The Wisdom of Old Books & Original Sources

old books“There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books.” That’s C. S. Lewis, from his Introduction to a classic text, St. Athanasius on the Incarnation. Lewis wrote that Introduction seventy years ago, and it’s well worth hearing the rest of his admonition today.

He continues: “Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary book ten times as long, all about ‘isms’ and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said.

“The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his commentator. The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavors as a teacher to persuade the young that first-hand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than second-hand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to understand.

ancient library (Duke edu.)“This mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in theology…. Now this seems to me topsy-turvy. Naturally, since I am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert from the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet. A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all the hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light…. It is a good rule, therefore, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one until you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.

“Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.”

I have been thinking about Lewis’s admonition in the context of presidential speeches – the original sources where we hear the actual words of a President and make up our own minds – one-to-one, in an unmediated way – about what a President has actually said, rather than relying on a second- or third- or fourth-hand interpretation. As Lewis might have said, we have a mistaken preference for listening to how our political analysts interpret a President rather than listening ourselves the President.

It is a good rule, therefore, never to allow yourself to listen to an analyst, or a political challenger, or a pundit on talk radio until you have first heard the President describe a problem and explain a solution to end the problem. I began doing this myself much more often since the 1990s, beginning with President Bill Clinton, and it has been very surprising to me to see how distorted a view analysts, challengers, and others, with their rigid ideological agendas, can have of a President’s actual words and meanings.

Let us remember Lewis’s admonition as we here in the States now head into a year-and-a-half of political campaigning for the November 2016 elections. Heeding Lewis will make us not only wiser citizens and voters but greater respecters of truth.

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

THE GOD OF THE UNITED STATES

ancient templeEvery nation has it god or gods. That is how the Old Testament person would have answered a question if asked about the ultimate commitment of a nation. If you happened to run into a prophet and pressed him on this, he would name any number of national gods. The Baals of Caanan; Dagon of the Philistines; Ra, Nut, or Ma’at of the Egyptians; Marduk of the Babylonians; Ashur of the Assyrians; Yahweh of Israel. The list goes on.

But don’t stop with the names. Press the prophet. Ask him, So what? What does it matter? And he would explain to you that each god has its own distinctive features, which in turn gives a nation not only its religious life but also its social, economic, and political contours as well. Those ancient peoples would certainly have been able to understand what the prophet was on about. And the prophet would be the first to know that to dis a nation’s gods and question their rule is to be deemed a heretic, and that is to invite trouble of the worst kind from the powers that be.

Don’t worry, this isn’t a post to unpack all of that. A decent Bible commentary will help you there. We moderns, of course, don’t think and talk in that language. But maybe we should. Maybe we should learn to understand and discuss our nation’s ultimate commitment in terms of its god(s) and the direct influences it/they wield over our social, economic, and political contours. The ancients got it. Maybe we shouldn’t turn our noses up at them, as if they were ignorant. Maybe we are just blind to a basic truth about life, one that should be obvious to us but today has been made to seem foolish due to the secularism that courses our bloodstream.

God and AdamIn the United States – a perfect example – we only go so far as to talk about America as “Christian nation.” But we stop there. We don’t take the next logical step to the ultimate, the question of the god(s) of the United States. The last few decades alone have seen a universe of pro and con books, articles, and lectures created from Christians and secularists alike on “America as a Christian nation,” not to mention all the Sunday sermons that have been preached on it. It’s a topic that I have researched for decades and written about many times over the years, but I can’t recall any book or article that entered into the question about the god(s) of the nation. Apparently, Christians assume that it must be the biblical God. Probably secularists assume no god at all.

Perhaps we Christians don’t consider this truth about our nation’s god(s) because we go to church, where we hear about the God of the Bible and take it for granted that it is this God that gives our social, economic, and political life its contours. I mean, isn’t that what it means, theoretically, to conclude that America is a Christian nation? Or perhaps we don’t get it because the gods have for a long time been invisible, hidden, among us. In lands where the gospel has made considerable historical headway, like America, the old gods have been driven underground. After all, we don’t have shrines in our homes or state capitals to Baal or Dagon; well, I hope not! Instead, ideologies, big complex ideas, are the gods, the invisible ultimate allegiances, of modern nations.

It is a lot less work to get your mind round a visible god of wood or stone than it is an abstract image such as freedom or equality. I’m not saying that by nature freedom and equality are gods. We make them gods. And because they are invisible, it is easy to assign them whatever meanings we wish. Which is why we Americans are all over the map if asked to define, say, freedom and equality. Not to mention pulling apart. And some gods we make much more significant than others, especially those that become our ultimate allegiances.

The God of the United States is “America,” a trinity of “life,” “liberty,” and “the pursuit of happiness.” Around this trinity we have organized our nation’s social, economic, and political contours. Living it is second nature to us. To question it is heresy. Most ultimately, of course, the one, true, and living God is the God of the United States and of every other nation. My question is, Where are our heretics today?

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

Top image by Steven Zucker, lower image by Waiting for the Word (permissions via Creative Commons)

The One-explanation Syndrome

wisdom traditionIt’s easy and comfortable to live with the “one-explanation syndrome.” Here are some simple illustrations. A broken marriage is explained with the statement: “That happened because the wife had an affair.” A teenager’s jail sentence is explained by: “That happened because the kid got in with the wrong crowd.” A church splits and someone says, “When that church’s pastor resigned, it was all over for that church.”

Such comments are typical, and their language implies that one reason explains what is really a complex event. The marriage failed because of an affair. The church split because the pastor left. The United States went to war in Iraq in 2003 because of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. The great recession of 2007-2008 occurred because of the widespread failures in financial regulation.

Of course we now know that there were many reasons for the great recession and the war about Iraq. And if asked around, you would discover that was true for the church split, the teen’s jail sentence, and the broken marriage. But we like things to be kept simple. We seem to have a natural preference for one explanation. Events, however, are complex. Any one explanation can seem plausible enough, at least for a time, but the wise understand that it takes more than one ingredient to bake a cake or to go to war.

Here, I am trying to get at what we could call “multiple parallel reasons” for an event that are all true. This is a normal way the Bible itself looks at events. So let’s conduct a little thought experiment.

“Why did it take so long for the Israelites to occupy all of the Promised Land?” If you asked that question to most Christians who know the Old Testament, it is quite likely that you would get one, possibly two, scriptural reasons for an answer. Yet the Bible provides no less than five. Four are in Judges; the other in Deuteronomy. Fascinating for their sheer variety, one does wonder how they can all be true at once.

The first reason (Judges 1:19): they did not have sufficient armament. This explanation is very straightforward: although the Lord was with the men of Judah, and although they took possession of the hill country, they were unable to drive the people from the plains because they had iron chariots. This is a technological reason concerning the military and the armament. In the plains, the iron chariots would be free to attack en masse and to maneuver adequately. Israelite infantry might be able to evade them, but it could never keep rank in the face of a chariot attack or mount an effective counterattack afterward.

The chariots were made of iron rather than of wood, which made them formidable armament. The Israelites were late on the scene with iron technology. They had not mastered it even in Samuel’s time, which was one reason why the Philistines were so much trouble to them. Even as late as the time of Elisha, the loss of an ax head was a serious matter. So, although there may have been occasions when God intervened in battle, in terms of military technology alone the Israelites had no chance of competing with the Canaanites. Scripture recognizes this.

The second reason (Judges 1:28–2:3): Israelite treaty arrangements with their enemies. In the remainder of Judges chapter 1, it is clear that the peoples whom Israel did defeat were taken into their social order, albeit as slaves. As a consequence, treaty arrangements were taboo at this time of Israel’s history. Israel had been warned that if it entered into treaties even with its defeated enemies, the gods of those enemies would be a snare to Israel. This is the backdrop to the second reason, which today we might call a sociological one. History is full of examples of how a subject people have eventually radically modified the lifestyle and values of their conquerors, from the Greeks of the Roman Empire to the black slaves in North America.

choicesLike technology, the societal aspect of life is taken seriously by Scripture. The book of Proverbs, for example, concerns itself extensively with societal life. In the New Testament, the same concerns are recognized. “Don’t be misled,” says Paul, “bad company corrupts good character” (1 Corinthians 15:33; see also 2 Corinthians 6:14-18). First Peter, which seems to be a sort of follow-up letter for new converts, has some fascinating insights into the societal interaction between the Christian and the world outside (2:11-12; 3:3-4; 4:2-11). So in Judges, the judgment pronounced by the Angel of the Lord was not against Israel’s disobedience to some arbitrary divine ruling. It was explicitly stated to be based upon Israel’s failures to follow principles of social interaction that had been set down for it.

The third reason (Judges 2:22–3:5): to teach battle experience. This reason is peculiar on the face of it. It argues that the Israelites failed to drive out the Canaanite nations, so the Lord did not drive them out either in order that the Israelites would learn how to fight them. But if the Lord had driven them out, they would not have needed to learn! Of course there is more to it than that. This reason belongs to what we might call educational psychology.

Apparently, Israel’s morale was degenerating into that of the loser, perhaps because the Israelites’ compromises with the indigenous peoples affected their social and religious life, with their will to fight being undermined in the process. The determined attitude needed for struggle and resistance was being lost and had to be relearned. If at that point God had given them the whole land by a succession of miracles, they would not have appreciated it enough to make good use of the resultant peace. Further, for the next three centuries the land was under threat from invasion, and Israel, in a continued state of loss of morale, would have been thoroughly defeated. They could not have survived in such a state except by a succession of miracles, which in the nature of the case would have to be unending. In other words, a serious motivational problem had to be addressed.

This is not an isolated biblical example of this reason. The Israelites wandered for forty years in the desert, not only as a punishment but also to learn obedience through testing, to toughen them up for the rigors of invading Palestine. In the same way, the Exile, centuries later, had an educative significance. In the New Testament, the educative ideas of training and learning become dominant notions in the word “discipleship.” Learning, of whatever kind, has its own principles of operation. One such principle is the necessity of controlled experience: testing. People learn by being exposed to situations in which they may discover the limitations of their skill without the results being too irrevocably disastrous.

The fourth reason (Judges 3:7): the failure of faith. That “the Israelites did not trust the Lord” is of course the most frequently cited explanation Christians give for the Israelites failure to occupy all the Promise Land immediately (see also: Judges 10:10, 13). But it was not a failure of faith in the miraculous. After all, immediately after the Israelites in the desert had accepted the discouraging report of the ten spies, but then realized that they were losing their chance of conquest, they went ahead and attacked the Amalekites and Canaanites anyway. Clearly they were expecting divine help. The unbelief, the lack of faith, went deeper than that. This is a religious reason.

wisdomThere was a shift of religious loyalties, a hankering after other gods. This occurred frequently throughout the history of ancient Israel, and the insidious thing about it was that it was often disguised as a worship of the Lord while having the kind of devotion that was only appropriate for a heathen god. One God for the Temple or synagogue, another for daily life. That shift of religious loyalties resulted in a shift of commitment to a different kind of law, for different gods have different laws.

The Persians, for example, reckoned that their only hope of bringing down Daniel was concerning the law of his God (Daniel 6:5). Other gods, they knew, had other laws. Queen Jezebel also knew this. Her politics, based on the “fear of Baal,” entailed different kinds of property laws than those of Israel, which were based on “the far of the Lord.” This is why Jezebel cannot understand why her husband, the Israelite’s King Ahab, doesn’t just take Naboth’s vineyard for himself after Naboth refuses to sell it to the king (1 Kings 21). Religous loyalties  and their consequences are taken seriously by Scripture.

The fifth reason (Deuteronomy 7:22): to preserve the balance of nature. The overall picture so far is of an initial military failure through lack of heavy armament alongside treaty  arrangements that resulted in integration and intermarriage with consequent loss or weakening of religious loyalty to the Lord and a community at times characterized by a lack of fighting morale.

All of those reason, then, can be more or less harmonized as a pattern of causes and effects in which the operation of some may bring others into play. But this fifth reason (see also: Exodus 23:29–30) is a quite different animal. It is an ecological reason. As such, and this may be its most distinctive feature, it is not concerned just with the specific needs of the Israelites.

If the conquest were too rapidly decisive – if, in fact, the Israelites had been fully obedient to the Lord! – then there would have been more territory under their control than they had manpower to deal with, and the ecological balance of man, plant, and beast would have been upset to the detriment of all the inhabitants. (This is a typical concern of Deuteronomy.)

The writer does not envisage any miracles coming to deal with it. On the face of it, this explanation does not seem to fit in with the others. The chain of causes and effects that the others are working with does not seem to apply here. In fact, this one seems contradictory to them. Nevertheless, it fits with the others within a biblical way of seeing life and interpreting events.

So, why did the Israelites not occupy all the Promised Land immediately? How can all five explanations be true? This is a way in which the Bible thinks about life. It is part of its wisdom. As we get to grips with it, we will gain more wisdom about how the world works and what is behind the events that we so often want to simplify.

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

(An extended treatment of “multiple parallel explanations” can be found in chapters 11-13 of Uncommon Sense: God’s Wisdom for Our Complex and Changing World, by John Peck and Charles Strohmer.)

Center image by Lauren MacDonald (permission via Creative Commons)

Learning Wisdom from Outside

wisdom of pulling togetherI once came down with what everyone thought was a bad chest cold, but when rough coughing set in Doc supplied some meds. Ten days later I was sicker and Doc prescribed different drugs. These also missed the mark and my health deteriorated. Doc then said it might be walking pneumonia, so rest, Charles, and, here, take these other drugs. I worsened and was now waking myself up in the middle of the night coughing violently.

Two months had now passed. I was getting scared and my work suffered. I was on a writing deadline for a new book but only able write for a couple hours each day (the publisher gave me an extension). I had also been preparing teaching material for a long overseas trip, where I would be traveling from city to city and speaking nearly everyday, and on some days more than once. I had tickets to board the plane in a month and I wondered if the trip, nearly a year in planning, would have to be postponed. I had visions of audiences asking why this very sick foreigner was among us behind a microphone popping pills and coughing his lungs out.

During this period, my wife and I continued hosting a weekly, evening Bible study in our home. One night after we had all closed our Bibles and opened the snacks, Anna, a nurse who had been attending and was concerned about my health, suddenly asked a strange question, “Have you breathed-in any mold dust lately?” “What in the world is that?” I asked. “It’s like dust,” she said. “Kind of blue-gray in color.”

You could have knocked me over with a feather. I flashed-back to the day I had strewn several bales of straw over a large area of freshly sown grass seed on our front yard, to protect the seed and new grass from getting too much sun. (It’s the done thing here in the hot South.) Having moved here from a big city in the north, I knew little about rural life. I hadn’t thought anything about the strange blue-gray “dust” that I had been inhaling, which floated up in front of my face every time I broke open a bale and scattered the straw.

“I’ll bet that’s your problem,” Anna said. “I think you’ve been misdiagnosed. You probably inhaled a lot of mold dust and it’s made you very sick. Take a sputum sample to your doctor and get tested for that.” Long story short, Anna’s was a word of wisdom. The correct meds were prescribed and I boarded the plane, still coughing, but now recovering.

This story has always symbolized to me what we could call transcendent points of reference for evaluating problems and making decisions to resolve them. None of the usual cast of medical characters, bless them, had the wisdom needed to resolve my particular, and terribly worsening, problem. Instead, it was from a source outside my doctor’s circle that I gained the needed wisdom for the proper diagnosis and solution.

Whenever we encounter problems we typically seek wisdom to resolve them through the usual cast of characters, such as by turning to a family member or to a trusted friend or leader. We live in a time, however, in which many of the problems we face – socially, economically, politically, and so on – cannot be resolved from within our normal realm of relationships, because the problems did not have their sole origin in those relationships. A universe of ideas, values, and ways of doing things that seem “alien” to us encroach upon our lives each and every day, even if we don’t like it and don’t want them to. In our increasingly shrinking world with its growing cosmopolitanism, “outside influences” are by default implicated in everyone’s problems.

So it’s not just that we, within our normal relationships, are facing this predicament. The reverse is equally true. We are implicated in the problems that others face who are outside of our cast of characters and who look at us as “alien.”

Public dipomacyCollective problems such as this are not going to be resolved by staying solely within our own group. If we depend solely the wisdom our usual sources, we might be entirely unable even to pinpoint the problem. We need to develop a habit of listening to “alien” voices to find a resolution, especially when a diagnosis keeps missing the mark.

The most obvious and crucial example today, I believe, is for Christians to listen to Muslim voices of moderation (and vice-versa). Far too often, the only sources of understanding that we Christians have about Muslims comes from what other Christians have said about Muslims. And in the bigger picture, it is, for instance, common that the only view Christians have about Palestinians has come from Israelis.

If we want to know what’s really going on with Muslims, however, or what’s really going on in the Middle East between the Israelis and the Palestinians, what I am suggesting is to learn about Muslims from Muslims and about Palestinians from Palestinians. This is to have a fundamental respect for the truth. When both “aliens” are doing this in the right spirit, it adds wisdom to all the parties understanding of a collective problem to help us work together resolve it. This kind of learning wisdom from others is vital in our time.

Timothy Keller, founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan – a city wildly diverse in its religious and cultural ethos – knows a thing or two about the importance of fostering learning wisdom amid human diversity. In answer to a question I put to him about “learning from the other,” Keller located it in the Bible’s teaching of common grace.

Simply put, all human beings, “whether they are Jewish, Muslim, or Christian, or whether they believe in God or not, share gifts of wisdom, insight, creativity, and beauty because these gifts come to everyone. Christians call this common grace, because they consider these as gifts that come from God. If that’s the case,” he concluded, “then I could expect that my neighbor who does not believe anything like I believe might still have wisdom from God that I have to listen to.”

Wisdom is waiting for us in the neighborhood if we pull together there.

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

An Imperfect Nuclear Deal with Iran: What Else?

Kerry & Zarif at the tableYou only have to glance at news headlines in recent days to see that the nuclear deal with Iran raised as many tough questions as it solved. Jubilant Iranians in Tehran danced in the streets after the April 2 announcement while Iranian hardliners criticized the deal. In America, Republican presidential hopefuls were everywhere in the media voicing their opposition while President Obama explained his support of the deal to Thomas Friedman at the White House. In Israel, some editorials cautiously favored the deal while Benjamin Netanyahu stated plainly that the deal threatened Israel’s survival. The mix of opinions and emotions ranged far and wide and the wrangling won’t go away anytime soon.

Now that a solid interim agreement on Iran’s nuclear program has been reached between Iran and the P5+1 nations (the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, and Germany), the parties will bump along toward the June 30 signing deadline. As they do, during the next twelve weeks you’re going to hear high-level critics and defenders of the deal abuzz in the media, locked in a fiercely pitched verbal battle arguing their cases and trying to increase public and political support for their side.

Behind all the pushing and shoving, of course, is the question of whether this is a good deal? We all want to know the answer to this. And the only way to know – let’s be honest – is to understand the nuts and bolts of the agreement. But let’s face it, most of us don’t have the specialized technical and scientific nuclear training required for that kind of knowing. Even if we did, it will only be after the signing, perhaps well into the future, before we will know whether this was a good deal. The unpredictability of domestic and international politics, if not the intentions of a signatory, can scuttle even a good deal after it has been implemented. And there are other possibilities. The signing deadline might be pushed into the future or it may never take place.

Meantime, before June 30, as the final very technical details are being resolved (that is the goal), you will be hearing from supporters and naysayers about issues such as the upsides and downsides of the inspections, the break-out time line, the sunset clause, sanctions relief, Iran’s ballistic missiles, and an array of other strengths and deficiencies of the agreement. We will also be hearing that the deal doesn’t do a thing stop Iran from bankrolling terrorism or from quashing human rights. But diplomats, negotiators, and deal signers know that you’ve got to start somewhere.

Iranian workers at nucelar plantWho, then, are we to believe? What are we to think about this? It seems so murky. And what about trusting Iran? But the deal is not based on trust, President Obama said, but on an “unprecedented verification” inspections regime. Everyone will have to make up their own mind about the agreement. My advice during the coming weeks would be to listen chiefly and carefully to the hopeful but cautious supporters of the agreement who also admit to and discuss its weaknesses. Ignore the critics who have nothing good to say about the agreement.

No deal is going to cover all the bases, never mind being perfect. And if in the end, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, who has the final say, does not accept it, the deal will not be signed by Iran. Despite all the uncertainties that remain, what we’re getting is far batter that what anyone anticipated when the current round of serious, high-level talks commenced in February 2013. (Diplomacy is often protracted, intense, and boring, with deals emerging after all-nighters and a lot of coffee. Iran and the P5+1 have been in various levels of talks about Iran’s nuclear program since June 2006.)

What we’re getting is basically an arms control agreement. Iran has agreed to scale back its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. If the agreement is in good measure successful, it will be historic, not only because it would help usher Iran back into the community of nations or because it would be a giant step toward ending the thirty-five-year-old cold war between the United States and Iran.

If successful, the framework of the pact could also be used to break the pattern of nuclear proliferation that has been taking place since World War Two (think India, Pakistan, North Korea). Thinking paradigmatically, the agreement with Iran could be a template for preventing nuclear proliferation. And that would be historic.

There are only two options to this deal. One option is increased and stricter sanctions, which would destabilize the region even more. The other is bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities, which would certainly be the prelude to another U.S. war in the region. So there is the stark reality: the deal, stricter sanctions, or war. Given the likely ramifications of the latter two options, this agreement is a significant accomplishment and probably the best alternative.

Iran and P5+1 nego table (uncredited photo)There are good and sufficient reasons, therefore, for welcoming this arms control agreement, despite its imperfection. Differences remain on both sides and must be resolved for the June 30 signing, and both sides want to see the deal improved in their favor before its signing. So much wrangling will take place around the table also. Who knows what the outcome of this final stage of negotiations will be? Only novelists know the future.

It is not the done thing in foreign policy circles to ask for prayers. The secularism of the circle rules that out. But if you are a praying person, you might want to pray that the agreement will be successful. It seems like a reasonable deal. The space that the diplomats have worked tirelessly to create for the world on this crucial issue is so much better than an Iran with nukes.

Outcomes cannot be guaranteed and troubling concerns will remain unanswered on June 30. But wisdom has a vital interest in seeing international relations established on mutual ground for mutual good amid their diversity. Wisdom is better than weapons of war.

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

Here is the full text of the April 2 agreement.

Here is President Obama’s very forthright discussion with Thomas Friedman about the June 30 agreement.

Here is a series of in-depth posts – they start here – about what turns out to be the surprising history of U.S. – Iran relations since 1979.

Top photo courtesy of Press TV. Center photo courtesy of IIPA via Ghetty. Lower photo courtesy ICHR Iran.

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