In some ways, I had a traditional ‘old South’ upbringing, meaning that I spent some time in a military school, and acquired an inoculum of the military ethic that is still with me today: honor, duty, loyalty.
-E. O. Wilson
I ran across those words this week and stopped. Inoculum is the substance used to make an inoculation. A tiny drop of the stuff. Not enough to take over your body. Just enough so that your body develops an immunity to the stuff. That’s how Wilson received the military ethic, “honor, duty, loyalty.” Not real honor. Not full-on duty. Not to-the-death loyalty. But the pleasant, conventional versions of those great virtues. You dress up in the uniform, play the part, nod politely to the storied past of the Old South. Just enough to pass for an officer and a gentleman. Not enough to make you either.
Without using Wilson’s word, so many people have told me they received an “inoculum” of religion. They spent time in a Methodist Sunday School, were forced to be confirmed at thirteen. Or they went to a boarding school and were made to attend chapel every day. It wasn’t the kind of faith that seized you and arrested your heart, just the kind that tells you how to polish the apple for God’s desk. Just enough to make you pass for a Christian.
It’s hard for people with an inoculum of faith to get infected with the real thing. But it can and does happen. Usually the old version of faith, along with the “good life” that goes with it, has to break down. That is God’s moment to pour in a dose of the truth. And if we are ready to act upon it and not simply pay it lip service, the truth can set us free. (Someone said, “The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable”!)
Wilbur Rees wrote, “I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please. Not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep, but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk or a snooze in the sunshine. I don’t want enough of God to make me love a black man or pick beets with a migrant. I want ecstasy, not transformation. I want warmth of the womb, not a new birth. I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack. I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.”
When you have enough of God to explode your soul, disturb your sleep, make you actually love a black man or pick beets with a migrant—do something way outside your white picket fence—then the inoculum loses its power.