Applying the Wisdom of Sages in Education

Today we’ll move from the previous post’s examples of seeking wisdom from the natural world to look at three models of wisdom-based schools that were common during Bible times in the cultures of the old world Middle East. These educational models were the temple schools, the royal court schools, and what today we might call home schooling. The first two are broadly analogous to what today we would call religious training and college, respectively. (See the previous post’s introduction to this short 3-part series.)

Because the old-world sages were vital to the development of the wisdom tradition itself, and to their cultures’ education models, let’s begin with a word about what the sages were on about, for their callings were quite different than that of prophets and priests.

Writing about ancient Israel, the Hebrew scholar Leo Perdue makes this helpful distinction: “Unlike prophets who received the knowledge of God in revelatory states (e.g., standing in the council of Yahweh) or priests whose religious experiences included theophanies…, sages came to their understanding of God and the moral life through ways of knowing that included memory, sense perception, reason, experience, and reflection.” He continues: “[By] using their powers of observation and the ability to think rationally, the sages sought to understand God, social institutions, and the moral life through their reflections on creation and human experience, including their own.”

Wisdom scholar Ben Witherington, writing about wisdom and experiences that are common to humanity, put it this way when referencing ancient Israel: “The sages dealt with and drew deductions from the repeatable patterns and moral order of ordinary life, both human life and the life of the broader natural world. For the most part they were trying to explain how God’s people should live when God is not presently intervening and when there is no late and particular oracle from God to draw on.”

Noted Old Testament theologian Gerhard von Rad calls the sages’ kind of learned wisdom “experiential knowledge,” noting that every old-world culture “devoted itself to the care and literary cultivation of this experiential knowledge.” “No one,” he reminds us, “would be able to live even for a single day without incurring appreciable harm if he could not be guided by wide practical experience.” It teaches us to understand events in our surroundings, to foresee the reactions of others, to apply our own unique resources at the right point, “to distinguish the normal from the unique and much more besides.”

ancient wisdom schoolTo sum up, it was from their studied observations over time that the sages derived and built up a body of knowledge of learned lessons both from the created order of the world and from human behavior in the world. Insights applied from learned lessons are vital to gaining wisdom, and these became huge in the curricula of wisdom education. Over time, sages’ insights were collected and organized into forms of written instruction and used to educate the young about wise, practical decision-making in virtually every area of life in the old-world Middle East.

Previous to its organized and written forms, wisdom was transmitted orally down the generations, usually from father to son (occasionally from mothers), as instruction about life in the world. This kind of “home schooling” is partly what we see in written form in the book of Proverbs. Much of this kind of instruction was taught in a style called the “act-consequence connection.” Here are a few examples. For lack of guidance, a nation falls; do not love sleep or you will grow poor; do not speak to a fool, for he will scorn the wisdom your words (Proverbs 11:14; 20:13; 23:9). A popular one today is: you reap what you sow (Galatians 6:7).

Early forms of home schooling, whether oral or written, were designed to encourage the kind of responsible living that would put the young in harmonious agreement with the divine order that was assumed by old-world cultures to exist in the world. It usually contained proverbs and exhortations, and it emphasized concrete, practical instruction rather than hold up abstract ideals to follow. It emphasized right decision-making in everyday life. And, again, all of this was based on insights that sages had gained from their investigations into the orderly processes of nature and through their years of studied observation and experience of human behavior and interaction.

Over time, such insights were developed into instruction on a wide variety of topics, such as: gaining knowledge from the created order of things; cultivating moral conduct, prudent behavior, and virtue; recognizing principles for living well; understanding the outcomes of one’s choices; and recognizing contrasts, as between the wise and the foolish, the just and the unjust, the good and the bad. The instruction, learned and applied, was meant to free the young person from making costly errors of judgment later on.

Insights about such matters in Proverbs is often artfully crafted in pithy sayings such as maxims, epigrams, adages, or proverbs, intentionally brief in length, compact in meaning, easily intelligible to their audience, memorable, and every now and then delivering a graphic kick. E.g.: Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman who shows no discretion; food gained by fraud tastes sweet to a man, but he ends up with a mouth full of gravel (Proverbs 11:22; 20:17).

The royal court schools provided instruction at various educative levels, including what today we would call higher education. The broad purpose of royal court schools, wisdom scholar William McKane concluded, was to prepare recruits “for the learned professions in general and notably for the higher offices of state.” Recruits typically came from the top layers of society, such as children from the royal courts, from courtiers’ families, from the homes of royal officials or temple personnel, from the wealthier families, and suchlike. Only the elite need apply.

door keyIn Babylon, for instance, two types of such schools existed. One was called “the table house,” where reading and writing were taught. Today, this of course falls into universal elementary education, but 3,000 years ago it was a privileged education, in which young men were trained with the two essential skills needed for entering royal court service. The graduates were often known as scribes, and those who served as diplomats and ambassadors would also have been trained in the language and culture of important surrounding nations. Ezra the priest, as he is typically know by Christians, was also trained as a scribe. We know from the biblical book that bears his name that he served the Babylonian king Artaxerxes as a shuttle diplomat between the Babylonian capital and Jerusalem.

The other Babylonian school of higher education, according to McKane, offered sons of the elite studies in mathematics, astronomy, medicine, magic arts, theology, and all the varied branches of “‘the learning and tongues of the Chaldeans’ (Daniel 1:4).” The royal courts had their pick of young men from elite families who showed aptitude and potential to serve as public officials. It seems to have been normative for the chosen ones to learn wisdom through tutoring or apprenticeships. The Hebrew young man Daniel and his three friends were among the elite classes of ancient Israel who were taken prisoner in exile to Babylonia, where they were tutored in the studies just described as a prerequisite to entering service as political advisors and officials in the Babylonian royal court.

In ancient Egypt, a long section on Egyptian wisdom “Instruction” details the normative apprenticeship requirements of that nation’s public officials. McKane writes that this Instruction is “an educational manual for one who is to hold high public office…” He concludes that this corpus of teaching “establishes the conditions of effective and successful statesmanship in Egypt. If an official is to succeed in affairs and become a weighty statesman, these are the conditions to which he must attend and give respect.” (The story of the Hebrew slave Joseph rising to high political office in Egypt may hold insight for us about this.)

Careful readers of Proverbs will have seen many proverbs and sections in that book that detail qualities requisite in officials serving in the royal court, including admonishments to Israel’s kings (as rulers) about their behavior and decision making. Von Rad writes that these particular passages “presuppose conditions at court.” They indicate “the royal court as a place where wisdom was traditionally nurtured. This would correspond exactly to what we know of the courts of Egypt and Mesopotamia.”

Scholarship about the temple schools of the old-world Middle East has also shed light about the wisdom-based education of the time. The temple schools, as the name indicates, were attached to a nation’s temples and therefore had a particular religious identity, depending on the nation. Formal religious training for a nation’s priesthood took place in such schools. In ancient Israel, the religious identity would have been monotheistic, centered on Yahweh. In other nations, it would have been polytheistic, centered on a nation’s most prominent gods.

McKane, however, from his extensive research, concluded that we should not think that temple schools dealt only in instruction related to the religious cultus of the nation. In the Egyptian temple schools, for instance, there seems to have been a amalgam of learning. He somewhat compares them to schools founded by cathedrals in the Middle Ages, which were grammar schools and not formal seminaries. There “is no reason to suspect,” McKane writes, “that the temple schools of the ancient Near East were less devoted to the basic elements of academic discipline…”

This may help to explain a basic feature of the old-world Middle East. Quite unlike in the West today, but not unlike some Middle East countries today, religion, social life, and politics were all consciously a whole piece of cloth. One clear illustration is worth noting: in the court systems and the royal courts of both Egypt and Israel, jurists and rulers were to exercise impartial justice when deciding cases and in law-making.

In Israel, this derived from the religious teaching based on the fear of Yahweh (see, e.g., Proverbs 1:1-3; 2:1-9; 8:15; 24:23; 28:21). In Egypt, it derived from the religious concept of Maat,” which put clear ethical constraints on the officials. McKane writes that an Egyptian official “cannot exercise power in the context of the Egyptian state unless he respects at all times the demands of equity, and endeavors scrupulously to act fairly without respect of persons… [Thus] a suprised lookpassion for [impartial] justice was an important ingredient of power and … whoever did not have this capacity for probity and fair dealing in public affairs was disqualified from holding office by a self-regulating process of selection.”

To sum up, wisdom, as theologian David Ford points out, was taken for granted as “the crown of education,” as what was “most desired in a parent, a leader, a counselor, a teacher.” And it was the sages who made this possible.

I do wonder, now that I am at the end of this article, what our country would be like today if the practice of moral conduct; if the cultivation of virtue and prudent behavior; if instruction in principles for living well and for understanding the consequences of one’s choices; and if many other features of wisdom-based old-world education were part of the curricula of our public schools.

©2017 by Charles Strohmer

Images via Creative Commons. Pencils, by Mark Bonica. Sages, by anon. Skeleton key, by Aphrodite.  Surprised look, by George Thomas.

A note from Charles: If you want more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow the blog. Just click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice when I post a new article. And, hey, if you like this stuff, tell a friend! Thank you.

Seeking Wisdom from the Natural World

SunsetWisdom is both a divine gift and a divinely ordained human task. And let’s fess up. We would all prefer the receiving of a gift over exerting ourselves to work toward a goal. After all, work is, well, work. So I suspect that most of us would rather have wisdom handed to us than work at seeking it. Besides, don’t we have too much going on in our lives already? How can we possibly add to that load the work of seeking wisdom?

Since seeking wisdom takes persistent dedication, we can get a bit slack at it. So I thought it might be inspiring to take a timeout from the complicated things that we sometimes talk about on this blog and instead remind ourselves of the importance that Scripture places on seeking and applying wisdom. Of the countless ways we could do this, let’s spend a few minutes remembering just three of the many areas of life in which Scripture itself places a premium on having wisdom and applying it – the natural world, education, and the arts. Today we’ll look at the natural world. Education and the arts will be covered in future posts.

The Natural World
Throughout history, theologians and philosophers have attempted to explain the agency through which the material world exists and holds together. This is not the place to review the diverse answers that have been supplied. What I want to highlight is an answer that is typically overlooked by religious communities, including Christian ones.

To a basic question such as: “How did the material world get here and why does it keep going?”, Christians, as well as Jewish and Muslim believers, would reply with some version of: “God created it and sustains it.”

To stick within my own faith, Christianity, it you pressed Christians to be more specific, most likely you would hear: “God spoke it into existence by his word,” or “God created through Jesus Christ.” Or some such thing. But what you won’t hear is the indisputable role that wisdom played. And this is an unfortunate omission. Over many decades of hearing Christians talk about how the natural world was created and is sustained, I can’t recall anyone underlining the biblical truth that wisdom itself is an essential agency to the founding and running the world. And yet it is clearly evident in Scripture (e.g., Job 28:12-19; Psalm 104:24; Proverbs 3:19; 8:22-31; Isaiah 28:23-29; Jeremiah 10:12; 51:15).

My purpose here is not to unpack the riches of such passages. I only want to note that they include at least these three salient ideas: a) that wisdom was present in the beginning when God created; b) that God sustains the created order by wisdom; c) that human collaboration with God’s wisdom helps sustain the world.

Wisdom, we may say, then, is in some sort of God-ordained way essential to the creation, order, and stability of the natural world, which doesn’t exist like a cat and dog fighting or like a jar of nitroglycerin. Rather, there is a consistency old booksand a reliability to the natural world. The same rules and laws govern this earth as govern the farther reaches of the galaxy. Seasons come and go with persistent regularity. You can count on that, and farmers and meteorologists do.

From this we may conclude that wisdom is not some abstract entity, nor has it been left to gather dust on blueprints in heaven, any more than Michelangelo’s art or Bach’s music was left ignored in their heads. As their gift to us, their art is with us in the world. We can see it and hear it. And those who work to become skilled enough in those kinds of artistic wisdom can have a go at painting it or playing it.

What used to be called the “natural sciences” is the large and varied field where wisdom is sought, discovered, and applied to the multifarious facets and complex intricacies of natural world. First Kings 4:29-34 hints at this about Solomon, albeit in a rudimentary way.

The passage in First Kings celebrates Solomon’s international reputation for wisdom. His prodigious output of proverbs and songs are noted; his practical wisdom and his keen judicial wisdom are commended. And Solomon’s wide breadth of wisdom in natural science is also noted. He is said to have “described” the plant life of the region, from the largest trees (cedars of Lebanon) to the smallest shrubs (hyssop). He “taught about” beasts, birds, reptiles, and fish (the four principle classes whereby the Israelites understood the animal kingdom). To acknowledge that this was all rudimentary is not to say that it was wrong or even that it has become out-dated. After all, even the most advanced physicist began with basic math.

It may be difficult to appreciate the Nobel-like acclaim Solomon received for his accumulated wisdom until we recognize that he lived during a time when the sages of Egypt and of the East were renowned for their wisdom. Everyone knew that. Even so, Solomon is said to have had more wisdom and insight than the sages of the East and of Egypt. And, evidently, he also stood head and shoulders above the sages even of his homeland (Ecclesiastes 1:16).

It might surprise some workers in the natural sciences today to learn that when they discover something more about the created order of things – even today – they are discovering more of God’s wisdom for the way the natural world works. The big question, however, and it has become acute in our day, is how to apply a discovery. What kind of uses should it be put to? Is nothing taboo? Does anything go? Ultimately, this faces us with the question of what should be the proper management, stewardship, of God’s good creation.

Assessing ahead of time the long-term implications and ramifications of any new discovery is not possible because analyzable facts are not yet in evidence by which to base accurate projections. Further, in this world, where by our sin we distort God’s good creational wisdom after we discover it, we will wish in vain that the use of any discovery will have only upsides. British theologian and philosopher John Peck calls this the ICT Factor: the inherent cussedness of things. Uses made of discoveries in the medical and the nuclear sciences are only recent cases in point.

jigsaw big pictureCultivating a humble attitude in the face of new discoveries and their applications is probably the best we can do. I learned something about this years ago while reading how the scientist and philosopher Francis Bacon (1561-1626) approached new discoveries. I don’t romanticize Bacon. The man wasn’t a saint. But in The New Atlantis, his work of fiction, he named his ideal college “Solomon’s House,” which was, he wrote, “the noblest foundation (as we think) that ever was upon the face of the earth…, dedicated to the study of the works and creatures of God.” And in his essay “Of wisdom for a man’s self,” he wrote that wisdom used for selfish interests “is a depraved thing.”

W can also learn from his thoughts about his method of induction, for which he has been celebrated. In brief, Bacon – he entered Trinity College at age 12(!) – strongly objected to the highly abstract forms of knowledge (Aristotelianism and Scholasticism) that influenced the Medieval period. His method of induction was meant to help Europeans produce an alternative to that. He sought a more personal and comprehensive relation to nature via a systematic hands-on approach in which knowledge would be derived and built up from the multitude of people’s practical, studied experiences of the natural world. From these experiences, general laws of nature would be developed and employed. “Nature can only be commanded by being obeyed,” was Bacon’s way of putting it.

Evidently this was not, in his mind at least, to be an exercise in selfish ambition or mercenary exploitation. Significantly, when a law of nature was discovered, it was to be employed in what Bacon called “a holy manner” as the science was developed. By this he meant that the natural world must be approached in a humility of not knowing and then proceed from there by studying from the creation what God has actually wrought in it.

Further, our science, he said, should produce works motivated by charity. Knowledge gained ought to be used to serve others, to alleviate human suffering, increase human well-being. Such an attitude aptly describes the way of investigation and cultivation of the earth that the Book of Genesis (2:15) insists should be the motivating principle of and for human work in the world – good stewardship, or management.

Wisdom, then, is imminent in the natural world and may be found by those who seek it there, for it is a world that “speaks” to all peoples everywhere about itself and its Artist (Genesis 1; Psalm 19). Of course, most of us don’t have careers in the natural sciences. But we may grow our own vegetables, or run an urban agricultural initiative, or even serve our community as a Master Gardner.

Like a city under siege and deprived of food, God’s wisdom is so vital to the proper running of the natural world that to not humbly seek that wisdom and apply it wisely is to contribute to its decay. In Uncommon Sense, John Peck and I tried to capture something of this when we wrote: “When you look out on the world and touch it and use it, you are touching God’s own heart and mind. All the way through it you are touching a product of God’s character.”

Best we be good stewards of that.

©2017 by Charles Strohmer

Top image courtesy of Creative Commons. Old Books, by M. Peterka. Jigsaw, by NASA.

A note from Charles: If you want more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow the blog. Click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice when I post a new article. And, hey, if you like this stuff, tell a friend! Thank you.

Mutuality: Recovering a Jewel for U.S. – Middle East Relations

PeacemakingIn January on this blog, beginning here, were four articles that detailed the seemingly intractable problem of overcoming the secular / religious chasm of U.S. – Middle East relations. In a follow-up article, we looked at many behind-the-scenes initiatives by the U.S. State Department and many NGOs that focus on overcoming this problem. Today, I want to close off this informal series by calling attention to vital role that the wisdom tradition is playing in these initiatives.

It’s quite a dilemma, the political tug of war between secularism and religion in U.S. – Mideast relations. After all, what fellowship does religious disbelief in God (in political decisions) have to do with religious belief in God (in political decisions)? I hold the view that trying to wrest one side into the other’s camp as the means of resolution is a futile exercise at best and at worst moves the two worlds closer to a clash of civilizations, for their core beliefs conflict.

So what is the alternative? As we saw in this article, both the U.S. State Department and many NGOs and foreign policy think tanks have found a worthy and respected alternative, by bringing the secularly oriented and the religiously oriented around the table to work together on their common ground interests toward common good.

It is just here the historic wisdom tradition, especially its norm of mutuality, comes front and center into the picture. Lady Wisdom, as she is known in the book of Proverbs, cries to be heard at the rough intersection of both worlds, the religious and the secular. And she cries there not of conflict and war but of the possibilities for cooperation. She stands alongside that intersection as a focal point that offers for both worlds a way to follow her lead into a new narrative together.

What is that new narrative? The wisdom norm of mutuality offers considerable potential for building and sustaining cooperative arrangements among peoples who are different, even as different as fundamentally different as religious and secular political outlooks. How is this possible?

The wisdom norm of mutuality stresses a fact of life that we often taken far too much for granted: the interests and concerns of daily life that are held in common by all peoples everywhere, regardless of race, religion, or ethnicity, or whether we consider ourselves secular or religious. To use a Christian expression, the wisdom norm of mutuality concentrates more on who people are, not on what by the grace of God they may become.

If this seems an alien notion to us today, it is partly attributable to an age, our age, in which rigid ideological divisiveness has divided us and conditioned us to accept sectarian solutions to relational problems as normative. This sectarian dynamic has especially pitted secularly oriented worlds and religiously oriented worlds against each other.

Since time immemorial, every person on the planet has participated in the same creation, held the same basic interests, shared the common bond of what it means to be human. We all want to be able to provide for our families, to see our children raised properly and safely, to see our social environments improve, to find ways to ease the suffering of others, to increase possibilities for well-being in the world, to live peaceably with neighbors.

People everywhere have fundamental desires for such outcomes regardless of their core beliefs (provided those beliefs are not organized around violence). Believers and atheists alike are, for example, moved at the sight of starving children or families left homeless by a tragedy, and both will want to do what they can to alleviate the suffering. In fact, this is precisely where many religious groups, in particular, throughout history have excelled, in caring for people as they are, wherever they are, regardless of their beliefs.

wisdom traditionAs I understand it, the wisdom norm of mutuality does not require people to give up their core beliefs before they can start to build more cooperative and sustainable arrangements with each other (again, provided those beliefs are not organized around violence). The wisdom norm of mutuality does not require a religious or a secular party to ditch its core beliefs before cooperation between them becomes doable. What Lady wisdom does require of them is to turn their eyes to their shared human interests and concerns as human beings made in the image of God.

Our post-9/11 changed world has presented Washington and the capitals of the Middle East with landscapes of international sharp curves, turning points, and cul de sacs that diplomats, foreign ministers, policy analysts, and NGOs are trying to negotiate without misfortune. Here, wisdom is being brought in from the margins and applied with slow but increasing success. When this approach gets circulating more normatively in the DNA of U.S. – Mideast relations, a secularly organized system of international politics and a religiously oriented one will have a responsibly moral way for searching out peaceable ways ahead with each other.

However imperfectly this would be realized where these two worlds meet, it would nevertheless place vital international relationships on more cooperative footing – for the good of our publics and for a more hopeful future down the generations than current seems likely.

©2016 by Charles Strohmer

Images by permission of Creative Commons.

A note from Charles: If you want more of the perspective that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow this blog. Just click here and find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and then click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice when I publish a new post. And, hey, tell some friends! Thank you.

“AMERICA SHALL BE SAVED”

SunsetThe evangelist Reinhard Bonnke recently ran a full-page, color advert in Christianity Today. He’s going to be preaching the gospel at a large stadium in Houston, and a headline for the ad read “America Shall Be Saved.” More gospel preaching across our land? I, for one, welcome this counter to the winds of unjust change that blow in. But I had to ask: Can “America” be saved? Advertising can be deceptive, promising what it cannot fulfill. An advert for the gospel should not do that. But this advert is misleading. Here’s why.

Years ago, when my wife and I were hosting a well-traveled British evangelist and his European wife in our home, Alan (not his real name) and I stepped outside into the warm air, where we wandered the yard and caught each other up on our doings. I heard about his evangelistic work in Africa and the modest success he was having there getting people saved. He heard about the “worldview and wisdom” teaching and writing I was doing those years. Eventually, as can happen with old friends on a lazy sunny day, we got to solving the world problems, and the conversation turned beefy for both of us.

I had been complaining about injustice and corruption in politics and went off on a rant about some law or other Congress had passed. “Not much anyone can do about it now,” I said. Sensing his moment, Alan had the answer: “I’d love to preach the gospel in Washington, DC. Just think how cool it would be to get all those guys saved.”

“But that wouldn’t solve the political problems,” I said. “Leaving aside the fact that we can’t save anyone, sure, what a miracle if suddenly they all got saved tomorrow! But let’s think about this for a minute. Let’s say that one Friday evening you held an evangelistic event for a full session of Congress, had an altar call, and everyone there now had their fire insurance. My question is: What do these pols do on Monday?”

“They go back to work.”

“Right. And what do they go back to work with? Pretend you had been preaching to all the teachers and principals of an entire school district or to all the journalists and editors that work for a corporate news network. They all got saved. Next day they would return to work in the same school system or the same broadcasting organization as the day before. What would have changed in either system?”

Here’s the dilemma. In our thought experiment, the pols themselves would have been changed deeply morally as individuals but the political system itself would have remained largely untouched. Sure, most likely some moral transformations in some of the characters would have resulted in some immediate changes. The Speaker of the House might have repented of adultery. A Senator might have resigned after confessing he stole campaign funds. A legislator might have stepped down because he suddenly felt a call to the poor.

But personal individual moral transformations, crucial as they are, do not remove corruption or injustice from the existing system that is its seedbed. So the pols in Congress would simply return to work with the same old system – the good, bad, and ugly of it – that was previously in place. What else is there? God forbid the government should come to a halt and force us to rethink it! No. No. A thousands time No. Just throw more money at it. Keep it going.

Congress in sessionIn an article he wrote many years before I was thinking about this issue, Jim Skillen nailed it: “Just laws and good public policies will not automatically flow from a renewal of individual ethical concern, and public justice will not automatically take care of itself if we simply concentrate hard enough on our families and schools and churches.”

Gospel-shaped moral transformations of individuals must lead to degrees of moral recovery not only of our homes, schools, and news rooms but of all aspects of society. If not, godly obedience is found wanting and the winds of corruption and injustice will blow into every quarter with increasing strength. In other words, a gospel-shaped wisdom will only influence society “by way of dedicated, purposeful action fit for each arena” – including law and politics.

“A republic,” Skillen concludes, “cannot be reformed apart from action by citizens prepared to serve their civic neighbors through laws and policies that do justice to all. Political renewal requires political action. Legal reform requires wise juridical acts and judgments. No shortcuts are available. Nothing human automatically cares of itself.”

Those saved school teachers and journalists and pols would have to move on from individual moral change to the long hard work of going back to the Book, and finding other wise resources as well, for helping to make the systems less corrupt and more just for all. But especially back to the Book.

Scripture, of course, doesn’t carry encyclopedic knowledge for answering every question that will come up. Not even close. But as a professor friend of mine likes to say: “Scripture may impinge on whatever is being tackled, so the right way to begin any investigation is to start by seeing what God might have to say about it.”

Will America itself be saved? Not just its people? Not by what takes place in Houston. Get everyone saved night after night there, and the song remains the same: “What happens the next day when?”

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

USING THE BIBLE TO THINK part 4 of 4

ABC building blocksAll cultures have developed out of the same “basic ingredients.” In fact, cultures do not develop unless their peoples learn mastery over the basic ingredients. As noted in a previous post, the most advanced mathematician began by learning the simplest calculations and the international concert pianist began with five-finger exercises. If the most elementary principles are not mastered, then a severe limit is set on how far one can cope with new demands.

Of course this is a well known fact of life and hardly needs mentioning, but I’m reminding us because when we are confronted with something new and unfamiliar that we want to make sense of, as often occurs in these changing times, it is a sound instinct to see it in terms of its basic ingredients. Most adults read words and even phrases in whole units, but if they have to read out some unfamiliar word, they will revert to the childhood method of dealing with it syllable by syllable.

The Bible uses the same principle. As we saw in another post, it deals with the ABCs of human culture, its fundamentals. It introduces us to God’s dealings with people in respect of the basic elements of human culture, under conditions in which they can be perceived most clearly – in the simpler forms of human society. Scripture deals with the issues of life, then, we may say, in its primary units. It shows us the beginnings of the historical process that leads on to the present day.

In the development of human history, the basic features of human life are seen most clearly in elementary types of society, and then they become combined and complicated in ways that make the result as different as a cake is from the ingredients that make it up. If you don’t like your cake, or if you want to improve it, you go back to the cookbook recipe, where the basic ingredients and original instructions are set out. No cook, however, would expect the cookbook to describe in detail every possible variation and refinement of the recipe that there might ever be. Rather, enough information is given about “the raw materials” and “the process of cultivation” to be able to vary the recipe or to make intelligent experiments from the basic features.

In Scripture we are presented with cultural life in the history of ancient Israel and her neighbors, and we are shown the way that some early historical processes and responses led to certain results. By faithfully identifying those basic ingredients, processes, and responses we can learn wisdom for addressing and dealing with things in today’s complex and changing world.

Sometimes cooking requires a thorough mixing of the ingredients (as in baking a cake). At other times, as in a meringue, it requires a division of the ingredients (“separate the yolk from the white…”). We can expect to see such processes in Scripture history and in our own history.

In a previous post I gave an example of how the “what is it?” question, when asked of one of today’s complex issues (foreign policy), is a good way to discover its basic ingredients, which we were able to trace to Scripture to learn wisdom from in ABCs applied to foreign policy today. This means that we need not fret when we cannot find today’s complex technical language in Scripture (socialized  medicine, geopolitical structures, free market economy, common core state standards, particle physics, multilateral diplomacy, the Web, iPads, whatever) for we will most likely find the basic ingredients.  Here’s two more examples, briefly .

What is a business corporation? What is this thing? To answer this properly will involve asking other basic questions, like “What is its purpose? What is its basis? What special characteristics distinguish it from other human activities or institutions?” We will also need to understand it by breaking it up into its component parts, what we normally mean by “analysis” – what the Hebrew language of the Jewish Bible calls bîyn.

Some elements of a business corporation will be fairly obvious, such as work and working with others, and the latter, we can say, is, in part, about human relationships within a social unit. It also involves the economic aspect, such as the use of capital and earning money to keep the bills paid! Now we would find quite a bit of wisdom about these “basic ingredients” of life in Scripture, and that wisdom would come into sharper relief by asking more “what?” question, such as what does the bible say about work, spare wealth, social relationships in the context of work, as so on?

Therefore, although the Bible does not use the term, or even the concept of “business corporation,” it does carry instruction about its basic ingredients. Given the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court’s major decision (Citizen’s United) that corporations are persons and its radical implications on political campaign spending, I’m waiting for some enterprising soul to tackle this problem biblically.

What is a state? If ever there was an influential institution today, the state is one. It is difficult to detect anything in Scripture that quite corresponds with it, but if we ask our basic questions – what it is; what goes to make it up – then things get a bit easier. For instance, one key element in the state is centralized governmental authority, which gets a prominent place in Scripture. The state is also about territory and nationhood, both of which are significant dimensions of human life in the Bible.

It is also about what today we call politics, which is not a word you can look up in a Bible concordance! But is you ask any good dictionary “what is politics?”, you’ll see that it is about guiding and influencing government policy, and the Bible has a lot to say about that. And when unpacking that you soon come on to bureaucracy, which is another element found in Scripture. For instance, the growth of bureaucracy under Solomon, or the way it functioned to quite a high pitch of sophistication in the Persia of Daniel’s experience, are fascinating matters for study.

suprised lookOf course, much more is involved for the state and the business corporation. I merely wanted to introduce these illustrations, and the one about foreign policy, as perhaps a fresh and exciting way of closely reading and using the Bible to think Christianly about today’s complex and changing world. I hope these recent posts, begun here, will be of some help to you in seeking wisdom for daily life. I may introduce a few more such themes next year sometime.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

The above article was adapted from Uncommon Sense: God’s Wisdom for Our Complex and Changing World, by John Peck and Charles Strohmer (SPCK, 2001).

Images by Artful Magpie & George Thomas respectfully (permissions by Creative Commons)

USING THE BIBLE TO THINK part 3 of 4

learning musical scale (Peter Dedina)In this current series of posts we are thinking about ways of reading Scripture to learn wisdom that will enable us to cope with our complex and changing world in a consistently godly way in daily life. The problems is that the Bible does not often give us direct and explicit information about how to think and act regarding today’s issues. It is not a handbook with a ready Index for that. This is because our era is, well, at least two millennia and more down the road from Bible times. Nevertheless, the Bible’s wisdom for “secular” interests and concerns can be interpreted for our time.

One method that I have for helpful is to dig around in the jargon of contemporary culture to see if the areas of life represented by that language is in any way addressed by the Bible. To say it another way, the Bible “talks” in the language of what might be called ABCs, “the basic ingredients,” of today’s complex issues and ideas.

In the previous post, I briefly mentioned things such as climate change, socialized medicine, geopolitical structures, free market economy, common core state standards, particle physics, multilateral diplomacy, the Web, and smart phones. We may wonder what on earth the Bible can possible have to say about any of that.

Nevertheless, the most advanced mathematician once began by learning basic arithmetic; the concert pianist began with simple five-finger exercises. In the same way, the Bible introduces us to God’s dealings with human beings in respect of the basic elements of human culture under conditions in which they can be perceived most clearly: in the simpler forms of human society. These “basic ingredients” have a direct relationship with the complexities of Western life.

Here’s an illustration from my own work. If you have been following this blog for any length of time, you know that one of its chief aims is to offer U.S. foreign policy decision makers a wisdom-based alternative to the ideologically driven ways in which international events are analyzed and policy responses are prescribed. Now that sentence itself carries some “technical” language you won’t find in Scripture – you aren’t going to be able to look up “foreign policy” in a Bible concordance. So one of the immediate challenges to me as a Christian thinker was: Does the Bible have anything to say about foreign policy?

So I started asking “what?” questions, beginning with: What is foreign policy? Well, simply put, it’s about the kinds of relationships that exist between what today we call states, what the Bible calls nations. For instance, are the relationships peaceful, tense, or adversarial? So foreign policy is about international relations. And the Bible has a lot to say about nations and the status of relations with one another. Also, foreign policy is about diplomacy and negotiations, and the Bible has a lot to say about that as well, including how negotiations are conducted and what the goals are. And if you keep digging you discover, in the context of what I was doing, that the wisdom tradition plays a huge role. And along the way I was unearthing what the ABCs of the Bible regarding foreign policy.

This method – the Bible in one hand, a contemporary topic in the other, and asking “what is it?” questions as I went along – assisted me greatly in the development of my thesis on wisdom-based foreign policy as an alternative to ideologically oriented foreign policy. I’m not going to say more about that here, except to say that with a little practice, that method of asking questions about today’s complex issues and ideas, whatever your interests, can help you access the ABCs of the Bible as they relate to today’s realities.

Here are a few more illustrations of this method.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

The above article was adapted from Uncommon Sense: God’s Wisdom for Our Complex and Changing World, by John Peck and Charles Strohmer (SPCK, 2001).

Image by Peter Dedino (permission via Creative Commons)

USING THE BIBLE TO THINK part 2 of 4

thinking sculptureOkay. So I’m arguing that we should learn to use the Bible to gain wisdom for our “secular” lives. I admit that for many people such a claim can put stress on the system, and I get why others will feel a bit groggy and unclear about it. Others will, quite naturally, want to “search the Scriptures” to see whether it’s true.

Does the Bible address aspects of life that are not noticeably religious or moral? In other words, to use some common language of today, does the Bible concern itself with secular matters? Does it deal with socio-economic and geopolitical questions? What about issues surrounding art, law, business, science, linguistics, ecology, and communications? Or how about justice, racism, abortion, and marriage? In other words, does the Bible have any secular literature? The strange thing is, once you start looking for it, there is so much, and it is so obvious, it is a wonder we ever missed these present-day secular interests.

Take the Book of Deuteronomy, for instance. If our Lord could be said to have had a favorite biblical book it would be Deuteronomy. If put on the spot and asked to say what was in this book, many of us would typically know this as a book where one finds the Ten Commandments and the famous declaration of faith made by Jews everywhere in worship, the Shema: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (6:4).

We might also recall Deuteronomy as one of the great basic texts for the teaching of the prophets, and that chapters 10-11 carry a higher concentration of language specifically about love between God and people than possibly anywhere else in the Old Testament. And there is also some overt religious instruction,such as about sacrifices, festivals, and the priesthood. But then our knowledge of the book probably tails off.

And yet Deuteronomy includes provisions about everyday life – ranging from nesting birds to digging toilets. The text also addresses issues of war, finance, politics, eating habits, jurisprudence, and public health and safety, not to mention the treatment of criminals, children, wives, slaves, and the poor. We may have ignored such passages because they are not concerned with the overt religious, moral, or devotional areas of our lives.

But there is another reason, which I want us to spend some time with. We may have ignored such passages because the topics they address can seem non-germane to the complexities of our Western world. So what can we possibly learn from issues and interests that were the “secular” concerns of people who lived 3,000 years ago? Good question.

Our complex and specialized societies think and talk in terms of technical language, and we’re used to that: socio-economic indicators, climate change, socialized medicine, geopolitical structures, fiscal control of inflation, free market economy, multilateral diplomacy, common core state standards, particle physics, the Web, smart phones, iPads – you name it. I once heard someone describe the person who came to get rid of the mice and termites as a “certified pest control technician.” And I once had a job as a “petroleum transfer engineer” – I worked at a gas station! Well, you get the picture. Everything seems to be getting more complex.

nesting birdsWe have grown so accustomed to our culture’s highly technical language that we cannot see how it could possibly relate to the many secular matters dealt with in Deuteronomy. But we should not let today’s technical jargon confuse us. It is frequently about the same basic elements of everyday life as are dealt with in Deuteronomy. The Jubilee, for instance, was an institution whose significance was chiefly socio-economic. The laws against cutting down fruit trees in war (20:19), or taking a mother bird (22:6), or mixing seeds (22:9), as well as a reason given for the delay in conquering Palestine (7:22), are plainly ecological in nature. The laws about body fluids, quarantines, and sanitation (23:1–14) address practical health care concerns.

This brings us to what we could call the ABCs of Scripture, its basic ingredients. We can learn wisdom by understanding ways in which the ABCs of Scripture relate to our “secular” lives today. I want us to look at that in the next post.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

The above article was adapted from Uncommon Sense: God’s Wisdom for Our Complex and Changing World, by John Peck and Charles Strohmer (SPCK, 2001).

Images by Davide Restivo & Victor Berzkov respectiviely (permissions via Creative Commons)

USING THE BIBLE TO THINK part 1 of 4

Bible studyThe ability to form and use theories is a gift from God to us. It often is ignored or misused, but it is still as much a gift as human affection or natural beauty, and to be used for God’s glory. It doesn’t matter whether we realize it, or even whether we like it, we are using theories all the time, as a humorous story in the previous post made clear.

If we do not use godly theories, and if we do not develop a means of finding out which are godly and which are not, we will be using whatever comes along. Since we have no right to presume on God for the things that he has left it our responsibility to do, and since sin influences the intellect often quite unknowingly, the likelihood is that any theory uncritically adopted will be ungodly.

Here’s a simple illustration from law-making. Good laws, in part, liberate people to be loving.  So what are we to think of a law that makes medical professionals, who happen to be first on the scene of an car wreck, afraid to help the injured parties because they could get sued? This is not a law that liberates doctors and nurses (who could be quite loving in such a situation) to be loving. There is a bad theory behind such a law, which Christians working in the area of jurisprudence could seek to correct.

In the previous post I called attention to the relationship between our wisdom and the theories we use that help us cope with life, and I said that the way to better theories is through acquiring a wisdom that is becoming increasingly biblical. Here are a few tips along the way.

Begin with humility of mind. You are entering a process of change. Yes, on becoming a Christian a radical change is introduced into one’s outlook. Yet it would be unscriptural, besides being extraordinarily naive, to think that your entire wisdom on life changes completely straightaway and with it any wrongheaded theories. The Bible, after all, would not speak of the need for our mind’s ongoing renewal if that were so (Romans 12:1-2). And we ought to keep in mind the apostle Paul’s complaint that Christians may fail to let the process keep working itself out (1 Corinthians 3:1-3; Galatians 3:1-3; Colossians 2:20-3:2).

Prepare to hit resistance but press on. People, including even our ministers, may raise bewildered, even disapproving, eyebrows at our questions. Christian friends may struggle to understand what we are talking about and asking of them. Group discussions, even among those who do understand, may feel like a pooling of ignorance. Temptations may arise to become impatient, to fall for simplistic or dogmatic answers, or to wallow in self-pity (“nobody understands me”). But whoever said Christian discipleship was going to be easy? So press on but proceed humbly – that’s where the grace is.

Learn to read and study the Bible as a “secular” book. There is a lot of biblical wisdom for daily life to be gained through such an approach. Traditionally for many of us, the Bible slides past our eyes with a “stained glass window effect.” That is, we read the Bible as a “religious” book only – for instructions about prayer, worship, doctrine, church activities, moral behavior, evangelization, and so on. Certainly religious instruction must not be downplayed. Yet that alone leaves us ill-equipped to study and apply Scripture with reference to the many “nonreligious” issues and aspects of daily life.

Sure, many Christians can quote from the Book of Proverbs, say for business principles, relationship taboos, or parent–child environments. But I’m talking about a much wider horizon. When it comes to immigration laws and health insurance, for instance, or to medical debates and  economic development, or to government subsidies of the arts and US foreign policy, it usually does not occur to us to check out the Book, for we assume that it has little or no distinctive wisdom for such “secular” matters.

But that is not how Jesus, or the apostles, or God’s Old Testament people saw Scripture. They had a God who was involved in the whole of life and they had a Scripture to match. The knew that Bible was not relegated to “religious” affairs only; it held instruction for what today we often call secular life.

In the next post I want us to look at that way learning wisdom from Scripture.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

The above article was adapted from Uncommon Sense: God’s Wisdom for Our Complex and Changing World, by John Peck and Charles Strohmer (SPCK, 2001).

Image by Steel Wool (permission via Creative Commons)