Intelligence and Service

Lee van Laer, Red-Tailed Hawk, Piermont, NY
Lee van Laer, Red-Tailed Hawk, Piermont, NY

Like the rest of the Parabola readership, I’ve been watching the developments on the borders of Europe — the influx of desperate refugees, the corpses of children — in a mixture of astonishment and horror.

We live in what we believe to be an intelligent society. A society that is properly educated, one that has informed itself — that is, has inwardly formed right attitudes and understanding. After all, this is what intelligence is all about: understanding.

Yet the developments in the current refugee crisis call all of our understanding into question. What good is intelligence if it does not lead us to compassion? If we are smart, if we are ingenious, but remain selfish and petty, is this good enough? I don’t think this meets the minimum standard for intelligence; so perhaps we are not as intelligent as we think. Intelligence is not just a force to be deployed in universities and laboratories; it needs most, above all, to live in the real world, where it can make a difference.

Emmanuel Swedenborg insisted that the right spiritual attitude produced a human being who cared first for others and for God. Raised, as I was, in the Episcopalian tradition, it is impossible for me to believe that we ought to be any other way.

I see in myself—as I think many of us see in ourselves—that I always care for myself first. This produces an inner struggle which I need to overcome if I am a Christian. The struggle is the same, I would imagine, for Buddhists, Jews, Hindus, and Muslims. All the various peoples of Faith need, each in their own way, to struggle against their selfishness in order to rise towards a more heavenly intelligence. Certainly, Swedenborg would have formulated it this way. Intelligence, he reported, is divine; and any intelligence we seek to express in our own lives ought to aspire towards, and mirror (as best it can) that same divinity.

Speaking as an American, living in what so many characterize as a “Christian nation,” I cannot help but feel that in a true Christian nation, all the leaders would stand up at once and not just suggest, but demand, that we place ourselves squarely in front of this need and take not a few thousand, but hundreds of thousands, of refugees in. One can leave all the politics out of it — this is what is right. If we must (and therein lies a whole terrifying argument outside the scope of this essay) fund and fight wars, we must take those fleeing them in. How can it been seen any differently? Christians—and, I think, all men and women of all faiths—ought to lead by example, not proclamation.

It is the sacred responsibility of compassionate human beings to care for one another. We embarrass ourselves as human beings when we refuse to extend the offer of compassion when need —  demonstrable, undeniable need — is so great. I think it’s a measure of our selfishness, which has reached epic proportions, that we deny such need so effortlessly, as though it were right and proper to watch our neighbors starve while we eat.

America and the rest of the world did the exactly same thing to the Jews during the rise of the Nazis—have we learned nothing from that?

We flatter ourselves with the belief that we know what intelligence is. We bedeck ourselves with our technologies as though they were glittering gems and baubles, and in liar’s clothing, we show up pretending the world is a grand ball, with all adoring eyes on us. But all of our acts ring hollow if our intelligence doesn’t lead us to the compassion that is needed in moments like this one. In the end, what reveals itself instead is a dark and spreading stain of self-interest.

I rather suspect, with worldwide developments as they are, this is just the beginning of the demand that will be placed on both our intelligence and our compassion in the coming decades. Much greater demands await us; if we cannot rise to meet even this first moment in a way that reflects a true intelligence, a humanitarian intelligence, a compassionate intelligence, then we sacrifice the right to call ourselves intelligent.

We sacrifice other rights with it; the right to call ourselves courageous, the right to call ourselves righteous, the right to claim that we are compassionate.

We can, it’s true, take all of those qualities off the table and decide that they are not important for us as a society and as a people; but if we do that now, where do we go from here?

I think that the whole world has to call itself, as we stand today, into question,  and open not just our armories and our pocketbooks, but our hearts, our borders, and our doors and pantries, to those in need. It’s true that this is a tremendous demand that will cost us much; but it is better to decide to do what is right and then figure out how to pay for it, then to decide how much  the right thing will cost before we decide to do it.♦

By Lee van Laer

Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor of Parabola. For more information, please visit