In 1987 an American educator, Allan Bloom, wrote a book entitled, The Closing of the American Mind. Its thesis is contained in its title. The book contends that today, in the Western world, we are becoming ever more shallow of soul, narrow of mind, and limited in horizon. Many analysts would concur with that. However what is more unique to Bloom is that part of his thesis is that the real culprit behind this flatness of soul (which, he feels, is bleeding us of passion, motivation, heroism, and all that is sublime) is the death of innocence. Innocence, he asserts, is the real key to depth, happiness, passion, and sublimity.
At one point, he shares a personal story. As a young man, enroled in a very prestigious university, he was greeted by his professor on the opening day of class with words to this effect: “You have come here from your various parochial backgrounds, with all your youthful biases and ignorance. Well, I am going to bathe you in truth and set you free!” Bloom comments that this professor reminded him of a little boy who solemnly informed him when he was six years old that there was no Santa Claus or Easter Bunny. But, adds Bloom, “he wasn’t setting me free, he was showing off!” So too was the professor.
Reflecting on this, Bloom tells us that what he learned from that professor was that he himself would forever teach differently. For his part, he would start his classes by pointing out to his students how experienced and sophisticated they already were and how, because of this, he would try to teach them to believe again in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny – so that they might have a chance of again being happy.
I share this story because we are a generation that is rich in everything, except innocence and happiness. We pride ourselves on our experience, our sophistication, our lack of naivete. We are ashamed to admit that we aren’t experienced, that we haven’t been everywhere, that we don’t know everything, that there is still an innocence within us. Innocence is identified with naivete and is generally looked upon either with condescension or with positive disdain. Lack of sexual experience particularly is stigmatized. We see innocence as ignorance.
Moreover our culture extends this equation to faith in God. Most of the culture, consciously or unconsciously, believes that contemporary experience, present development and insight, have unmasked faith as a superstition, an ignorance, a lack of nerve, a lack of sophistication, a narrowness, a fear, a bias even. The common perception, especially among intellectuals, is that contemporary experience has brought about a collective loss of faith because, at the end of the day, faith is an ignorance that is cast out by a fuller experience. To believe in God is to be naive, however sincere.
Thus we identify faith with innocence and innocence with ignorance and we are positively ashamed to be either of these. We pay a high price for this, as Adam and Eve did. Scripture tells us that the price of eating the apple was not that their minds were darkened (as our catechisms told us) but that their eyes were opened. After eating the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve knew a lot more than they ever knew before. They just weren’t as happy. Something precious had been shattered, as is always the case in the death of innocence, and there was now the need to begin to hide things. Experience brings new knowledge and new sophistication, but, and this is the point, not everything we know and experience is good for the happiness of the soul. Nor, indeed, is innocence always an ignorance. Naivete is ignorance – but innocence is not necessarily naivete.
Paul Ricoeur, whom nobody could ever accuse of being naive, tells us that, as adults, the real goal of our lives is to come to something which he calls “second naivete”. Real maturity is ultimately about revirginizing and coming to a second innocence. This however is not to be confused with first naivete and natural innocence. We are born naive and innocent and the task of growing up is precisely to move beyond this childishness to adulthood. This is done, as our culture rightly intuits, by growing in experience and sophistication. For a while, this is good. First naivete in an adult is not innocence but ignorance.
However, and this is where our culture unfortunately misunderstands the thing, growth beyond the natural ignorance of a child, becoming sophisticated, is itself meant to be a temporary step. Our real task is ultimately to become post-sophisticated – childlike and virgin again.
At some point in our adult lives, we should again – in a different way and for different reasons – begin to believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. Then we have a chance at happiness. Jesus tells us that children and virgins enter the kingdom of heaven quite naturally. A world that prides itself on its adultness, sophistication, and experience might want to ponder that.