09 April 2013

Archtype or Ectype: How to Tell a Counterfeit

I’ve always had an internal debate regarding how much junk I can stand to hang around before I stop being able to differentiate the good stuff from the bad. And is it ever worth it? How much soggy literature do you read before you lose the temperament that aspires to the higher, harder, richer material. How much junk food can you eat before it’s all you crave? How many lies can you read before you start to mix them up with the truth? It’s all good and well to say “I just read that book for a lark” or “I just wanted to nosh” or “I was just doing research”…and all that may be true. But will it eventually effect you?

Well I suppose that depends on the nature of the encounter.

My constitution, at any rate, is not as strong and solid as I would like it to be and that makes me vulnerable to counterfeits. Most of us are. But we don’t have to be.

I was recently made aware of a practical fact that—as it would turn out—is often used as an illustration for spiritual instruction: that counterfeit money detectors are trained by touching and handling and looking at real money.  tests include counterfeits, yes, but the actual lesson focuses on the real thing. The illustration is designed to show that Christians should focus on the real material—scripture, prayer, sermons—rather than spend our time drinking in misinformation from secular sources.

I did some brief research and found that this illustration is indeed based on fact. Counterfeit detection is not a literary compare and contrast paper, it is a matter of detecting deviations from a known, memorized, and highly particular standard.

I have seen this illustration criticized as a way of getting Christians to hide in a cave and never interact with anything they disagree with, or anything which challenges their faith. Since there are many Christians who do this (retreat into “Christian cul-de-sacs” and fear all outside contact) I can see the concern. But I don’t think that is what the illustration really points to. Because that would certainly not be a life of faith.

This criticism ignores the fact that, no matter your starting point, if you lose sight of the original that you know is correct, you aren’t going to remember what it looks like and you aren’t going to know anything anymore. C.S. Lewis said that, as a Christian, he often had moods wherein Christianity seemed improbable. But then again, when he was an atheist, he often had moods in which Christianity seemed very probable. “The rebellion of your moods against your real self is going to come anyway,” he states. And if you don’t want to remain a “creature dithering to and fro” you have to keep your heading. To do that, you have to remember where you are coming from, where you are going, and why. If you lose track of either of these, you are going to get utterly lost…or in the matter of counterfeits, utterly swindled.

So. If a person’s job is to detect counterfeits they are no doubt going to encounter counterfeits ALL THE TIME. Not only that, but the greater one’s expertise, the likelier one is to encounter some very, very good counterfeits wherein the legitimate features are mixed in so-nearly-perfectly with the illegitimate that it would be easy to be confused. How to keep from being fooled?

By keeping eyes on the real stuff all the while. Calibrate to the original. All the time. Every day. And by not feeding on a diet of the fakes, because those are going to show up frequently regardless.

The only reason to fear encountering the fakes is if we are uncertain what the original looks like. If you find yourself confused about the original when dealing with a copy, that is when you have put yourself in danger. From experience I know that ending up in that situation is not, as some would have it, the business of learning and growing. It is decidedly the opposite. It is the business of unlearning all functional points of reference. It means real and fake cease to have meaning, nothing can be distinguished between them, and no choices can be made regarding them.

The spiritual application of all this is rather clear, but is no easier for that. It is one of the hardest things of all. It is discernment, and—above all—it is faith.

“That is why daily prayer and religious reading and churchgoing are necessary parts of the Christian life. We have to be continually reminded of what we believe. Neither this belief nor any other will automatically remain alive in the mind. It must be fed.” (Mere Christianity)

It isn’t a matter of what you encounter along the way. It’s a matter of what our meals are made of. What are we feeding ourselves?

The counterfeit detector does not have a conniption fit when he encounters false currency—be it cleverly copied, or just monopoly money—he sets about seeing if it lines up with what he knows to be correct in all its details. What he certainly shouldn’t do is try to use the counterfeit to measure the original, nor should he ever try and make purchases with the counterfeit to see if it will “work.” It’s his job to expose the counterfeit…not to try and feed himself or his family with it.