Conversation with John Peck: Liberating “Secular” Life with the Wisdom of God

God and AdamNever heard of John Peck? You’re not alone. He’s been called the most important pastor, theologian, and philosopher you’ve never heard of. It would take thousands of words for me to say why here, so let me try to introduce him to you briefly.

We live in a time when rapid changes in the world in which we live are overtaking us across the spectrum of our Christian lives, and as a result we can unexpectedly find ourselves behind the Eight Ball when it comes to responding to the new challenges in a way that is consistent with a gospel-shaped wisdom. Those who know John Peck will tell you that he has an exceptional ability for helping us get to unstuck. But because he keeps his head down, not enough people are aware of him. Yet for those who are, he is a significant force in the development of a biblical Christian wisdom that has transforming power to meet the challenges of what today we typically call “secular life.”

Before retiring from public ministry, John was a much sought-after teacher and consultant for diverse churches and organizations in the UK, Europe, and the US. He was a cofounder (in 1974) of the inimitable Greenbelt Festival, which is still going strong, and a cofounder and the principal of College House (1976-1995), which ran courses related to the Cambridge diploma in religious studies, focusing on developing a Christian philosophical framework for all of life. But I suspect John would say that his best achievement was the life-long one in which he and his wife, the late Hanna Peck, raised five biological and forty foster children – oh the stories they could tell!

In the interest of full disclosure, John is a dear friend and mentor to me, and we co-authored a book. But that is not why I thought it good to rerun this interview here (first published in 1998). For one thing, John has a grasp of the Bible, culture, and human nature, coupled with a gift for teaching, that is second to none and imparted with graciousness, wit, and skill.

Also, when I revisited the interview recently, I was surprised that I’d forgotten how much ground it covered. There’s biblical wisdom here: for marriages; for those raising families; for earning a living; for running a business or an institution; for writing and publishing books; for those engaged in democratic politics, law-making, or science; for trying to survive as an artist; for identifying disguised idolatries; for gaining a wholistic view of life; for what Christian obedience in “secular life” entails; and much more besides.

Also, a new generation of Christians face such issues today while concurrently feeling at a loss for ways ahead because they are aware of the contradictions implicit in traditional approaches to the emerging challenges. But God’s original wisdom for human beings has what it takes to meet those challenges. This interview focuses on that. So for many reasons it seemed quite natural to rerun it now.

I hope the following conversation makes clear that a wisdom based on the fear of the Lord is essential for meeting the new challenges the world throws at us. It’s a tricky business, this, because there are good things about “secular life” to appreciate, just as there are dubious things to critique and bad things to rebuke. John gets this, and I began by asking him how he first came to see it.

Charles Strohmer: John, you haven’t always thought like a Christian as you do now, have you? How did you arrive at this new attitude of mind that gave you an appreciation for God’s activity in so-called secular life?

John Peck: Well, the sort of nursery, if I can put it like that, in which I was cared for and taught as a new Christian was strong on Christian separation from the world. So we didn’t drink, smoke, dance, play cards. That sort of thing. I didn’t go to a movie theater for ten years. Actually, I’m rather glad that was my first Christian discipline because it left me with a lot of freedom to get to know the Word, to learn how to pray and witness, and so on. But over the years it left me in conflict.

Part of me was committed to what you could call the devotional life, and I would not for a moment want to deny or detract from my Christian obligations here. Trouble was, I couldn’t match that with things in the world that I recognized to be of value. For instance, having done my degree, I was teaching non-Christian religions at Glasgow Bible Institute,* and I could not deny what seemed to me the considerable spiritual power of the exordium in the first chapter of the Koran. I also found a lot of the spiritual psychology of Buddhism teaching me quite unconsciously about different aspects of my Christian devotional life. But I couldn’t match what was going on here with the way I’d been taught as a Christian to see life.

ABC building blocksCS: Something quite fundamental wasn’t right?

JP: Yes. And it came to a head in a particular way with literature. My two great loves were the metaphysical poets and Elizabethan drama. I could not deny the value in these, but I had no way to say that I could appreciate that value because there was this complete separation of “the religious” and “the secular” going on in my mind. Secular things were not on; they were bad. Of course, I’d try to pick out bits and spiritualize them, but that wasn’t a satisfactory process. I simply did not have a way to appreciate what was of value in literature (or culture, for that matter) or to criticize what wasn’t.

There was nothing I seemed to be able to do about this, and all sorts of uncertainties arose in me as a result. I knew this left me vulnerable, but there was nothing I could do. Then something happened that changed everything. I had to teach Ethics at GBI, and in pursuance of that a friend lent me a book called The Christian Philosophy of Law, Politics, and the State, by Hebden Taylor. That book introduced me to “modal theory,” and that theory unlocked so many of doors that enabled me to see the validity of the “secular” areas of life.

CS: So that turning point opened you to a new way of seeing life and being a Christian in it. Sounds like a kind of conversion.

JP: Well, I nearly had a nervous breakdown! There were so many things I wanted to explore all at once. And then I gravitated toward others who had already learned this stuff and had begun to explore a Christian perspective of things like politics, business, science, and the arts. In fact, it was in looking at science from the point of view of the Bible that I began to recognize that all science is religiously driven, and it was then that I began to learn what idolatry was. Before that, I thought idolatry was the heathen in his blindness bowing down to wood and stone. It hadn’t occurred to me that you could be a scientist and make an idol of your science.

CS: Or of your politics, or your business, or your art, or your family . . . .

JP: That’s right. These can be disguised idolatries. Another key was that I began to understand that life was no longer divided into two unrelated bits, the religious and the secular. This revolutionized my understanding of spirituality. I saw quite clearly that spirituality is about obedience to God’s order for the universe that we live in, and that God is just as involved in economics, or politics, or science, or art as He is in our church-related (religious) activities. The thing is, once you realize that “secular” life has laws that are ordained by God, then you’re obeying God in obeying them.

CS: Sounds like a whole new world opened up to you. You must have felt like you’d come home.

JP: I remember sitting back from my desk one day and saying about this, “Nothing can be that good!” Although, mind you, I’ve always held it subject to criticism. For example, as a theory, modal analysis doesn’t cope much with the supernatural dimension. But okay. I wasn’t expecting it to be perfect. In fact, I’m quite glad I’m aware of its limitations, because I know folk who’ve made a kind of orthodoxy out of it, which has brought them all sorts of headaches.

human eyeCS: What is modal thinking, modal analysis, and how can we put it to work for us?

JP: It will be difficult to summarize here, but I’ll have a go. It’s a theory that looks at the “whole” of life as being made up of different aspects, or modes, of life and existence under God, aspects such as art, law, religion, economics, social matters, and so on. Modal theory sees each of these aspects as functioning by its own God-ordained laws or principles. It therefore helps us get to grips with the way God has ordained that the different aspects of everyday life should be conducted. It gives us a way to do distinctly Christian studies of the arts, business, politics, economics, sociology, and so on. It shows that our obediences to God cannot be limited to the religious and moral modes of our being. And it has unexpected benefits too. It enables us to deal with the paradoxes of Scripture, for instance, and to understand the disguised idolatries of our modern cultures more clearly.

CS: How does Jesus fit into all this?

JP: Well, there’s no way he can be kept out! It’s his creation. For instance, modal thinking gives us a way out of one of our age’s most fundamental problems when thinking about life. For example, nonChristian theories of life fasten on one or two of the aspects as the key for understanding the universe and human nature. So humanists fasten on reason, communists fasten on technology and economics, Buddhists tend to fasten on psychology. And they do this as a way for understanding and judging all of life. This gets them into trouble in the long run because everything can’t be explained only economically or only psychologically, and so on.

Now Christians have their equivalent to this. They often judge the value of everything only in terms of religion and morals. And this gets them into trouble in the long run for the same reason. Modal theory helps you steer clear of this because it shows that no aspect is capable of fully explaining all of life, for each aspect is but a part of life. Further, it helps you to see the aspects as having their unity and explanation in Jesus Christ alone. The Bible can help us understand this, as well as to see where we may be violating God’s laws in the aspects and therefore in need of making changes in our wisdom.

CS: Isn’t there a problem here, as subtle as it is profound? I mean, many Christians think they are already applying this way of reasoning, but in actual fact they are examining and explaining life only with the Bible’s religious and moral ideas, so those become the only remedy for ills within the “secular” aspects of life, such as in art, politics, economics, and social issues.

JP: Yes. Our obedience to God cannot be limited to or defined by our religious and moral obediences. When Christians do this, they violate God’s laws for the other aspects of life without even knowing it. What’s needed is instruction from Scripture for fulfilling our political, economic, and social obediences, and so on.

CS: It’s difficult to get this across. Why is that?

JP: Because people have an assumption that they’re doing it biblically, and assumptions are difficult to discuss with most people. You can be getting it quite wrong without realizing it. I remember running across a Christian business some years ago. It claimed to be Christian, anyway. But its advertising sounded just like the world’s, and I knew folk who worked there who told me that the employers were extremely hard to work for. Now, if you haven’t got a truly Christian theory, or vision, of business as, among other things, a rescue operation – if it isn’t a saving, a liberating, vision – God’s laws for that aspect get violated, things go wrong, and people suffer.

thinking sculptureCS: Are you suggesting that the employers assume they’re working out of a Christian view of business just because they’re Christians?

JP: That’s why it’s so hard to discuss it with them at times. You’re dealing with assumptions. Further, should you get going in a good discussion with these folk, it can get quite complicated. One thing I try to point out is that we don’t do anything in life without a theory, or a vision, of how a thing works. And if Christ is Lord, then he has to be Lord even of our theories, our visions, which means that, fundamentally, they have got to have a gospel-shaped character. That’s why I talk about it as being saving, rescuing, and liberating. But it’s difficult to get this over. Most people tend to think that good business is not telling lies, not breaking contracts, not flirting with the secretaries. Well, okay, we need to be good moral people. But that’s not enough of a theory for business. So you find, for instance, that when you talk to a person in business about making contracts that are generous in nature, there’s the rub, because the person is not thinking of business as being a liberating process, for business has been reduced, even for the Christian, to making as much profit as you can. Full stop. And because it’s an assumption, it’s not known.

CS: I was recently burned by this attitude in my field, Christian publishing, and it left me thinking that the enterprise is evolving to become driven strictly by making money. Should publishers like this even refer to themselves as “Christian” anymore?

JP: The problem here is partly economic, certainly, but it’s not just in that aspect that God’s laws are being violated. For instance, the publishers are part of an entire industry in a culture that fails to ask some quite radical questions, such as about the sorts of books that are published – those that sell so well only because they appeal to the prejudices and preoccupations of the worldly Christians, and feeding it.

Just recently I happened to be looking through a Christian book catalog and came across things that were out of this world. Well, out of God’s world, anyway! There was a title in the personal growth section indicating that the book’s contents, which were going to tell us about love, had all the trappings of romanticism. But love isn’t an emotion you can hope to cultivate lastingly, as the catalog blurb suggested. Love is a decision. This book is certainly not talking that way.

Another book I saw claimed to be about gaining emotional freedom. The jacket blurb promised readers a well-balanced emotional life, and I wondered what the author would do with Jeremiah, Ezekiel, or John the Baptist! Others that I saw were filled with “how to” formulas to help readers with their marriages. Methods are how to do it. Well, my wife and I have been married for a long time, through some pretty rough patches, too, but we’ve never read books on marriage about how to keep each other interested. At the beginning we made an assumption that we belonged to each other and that we had to care for each other no matter what. That’s what it’s all about.

CS: So the publishers must do more than examine the economic aspect.

JP: One of the radical questions the industry is not asking about these books is that they’re all concentrating on getting yourself right. To me, the Christian life is about forgetting yourself. It’s about saving, rescuing, liberating others, about getting to know the needs of those around you and doing something about them.

Now that I think about it, one of the things that has helped move our marriage along is that we’ve always been involved in other people’s troubles. My question to Christian publishers is: are we always going to spend our time concentrating on examining ourselves? It’s a kind of perpetual childhood, isn’t it? I mean, it’s kids that are absorbed with themselves, who are the center of their universes. And then there’s all the family stuff, which assumes the nuclear family. I defy anyone to find a nuclear family in the Bible. Certainly the family of God is not a nuclear family; thank God.

CS: Although we try to live like we are one.

JP: And that can produce churches that live like that. It’s a shame, really. I can appreciate the occasional book like this, because you’ve got to have something for children – I mean children in the faith. But this is a whole industry dedicated to giving middle-aged adult Christians children’s material.

CS: Modal thinking and analysis sounds quite different from what we may be accustomed to.

JP: Yes. And when you start to try to cope with the questions it raises, then the complexities begin to arise. It’s like I often say about the gospel: it’s like a daisy; any child can pick one, but if you want to understand it, to study it biologically and so on, it takes a lifetime.

Gruenwald's Isenheim AltarpieceCS: And you use the Bible for this kind of study about secular life?

JP: Yes. For me it meant that I was able to stop reading Scripture through what I call the “stained glass widow effect.” That is, I was able to start understanding Scripture other than religiously and morally and I began to see the Bible’s “secular” wisdom. For example, when I was first involved in the arts with Greenbelt, I was obviously confronted with the need to be able to articulate what art was about and what God’s design for art was – rules for how art works. I’d read a lot of books about it and looked at different theories, some of which were helpful, but when I went back to the Scripture and looked at its art, in particular the parables and the Psalms, then I had living examples, if you will, of works of art that were authorized by God.

That gave me a point from which I could see the positive values of some people’s theories as well as the negative ones. In that process, working as a Christian believing in the gospel of salvation, I came to develop an aesthetic theory. At first I was a bit schizophrenic about the whole thing because I couldn’t see how I could relate to the arts as a Christian. Now I can.

CS: Are you saying that Christians can develop theories like this for business management, economics, education, psychology, politics, the family, and so on?

JP: Absolutely. And now there are Christian writers who are contributing to this. Whereas twenty-five years ago there wasn’t much available.

CS: In your own calling as a teacher, you and some colleagues, such as at College House, have tackled such areas.

JP: That’s right. Take business. We dug around not just for some vaguely Christian moral view of business and management but for something that had the gospel as its heart and how the patterns of the gospel would influence biblical themes of management. We were looking for a distinctly Christian mode of management. So we started with the Gospel, which meant that we looked for ways of doing management that are saving, rescuing, liberating. We also looked into Scripture to see how people were managed and how people in authority managed the managers. Moses, for instance, is classic here. He lost his temper and it cost him dearly, but he learned to delegate authority, and so on.

CS: You’re talking about much more than the kind of rescuing that makes nonChristians Christians.

JP: That’s right. It’s equipping people to do what God wants them to do in their work. Human beings, you see, are more than just religious and moral beings. They are also citizens, which means they live politically (even to not vote is to make a political statement). They are also social, which means they relate to one another in groups of various kinds. They use language and aesthetics. They are economic beings. And so on.

No one escapes this stuff. We have obediences to fulfill before God in these aspects, to make rescues there, if I could put it like that. If you think you can do politics simply by using morality, then you will end up violating God’s authority in the political realm. The same is true for any of the other aspects. God has His own way of ordering them, and if we’re going to have a wisdom based on the fear of the Lord, we’ve got to bring more than the Bible’s religious and moral values to bear on all the aspects.

CS: But surely religion and morality have a bearing on politics and on all the other aspects?

JP: Yes, indeed. To put it simply, one’s faith gives direction not only to one’s morals and ethics but also to one’s politics and economics and art, and so on. And so these too are part of a Christian’s obedience. The problem is that you cannot pass laws, for instance, telling people that they must love one another or else. What you can do is pass laws that liberate people to be loving. For example, laws that make medical professionals nervous or afraid about helping an injured person they may come across on the street, or in a serious accident, are not liberating laws.

theoriesCS: But the Bible doesn’t give us fully developed theories of business management, economics, politics, or art. So how may we depend on Scripture in these aspects then?

JP: The Bible provides samples, not exhaustive treatments. It’s St. Paul, for instance, stating that “these things happen for our example.” Now the samples from Scripture are different from samples found elsewhere, in that they are authoritative for the Christian. After all, outside of Scripture, you don’t know what you’re getting. I would say that God’s purpose in the Old Testament was to create a sample of how He would order a culture and its history in a fallen world.

The glory of this is that it does this by taking sin and sinners seriously. Most “good advice” assumes that you haven’t sinned. And this is one of the problems of nonbiblical theories about life. If there’s no sin, there’s no redemption, no true liberty. So something quite fundamental gets left out of the picture. Christian theories of the aspects wouldn’t do that.

CS: Can you give us a sample from Scripture?

JP: How about, instead of looking at the Story of Naboth’s Vineyard as a purely moral lesson, we see it also as instructing us politically. This could help us to see, for instance, how the fear of the god you serve (your faith, even if you’re an atheist) influences your politics in quite practical ways. So you’ve got Jezebel, whose wisdom is based on the fear of a Baal, which gives her a certain politics regarding the land, which has drastic consequence for Naboth.

Elijah then comes along with a wisdom based on the fear of the Lord, which gives him a different view of politics with regard to the land and a way to mount a critique of Jezebel’s political theory. This story, then, can help us to see that different gods rule different ways of thinking about politics. So, if you’ve got a nation whose politics is based on dialectical materialism, or on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness . . . . Samples from the lives of Joseph and Daniel are also quite illuminating.

CS: This is fascinating to me, because folk like Joseph and Daniel held high political offices in “pagan” lands, were highly respected there, and known for doing a good job. And God seemed okay with it. In fulfilling their obediences to God, apparently they had quite a different way of looking at life than we do.

JP: Yes. This is bristling with all sorts of issues, like what one writer calls “responsible compromise.” So, Daniel, for example, is prepared to receive instruction in spiritistic areas and he’s willing to carry the name of a Baal, which must have been a constant thorn in the side, but he’s not willing to compromise in the matter of food. That was his sticking point.

CS: His sticking point?

JP: Yes. We all must have them. When you know what yours are – they’re a matter of conscience under the fear of the Lord – then you can do responsible compromise. It will be different for different Christians. You can have areas of responsible compromise only if you first know where you’ll say, “This far, no farther.”

CS: So as Christians we can use this principle under God?

JP: Yes, as God’s people have always done. And alongside it is the vital thing, for instance, for Old Testament politics. That is, it was not so much the structure of the politics that mattered as it was the tacit agreement between the people and the rulers that they were going to obey the word of the Lord. That’s the key to biblical kinds of politics. The problem with a modern democracy, I would say, is that it is more a demagoguery. Candidates tend to appeal not to people’s consciences but to their desires. There should be a common assumption between the candidate and his constituency that his business in politics is to obey the Law of the Lord.

CS: Sounds like you’re calling us to get to know the Bible as a “secular book.”

JP: You could put it like that. One of the beauties of the thing is that this kind of thinking lets you talk about your family, your business, your politics, your art, and so on from many points of view under God. You are not limited to the religious and moral ways of seeing, as important as these are. We must be obedient to God in the way we live our public lives. And the Book can show us how.

This interview with John Peck was originally published in 1998, in the little magazine Openings, and in 2001, as an Appendix in the book Uncommon Sense: God’s Wisdom for Our Complex and Changing World (SPCK, UK).

*GBI is now International Christian College.

A personal note from Charles Strohmer: If you want more of the perspectives that wagingwisdom.com seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow the blog. Simply click here wagingwisdom.com, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address just above that button, and then click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice whenever I publish a new article. And, hey, if you really like it, tell some friends! Thank you.

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

Eye image from Cesar R; Thinking Sculpture image from Davide Restive. Both 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

Wisdom for Our Children’s Children

children's tug of warChristian families today are a rope stressed in the relentless tug of war between competing forces. On one side is the pull to be family as God intends; on the other side is the pull to be family as  culture and society intends. Each side has its own wisdom concerning what families ought to be, and Christian families get pulled one way and then the other.

In this tug of war it is easy for Christian parents to assume that their prevailing family wisdom is biblical by default – by the mere fact that they attend church, read the Bible, or rely on Christian books and radio programs. And yet, assumptions may need to be examined here.

Take our “ideal of family life” for instance. Insofar as the Bible speaks of ideals at all, the ideal of family is one in which the immediate family (today’s “nuclear family”) is firmly set within the extended family in a way that is covenantal (what today we might call contractual). So, for instance, kin outside of the nuclear family had clearly defined duties and responsibilities to act on behalf of the nuclear family should the need arise. The Bible calls this the role of the “kinsmen redeemer.”

Simply put, the attitude of God’s people of old was one of lifelong determined caring for one another within the entire family. In other words, family members considered it normal to be seriously involved in each other’s lives from birth to death.

Haven’t we lost ground to the pull of this biblical idea on us today? How about in the attitude of many young people who date and get engaged and married often with merely a token nod to what the parents think or the family needs? And the parents don’t really know what to do about it. Or, afterward, how about the way in which the resultant family may evolve with only the most tenuous links to the nuclear families of the new parents. Or what about the way we treat our elderly relatives? The pull of society is strong, and its direction would have been anathema to God’s Old Testament people.

Lifelong determined caring for one another among God’s families of old did wonders for helping them keep together and stay sane. For instance, it meant that many of a family’s internal tensions were eased out among the circle of relatives who were close at hand, and it guaranteed contexts for members of the extended family to step in to help shoulder heavy stresses that might come along and crush an individual or a small and very poor family. Today, families under huge stressors often break down and fall apart when everyone in the family is doing their own thing (insurance, government checks, and retirement income go only so far).

joys of homeworkWhen we’re pulling in all directions, we’re pulling apart. When the immediate family no longer eats together, or takes holidays together, or discusses important decisions together, there’s no rhyme or reason for including members of the extended family. Such familial distance was unthinkable in days of yore. Discoveries like this can come as a shock, and we may need to ask ourselves how has it come about that we have assumed a notion of the family that may not be all that biblical?

The tragic answer is that we may live isolated from our families but not from society. We can be, and often are, influenced by the wisdom of our culture – no matter how much we don’t want to be or how much we argue that we are not. In America, for instance, the pull of selfish individualism, or the idolatry of rights, or personal peace and affluence is strong and the biblical pull of honoring father and mother, duty toward family, and caring commitment of the extended family is weak.

The notion of family that was so normal to God’s Old Testament people may not fit comfortably into our way of being family today. Honest family self-examination, repentance, and change required. If it is too late for boomers to do much about this – I’m looking in the mirror here – it may not be too late for the younger generations to do the kind of biblical homework necessary for creating alternative lifestyles that are more conducive to godly and lifelong determined caring of family. And to move in that direction for the sake of their children and their children’s children.

(The kind of homework I am suggesting means gaining wisdom by engaging with what I call the ABCs of Scripture. This post was adapted from Uncommon Sense: God’s Wisdom for Our Complex and Changing  World, by John Peck & Charles Strohmer.)

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Jennifer L. Sovanski (permission via Creative Commons)

WISDOM AND INSIGHT part 3 of 3

wisdom and insightAbraham Joshua Heschel was a seminal rabbinic figure in twentieth century religious studies and also a serious civil rights activist who worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Like King, Heschel personally encountered many outrageous events and experiences as a civil rights activist in the America south during the 1950s and 1960s. As well, Heschel had also faced tragic experiences in Nazi Germany until he escaped.

I call attention to this part of the good rabbi’s personal narrative because in these current posts we are talking about insight, especially the insight that comes from asking questions about events and experiences that are new to us or exceptional. We ask the questions, especially why, because we want to know in a special way. “What’s that all about?” we wonder. In other words, we want insight.

Over many decades Heschel encountered the kinds of events and experiences that no doubt deeply challenged and at times changed his thinking and doing, as they would anyone seeking insight. I have wondered if the deeply challenging personal experiences of his life were not in the back of his mind when he wrote in The Prophets:

“Insight first requires much intellectual dismantling and dislocation.” For he then adds that the process “begins with a mental interim, with the cultivation of a feeling for the unfamiliar, unparalleled, incredible. It is in being involved with a phenomenon, being intimately engaged to it, courting it, as it were, that after much perplexity and embarrassment we come upon insight – upon a way of seeing the phenomenon from within. Insight is accompanied by a sense of surprise. What has been closed is suddenly disclosed. It entails genuine perception, seeing anew” (xxv).

For his part, the theologian Walter Brueggemann, in The Creative Word, speaks of a “great brooding” process (71-73). It is a process of discovery, of seeing anew. In this process we are

“in touch with a mystery that cannot be too closely shepherded, as in the Torah, or protested against, as in the prophets. There is here a not-knowing, a waiting to know, a patience about what is yet to be discerned, and a respect for not knowing that must be honored and not crowded. This way does not seek conclusions for immediate resolutions. It works at a different pace because it understands that its secrets cannot be forced” (71).

Wisdom and insight, he continues, are found in the kind of engagement with events and experiences in the world that entail

“fascination, imagination, patience, attentiveness to detail, and finally, observation of the regularities which seem to govern. Wisdom is found in the experience of the specific, concrete experiences which individuals discern for themselves. . . . That is where wisdom shall be found – in the stuff of life, the world, our experience. . . . It holds for the patient, diligent observer what needs to be known” (72-73).

Intellectual dismantling and dislocation. Great brooding. Discerning what is not evident. A sense of surprise at seeing anew. Such is both the cost and the yield to the people seeking what the wisdom literature calls “understanding words of insight” (Proverbs 1:2).

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Sadiq Alam (permission via Creative Commons)

WISDOM AND INSIGHT part 2 of 3

It has been said that the first lesson of history is that we don’t learn from it. Perhaps the second lesson is Mark Twain’s witticism that history may not repeat itself but it sure does rhyme. In any case, one of the things I am assuming on this blog is that with the agency of wisdom there is an ineluctable sense both of the timeless and of the timely. We have considered the former here. In this post I want us to consider the latter in terms of history, especially as wisdom engages with the practical, everyday purposes in human activity. That is, she lives and moves and has her being where people interact and events are manifested. There, wisdom desires the present to write the future by learning wisely from the past.

wisdom insightInsight is vital to the process of wise historical development, and in the Hebrew Bible insight is as inseparable from wisdom as a river is from water. The word “insight” denotes the kind of perceiving, discerning, or understanding that comes through focused observation and learning. It is often indicated by the word bina. Proverbs 1:2, for example, explains that the proverbs of Solomon are good for attaining bina (insight) and hokma (wisdom). Proverbs 4:5 reads: Get bina, get hokma, and verse seven reads: Hokma is supreme; therefore get hokma. Though it cost all you have, get bina.” Proverbs 2:2-3, 5:1, 21:30, and other passages in the wisdom literature also insist on this marriage of wisdom and insight.

What I want to call attention to is insight from learned lessons. Much, if not most, of the wisdom writings that we have today, whether of Egypt, Israel, or elsewhere from the old-world Middle East, originated in an oral tradition that resulted from the sages lengthy investigations into creation/nature and human experience. From this in-depth research, the wisdom teachers gained insight about creational laws (laws of nature) and about patterns of human behavior. By “using their powers of observation and the ability to think rationally,” writes Leo Perdue, “the sages sought to understand God, social institutions, and the moral life through their reflections on creation and human experience, including their own” (In Search of Wisdom; 76). Insight, then, we may conclude, with its depths of discernment, is not usually apparent in naive experiences of life.

From their studied observations the sages gained insight into the regularities of life and the act-consequence connection. Simply stated: What you sow, you reap. 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.

Insight about such matters in the book of 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 sages also honestly accounted for the hard facts of life’s irregularities and contradictions. For instance, Proverbs indicate that a crook may prosper, that a good person may suffer, that a bad person may rule, that a person with wisdom may not act wisely, and so forth. The entire book of Job, in fact, we could say, is about when the rules don’t apply.)

In the next post we will discuss what has been called the “great brooding” process that is necessary for insight to emerge.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by archer 10 Dennis (permission via Creative Commons)

WISDOM AND INSIGHT part 1 of 3

Twin Towers smokingWisdom and insight go together like soup and water. Here’s what I mean. Everyone remembers those terrible images on television of the Twin Towers smoldering and collapsing in clouds of dust. We gaped not just because of the shock but because we did not know why that extraordinary thing had happened. We all wanted to know why. Of course we gape at all sorts of dramatic events, as, for instance, when seeing a bad car wreck or a capsized ferry or special police units surrounding a high school campus. We gape. But we also ask why.

When I was working in Massachusetts many years ago near an old warehouse district, I stood transfixed watching a massive four-story warehouse – it covered nearly an entire square block – become engulfed in flames and burn to the ground. I had never seen such a huge, out-of-control fire, and neither had the dozens of other gawkers who were watching it burn. But we we not just gaping at the sight. We were also trying to find out why it was burning. We even asked the cops and some fire personnel. We wanted to know.

It was many years before I understood what is really going on in us at such times. We ask questions about the experience because we want to know about it in a special way. That is, we want insight. And insight comes from asking questions about an experience, especially one that is new to us or exceptional. Insight is what we want when we hear that a friend has divorced or that the stock market has plunged or that our CEO is under federal investigation. We want insight, so we ask why.

Insight is what everyone one in America wanted on September 11, 2001, everyone from the president on down. No one knew why two passenger jets full of human beings and plenty of fuel had disappeared with a metallic burr into the Twin Towers and never came out. Why?

The president, his staff, and his political and military advisers, of course, were asking questions, questions, and still more questions, because they needed to arrive at clear judgments in order to make decisions – official decisions that would have far-reaching ramifications for the country.

Further, clear judgments, especially for responding to complex exceptional events or experiences, are not possible without gaining insights into insight, so to speak. And to get those you must ask questions about the initial insights. As David Ford once explained to me, you’re checking out your initial insight with more questions leading to additional insight in order to arrive at a wise judgment for making a decision. And wisdom is precisely the point. You need wisdom, and wisdom emerges with insight.

All of this is by way of introducing what I want us to consider next. In the Hebrew Bible insight is as inseparable from wisdom as a river is from water. In the next post, then, we will begin looking at this fifth norm of wisdom, the norm of insight. So far on this blog many posts have discussed and illustrated four other wisdom norms, what I call the norms of peaceableness, relations, mutuality, and skill. The wisdom norm of insight is the final one we will consider. All five norms are vital to the foundation I am attempting to lay about (1) the ancient sages wisdom-based way of reasoning and (2) its relevance for international relations and foreign policy decision making today. I hope to finish (1) soon because I am psyched to post about (2).

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Globovision (Permission via Creative Commons)