I am looking forward to seeing the DaVinci Code at some point in the near future. I haven’t read the book and don’t plan on it and I don’t find the story in and of itself to be particularly interesting. That said, I love Ron Howard movies and it seems like a good way to escape from the real world for a few hours. The controversy surrounding this movie raises some interesting questions about tolerance and the extent we are willing to go to challenge some deeply embedded ideas about ourselves and the epistemology of religious thought. I commented on this not too long ago in reference to the Judas Gospel. Whether it is fully supported in the historical documents or not, the thought that Jesus may have been married and had fathered children is simply too much for many to consider. It seems to me, however, that this resistance has less to do with evidence and justification rather than with our individual psychological profiles. As a historian I want to know what the truth is about the life of Jesus. Anything beyond what we can know from a historical context is of little interest to me.
What I find particularly interesting is the inability of many to suspend disbelief and play with the idea for a short period of time. Why is the exercise of the imagination for a limited period of time such an issue here? Can I be a committed catholic who believes in the Holy Trinity and the whole nine yards and still be entertained by the DaVinci Code? If not, where exactly is the problem? I should ask, is there a problem beyond the nonsense of corruption at the hands of Satan? Perhaps the problem is that many find it difficult being reminded that not everyone holds the same belief system. This is so obvious that it should go unstated, but I raise the point because many hold that it is possible to be committed to a religion, but not engage in any hierarchical judgments in reference to other organized religions. But can we? Isn’t there something constitutive in the very concept of a belief? In other words, the act of believing implicitly involves judging x to be true. I find this to be the case whenever I get that knock on my door from people who are bringing me the “good word.” When I am patient enough to engage these people what I find is they have very little interest in me as a person. Rather, I suspect that they see me as someone who potentially stands in their way of achieving comfort with the thought that everyone is on the same theologicla page. Are they really interested in me? What does it even mean to be interested in the “soul” of someone that you’ve never met? In short is it really a concern with my well being that brings people to my doostep or a deep-seated insecurity with the possibility that everything they believe could be wrong?
I guess I have to somehow make a connection with the Civil War. Perhaps it can be drawn by mentioning that Alan Nolan faced a similar situation with the publication of Lee Considered: Robert E. Lee and Civil War History (UNC Press) back in 1991. My own view of the book is that much of it is flawed in its conception and methodology. However, I’ve always thought the best way to handle any argument is to tackle the assumptions and conclusions that are drawn from those assumptions. Of course, that is not what happend when the book was published. Various heritage groups publicly condemned the book and I suspect it was without having read it. Is this a function of the same psychology? According to Charles Reagan Wilson the myth of the Lost Cause should be understood as a cultural mindset that is a blending of civic and religious symbols. It may be the case that the religious components of Lost Cause culture helps to explain the continued resistance of many white Southerners to a more mature discussion of American history and specifically the South. I am reminded of the story which historian David Goldfield tells of a book signing he did following the release of, Still Fighting the Civil War: The American South and Southern History (LSU Press, 2002). Goldfield writes that he was surprised to find a nice crowd on this particular day and as a result hoped to engage the audience and even sell some books:
Once I completed my brief presentation and opened the floor for discussion, the folks in gray, who all hailed from the local Sons of Confederate Veterans camp, as I later discovered, bombarded me with questions. This was fine, except that they never allowed me to respond beyond a word or two before they shouted another question or comment. Two things became obvious. First, these individuals were not interested in a dialogue; second, they had not read the book. One questioner asked me whether I had written about the “atrocities” committed by General William T. Sherman. When I told the gentlemen I had not, he accused me of a cover-up and proclaimed my book a “damned lie.” I thereafter responded to every outlandish comment by urging the speaker to read the book. The consensus that afternoon was that I had written “revisionist trash” that offended every true southern man and woman. (Southern Histories: Public, Personal, and Sacred, pp. 3-4.)
While Goldfield is describing a very different group from those that are protesting the DaVinci Code, it is not a stretch to suggest that both are laboring under a similar psychological make-up. It isn’t simply tolerance that needs to be emphasized, but a willingness to engage in meaningful and mature dialogue. Our “web of beliefs” are not structured simply around the hope that they may be justified and hence “mirror” [to use Richard Rorty’s lingo] the world. They are also a means to ensure stability, consistency, and comfort. To challenge them is to do much more than throw those beliefs into doubt.