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.

Junkyard Evolution and the Logic of Violence

explosion of paintPeople are not stupid. In their own ways and in their own words, they want to know what philosophers and theologians call the ultimate meaning or significance of life, and of their own lives especially. What is the basic meaning of life? What is the sense of it all? “What’s it all about when you sort it out, Alfie?”

Something deep inside of us says that our ultimate meaning and significance is found in God. Problem is, belief in God has been made passé and embarrassing through education and science. Especially science, with its Big Bang theory of beginnings – the universe began with an initial terrific explosion billions of years ago.

As I say, people are not stupid. Having pledged allegiance to the Explosion for decades, they have a sneaking suspicion that their reliance on the theory for ultimate meaning has left them feeling pretty insignificant. Many such people, however, have nevertheless created fairly meaningful and significant lives for themselves anyway, as moral and upright human beings, and thank God for that. But the “Aha!” moment of meaning and significance eludes them still.

Yet it seems to me that in our day an increasing number of people are saying, well, the hell with it then, if my life is meaningless, I might as well go out the way I came in, with a bang, and take as many persons with me as I can. I’m now calling this the logic of violence, and I have begun to wonder if it is increasing in the land as Explosion Theory gets further imprinted onto our communal DNA.

You tell me. Here’s an idea I’m toying with. Physicists and other scientists today work with the belief that the distribution of matter-energy throughout the universe can be accounted for by rigid laws of mechanical causes and effects (sans any reliance on a personal creator God). Swell, okay. There certainly are such laws, and without science’s guiding hand applying them we would not enjoy the comforts and conveniences of modern life (of course, we would not cringe before the threat of nukes and other WMD either).

junkyard

The thing is, if the Big Bang is accepted in the place of a personal creator God as originator of the universe, the only way in which the laws of causes and effects could ultimately be explained is in terms of explosions: as laws the results of which are entirely random. In other words, the physical laws are what they are because, well, that’s how the explosion happened. The incredibility of this has been described as being like a tornado hurtling through a junkyard and leaving behind in its wake a fully assembled 747 ready to fly.

This power of a theory to shape and change a society’s perception of life is also clear when we  consider a parallel ultimate understanding: the evolutionary account that life began as basic molecular formations developed as the result of uncountable millions of transformations in a primordial cosmic soup. The odds against such an event, including subsequent events producing human beings, have been reckoned as one in a number greater than all the calculated atoms in the universe. All that can ultimately be said about it is that it happened, that human beings are the result of an incredible jackpot in a cosmic slot machine. Never mind. Viola! Now put the pilots and crew in the 747! And take off.

Because neither the Big Bang nor the Cosmic Soup can be proved in the way science demands, both theories of origins must be taken on faith. Over time, when ultimate faith beliefs in these theories are combined with similar notions in other areas of life, especially moral law, any ultimate significance to your life or my life slowly but inevitably fades to black. Life becomes meaning-less. No ultimate reason any longer exists for human beings to direct their lives in one way rather than another, or another, or another, no matter how morally irresponsible that way is. If family or society does not work for us, then something new can only be created by a mindless risk, a schoolyard massacre, a bloody revolution, another explosion, and then another, and then another.

A Christian vision of life opposes that. It does not deny the validity of physical laws or a scientific explanation. It denies that the laws or the scientific explanations – even all of them put together – can ever provide ultimate meaning or significance to one’s life. It maintains that to do so would be what the Bible calls idolatry.

Whatever formulae may be found to express our perception of how things are what they are, a Christian vision insists that behind that is a personal God with a will and a purpose. That Someone is our significance – Someone by whose wisdom, the Bible explains, the world was founded – Someone who relates to the creation and to us knowably on a personal level through Jesus Christ the Lord. That Someone created us and is the Source of the physical and moral laws that make us who we are. There is nothing random about it, any more than there is about how your house was built or about the laws that the courts enforce.

In the wisdom of the West, the natural sciences have gained such a high status in our communal thinking that the simple fact of its limits easily gets forgotten, and the result is serious. When there is no personal creator God at home in the universe who can be prayed to for forgiveness, mercy, and help in our time of need, life becomes meaningless in the long run, the logic of violence spreads, and we are without hope, in this world and in the next.

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

Images: Explosion of Paint, by markcharwickart; and Junkyard, by construct. Permissions via Creative Commons.

This article was inspired by an idea in chapter 23 of Uncommon Sense: God’s Wisdom for Our Complex and Changing World, by John Peck and Charles Strohmer.

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 and then find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address just above that button, and then click “Follow.” Whenever I publish a new post, you will then receive a very short email notice. And, hey, if you really like this blog, tell some friends! Thank you.

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.

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

Going Steady

on road to EmmausSome years ago a man told me that he had never read the Bible cover-to-cover. Normally that wouldn’t have struck me as odd, but this guy had been a church-going Christian for twenty years. Puzzled, I asked for an explanation. I don’t recall his exact words, but what came through was well, like, you know, I’ve read enough of the Bible to know what’s in it.

It was around this time when another Christian asked me if I would pray for her to have enough discipline to stick with a “through-the-Bible-in-a-year” reading schedule she had begun. “I’ve never done this before,” she said, “and I’ve been a Christian twenty years.” There it was again. I commended her for her decision to go steady with the Bible for a year; but doing that for the first time in twenty years? I just didn’t get it. And I couldn’t help but wonder where this gal and guy were at, after twenty years, in their “walk with the Lord,” as we used to call it.

Maybe it’s just me, but their comments seemed odd because during the first few years after becoming Christian I found myself devouring the Bible from cover to cover many times. I use “devouring” deliberately, because in my before-Christ history I had the exact opposite experience. A nonChristian spiritual teacher whom I had been following told me that I “owed it to myself” to read the whole Bible because it had a lot of wisdom. I took his advice and read it. I think it took me several months. But the Book was as dry as shoe leather. Yet as a new Christian, I feasted on the Bible continually, as naturally as if I were enjoying my favorite prime rib dinner.

I can’t prove this, but I suspect that if you haven’t embarked on a relationship with the Author of the Book, you’ll be chewing on some very tough shoe leather. I don’t blame anyone who doesn’t have an appetite for that, for the problems arising from that diet will of course be fatal. But problems also exist for those who have been given a personal relationship with the Author but who also have a now-and-then, here-and-there diet with His Book.

stack of BiblesGoing steady with Scripture means more than doing intermittent inductive, topical, or word studies; more than learning doctrine; more than playing Bible roulette to land on a verse to direct your path. It means more than discovering nine-foot giants with hands studded with six fingers, or finding “pagans” serving the Lord, or having hopes of becoming God’s end-times prophet.

It means more than treating the Bible like one might read the newspaper on the train to work or play around in the evening on the Web. It means more than engaging in a critical scholarship that reduces the story of Esther to a farce, the life of David to a fictional character, and the resurrection of Jesus to a myth. Even more than using the text to lead people to Christ.

Going steady with Scripture engages us in more than what meets the eye. It means spending regular time with the Author of the Book in His Book. It means a recurring opening of the Book with an unrushed, prayerful, and reflective attitude in hopes of dwelling in the secret place of the Most High. And you never know what will occur when the Presence meets you in that secret place of the Life behind the text, there in an encounter with the living, true, and merciful God. Or how you will be afterward: at peace or afraid, healed or hurt, elated or in tears, confirmed or challenged, with answers or with puzzles, with insight or with questions, with forgiveness or with guilt, in hope or despair, in joy or sorrow. We don’t know what we need. But the Author of the Book does.

Going steady with Scripture means settling in over the course of one’s life with God’s Book open humbly in our laps. There, God’s Spirit graces us to participate in a deepening personal relationship with the Author, in the ongoing rebuilding of our lives, in increasing of love for others, and in absorbing a godly wisdom for our ministry or our work in the world. Who doubts the ongoing, Christlike fruit that this steady process of transformation will produce?

I’m not nearly as steady as I want to be, as I know I should be. I fluff off. I make excuses. I think  I know it all. And I fear some rude awakenings in that day when God opens the books of our individual lives before Him, mine too, and points out how much more like Jesus our “walk with the Lord” could have been if we had gone steady with His Book. And I wonder if God might be easier on those who had no Bible than on those of us with a stack of translations we rarely open.

I’m done preaching here, except to report these words from the New Testament of two persons who knew where shoe leather belonged, under foot, as they walked with the Author of the Book: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scripture to us?” Any takers?

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

Art from wikimedia commons and photo by J. Mark Bertrand.

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)