Can we recover the virtue of naiveté?

‘Gosh, I never realised….X’. ‘Really? I knew that ages ago—it’s pretty common knowledge you know!’

I wonder if you’ve ever had that kind of conversation—at work, or church, or amongst friends or family. You have assumed that things are as they were claimed to be, or presented, but all the time ‘everybody’ ‘knew’ that that wasn’t really the truth, and you were naive to assume it was. As I reflect back, I realised that it has happened to me quite a lot, and it happened to me again very recently. When it does happen, it leaves us with a mixture of (sometimes) quite strong emotions. I feel foolish; I am also made to feel powerless since, after all, knowledge is power. I have missed out on the conversations around the issue which others were clearly having. And it affects relational dynamics; everyone else was in the know, but I was on the outside.

We live in a complex world, and this complexity seems to reward cunning. Cunning doesn’t always win out, as the large-scale soap opera we call ‘politics’ often demonstrates. But in many contexts we are given the subliminal message: don’t take everything at face value; read between the lines; watch for the signs; forge alliances and make sure you know how to ‘operate.’ In such a context, the virtue of naiveté has been lost; there is no value in being ‘innocent’.

The term ‘naive’ has both a negative and a positive sense to it. My dictionary points out both of these:

naive (also naïveadjective (of a person or action) showing a lack of experience, wisdom, or judgement

(of a person) natural and unaffected; innocent: 

ORIGIN mid 17th cent.: from French naïve, feminine of naïf, from Latin nativus native, natural.

It can have connotations of immaturity, of lack of judgement—but also a sense of being straightforward, natural and unaffected. In our desire to lose the former, we end up losing the latter, and nothing is as straightforward as it seems any more.

I think it is possible to argue that, in many ways, the Jesus we meet in the gospels was naive. Into the complex and turbulent political context of first-century Judea, Samaria and Galilee, with the ambiguities of Roman power, the struggles for dominance between the local rulers, and the rival Jewish groups, Jesus simply proclaims ‘The kingdom of God is here!’ Repentance and belief sweep away all the other competing loyalties.

Jesus acted naively in the way he conducted his ministry, not least his healings. He must have known that healing on the Sabbath would have upset the religious authorities, and that would lead him into trouble—but he did it anyway. When he healed the Gerasene demoniac (Mark 5), he might have guessed that the man’s restoration would upset the sense of social ordering of the community (‘the mad belong on the fringes’)—and that episode with the pigs didn’t really help—but he did it anyway.

Gerd Theissen, in his landmark Shadow of the Galilean, captures Jesus’ apparent ignorance of the consequences of his ministry rather well:

One day a Gentile centurion living here in Capernaum came to [Jesus]. He asked him to heal his orderly. Of course you have to help Gentiles. But why this one? Everyone knows that most of these Gentile officers are homosexual. Their orderlies are their lovers. But Jesus isn’t interested in that sort of thing. He didn’t ask anything about the orderly. He healed him—and the thought didn’t occur to him that later someone might think of appealing to him in support of the view that homosexuality is permissible. (p 106).

Although this passage has been used to other ends, the general point is that Jesus acts in some sense naively, rather than in a calculated and knowing way, considering in detail the possible consequences of his action.

It has occurred to me that Jesus was naive in one of the most important decisions he made: the appointment of the 12. This was not done without deep thought and prayer (all night in fact, Luke 6.12), but one of the great puzzles of Jesus’ ministry is why we hear so little of most of the Twelve apart from Peter and John, and why Jesus chose someone who ended up betraying him. Many readers take the comment of the gospels as a hint at a post hoc rationalisation, that Jesus knew from the beginning that Judas was going to betray him, but I don’t think that interpretation is very convincing. And why don’t we hear of all the trail-blazing pioneering church-planting by the others? Why does it get left to Paul to transform the known world? Jesus is depicted as having profound insight into people’s motives (Mark 2.8), and at times the gift of supernatural knowledge (John 4.17) but he was clearly not omniscient (Matt 24.36; the textual variant shows that the early church had a problem with this notion). But I am very tempted to think that Jesus simply took the Twelve as good men on face value—he made a naive decision to take people as they presented themselves.

Whatever we make of these decisions, it is clear that Jesus taught the value of naiveté. ‘Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves’ he tells the disciples as he sends them out on mission (but only in Matthew, Matt 10.16). It’s funny how we always find the first of these more attractive than the second. ‘Here is an Israelite in whom there is no guile’ he observes, as he commends Nathanael to anyone who would listen (John 1.47). ‘Let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no’; everything else comes from the Evil One’ he teaches, in his new covenant version of proverbial wisdom (Matt 5.37), sufficiently important for his brother to repeat it almost word for word (James 5.12). No reading between the lines here, no nods and winks and nudges and gestures (Prov 16.30), no ‘knowing’ looks—simply offering and receiving speech and action at face value. Naively.

And mention of The Evil One takes us right back to Eden. It’s possible to see God’s command to Adam and Eve not to ‘eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil’ as the command to remain naive, to trust God, and to take his word at face value, without supposing any sort of hidden motive. That is surely why other interpretations of the episode have been put forward—that the ‘fall’ is not so much about the loss of innocence as the growth into a maturity of discernment. God does want us to be mature and understanding, but it is a maturity which somehow manages to recapture the innocence of naiveté and a straightforward dealing with the world we find and the people we relate to.

French philosopher Paul Ricoeur uses the concept of naiveté as central in his thinking about how we know things, and how we relate critical analysis to our ways of knowing. When we first encounter something, we understand it in a naive, pre-critical way. Our natural approach is to interpret things as they first appear to be. But then we start to engage in a process of criticism and evaluation (our word ‘critical’ comes from the Greek krisis which means ‘judgement’ or ‘evaluation’). This is a necessary process, since reality isn’t always as we think it to be—but if we live in that mode of criticism, then we lose the ability to trust and commit. In Ricoeur’s words, criticism creates a ‘desert’, and it is not a happy or satisfactory state to live in. Ricoeur particularly relates this to the way we read texts, and in particular biblical texts. Anyone who has engaged in a course of study of academic theology, thinking that it might strengthen their faith, has experienced this process as a rude awakening. ‘Don’t study theology at university’ some have been told ‘because you will lose your faith.’ This is the desert of criticism.

But Ricoeur goes further: ‘Beyond the desert of criticism, we wish to be called again.’ Ricoeur says there is a possibility of naiveté, but it is a ‘second naiveté’, one that is found on the far side of the critical process. In spite of all the questions we have, and the judgements we render, at the end of the process (if we are actually going to live our lives rather than just thinking about them) we need to take a ‘wager of faith’ and commit to believing in a particular meaning for what we read. Without this kind of naiveté, we are powerless to construct meaning and live our lives with significance.

So, despite all the pressures to be ‘knowing’ and deploy cunning, I want to embrace this kind of innocence. Call me naive, but I’d rather be known as someone who is trusting than as someone who is cunning.

(First published in 2016)

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2 thoughts on “Can we recover the virtue of naiveté?”

  1. … whereas the aspirations today are to become seen as sophisticated, in present parlance without a backwards glance to the etymology of the word, rooted in sophistry, in the sophist’s school.
    … whereas to be on the inside is what is described as “one of the great permanent mainsprings of human action” in this keen observational essay, lectutre by CS Lewis, “The Inner Ring” available here: from which this comes,
    “My main purpose in this address is simply to convince you that this desire is one of the great permanent mainsprings of human action. It is one of the factors which go to make up the world as we know it—this whole pell-mell of struggle, competition, confusion, graft, disappointment and advertisement, and if it is one of the permanent mainsprings then you may be quite sure of this. Unless you take measures to prevent it, this desire is going to be one of the chief motives of your life, from the first day on which you enter your profession until the day when you are too old to care. ”

    To be on the outside may be part of the virtue of Christian contentment of being on the inside as disciples of Christ.
    As Lewis says, “The quest of the Inner Ring will break your hearts unless you break it. But if you break it, a surprising result will follow….”

    Or, to put it another way, the disambiguity of discipleship to Christ, of self-forgetfulness, of naivety, of fellowship of the true inner ring of the Trinity.

  2. “In spite of all the questions we have, and the judgements we render, at the end of the process (if we are actually going to live our lives rather than just thinking about them) we need to take a ‘wager of faith’ and commit to believing in a particular meaning for what we read. Without this kind of naiveté, we are powerless to construct meaning and live our lives with significance.”

    That’s helpful and how I increasingly think. As I’ve aged (unlike others LOL) I have more questions than I started with. But I’m wagering that on balance I’m right to trust God and all that I believe that he has done in Jesus. This second naivety is a strength and releasing think. I try to leave more to God and try to orchestrate things less…. sometimes!


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