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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CS: How does Jesus fit into all this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CS: Can you give us a sample from Scripture?

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

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

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

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

CS: His sticking point?

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

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

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

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

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

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

*GBI is now International Christian College.

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

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

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

The 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

Learning Wisdom from Outside

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

The Cradle Fund: A Bridge for Shalom in the Middle East

Stirling bridgeA few months ago in Capital Commentary, I shared some ideas from the biblical wisdom tradition about shalom and the vital work of repairing damaged and broken lives and relationships, socially, economically, and politically, whether domestically or internationally. I want to extend that thinking here. (The following was published in a recent issue of Capital Commentary.)

Many Christian and Jewish circles today talk about shalom as God’s vision for a future of peace and harmony for all of creation, including, of course, collective human life. And to give that vision legs in the here and now, shalom is also advanced as social, economic, and political “flourishing” or “well-being” in this world.

Those of us in the West already blessed with goodly degrees of well-being typically maintain the latter idea . But there seems to be a kind of relativity to shalom. We would see that the near-future goals of a Chinese peasant farmer, for instance, or an Indian woman seeking a micro-loan would most likely entail visions of flourishing that are much more modest than our own. And there are countless others whose lives can only be described as precariously lived – consider the refugee families who have fled ISIL for whom shalom in this world would be different still.

Beyond that, however, lies a blind spot. After a decade or more of Christians like me giving airplay to shalom in America, we haven’t been able to prevent the word from becoming equivalent to “getting ahead,” “succeeding,” or “moving up in the world.”

It seems that shalom is becoming synonymous with pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps. If so, the biblical sense of shalom as “gift” has been lost.

The contradiction between shalom as “gift” and “trying to improve one’s lot in life” hit me hard last autumn as I learned about the Cradle of Christianity Fund,  which has been implemented by the Institute for Global Engagement (IGE) to supply immediate- and long-term aid and support to thousands of displaced and refugee families who have fled ISIL/ISIS. At the time, I had been talking with friends about the staggering changes of life that have been forced on these families. We wanted to help alleviate their misery, but were got stuck. We were here. They were there. And we knew of no bridge. But with the Cradle Fund we had not only a bridge but an inspiring this-world reminder of biblical shalom.

Policies by Western governments to address the crisis have been slow in developing, and in November, 2014 the UN reported that a huge shortfall in funding meant that winter aid from the UNHCR would reach only 240,000 of the 600,000 displaced Iraqis and Syrians. The Cradle Fund and other NGOs, such as World Vision, Samaritan’s Purse, and Heart for Lebanon, have stepped into the gap with manna: food and water, insulation kits and boards, heaters and kerosene, and other essentials needed by families to survive the winter while holed up in small tents, abandoned buildings, and other makeshift shelters

In the Exodus narrative, the people of Israel “groaned” under punishing abuse and “cried out” for help. God “heard” their cry, “saw their misery,” and told Moses, I’ve “come down to rescue them.” That rescue was a poignant example of the gift of shalom.

“For the precarious,” writes Walter Brueggemann, “shalom can be understood as the assurance that there is a hearer for our cries, an intervener who comes to transform our lives.”

Today, the cry of despair and the hope of an intervener coming from persecuted Christian, Yazidi, and even Muslim families in Iraq and Syria is analogous to the Exodus narrative, when the only thing that matters is survival and the form that faith takes is one that cries out for deliverance. Brueggemann notes that because the Exodus generation lived their lives amid the acute precariousness of their situation, they “were interested in the question of survival – either actual physical, historical survival or at least the survival of faith and meaning.” Similarly, the crisis among Christians in Iraq evoked this cry last year from Patriarch Louis Sako of Iraq’s Chaldean Catholic Church: “We feel forgotten and isolated” and wonder about the reaction of the world.

Neither the giving of shalom nor its receipt must wait for the bullets to stop flying.

For me, the Cradle of Christianity initiative has brought a necessary corrective in my thinking, bringing me back to the biblical meaning of shalom as gift to the most helpless. This fund enables churches and people of faith here in the United States to join with the indigenous efforts already underway by local churches and organizations in the countries of conflict and the countries that have received the overwhelming numbers of refugees.

The current exodus may not be over. But the vital work of rescuing and repairing damaged and broken lives has begun, but only just.

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

Images by Neil Howard (permission via Creative Commons)

For more information. Like a growing number of people who are now following and supporting the Cradle Fund, here you can find many more moving stories and pictures about how the people are living in these stopgap conditions (from Chris’s blogs among the displaced families). Also check out IGE’s Facebook page and the above links as well.

Here are some FAQs about the Cradle Fund. Also Chris is providing personal updates from the region, including photos, on the IGE website and Twitter. Coverage of the Fund is also found at Christianity Today, CBN, and MPAC and Fox News.

Other posts and updates on this blog about the Cradle Fund: The Cradle Fund: Helpless No More /// Snapshots: A Day-in-the-Life of Iraq’s Religious Refugees /// This Bad Weather Is No Joke /// The Cradle Fund: Getting Thousands Safely Through a Middle East Winter.

Charles Strohmer is the author of several books, founding director of The Wisdom Project, and a visiting research fellow of the Center for Public Justice.

USING THE BIBLE TO THINK part 4 of 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

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

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

USING THE BIBLE TO THINK part 3 of 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are a few more illustrations of this method.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

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

Image by Peter Dedino (permission via Creative Commons)

USING THE BIBLE TO THINK part 2 of 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

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

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