.
Christ is more than the Source of all wisdom, but He is not less. He is also the Savior of the world; without Him we are lost, not just intellectually but morally and spiritually and eternally. His followers who are called to be public intellectuals should strive to be misunderstood as He was, and for the same reasons. Then we might have a chance also to be understood as He is. Maybe that is the real definition of greatness.
Check out Dr. Williams’ books at http://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/! Stars Through the Clouds: The Collected Poetry of Donald T. Williams (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2011), Reflections on Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy (Lantern Hollow, 2012), and Inklings of Reality: Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters, 2nd ed. (Lantern Hollow, 2012). Each is $15.00 + shipping. And be on the lookout for his next book: Deeper Magic: The Theology behind the Writings of C. S. Lewis (Square Halo Books, due out Sept. 1, 2016).