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.

Better Living through Better Theories

tikun olamThe ability to form and use theories is a gift from God to us. It may be, and often is, misused, but it is still as much a gift from God 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. If we do not use godly ones, and if we do not develop a means of finding out which are godly and which are not, we will be using whatever comes to mind. 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 quick 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 upon the scene of an accident, afraid to help the injured person because they could get sued? This is not a law that liberates medical professionals (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.

Since our wisdom informs our theories, the way to better theories, and to better living as a result, is to keep acquiring a wisdom that is becoming increasingly biblical, which, by the way, is the hope of this blog, wagingwisdom.com. I realize that this means we must continue to change, and that that means work, and, goodness knows, we’ve all got enough work to do anyway! But this kind of work is liberating. It sets us free to participate more consistently as co-workers with God in redeeming creation.

Yet we make excuses to get out of this kind of work, never mind that we have obediences to fulfill here as part of our Christian discipleship. Let me just point out one common excuse. On becoming a Christian a radical change gets introduced into our outlook. We now say that we know God, and we are likely to take the supernatural more seriously. Personal religious experience, such as prayer, communion, and church attendance, takes on an entirely new meaning. The Bible, our moral obligations, and the religious attitudes of others also begin to have a different meaning, and we acquire sympathy with the causes that Christians identify with.

Yet it would be unscriptural, besides being extraordinarily naive, to think that our entire wisdom on life changes completely straightaway. 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 let’s remember the apostle Paul’s complaint that Christians fail to let the process keep working itself out (1 Corinthians 3:1-3; Galatians 3:1–3; Colossians 2:20-3:2). Part of the difficulty, then, on the way to better theories, is that the process of acquiring a more thorough biblical wisdom stalls entirely too easily because we think we have arrived.

We fall into the trap of assuming that we are living consistent with biblical wisdom, that little, if anything, in our wisdom (the way we see life and live in it) remains unscriptural. This may be true regarding areas of religious convictions and moral decisions, but what about, as we saw in the previous post, our thinking about “secular” life?

map readingIn a recent post we considered that we get our wisdom by absorbing it from childhood. This includes absorbing assumptions and developing attitudes to life in conjunction with our families and the community and culture around us. Unfortunately, many of us have been influenced for decades by a process of wisdom formation in which life is thought to be split into the spiritual and the material, the religious (or sacred) and the secular. This has hugely influenced us to see Scripture as being only about spiritual things. So that becomes the only way we know how to think about Scripture and engage with it.

This means that those who desire to learn and develop wisdom for “secular” life will look to sources other than Scripture because the traditional, American Christian community doesn’t think Scripture has much, if anything, to say about our “secular” (our everyday) lives and work – call it life outside the church walls; Monday through Saturday life.

I’m not saying that there is no godly wisdom that can be found in sources other than the Bible. I’m saying that our assumption about the Bible is tragic because the Bible has an enormous amount to say about everyday life – the life where most of us spend most of our time, by far. And once you start seeing it, there is so much of it, you wonder how you every missed it.

Another obstacle in the process of wisdom development is our penchant to go it alone. But we cannot do this on our own. Christian life is about relationships and community in Christ, and the importance of this for the task of increasing our biblical wisdom cannot be overstated.

I’m not talking only about being in a church service every week. I cannot tell you how important it has been for me, personally, to meet regularly with people to “search the Scriptures” (John 5:29), which “are able to make [us] wise” (2 Timothy 3:15). Learning together has been especially important to me during periods when I have been struggling with an important issue and haven’t had a breakthrough. Although sometimes this has simply meant finding one or two good books on the subject or arranging for a longish phone call with a knowledgeable person, meeting regularly with people has proven to be a key for me.

Having said all this, I would not be telling the whole story if I did not add that today many Christians no longer see the Bible as being about spiritual life only, and as a result they are finding it a little easier to do the kind of biblical homework being discussed here. They have been awakened to their need for a truly coherent and thoroughgoing biblical wisdom, one that will inform their theories and speak to the “secular” affairs of life in a godly manner. But this wasn’t the situation decades ago in most Christian circles.

gobsmackedNevertheless, it still can be a desperate and daunting task. In our fast-paced and changing world, in which nearly every day some unexpected cultural, economic, or political challenge gets thrust upon an unprepared church, we may have few biblical clues to  guide us. It still is, after all, a comparatively new enterprise for us, and we often lack signposts, sophistication, and expertise.

Further, 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 arise to become impatient, or to fall for easy and dogmatic answers, or to wallow in self-pity (“nobody understands me”). But who said Christian discipleship was going to be easy?

When the Bible commands us not to be molded by the world but to have a renewed mind, surely this includes changing our thinking in secular life. This means that we have got to get on with learning the wisdom of Scripture for secular (everyday) life and work as best we can, so that through choosing better theories we can live lives increasingly for the glory of God in the world.

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

Parts of this post were adapted from Uncommon Sense: God’s Wisdom for Our Complex and Changing World, by John Peck and Charles Strohmer, Chapter 7.

A related post, about the ABCs of Scripture, may help interested readers with some practical steps to take this discussion to another level.

Center image by Ed Yourdon, lower image by Magdalene Roeseler (permissions via Creative Commons).

The Play of Theories

theoriesWe once had a little fun in a seminar. What is the answer, I asked the group, to the question: “Who will be taken and who will be left, in the story that Jesus tells about “the days of Noah” in Matthew 24? “Is it the ones who are taken who are saved or the ones who are left?” Some said it was the taken, others the ones who were left.

Now I wasn’t asking that question because I wanted to correct the “wrong” answer. The point was to draw attention to the role that theories play in our lives, including in our beliefs. Two different theories were at work in that audience. A premillennial rapture theory was informing the beliefs of those who said that the taken were the saved. For the others, the story of Noah, or at least the aspects of it that Jesus details in Matthew 24:36-41, was the theory.

Bringing up the word “theory” easily puts many people off, but there’s no good reason for that, especially because no one, but no one, gets through a day without relying on theories. “Theory” is not just a word for the intellectual. Besides, who is not “intellectual”? Anyone using the mind is intellectual.

I’m not using the word, here, in the technical sense, for instance, of a scientific theory, or a political theory, or a theory of art, or of any other kind of highly abstract body of thought. I’m using it simply in the general sense of a set of beliefs, or policies, or procedures that inform our daily actions. And most of the time, for many of us, we are not conscious of this until it is pointed out to us, as I did in that seminar.

Several months ago on this blog I told a humorous story about “cannon ball races” in order to call attention to the troubling but overlooked phenomenon that is often at the heart of communication breakdowns. There, we considered the problem of conflicting theories, which in some cases (not that one) can lead to a bad argument, division, enmity, or even violence. Now the communication’s problem in that story, as we saw, easily resolved, but here I want to look briefly at another role that theories play in our lives. It affects larger and more crucial issues that are not so easily solved, such as come up in a society’s disputes about science, education, religion, or politics. Problems in such arenas will be especially difficult to resolve when the people working on them bring different theories to it.

Take an example from the White House. U.S. presidents, at least the wisest of them, will listen to different theoretical voices, so to speak, when they are analyzing international incidents. But as a rule, when it comes to interpreting those incidents and deciding on policies of response to them, presidents rely on insight from their closest advisers, who have been chosen because they hold a theory about international relations that to a large degree agrees with the presidents’ theories.

This is why, as the implications of President George W. Bush’s “war on terrorism” became clearer in 2002 and 2003, editorials appeared in America wondering if Al Gore would have responded differently to the 9/11 terrorist attack on America had he been the U.S. president. Would Gore have begun a “war on terrorism?” Would he have gone to war in Afghanistan? Would he have invaded Iraq to get rid of Saddam Hussein? The editorials recognized that Bush and Gore held two different, and conflicting, political theories.

So, most of us don’t advise presidents! But most of us have, at one time or another, found ourselves in a debate over whether home schooling or public schooling is better, or how to discipline the kids, or whether a Democrat or a Republican should be our state’s next governor. Should marijuana be legalized? Should the federal income tax laws be overhauled? Should we have invaded Iraq? What about gay marriage, or national health care, the death penalty? Is global warming occurring?

That these and dozens of other large issues are argued daily across America, and not just around waters coolers but in schools and homes as well, testifies to the different theories at play in the debates.

This post, then, has underlined the fact that different theories inform how people think about issues. In the next post, I want us to consider why we need a wisdom that makes sound theories possible for dealing with life’s pressing issues.

©2015 by Charles Strohmer