13 December 2005

Invincible ignorance...

St. Lucy, Virgin and Martyr: Zeph 3.1-2, 9-13; Matt 21.28-32
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St. Albert the Great Priory

What do we refuse to believe?

“I gotta go see a man about a dog.” Dr. Flynn would say this to any of us who refused to see the plain logic of his arguments in class. Most of us in his classes suffered from a terrible affliction, a disease that deludes one into believing that one is as smart as Aristotle after having passed just one philosophy classes. We all suffered from SPMS—Sophomore Philosophy Major Syndrome. Like dieting vultures, we’d circle his evidence, pick at his premises, and bicker over the scrapes of his conclusions, searching desperately for the single mistake that would vindicate our deeply suspicious yet oh-so-shallow minds. Finally, frustrated beyond reason, Dr. Flynn would bark at us: “I gotta go see a man about a dog!” Once again, we had demonstrated the most telling symptom of SPMS: invincible ignorance, an unbeatable lack of knowing, a willful stupidity.

Jesus is having a similar problem with the chief priests and elders. Obviously frustrated to his limit with their suspicion, their opposition, Jesus puts to them a question about the difference between agreeing to the Father’s will and actually doing the Father’s will. Jesus asks the priests and elders, “Which one did his father’s will?” The one who refuses to work but does so anyway or the one who agrees to work but doesn’t? They answer, “The first.” Correct! How obvious. How utterly plainly true. And so, Jesus congratulates them on their correct answer, right? Nope. He blasts them: “…tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you…” They will not believe.

The problem with the chief priests and the elders is that they have all the evidence in front of them: the Law, the Prophets, the witness of John the Baptist, Jesus’ preaching, teaching, and his miracles, the witness of hundreds of people who have followed him and still, still they refuse to believe. They refuse to suspend their disbelief long enough to allow the Spirit to work on their hearts and minds. Why? Social status, religious power, fear of public humiliation, investment in an ideology, all of the above? Probably. Invincible ignorance? Most definitely. They simply refuse to be enlightened by God’s grace, refuse to believe that they were standing in the presence of their Lord.

We’re all here this morning, so we’re obviously not completely invincibly ignorant! But what is it we’re not convinced of? What lingers to poison the well of our faith? We have the Big Issues covered: God exists. Jesus is the Messiah. Trinity. Passion-Death-Resurrection. Got all that. So, what, what is it? Are you convinced of the truth of your freely given salvation? The futility of trying to earn God’s love, His grace? Are you convinced of the truth of forgiveness, God’s mercy? The necessity of loving one another? Are you convinced of the need to humble yourself, truly practice your dependency on God for everything? The efficacy of prayer? The need for prayer? Are you convinced of the authority of the Church to define the faith? That you will live with God forever if you believe and do His will?

Tax collectors and prostitutes believed him. Some believed him deeply enough to give their lives in witness to his love. St. Lucy bled for him not because his logical syllogisms were neatly ordered and argued. She bled because she believed. She didn’t wait for proof. Her belief made sense of everything. Perfect, loving sense.

Change your minds! And believe him!


  1. Anonymous5:09 PM

    You do know that this expression means that you are leaving to go to the bathroom. Really.

  2. Father, your professor may have been having a little fun with his students. Here in Virginia that phrase refers to severe constipation.

  3. Anonymous5:25 AM

    Well, either comment tells us that your instructor thought you guys were full of B.S.

  4. "Well, either comment tells us that your instructor thought you guys were full of B.S."

    Yup. And we were. Dr. Flynn was very dedicated to the local Humane Society and its animal shelter. His saying was his way of putting things in perspective. And we got the point very quickly. When he used that saying we knew the argument was over. Move on.

  5. Anonymous9:39 PM

    Well, moving on . . .

    Could you clarify your use of "invincibly ignorant" for me? My understanding is that if you stick your fingers in your ears and say "lalala" in order to not hear the truth, then you are vincibly ignorant (you don't know, but it's your fault), while if you are a savage in the jungle, or simply never ever taught table manners, you are invincibly ignorant (not your fault because you couldn't help it).

    So if the chief priests and elders have all the evidence, and yet purposefully refuse to believe, how can that be INvincible ignorance?

    I can't tell if it's a typo, or if I don't get what you're saying. :) (Also, thanks for the comment on my blog!)

  6. I hope I'm remembering my informal fallacies from Phil 101! Invincible ignorance is that sort of not knowing that one guards with any and every tactic available. IOW, it is being ignorant but being willfully "ignorant" in the face of overwhelming evdience that what one believes is incorrect. The chief priests and elders don't seem to be assertively rejecting Jesus' claim about being the Messiah, but they are continuing to guard their "ignorance" about who he truly is by constantly throwing questions, objections, reservations, etc. Jesus is frustrated with their disbelief b/c they have the scriptural background and intelligence to see and hear that he is the Lord.

    Thanks for the great question--hope I managed to answer it.

    Fr. Philip Neri, OP

  7. Anonymous8:33 AM

    Thanks for the explanation of your usage! I also found the following quote which explains my confusion:

    "The term 'invincible ignorance' has its roots in Catholic theology, where it is used to refer to the state of persons (such as pagans and infants) who are ignorant of the Christian message because they have not yet had an opportunity to hear it. . . . When and how the term was stolen by logicians to refer to the state of persons who pigheadedly refuse to attend to evidence remains unclear."

    Since I have studied theology but not logical fallicies, I didn't know the term had two such opposite uses.