I have taught philosophy in Catholic higher education for thirty years as a non-Catholic. Although I have become accustomed to any number of Catholic commitments and beliefs that are far outside the parameters of the Protestant Christianity in which I was raised, few of these beliefs are more “out there” than the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. I have found that many—perhaps most—of my predominantly Catholic students believe, incorrectly, that the doctrine applies to virgin birth of Jesus. Even I know better than that (now, at least)—it refers to the notion that the Virgin Mary was conceived without the stain of original sin.
I mention this only because today, December 8, is the day marked as “Immaculate Conception” day on the Catholic Christian calendar. Don’t worry, I do not intend to engage in a discussion about the merits or demerits of such a doctrine—you can go to the Patheos Catholic channel if you are interested in such a conversation (I definitely am not). What I am interested in is something raised by Friedrich Nietzsche in Thus Spake Zarathustra. (An aside: how many blog posts have you ever read that include both the Virgin Mary and Nietzsche?). Nietzsche wrote that “There is no immaculate perception.”
I was reminded of this observation from Nietzsche when reading several chapters of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow for a seminar with a bunch of sophomores yesterday. The subtitle of Alexander’s book is “Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”; it is a scathing exposé and indictment of the inherent racism embedded in every stage of the criminal justice system, particularly when related to the “war on drugs.” In the middle of a discussion about unconscious biases even among those who consciously seek to be objective and unbiased, Alexander notes that “decades of cognitive bias research demonstrates that both conscious and unconscious biases lead to discriminatory actions, even when an individual does not want to discriminate.”
Continuing, Alexander references Nietzsche:
The quotation commonly attributed to Nietzsche, that there is no immaculate perception, perfectly captures how cognitive schemas—thought structures—influence what we notice and how the things we notice get interpreted. . . In other words, the fact that you may honestly believe that you are not biased against African Americans, and that you may even have black friends or relatives, does not mean that you are free from unconscious bias.
In a different class, we just finished several classes of engaging with issues of race; we began with white privilege. Much of the discussion in my classroom filled with predominantly white students was along the lines of “once I have recognized my white privilege, what should I do?” Michelle Alexander’s discussion clearly identifies something that I should not be seeking to do. My goal should not be to root prejudice entirely out of my worldview in the pursuit of a discrimination-free objectivity. If Friedrich Nietzsche is right (as he usually is), it can’t be done.
So now what? If there is no rational, objective standpoint according to which each or any of us can form fair, just, and unbiased beliefs and judgments, what is a more appropriate goal in terms of what we believe and how we act? Let me use a recent event that many of you may have also experienced—Thanksgiving dinner with family members (hopefully on Zoom), many of whom disagree with you and with each other on crucially important topics. For our last pre-Covid Thanksgiving a year ago, Jeanne and I were at her niece’s house for dinner; about twenty or so members of her family, ranging in age over three generations from late seventies to three years old, crowded around a long table for an outstanding feast.
Seated across the table from me was a brother-in-law whom I respect and love. Over the years I have heard him express various opinions with which I strongly disagree, including that former President Obama was not born in the United States, that Bill and Hillary Clinton probably were involved in murder at some point in the past, that President Trump—although an “idiot”—is a hell of a lot better than all of the possible alternatives, and (perhaps most shockingly) that the New England Patriots “suck” and are a bunch of cheaters. Another brother-in-law toward the far end of the table probably would have agreed with most or all of the above. Various persons scattered around the feast very well may be more closely in agreement with them than with me, as amazing as that may seem (given that I, of course, think that my contrary beliefs are not only correct, but are demonstrably so).
The day after Thanksgiving a year ago, I read on Twitter that, in response to a question about how to avoid shouting and screaming disagreements at Thanksgiving, now Vice President-elect Kamala Harris told the questioner that we all should seek to find and engage with “what we all share in common.” Good advice; fortunately, those of us at my niece-in-law’s house for Thanksgiving didn’t need Kamala to tell us this. The conversation largely focused on what everyone in the house shared in common—family.
During dessert, Jeanne and her two brothers talked about their parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents—people long since gone but powerfully present in each person around the table, whether related by blood or by marriage. The older brothers (Jeanne is the youngest—by far—of five) filled in gaps in family narrative history with interesting, sometimes surprising, details and memories. What we didn’t talk about was anything that many, or at least most, of us knew would be divisive. Not because such matters are not important—they are. Rather, because they are much less important than the things that unite us. Not just on Thanksgiving, but always.
Let me conclude by returning to where I began—the Immaculate Conception. I have been tempted over the years to ask a Catholic friend or colleague something along the lines of “Why is this doctrine important?” or “Doesn’t this doctrine imply that sexual activity is automatically sinful? Otherwise, why the end run around the natural process of conception?” Or, more provocatively, “Why would any normal person believe in such a stupid thing?” My strategy, rather, has always been to recognize a Catholic as a fellow Christian with whom I share any number of core beliefs and experiences. The fact that she or he is a fellow Christian whose faith also includes a number of “add-ons” that I not only consider inessential to Christianity but, on occasion also detrimental is, in the larger scheme of things, unimportant.
At the end of the day, it’s important to remember that “there are no immaculate perceptions.” Something is not incontrovertibly and unassailably true or right just because I believe it. Each of our “thought structures” is uniquely filtered through and shaped by our individual experiences; the chances that the core values and beliefs of any two people will map seamlessly onto each other is vanishingly small. Starting with what we share in common may be more challenging and difficult than starting with what we disagree about, but it’s a lot more rewarding.