In the Way of the Wise How

joys of homeworkI have been thinking lately about “goals,” probably due to the sense of accomplishment I recently felt with the publication of a new book – one that had been a goal of mine for forty years!

I’ve also been thinking that we live in a time when the setting of goals has become a big thing. A career change. A post-grad degree. A wife. A husband. Two children. An adoption. A new car. Acquire three new clients. Start my own business. Publish an article or a book. Lose forty pounds. Create a website. Run for public office. Make that Olympic team (well, maybe just the college team). You get the picture. Any list of things to get or places to be would run as long and as varied as the people asked.

Leaving aside a discussion of whether a goal is dubious, or whether such and such a person ought to have set such and such a goal, I’m going to assume, here, that the goal is a good one, and doable, for the person in question. Even so, the question of how to reach the goal then becomes is crucial for anyone, especially for Christians, who serve a God who is certainly interested in the end result!

The ways we travel
The God of the end, however, is also the God of the way. God is keen not only about the omegas we seek but also with the ways we travel to get there. This is a huge theme of the book of Proverbs, especially in 3:17, which speaks of the “ways” and “paths” of wisdom. The decisive use of the plural must not be missed. Wisdom, here, is being presented not just as one way but as having many ways (paths). This use of the plural may seem counterintuitive because we Christians follow “the way” (John 14:6), Jesus Christ, the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:24). Doesn’t Proverbs 3:17 contradict that? How can there be many paths of wisdom?

the better angels of our natureUnlike John 14:6, Proverbs 3:17 is not a soteriological passage. To put it another way, whereas John 14:6 is about God’s way of salvation, Proverbs 3:17 is about God’s ways for directing our travels through life’s daily grinds, which are many and varied. For different goals in this world are, and must be, reached via different methods. When three people have three different goals, or even if one person has several goals, they are reached via different methods. You don’t hunt for a house to rent, or to buy, in the same way you plant your garden or run for an elected office. You don’t use the same method to get your post-grad degree as you would to court your future spouse (I hope not!).

The book of Proverbs admonishes us to come under the discipline of the yoke of the wise how, to let wise ways, not foolish ways, direct our steps.

The first nine chapters of Proverbs, for instance, may be summarized as a test of wills between those who will choose to follow the wise ways of Lady Wisdom, which lead to life (Proverbs 3:18), or the foolish ways of Lady Folly, which lead to death: “Do not let your heart turn to her ways or stray into her paths…. Her house is a highway to the grave, leading down to the chambers of death” (Proverbs 7:25-27).

So that is the first thing: choosing and then traveling a way, a path, of godly wisdom for reaching a particular goal we have set. The question then becomes: What is a way, a path, of godly wisdom toward a particular goal? How do we come under the discipline of the wise how?

I pose this question because a huge industry, populated with self-help gurus and ultra-achievers, among others,  has arisen devoted to offering many and varied methods for reaching goals.

When following a method, how do we discern if anything is biblically unacceptable in its ideas, values, means, strategies, and steps to fulfilment?

The answer will depend on how much time, effort, and resources we put into thinking biblically about how we will get to a goal and what is taking place along the way. Admittedly, discrimination of this kind – between the biblical and the unbiblical – can be a tricky business for any Christian. After all, how does one think biblically about choosing a PhD program or running for election or buying a new car? If the teaching arm of our church has not given us the tools for learning to think biblically about the importance of our methodologies, well then…. Non-biblical ideas, attitudes, and values will fill the vacuum.

I want to draw attention to what I call two inconspicuous essentials of God’s wisdom, which can help us recognize if our travels toward a goal has the feel of a wise how.

Peaceableness
One of these essentials is peaceableness. To return to Proverbs 3:17: The ways of wisdom are pleasant and her paths are paths of peace. The word “ways,” here, is about the means taken or the procedures followed to an end. In short, it is about method. The word “peace” is the venerable Hebrew word shalom (well-being; flourishing). And in the New Testament, the epistle of James (also at 3:17) indicates that the wisdom that comes from above is peace-loving, as well as considerate, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. That kind of wisdom is contrasted to the kind that is bitter, envious, and filled with selfish ambition, strife, and disorder (3:14-16).

I think the message, here, is that if God’s peace is setting the spirit and tone of whatever method we are applying to reach a goal, then patience, sympathy, mercy, good fruit, even-handedness, and sincerity are traveling with us along the way.

It would be a good practical exercise, then, to spend time answering questions about whether those qualities, or the ones James calls envy, selfish ambition, and strife, are refereeing a particular method we are relying on. It’s not that we will be perfectly consistent epistles of the qualities of a godly wisdom, but surely we ought to be making progress with them. Is their influence pretty strongly felt as we work toward fulfilling a goal?

It’s a personal thing
The other inconspicuous essential of God’s wisdom is its personal-relational quality. In Proverbs 8:25-31, wisdom is described as having some sort of personal, or personal-like, relationship with God, with the creation, and with human beings. Note also that this triune relationship is described as one of delight, of rejoicing, and of pulling together:

“I was appointed from eternity, from the beginning, before the world began. . . . I was there when he [God] set the heavens in place . . . when he gave the sea its boundaries . . . when he marked out the foundations of the earth. . . . I was the craftsman at his side. I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence, rejoicing in his whole world, rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in mankind” (Proverbs 8:25-31).

Due to its ontological difficulties, this may be the most debated passage by scholars in all of the wisdom literature. We’re not going to enter that debate here. I just want to underline the fact that wisdom is being presented here as having some sort of personal relational presence with God, with creation, and with human beings. (This is assumed repeatedly throughout the biblical wisdom literature in a wealth of images and contexts.)

skill in wisdomIn other words, wisdom is not presented in Scripture as any sort of abstract edifice of thought, such as an ideology or an -ism but, rather, as personal and relational. I like the way Hebrew scholar Alan Lenzi puts it. When discussing Proverbs 8, Lenzi writes that wisdom is a personality; she is a “me” (Proverbs 8:22) who speaks at length in her own name, about having been created by God before the beginning of the world, about her primacy in nature, and about her delight in all human life. Lenzi concludes that wisdom is no “intellectual tool or abstract instrument.” She is, instead, a “personal presence” in the world. (Lenzi, “Proverbs 8:22-31: Three Perspectives on Its Composition,” Journal of Biblical Literature 125, no. 4, 2006: 687-714.)

Since our relationships with others give us a big clue as to whether the peace of God is present in them, the relationships we have with those who are assisting us toward our goals can help us discern if we are in the path of a wise how.

If the triune relationship that Lady Wisdom has with God, creation, and human beings is enjoyable, delightful, and pleasant, are those qualities present within biblical boundaries in our pursuit of a goal?

This is not to suggest that struggles, disappointments, setbacks, failures, and suchlike will not befall us. It is to suggest being conscious of what kind of fruit we are bearing through our relationships with those with whom we are traveling to reach a goal.

If your children are suffering due to your training schedule for running the marathon; if your marriage is falling apart because of the way you are pursuing that PhD; if your bull-in-a-china-shop method for getting a promotion is making enemies of fellow employees; if you’re running out of patience with your guitar instructor; if you have become chronically unhappy with your fiancé … You get the picture. Is it time to hit Pause and admit that a course correction is necessary?

This short article on a complicated topic probably evoked more questions than solutions. But maybe it’s a start.

When we mis-prioritize “goal” as being the main thing, it is easy to de-prioritze the essentiality of learning and applying a godly wisdom for getting there.

It is a governing theme of Scripture that God is particularly concerned with wisdom, and wisdom is to a large degree about method, about how we get somewhere. For the follower of Jesus – the supreme example of the peaceable, the personal, and relational – the way of wise how must be recognized and prioritized when traveling to get somewhere or something.

©2017 by Charles Strohmer

Images by permission of Creative Commons.

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 whenever I post a new article. And, hey, if you really like this blog, tell a friend! Thank you.

When Our Wisdom Amounts to Nothing

human eyeA long time ago through the prophet Jeremiah, God gave a word to the people of Jerusalem about the condition of their social life. Even though that word was the result of a divine finding, it didn’t sit well for a people who had concluded that their social life was pretty darn good. But in the eyes of Yahweh, according to the prophet, the people’s social life had become generationally organized around deceit, dishonesty, and greed; from the top down they were a shameless, wayward community, a false witness to the law of the Lord:

“Why is this people–Jerusalem–rebellious
With a persistent rebellion?
They cling to deceit.
They refuse to return.
I have listened and heard;
They do not speak honestly.
No one regrets his wickedness
And says, ‘What have I done!’
They all persist in their wayward course
Like a steed dashing forward in the fray….
My people pay no heed
To the law of the Lord….
From the smallest to the greatest,
They are all greedy for gain;
Priest and prophet alike,
They all act falsely.”
(Jer. 8:4-10; JSB, Tanakh translation)

From the top down, the people had created and followed huge edifices of religious and political thought that justified sins that were not only tearing their social fabric apart but also making them so delirious that they could not see that they were about to face the death of their culture. The human capacity for self-deception being without limit, the people are not conscious of their movement toward the cliff. Instead, relying on edifices of thought based on distortions of the law of the Lord, they have a different way of seeing their social life. They believe all is well. But Yahweh sees things quite another way. And you would have to be pretty numb indeed not to hear the breaking heart of God for the people in a very intimate moment Yahweh has with Jeremiah:

“They dress the wound of my people
As though it were not serious.
‘Shalom, shalom,’ they say, where there is no shalom.
Are they ashamed of their loathsome conduct?
No, they have no shame at all;
They do not even know how to blush.
So they will fall among the fallen;
They will be brought down when they are punished.”
(Jeremiah 8:11-12, NIV)

As one season of the year surely follows another, the word “wisdom” in Scripture is meant to put us in mind of the strong influence that our ideas and beliefs exert over our behaviors and our actions. In other words, “wisdom” in Scripture, among other things, denotes a way of seeing life and living in it. And of course St. Paul and St. James remind us that there are different kinds of wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:18-2:9; James 3:13-18). Jeremiah is saying that at the heart of a culture’s social sins lies a bogus way of seeing life and living in it, a bankrupt wisdom. It becomes a way of life for the people, and it has been spread by both the writings and the speeches of religious authorities and political leaders in particular, as the following words of Jeremiah indicate.

In an age when our social life is so often associated with deceit, dishonesty, greed, and a lack of shame, from leadership right the way through the citizenry, maybe we ought to take to heart these words of Jeremiah about wisdom, that God may have mercy on us, that our social policies may be those of a godly wisdom, that we may be spared the death of our culture:

“How can you say, ‘We are wise,’
And we possess Instruction from the Lord?’
Assuredly, for naught has the pen labored,
For naught the scribes!
The wise shall be put to shame,
Shall be dismayed and caught;
See, they reject the word of the Lord,
So their wisdom amounts to nothing.”
(Jeremiah 8:8-9, JSB, Tanakh translation)

©2017 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Cesar R, permission via Creative Commons.

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 whenever I post a new article. And, hey, if you really like this blog, tell a friend! Thank you.

Faith Seeking Wisdom: A Prophetic Approach to Our Time

child reading a BibleThe title of this post refers to a sermon I preached last December to the hospitable Evangelical congregation, but I was nervous in the pulpit because I knew it would not be the kind of Evangelical preaching that most Evangelicals would be accustomed to hearing on a Sunday morning. I would not be talking theology. Instead, I had felt compelled to share some biblical insights and personal experiences to indicate ways in which good citizens of all faiths, or no faith at all, have a responsibility to work toward ending “the logic of violence” in this country and replacing it with the peaceable wisdom of God.

As I say, I was nervous and misspoke a few times as a result, such as when I used the word “church” but meant “mosque,” though the congregation understood what was meant. I was also nervous because I was, in part, going to contrast the effect that two different kinds of preached messages can have on a crowd toward stirring up or defusing adversarial relations. The one message was from a Christian, the other from a Muslim. I wasn’t sure how this congregation would take to an illustration in which it was the Muslim who got the gold star. So it was a great relief when, right after my talk the pastor of the church took the mic and affirmed the message to his congregation.

This is the first time we’ve put a talk (by anyone) on this blog. It may be the only time! So this is something of an experiment. We don’t know if it will fly. We’ll leave that up to you.

I should also say that because I’m no great shakes as a preacher, I hemmed and hawed about whether to put this talk on the blog. The tipping point came in recent weeks, as I and countless others have with great sadness watched the already heated social and political climate of this country being kindled with inflammatory rhetoric that has now burst forth into physical violence at Trump rallies. My talk is not on that subject, but I think its message is directly related. If it helps even a few listeners just in that regard, it will have been a successful experiment.

To listen to the talk “Faith Seeking Wisdom: A Prophetic Approach to Our Time,” just click the little arrow and you’re away.

©2016 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Samantha Sophia, courtesy Unsplash

WHY DIPLOMACY?

Vietnam memorial wallTwo years ago a national poll conducted jointly by NBC News, the Wall Street Journal, and Annenberg showed that 71 percent of Americans believed that the Iraq war was “not worth it.” That was up from 58 percent a year earlier, in an ABC News and Washington Post poll. Today, if the Republican presidential candidates are any indication, even the GOP, including establishment figure Jeb Bush, believe that invading Iraq was a mistake. Why do so many Americans regret that war, and what can be learned from that regret?

I see at least two reasons why an overwhelming number regret the war. One is the large number of Americans who have learned wisdom from the history of the past 13 years. They see the unrestrained blowback that began with the insurgency in 2003-2004 and the rise of al Qaeda in Iraq. They see that the ISIS horror show emerged from al Qaeda in Iraq and the historic humanitarian crisis that is a result. They see the unprecedented, multi-aspected costs, and much more besides. This group sees the bad fruit and now regrets the war.

But they still need the “why” answered. Why has so much gone so wrong? Well, that depends whom you’re asking. Generals? Foreign policy analysts? Presidential candidates? Economists? Journalists? Other experts? Each will propose good and sufficient reasons that must be included for a credible picture of what went wrong. But if this group must also ask “just war” theorists, those ethicists, theologians, and religious leaders who deal with the moral problem of war. In its most sophisticated Western development, just war theory is found in the writings of the theologian Thomas Aquinas.

This bring us to the second reason, the large number of Americans who did not first need to see recent history. In 2002 and early 2003, many and diverse ethicists, theologians, and religious leaders, their constituencies behind them, presciently argued that the George W. Bush administration’s rationale for going to war in Iraq did not meet the requirements of just war, therefore it was immoral and unjust. Therefore, it was implied, the United States could expect all sorts of unpredictable things to go wrong in the Middle East if the war was launched. Unfortunately, little was made of this in the media at the time, despite the fact that so many Christian denominations and other religious bodies were stating it formally in letters to the Bush administration, including denominations to which the President, Dick Cheney, Carl Rove, and Donald Rumsfeld belonged. An article by the theologian and political writer James W. Skillen, “Evaluating America’s Engagement in Iraq with Just-War Criteria,” shows very clearly why the U.S-led war about Iraq did not square with the five main principles of just war theory.

This big picture answers the question “why diplomacy?” This is the pressing political question of our time. Since President Obama took office in 2009, a very vocal, influential segment of American political commentators has been habitually critical of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. By and large, this is the same pack of pundits who supported launching the war about Iraq, and whose latent militarism today can be heard by anyone with ears to hear what their policy rhetoric about the Middle East implies.

Why diplomacy? Look at just the past two years, as Antony Blinken, Deputy Secretary of State, reminded Charlie Rose in a recent intervieKerry & Zarif shake handsw. It was American diplomatic leadership that mobilized the world to fight ebola, that brought 66 countries together to fight ISIS, that led negotiations to the nuclear agreement with Iran, that brought Cuba in from the cold, and that led to the first peaceful democratic transition of power in Afghanistan. Of course none of this, Blinken added, “has happened as well as it should [or] as effectively as it should.” But, “You take the United States out of any of these pictures [and] it doesn’t happen. We are the single country that has the ability to mobilize and move others more than any other country.”

Why diplomacy? Diplomacy will not bring heaven on earth. Far from it. But diplomacy seeks solutions even to the most intractable international problems through means other than war. One of its indispensable purposes – dare I add, a purpose under God – is to prevent types of hell on earth such as the ISIS movement from materializing. Surely promoting the art of diplomacy is wiser than regretting the annals of war.

This editorial was first published in The Mountain Press, Sunday February 21, 2016.  Charles Strohmer writes frequently on politics, religion, and international relations. He is the author of several books and many articles and is the founding director of The Wisdom Project.

©2016 by Charles Strohmer

Images courtesy of Creative Commons.

A note from Charles: If you want more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow this 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.” You will then receive a very short email notice when I publish a new post. And, hey, tell some friends! Thank you.

Invitation to Summer Reading

summer reading wisdomNOTE: While I’m blogging less frequently this summer in order to finish some writing projects that are screaming at me from the wings, I want to invite you to read, or perhaps revisit, some key past posts. I’ve picked several (see the list below) that seem to have become increasingly relevant over the past year. But of course you can simply pick topics from the Categories list in the sidebar.

And while I’m at it, I want to express a sincere “Thank you” to all of you who are following this blog, as well as to those of you who stop by here occasionally to check out a post. I have tried to make this an open and safe (and nonpartisan and commercial free!) space for sharing, commenting on, and spreading wisdom-based ideas and practices that are vital for our times but, sadly, ignored by the media. You are helping to “get the word out” – by raising awareness that our deepening reliance on wisdom enables us to work cooperatively and peaceably together in areas of private or public activity – where diversity is normative, where cooperation is essential, and where human flourishing is desired, but where adversarial relations or lesser tensions first have to be defused and resolved.

As Ringo once sang, “You know it don’t come easy.” But sharing about wisdom with you and hearing from you is its own reward. So maybe I could do a little friendly arm-twisting. Since this blog is still catching on, and experimental as well, consider taking a minute to turn friends and colleagues on to the blog via email and social media. And if you have suggestions for improving the blog it, I’m all ears. Thank you.

Here is my personal list of posts you may want to earmark for your summer reading or rereading, topics that seem to have become increasingly relevant to our times. The comment areas are open on all of the posts, so feel free to join in:

What You Now Need to Know about ISIS – This link will take you to a short post that will save you a lot of time. It’s a brief summary that lists places on this blog to jump to that may scratch your itches about why ISIS is like it is. These issues are ignored by the media, such as its historical and relational roots in 1960’s Egypt and its religious “submit or die” ideology.

Series on Iran – You will become well versed about historical and political causes of the deeply troubled relations between Iran and the U.S. And not just about the nuclear deal.

The Wisdom of the Desert  – This three-part series looks theologically, and a bit humorously, at the fascinating biblical story of Moses and Jethro in order to discover the vital role that wisdom played in the difficult formation of a just and peaceable society for the million-plus wanderers (Israelites, Egyptians, and others) of the Exodus generation. Discover the relevance of wisdom, justice, and peace for today’s pluralist societies.

Symphonic Justice – Some wonderfully creative thoughts from James Skillen about the the potential for more peaceable international relations.

Jesus As a Teacher of Wisdom in Ancient Palestine – The last shall be first. A series of seven posts. I have linked you to the third one in the series here.

Enjoy your summer.

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

Image by KimManleyOrt (permission via Creative Commons)

Wisdom for the Unborn

mother and babyA new law in the state of Tennessee now requires a woman seeking an abortion to wait 48 hours after receiving in-person counseling from a doctor before she can return for the procedure. With that new law, Tennessee joins more than two dozen states that require similar waiting periods, ranging from 24-72 hours. Only 28 percent of Tennesseans opposed this new law, and with more than half the country now onboard, momentum is building in several other states for similar legislation. Public pushback to these waiting periods is usually framed around “this is another encroachment on a woman’s right to abortion.”

This got me thinking about the Sixth Commandment, “You shall not commit murder,” in the context of abortion legislation, and I’d like to share a thought about this.

Many Evangelical and Catholic Christians rely on the Sixth Commandment as the moral base supporting their pro-life activities to protect the unborn. For these believers themselves, the connection is straightforward. Since they believe in the authority of Scripture, there is no unreasonableness to the connection. Vexed questions arise, however, when Evangelicals and Catholics take this connection out of their own circles and into the public square to argue for the protection of the unborn.

It is the age-old problem of how do Christian address issues in America, a society in which a large percentage of the population does not believe in the authority of the Bible. But they want the best for their society, and they want to find ways of convincing society about how it can be run for everyone’s best interests. So the questions is, how should they engage convincingly in legislative processes alongside people who support abortion?

Many Christians have recognized the weakness of trying to impose the Sixth Commandment on the conscience of abortion supporters as a means of protecting the unborn. So they have appealed to other arguments. But weaknesses exist there too. One of those is the appeal to the “sacredness of human life.”

Although it is not heard much these days, the appeal to the sacredness, or sanctity, of human life stems from the biblical truth about human beings as having been made in the image of God, and this gives the Sixth Commandment its reasonableness. In other words, and in the context of the present discussion, to be a human being means to have an eternal dimension in which only God may correct our failures (when and how God sees fit). So don’t take the law into your own hands and commit murder.

diplomacyAnd yet when it comes to our earthly life, there is another biblical truth. Apparently, our earthly life is only “sacred” insofar as God endorses it. So when God says a murderer should be put to death, God seems to regard the murderer’s earthly life as no longer inviolable, or sacred. Or, to put it in terms most familiar today, the person (the murderer) no longer has a right to life. It is not an individual, however, but a court of law that makes that decision, which the state then may execute, and if it does, it is not considered murder but justice.

Now this is where the appeal in public to the sanctity of human life gets complicated, and often weakened as a result. The “sanctity of life” argument in the abortion debate hasn’t gotten much traction with abortion supporters because it means talking about the murder of a baby in the womb to people, lobbies, and legislators who do not believe that’s a baby in the womb. So then you’ve got to try to overcome that obstacle. To try to do that, Christians have found themselves stuck into arguments with ethicists, philosophers, and scientists involving an elaborate casuistry about “when the fetus becomes a person,” or sufficiently human to have a “right to life.”

Must the fetus be treated as a person as early as conception, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, and as many believe? Or does personhood occur at some later stage in the womb, or even outside the womb? Long story short, there has been no agreement on this among ethicists, scientists, legislators, theologians, or philosophers, never mind among abortion activists. Nevertheless, personhood in the womb has been a key implication in drafting many abortion laws around the world.

A wiser way of arguing the case against abortion, and a biblical way at that, would, I think, be an argument from duty. This fundamentally different approach may help us to make a coherent, well-reasoned, and believable case that others can follow. The arguement, for instance, about when a fetus becomes a person has often been debated in categories of “the rights of the fetus” against “the mother’s right to choose.” The trouble with this kind of thinking is that it is not the way the Bible thinks about ethics. The primary concern in the Bible is duties, not rights. Duties toward things. And rights, in so far as they are spoken of at all in Scripture (there is no special word for them), are defined by duties.

The problem with the appeal to “rights” as a core for ethical treatment of the unborn is that it makes duty a self-centered affair. So the mother’s right to choose trumps the unborn’s right to life. In fact, if the fetus isn’t a person, then the issue is moot. And when has anyone ever heard of the father of the unborn getting his say in this? But the appeal to duty, which is biblical, opens up a fundamentally new approach to the abortion debate. For one thing, it takes the pressure off relying on the “sanctity of life” argument or on having to know when a fetus becomes a “person with an inalienable right to life.” This is significant because even if we cannot know when or if the fetus becomes a person, we know that we have a duty to the fetus, whatever it is at whatever stage of its development.

And there is this benefit. If someday the ground were shot out from under the “rights” argument – if it were someday shown by biologists that the fetus was not a person (thus not having a right in terms of the Constitution) – it would not mean that we therefore could disrespect the fetus. We still could not do with it as we liked, for we would still have a duty to it, whether it is a person or not.

helping handYou see, if it isn’t a person, then we can’t argue rights. And if it is a person, we’re currently stalled by an elaborate casuistry surrounding when the fetus becomes a person. But if we start talking about duties, then the question becomes: What is the mother’s duty to the fetus? What is the father’s duty to it? What is the doctor’s duty, the community’s duty, the government’s duty? My duty? Your duty? This biblical principle can be highlighted by taking the whole business back a step; that is, every young man before he is married has a duty even regarding his sperm.

Placing stress on “duty” would give us a solid way to argue for the baby’s birth in a mixed, a pluralist, society like ours. And it would not need to bang people over the head with: “This is in the Bible,” or some such thing. Duties, or call them responsibilities, are moral obligations that everyone understands need to be fulfilled if their lives are not going to end up in disaster. No one needs the Bible to tell them that. So they can’t blow off the argument from duty, as they do overt arguments from the Bible, such as when the Sixth Commandment is brought into the debate. (They may not like being challenged by a case based on duty, but that is a different story.)

Whether a fetus is a person or not, the duty we have to it can save the life of the unborn. This may not completely by-pass questions about rights and personhood, but at least it means that we can take an ethical argument about protection for the unborn to a point where rational people will listen and cannot just disengage themselves at the get-go.

If our moral and ethical thinking works the way the Bible’s does, it never lets us off the hook in the abortion debate just because we cannot say for certain when the fetus is a person or because the mother can say “I’ve a right to an abortion.” We’re never in a place where we can say, “I can’t do anything about it.” All of us have duties to the unborn. Legislation headed in this direction would liberate the love of those already born to protect the life of those as yet unborn.

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

Parts of this article were adapted from Uncommon Sense: God’s Wisdom for Our Complex and Changing Word, by John Peck and Charles Strohmer, Chapter 8 “Weaknesses in the Evangelical Attitude to Social Problems.”

Bottom image by Mandajuice (permission via Creative Commons).

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.

Our Children’s Wisdom: Some Questions for Parents

joys of homeworkThe search for wisdom is so highly valued in the Bible that Christians, others too, often ask, “How do we get wisdom?” It’s a perennial question and a particularly urgent one in the context of raising and educating children (see, e.g., the book of Proverbs). It occupied the minds of baby boomer parents (maybe not as many as it should have!) and it is now pressing in on millennials with kids.

Of course we know two answers right away, that we can get wisdom from the Bible and through prayer. But not everyone prays or reflects on Scripture. And even if the do, there is also an overlooked way in which everyone gets wisdom, even those who don’t pray and read the Bible. Here is some food for thought on this, which may help parents prime the pump.

We get wisdom from childhood, through a process as simple as it is profound. That is, for the most part early on, our wisdom simply grows up with us and in us. We don’t manufacture it or study it as a school subject, and we don’t spend much time thinking about it. We absorb it throughout childhood. It develops in us, and we in it, as a singular part of its development in the history of the family, community, and culture in which we live.

Perhaps the best analogy for the way we “get wisdom”(Proverbs 4:7) in this sense is found in the way we come to speak our mother tongue. We simply “pick it up” as we go along, by hearing, by imitating, by others correcting us. Long before we go to school to “learn English” from textbooks we are already using it with considerable fluency. By the time we begin to study it from books it is such a second nature to us that the way it comes across as a subject to be learned makes it seem strange, like algebra.

We develop in our wisdom in the same way. We pick it up, we absorb it, as we go along. Yet the analogy goes further. When we come across products of other wisdoms – Indian music, African medicine, Chinese architecture – our initial response is commonly like hearing a foreign language for the first time. We say, “How peculiar!” We take it for granted that our products are the normal ones and that the others are odd or even abnormal. This feeling can persist long after we know that the other people naturally regard their products as normal and ours as peculiar or abnormal.

So in the normal course of our formative years, we do not formally learn our wisdom; we absorb it, more or less uncritically, as we go along. It develops in us largely within our homes and through various significant others and authority figures with whom we interact: fathers, mothers, aunts, uncles, grandparents, older siblings, baby sitters, and perhaps Sesame Street and other sources. It’s not long before we are absorbing it from friends and neighbors, our teachers, rivals and enemies, sports and religion, radio, television, film, the Web, social media, the blogosphere, and much more.

chinese architecture (Nidhi M)But there are two things I want to point out about this process. One is that, although these sources have their own spokespersons and expositors, we are not absorbing each source’s wisdom in its entirety. Nothing even close to that. Instead, it’s done piecemeal. Each of us, from childhood, takes whatever we do take and we give it a particular imprint from our own individual circumstances and personalities, just as we all have our own handwriting. Slowly, what we have absorbed becomes a part of us – from here, there, and elsewhere.

The eyes of our minds are continually and imperceptibly gathering additional tints to their lenses, so our own wisdom – our own a way of seeing life and living in it effectively – is developing in us. Eventually, this absorption process gives us highly developed instincts for responding selectively to the world around us, such as in determining what is important or unimportant. It is our wisdom.

And we notice its distinction from that of others. For instance, by the time we are confronted with the way of seeing and living (the wisdom) of a different culture, much of it may seem so alien that we cannot imagine how any reasonable person would think and act like that. Some of it just gets explained away as being archaic or special or aberrant, or it is ignored or overlooked because there is no place in our minds to put it.

The second thing is this. And it’s as crucial and it is vital. The process of absorbing wisdom from childhood is not just about being taught and relying on obvious facts (don’t touch a hot stove; don’t play in the traffic) or overt moral values (don’t lie; say you’re sorry; be honest). The process is also subconscious. In fact, it is the absorbed, subtle influences and attitudes, the non-taught ones, that can be the most powerfully influential in the long run, and thus the most difficult to identify and change if they are wrong, for they come to us in childhood like the Gibeonite embassy, as if from far away, in disguise, unnoticed until it is too late.

An illuminating illustration, and one with far-reaching ramifications across the spectrum of everyday life, is how children get wisdom from parents subconsciously; that is, the parents don’t realize what hidden values, ideas, and attitudes they are imparting and the children don’t recognize they are picking them up.

Are the children, for instance, raised in a home where they get to see their parents arguing, or do the parents hide their fights from the children? If the former, do the children get to see the parents make up afterward? If so, how that is done will also influence the children. Or are the children left hurting and further bewildered because the parents kissed and made up privately, so the children don’t know that a reconciliation took place or how that was accomplished? And if the parents hid their fights, what has that said to the children as they get older and their own arguments arise?

We are not talking about one-off incidents but patterns of various kinds of parental behavior that betray hidden values, ideas, and attitudes that are rubbing off on the kids. So, to continue. Is an atmosphere of honest questioning fostered in the home, or do the children see in the parents an unapproachableness here? Or if a child pushes it questioning too far, in hopes of a satisfying answer, is he or she then impatiently fobbed off: “Just do what I say!” Or: “That’s just the way it is.” Or: “You’ll understand when you grow up.”

human eyeWhat topics are discussed at the dinner table? What topics are taboo? Does the family ever eat together? What do the children see their parents regularly spending money on, and how much money do they see them spending on these things? What kind of entertainment do the children see the parents enjoying on a regular basis? Is there any pattern of activity in which a child gets involved with a parent in helping the poor, the needy, the aged? Do mom and dad ever admit their mistakes to the children? What is the parental attitude toward religion, politics, the children’s friends, school teachers? How are people of different races treated?

I remembered growing up working alongside my dad in his auto repair business. He was known as “the car doctor,” and you won’t believe me when I say that he began to teach me about cars and car repair starting when I was nine or ten years old. But it’s true. And by the time I was sixteen I was glad of it, for I was earning lot of money as a mechanic! But that’s not what I want to call attention to here. I just needed to say that to get to this.

Year after year of working with my dad in a very public and busy auto repair shop in Detroit, I was able to watch how he interacted with people of different races. I put a lot of hours in at that shop, many days a week, especially during school breaks and the summer months, and I can’t recall ever seeing even a hint of racism in my dad. What I absorbed was his respectful manner of talking to and getting along with all sorts of people. He ended up with regular customers of different races, and in Detroit. Although I can recall my mom saying, “We try to get along with everyone,” neither of my parents ever sat me down to talk about “race issues.” I simply absorbed his peaceable values and attitudes about race throughout my teenage years. What if he had been a racist?

Again, absorbing wisdom is not just about what children are taught. The questions posed above are just several of many that parents need to struggle with for their children’s sakes. Subtle influences are loaded with powerful implications for the shaping of a child’s wisdom. Parents whose children are not home-schooled may not have as much influence over what goes on inside the classroom as they might like, but they do have control over what the children absorb in the home.

(Part of the above was adapted from Uncommon Sense: God’s Wisdom for Our Complex and Changing World, by John Peck and Charles Strohmer, chapter six.)

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

Images by Cayusa, Nidhi M, and Cesar, respectively (permissions from Creative Commons)

Learning Wisdom from Outside

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©2015 by Charles Strohmer