The Gospel of Intuition
In a 2011 article for Relevant Magazine, David Buckmaster recounts a pilgrimage made by Apple executives to the Southern hemisphere, iPads in tow.
Four-thousand miles outside of Cupertino, in an impoverished South American village, an illiterate child intuitively takes his index finger to swipe open an iPad. He has never seen a computer or cell phone, and yet with just a few moments of experimentation and the most basic guidance from an Apple executive, the child is able to instinctively navigate the tablet’s features. This, as the man responsible for the creation of the device would say, changes everything.
It took me some time to figure out why this story, first written in Walter Isaacson’s 2011 biography of Steve Jobs, sounded familiar to me, though I was a few clicks more computer-literate than the South American child in the account. I had heard this story in Sunday school, and in youth groups, and from evangelical friends and family members who had gone on mission trips overseas. It is a missionary story—containing the same cast, based on the same presuppositions, told to establish the same truths on the same ground.
In the beginning, there was a commodity. This commodity was developed in the West. It rides on what seem like distinctly Western circuits, but its proponents believe it is universal—a commodity for all peoples, one that speaks to something fundamental in all human beings.
However, not all peoples have accepted the commodity. Some people have not accepted because they are remote; they have not had access to the commodity. The missionaries go, therefore, and take the commodity to them—the “errand into the wilderness”—driven by faith in their commodity’s universality. All they will have to do is make the commodity available to all nations. The commodity will bear its own witness.
But there is another group of people who have not accepted. Ironically, they are Westerners, living in the very civilization that produced the commodity. These skeptical Westerners either have rejected the commodity outright or have expressed doubt regarding its universal import. They are difficult to persuade. But fortunately for the missionaries, these skeptics share a number of the missionaries’ fundamental presuppositions (though the skeptics are not likely to admit this). They assume the same kinds of qualities constitute humans. They count the same sorts of things as evidence. They value a kind of “empiricism.” This means the skeptics could be amenable to a particular kind of market research. Rightly rendered, the missionaries’ account of their errand into the wilderness is a compelling testimony to their commodity’s true, universal power.
The mission is driven by faith in the commodity’s universality; it is also meant to establish the commodity’s universality in the face of Western skepticism. For the mission to be a success on all fronts, the primary objects of the mission need to reside at as great a remove as possible from the developed Western world—the site of the commodity’s nativity. The objects of the mission must be geographically and culturally isolated, and commonly regarded by Western missionary and Western skeptic alike as possessing no more than the basic elements of personhood—people very close to a “state of nature,” who have only what goes by the name of instinct or intuition in their toolkit. If the commodity is truly universal—not just something designed for a small subset of Westerners—those fundamentally “intuitive” people will accept it. Best a third-worlder. Better yet a “remote villager.” Better yet a child. Better yet an illiterate child. Innocent of everything but instinct and intuition, lacking something that the commodity provides, this object of mission sweeps his hand across the screen—the sign of the cross—because that is all he knows to do. All is proven. All we did was hand them the iPad. All we did was preach the gospel, simply. They intuitively took to it.
To believe this missionary account holds purchase is to believe one of its typically less-explicit subplots: the one about the people who do not respond positively to the missionaries’ commodity. If the commodity speaks so powerfully to such a barely-human population as, say, a village of illiterate boys in the third world, what is lacking in those who cannot or will not bring themselves into the light of the commodity? What kind of person would reject the sacred tablets?
Several answers appear throughout the history of sacred and secular missionizing:
1.) Those who reject the commodity are over-civilized. They are obeying something other than their instinct/intuition. They have grown overaccustomed to artificial forms and tuitions. They are probably listening to “culture” or “society”—something that has alienated them from their authentic, aboriginal selves. If they were left alone with themselves—the romance of the West—they would recognize the universal truth and power of the commodity.
2.) Those who reject the commodity are stubborn. Deep down, they know the import of the commodity, but they are too bull-headed to acknowledge it. Their stubbornness might not be completely conscious. They probably have an axe to grind against some of the commodity’s missionaries; they tend to confuse the missionaries’ faults with faults in the commodity. Such critics have only a negative identity; they only know how to criticize, and they would be nothing without their resistance. Ironically, the vitriol they direct perpetually at the commodity and its missionaries betrays an unacknowledged sense of the commodity’s truth and power. They have found an undying object of resistance; their resistance is unbounded.
3.) Those who reject the commodity are not fully human. If they cannot accept a commodity so universal in its human reach, some aspect of their humanity is fundamentally damaged or missing. It may be basic cognitive skills. It may be basic motor skills—even an illiterate, third-world, rural child sees and believes!. Perhaps these people have let original sin infect them, nearly irreparably. Perhaps they are possessed of lesser spirits. Perhaps they have a faulty view of reason. Perhaps they are behind the times. What kinds of humans are not up with the times?
My spouse, Lynn, is a chaplain at an assisted living facility. Tom, the facility’s IT guy, runs computer classes for the elderly residents. Tom laughingly informs Lynn that, having had to remind many residents how to turn on their Macs every session, even late into the course, he does not quite buy the account that issues from the marketing department of the commodity in question. Not everyone finds the commodity “intuitive.”
It’s big of Tom to direct his suspicions toward that marketing. I am not sure most of us would do so. When the commodities to which I have assigned sacred value meet resistance, I tend to equate the resistance with profanation. I do this partly because I have absorbed the unbounded logic of the more worrisome forms of capitalism and Christianity: something can be sacred only if it is de-localized; something can be of ultimate value to me only if it is of ultimate value to everyone, in precisely the same way; something can be sacred only if it is transferable or reproducible, ad infinitum. The people who reject my sacred commodities must be hopelessly parochial, partial, in some ridiculous way that neither capitalism nor Christianity, in their worrisome forms, can countenance. If such people will not be converted, I must uninscribe their humanity, because sustaining belief in the sacrality/universality of my commodities—god, among others—is often worth more to me than allowing other human beings’ experience to transform my notion of the sacred and its supposed universal scope.
But it is not fashionable to be mean. Overtly violent, racist, classist, imperialist, or ageist rhetoric has fallen out of fashion for most believers in the sacred/universal. This is why terms like intuitive and instinctual are so important. They are controlled denotators. That is, I use them in a seeming positive sense—to label the right commodities, missionaries, and converts. But they blow the human foundations out from underneath the unconverted. They do so quietly. Intuitively—instinctively—the sacred verses we write will be subtle.
Missionary zeal deserves about all of the criticism it attracts. Whether religious or secular (what is the difference?), missionary zeal licenses then destroys at will the very humanities that could correct its excesses.
However, missionary zeal might be but another name for a passionate will to put one’s neighbor under fresh conviction. I would hate to live in a world where none of us thought any of us were worth such an exertion of the will. I would rather not move through the world without harboring some suspicions that my sacred things have larger import—without believing that my gods shall be your gods, that what I assume you should assume.
But this is only half of the story. The best check against the worst forms of missionary zeal would be the missionary who recognizes her own need for missionizing—the need to risk the utter undoing of her own assumptions, her own intuition, through an encounter with another. What changes everything—intuition as well as instinct? To hold with missionary zeal the notion that you must place me under conviction—that your gods shall be my gods, that what is true for you is true for me—that is the other half of the story. We are relevant to one another: the great co-mission.
Ryan Harper is a faculty fellow in Colby College’s Department of Religious Studies. He is the author of The Gaithers and Southern Gospel: Homecoming in the Twenty First Century (University Press of Mississippi, 2017) and My Beloved Had a Vineyard, winner of the 2017 Prize Americana in poetry (Poetry Press of Press Americana, 2018). Some of his recent poems and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Spoon River Poetry Review, LETTERS, Jelly Bucket, La Presa, Cimarron Review, Chattahoochee Review, Mississippi Review, and elsewhere.