John Shortt Interviews Charles Strohmer

I was recently contacted by John Shortt, a gifted British educator who also works educationally in Europe and further afield. Would I be willing to be interviewed for his blog? I was. Originally published on John’s blog, it has now been included right here on my blog. The interview was wide-raging and thought-provoking — for me at least! And conversational (my preference) rather than formal. It is partly the story of how I came to faith and partly about my life since then as a writer and public Christian. Some of it may surprise even those who know me well. I hope some of it speaks to you. (The interview was conducted via Skype, but only the text, not the audio, is being published.)

John Shortt: Charles, you and Linda live in East Tennessee in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. It sounds a great place to live but you were brought up way up north in Detroit, Michigan, weren’t you?

Charles Strohmer: Yes, we’re pleasantly ensconced here in the foothills of the Smokies but Detroit is about 550 miles north of us, a lot of real cold winter weather up there. It’s the Motor City, so it’s the big three auto makers plus the Motown sound, and a lot of rock ‘n roll came out of Detroit.

I was personally caught up in both of those worlds. I was a car mechanic for a long time and I got into the music scene deeply, not just into the Motown sound which I really like but mainly into rock ‘n’ roll, hard rock, heavy metal.

JS: In Odd Man Out, your great book about your life in the sixties and seventies, you say you began to search for “Truth with a capital T”. What set you off on that search when it seemed you had everything going for you?

CS: Now, that’s interesting! Yeah, I suppose it does seem like I had everything going for me. I was living the American Dream on the one hand and then, off of that, I was playing this counter-cultural hippy thing.

But inside of me a lot of things affected me in a very disturbing way. I was totally unhappy with how things were going in the American system. In the 1960s there was the assassination of President Kennedy, then a few years later the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., then, a couple of months later, the assassination of Bobby Kennedy when he was running for president. There was the Vietnam War et cetera and I was, for some reason, really affected by those injustices and evils.

I got this deep desire to know Truth with a capital T. That’s how I talked to myself about it. I said to myself that if I could find Truth with a capital T, no matter what it cost or where it led, then Truth would do two things. It would tell me what was wrong with the American system and perhaps even with life itself or the world and my own life. And number two, it would help me and others to solve some of the problems, correct some things that have gone wrong.

JS: And you got into astrology around that time. It was the time of the dawning of the Age of Aquarius or soon after it, wasn’t it? How did that come about?

CS: I thought astrology was a path to Truth. It came about innocently enough. A friend of mine and I were both into race cars, but we also used to meet at Dunkin’ Donuts and talk about life and spiritual things. At the time, he was the only friend I could talk to like that. One day he put this book on the table in Dunkin’ Donuts and said, “Here. This is pretty cool. I’ve been reading about this.” I picked it up and said, “Oh, this is about astrology. That’s a load of rubbish, that’s the occult. I don’t want to have anything to do with that.”

And that was that, until it wasn’t. A few weeks later, he put another astrology book down in front of me and said, “You’ve got to read this. This is good stuff. It says we’re the same sun sign. That is why we get along so well.” So I took the book and read it. I liked what I was reading. I didn’t understand a lot of it, but it set me on this course of studying astrology and learning how to do horoscope readings for people. I also thought I was learning about myself and helping others by interpreting their horoscopes.

JS: And by this time you had become a roadie for a rock band as well?

CS: Yes, I had moved to Chicago from Detroit and I was working in a Chevy dealer there selling car parts, and I liked it. It gave me some money to head out and go to music clubs and so on. I had very long hair and a Fu Manchu moustache then. It’s a funny story, but there was a girl who worked in the office at the Chevy dealer. We liked each other. But she didn’t like it that I came to work with my hair in a ponytail stuffed down my shirt to hide it, so that the bosses and customers wouldn’t be offended by it. She used to tease me and say, “You gotta let your hair out. You look so good with it long like that. Stop hiding it.” So one day to get on her better side, I arrived at work with my long hair hanging out all over the place. That went on for a couple of weeks, until the general manager took me aside and gave me an ultimatum: “You can either quit today or be laid off.” So I was suddenly out of work.

Then, long story short, a few weeks later I was partying at a music club and heard a great band, called Marcus. It was an American rock ‘n’ roll band and they were in the process of cutting their first album, which would eventually be produced by United Artists in California. We got on famously and I started travelling on the road crew with them. I eventually became the stage manager and worked with them for over a year, travelling in the Midwest.

JS: Yes, so they went off to California then and after a while – a short time back home in Detroit – you set out to drive to California?

CS: Yes, an interesting period in my life. When the band signed their contract with United Artists, they had to move to California to record the album. So the roadies were without work. I went back to Detroit and stayed in my parents’ house for a while.

But I wondered what I was going to do with my life. And I was getting deeper involved in occult practices beside astrology. I had a little room in my parents’ basement. I had a cheap desk there and all my astrology books and my other occult books. I’d sit there for hours a day with a pot of jasmine tea, trying to interpret horoscope readings and then talk to clients afterwards about that. I even got paid a little bit for doing it.wave curl

Eventually I decided I had to get to California, so I loaded up my car and began driving to California, where I hoped to work with the band again.

JS: And you drove through the Badlands of North Dakota?

CS: I did. By the way, that was interesting that you included that word in the title of your blog. I thought, “This is lovely. I wonder if John knows about the Badlands of North Dakota”. So this was the spring of 1976. I drove to Chicago, where I owed somebody a horoscope chart, dropped that off there, stayed a couple of days, and then drove across the top of the United States through the Badlands of North Dakota to Washington State and then came down the coast highway through Oregon to California.

It was in the Badlands that I started to have really strange spiritual experiences that undid my life and completely dismantled my occult worldview. I used to rely on a lot on occult beliefs, and some eastern religious beliefs – karma, reincarnation, spiritual evolution. I had a lot of really disturbing spiritual experiences all the way to southern California. They left me broken and in tears and living like a hermit on my own.

JS: And you bought a Bible and began to read it?

CS: Yes. It had been about six or eight weeks since I’d left Detroit. I was now living near a beach in southern California, in a little hotel room with a small stove, a refrigerator and some cupboards. I was now also a strict vegetarian – nuts, grains, fruits and vegetables only. And I was doing this unusual kind of fasting that I had been taught by an occult teacher. It was supposed to help me evolve spiritually. But I kept having these very disturbing, and sometimes frightening spiritual experiences. I was at my wits end and didn’t know what to do.

So about a week before my twenty-sixth birthday I bought a Bible in a Bible bookstore. I had read the whole Bible when I was an astrologer, but it didn’t communicate to me. I was in Costa Mesa, which was one of the sources for the Jesus revival that was going on during that period.

JS: That was the time of the Jesus People!

CS: Yes. But I didn’t know that. Had never heard of them. I felt really weird going into this Christian bookstore to buy a Bible and being the only longhair with the Fu Manchu, but there were longhairs there! It kind of shocked me, and nobody bothered me.

I bought a Bible and started reading it back in the hotel room. Again I couldn’t understand it. That was the last straw. One night I just broke down completely and started sobbing alongside the bed in this little room. I started crying to God, saying simply, “God I’m sorry, God I’m sorry, God, I’m sorry. I’m just a sinner”. I was sobbing and crying out to God like that for a long time that night. But after a while I began to feel deeply peaceful and I sensed the presence of Jesus in the room with me. I felt forgiven, and the terrible spiritual experiences ended. And I no longer felt like a dirty guilty person.

It was late at night when this happened. I was alone and I didn’t know what else to do so I crawled into bed and went to sleep. I woke up the next morning, and I remember laying there in that bed and everything looked different. Even the air looked different. I remember walking around that small room and looking at all the astrology books and the occult literature and all the charts I had laid out. I thought, “I’ve been duped, I’ve been duped”. It was like the Holy Spirit was already teaching me that the way that I’d been going for six or seven years with the occult was leading me the wrong way in the search for Truth.

And then I saw the open Bible on the table from the night before. Why not? I thought. So I started reading it again and I could understand it! It was amazing. And I couldn’t stop reading it. And that’s where we come back to the vow I had made years’ earlier, to find Truth with a capital T. Because I then read in scripture some weeks later that Jesus said, “I am the truth”. He says that in John’s Gospel. “I am the way, the truth and the life.” When I read that Jesus Christ was the truth, well, more blinders came off. Oh, Truth is a person, that’s astounding! That completely transformed my thinking about the source and nature of Truth.

JS: And you went back home to Detroit after that and you got into church life?

CS: Yes, I finally drove back to Detroit, but I didn’t know what to do. I was like burning out of control for Jesus. I was stopping to get gas along the road and I just had to tell the guy in the gas station about Jesus. “Can I tell you about Jesus?” I didn’t know what I would say if someone said yes. And some did. My first pastor in Detroit once joked with me about this. “Charles, new believers like you should hide out for six months because you’re doing more damage than good! You’re telling everybody about Jesus but you don’t know what you’re doing half the time.”

But he was a great pastor, and I was part of his church in the inner-city of Detroit, where I lived for a year. It was a wonderful church, a mixed congregation of blacks and whites. We served the inner city. We did a lot of Christian ministry there. We had a resale shop, we did radio broadcasts and ran concerts, we had three church services a week, we prayed a lot and had a phone counselling line. That was in 1977, and it was where I began to get my Christian legs.

JS: And for the next few years you were in Detroit and then you began to travel and you even came to the UK?

CS: I did! Another interesting period of my life. The Lord called me out of that inner-city ministry and “back into the world” – as we used to say – to work. So I went back to selling car parts and eventually landed a job in a Chevrolet dealership in downtown Detroit. I liked working there among so many different kinds of people, and I eventually became a parts manager there.

I was also supporting an American gal who was a missionary in Paisley, Scotland, with YWAM. She was an educator and she cofounded a preschool in Paisley with YWAM, called ‘The Wee Friends Preschool’, which became a template for the founding of similar other schools. She came back to the States on a short furlough, and at the time I was just a supporter of hers, but she visited me and a girlfriend of hers in Michigan, and by the end of this visit we were getting serious about each other! Linda and I got engaged, and in June of 1986, I moved to Scotland and we married in Paisley. I lived there for a few more years, and the Lord was gracious to me and began opening doors of ministry in the UK.

We moved back to the States in late 1989, and Linda returned to teaching first grade in the public schools here. Her forte is children’s literacy. She was an award-winning Teacher of the Year in Tennessee for children’s literacy.

I was being invited back to the UK. It was mind-blowing for me that churches and parachurch groups wanted this American bloke to come to teach on Christian worldview and biblical wisdom. And I learned so much from Christians I met everywhere. Some became my best friends. For ten to fifteen years I travelled all over the UK. I remember that you and I met for the first time during one of those trips, when you invited me and the lovely Pam MacKenzie to do some teaching for the Association of Christian Teachers.

JS: Yes, it was for a weekend for teachers on a Christian response to New Age philosophy! During the nineties you had become a writer as well as a speaker.

CS: Yes, that was my entry into the world of publishing. My first couple of books were about a Christian point of view on astrology and a major book on communicating the truth to New Age seekers.

Then I felt the Lord nudging me to get more and more involved in the wisdom tradition. That’s become a key in my ministry for twenty, twenty-five years now. I was an apologist for quite a while and published frequently in that field. But the field of apologetics for me was no longer getting me where I believed the Lord wanted to take me. Its organising principle tends to make as wide as possible the gulf of dissimilarities between different theologies and belief systems, and I saw the need for that. But it wasn’t satisfying my growing interests in helping people to come together on common ground in mutuality.

It was actually through a mutual friend of ours, the inimitable John Peck, whom I had met in the States a decade earlier, who began to mentor me further along in this, in biblical wisdom development. He was a godsend.

Of course, John had his hand in a lot of things in the UK, like the Greenbelt Festival and College House in Cambridge. He had done a lot of thinking about how the biblical wisdom tradition seeks to bring people who are different, even those who have different core beliefs, to bring them together on common ground to try to solve problems, work together for justice, and so on. And John relied on help from the biblical wisdom tradition for this.

I saw this as a missing jewel in Christian worldview teaching and development. Unlike the traditional apologetics paradigm, the wisdom tradition, simply put, seeks to bring people together on mutual ground, yet while acknowledging difference. This really lit my fuse. For the last twenty-five or thirty years much of my published works and talks have been trying to build on what I call a wisdom-based gospel-shaped way of engaging all of life, its art, its politics, family life, and much more, and especially, for many years now, the field of international relations, foreign policy, and diplomacy.

JS: And yes, talking about the international situation, you mentioned the assassination of President Kennedy. Most of us can remember where we were when we heard the news that he had been assassinated. And the nine-eleven attack on the Twin Towers 2001 is like that because we can all remember where we were when we heard the news of that. But in your case, Charles, it was particularly powerful, wasn’t it? Where were you when you heard about it?

CS: I have a funny way of understanding that to myself. I’m pretty sure that I was one of the last people on earth to hear about it. I had boarded a plane in Gatwick that morning before it happened. I had just finished a three-week book tour with John Peck about our book Uncommon Sense which had just come out with SPCK.

We were about two hours out of London over the Atlantic headed toward the States when the captain — I’ll never forget his announcement. Through his deep Texas drawl he said, “Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention please. Your serious attention.” And he went on to explain that there had been an international incident in the United States and we had to land in Halifax, Nova Scotia. But he wouldn’t say what had happened.

So three hours later, we’re landing in Halifax, circling the airfield, and we see this very long queue of planes, dozens and dozens of jumbo jets and L1011s that have landed ahead of us in this little international airport. We passengers still didn’t know what was going on. After we had taxied to our place at the end of the queue, our captain then explained what had happened. We were like, “What?!” We were all stunned. Passengers on our plan were bussed to an air force base, where we lived for four more days. Those days and that event affected me deeply.

JS: Yes, when you were back home, you became passionate about developing what you call “wisdom-based inter-cultural relations between Christians and Muslims and wisdom-based international relations between the United States and Muslim Middle East states”. You set up the Wisdom Project and you have a blog entitled “Waging Wisdom: Uncommon Sense for a World in Conflict”. Tell us more, Charles.

CS: Thank you for that question, John. I really appreciate being able to say a few words about that. It’s a long story, but I’ll try to be brief. I slipped into a mild depression after I got home. I was praying a lot, and I concluded I could get out of it in one of two ways. I could completely ignore the significance of the nine-eleven attack or I could do a little research and study to learn what had happened. So I choose the latter option, because it was obvious that the attack couldn’t be ignored.

So I turned to the experts, but the experts in Washington were saying, “We don’t know why it happened.” To their credit, it was good to hear some humility from experts. And even from Christian leaders, who were admitting the same thing. But that was a huge disappointment, because I wanted somebody with some wisdom to explain to me why it had occurred, how to respond wisely, and how to prevent it from happening again. Well, if nobody knew, Strohmer was going to find out! Some kind of pride thing in my life!

I began some research, naively thinking that after several months of study I would learn all I needed to know about this. Then I’ll write an article or two, maybe do a couple of seminars about it, and that will be that. Well, that turned into a two- or three-year research project into the broad field of international relations, foreign policy, and diplomacy in which I was learning all sorts of new and crucial things from different points of view, especially the different American ones and many of those in the Middle East — the different ways that different capitals had of analysing and responding to the attacks.

JS: What did you do with all that research?

CS: Well, I had learned a lot about what many people would call a secular view of U.S.-Middle East foreign policy. But that wasn’t nearly enough. I thought, “What would the biblical wisdom tradition have to say about this, if anything?” After a real struggle, by the grace of God I began to be able to get under the skin of the wisdom tradition and understand how the sages who gave us that tradition understood foreign policy and diplomacy. I don’t take credit for it, but a wealth of material began to open up to me, from both the Old and New Testaments. So over time I was able to lay my understanding of the wisdom tradition alongside that of the “secular” views and then develop and offer a way of foreign policy, diplomacy, and negotiations based on biblical wisdom norms, ideas and principles.

That led to founding the Wisdom Project and to becoming a visiting research fellow for the Christian think-tank in Washington called the Centre for Public Justice. That too was a godsend, thanks to James Skillen, its then president, and its board of directors. The project grew into a major book project which has yet to be published. InterVarsity Press looked at it seriously for six months but then decided not to publish it. The book is based on what I call the five norms of wisdom and how they can help people who are different to work together, whether on a local community project or a national or international problem, be they Muslims, Christians, Jews, secularists, whoever.

It’s been a rewarding journey, and a lot of work, but the Lord has opened doors for me to talk about this with key people and groups on many different levels, including at the State Department and the Council on Foreign Relations. You know, when you get to talking with “experts” who are open to new ideas, and you sit with them and learn from them and they learn from you about ways to use the principles and norms and ideas of the historic wisdom tradition in their analyses and policy decision making, to defuse adversarial relations and suchlike, well, it’s not only exciting. It also, importantly, helps to make life a little better for any number of people. Jesus spoke of “blessed peacemakers.” Diplomats and international negotiators, among others, are tasked with fulfilling that calling.

JS: Yes, you must be looking at international relations in the present global pandemic situation and thinking what does the biblical wisdom tradition have to bring to this?

CS: I would say that there’s different levels. One is that we are now in the age of social media where there’s too much polemics going on. One of the purposes of the wisdom tradition is to help us shake free from rigid ideological thinking. But on social media you have countless people entrenched deep inside their fortresses with contradictory ideological viewpoints. They only come out to shoot polemics at each other from behind their fortress walls. That is just dividing the country, dividing people. The wisdom tradition offers us biblical norms and principles and ideas that will help out of our fortresses, let down our drawbridges, walk across our moats, and start talking with each other civilly about how we can work together to help our countries. So that’s one level.

Another level is at city-wide, regional, and state levels. Here in the States you’ve got the fifty states. In your country and in Europe you’ve got your own levels of government. But whether we are talking about cities or counties or countries, the wisdom tradition can help politicians, medical people, and other kinds of COVID-19 decision makers to be more on the same page helping us ordinary citizens to get through this difficult season with less divisiveness, in order to work together for the good of our countries. And, mind you, this is not some idealist pipe dream. The wisdom tradition is utterly realistic about what is possible in our fallen world.

And then there is international level, where these days you’ve got the United States playing off China and Russia, and vice-versa. The wisdom tradition has a lot of, well, wisdom for those who work internationally, which affects us all. Take, for example, a friend of mine, Chris Seiple, who was President of the Institute of Global Engagement in Washington DC. He has a whole paradigm that’s just lovely. It’s called “relational diplomacy,” very wisdom-based. We’ve had many conversations about how it has helped him and the IGE teams with some amazing breakthroughs in difficult situations in the Middle East to ease adversarial relations and help bring about some good changes, including when ISIS was running rampant there.

And Chris is not shy about letting his interlocutors know up front that he is an evangelical Christian. But he knows the potential of the wisdom tradition. It’s my belief and hope that if more organizations like IGE tap the potential of the biblical wisdom tradition, then parliaments, and congresses, and White Houses, and Downing Streets around the world could be more equipped to deal wisely, together, with all sorts of injustices and help make the world a better place for us ordinary folk to live in.

JS: Well, let’s pray that it will be so.

CS: Amen!

JS: Now Charles, I reckon that you’re round about three score years and ten. For a lot of people, there’s a word ‘retirement’ that comes in at that point. But in your neck of the woods, Dolly Parton came from there and she sang about “working nine till five”. Are you going to sit back? What are your plans, brother?

CS: Dolly Parton, yes, she’s still going strong. She’s quite a philanthropist, you know. We live near where she grew up. My wife retired from teaching a few years ago, but she is busier than ever, giving grace and offering wisdom in a lot of areas. But I’m not retired. I spend much of my day researching, writing, a bit of advising, and seeking advice, too. When you’ve been doing what I’ve been doing for three or four decades, you have a lot of ideas! They can overwhelm you and you think, “I’ll write about this, I’ll write about that”. I joke to myself that I want to clone myself at least three times so that I can assign projects to myself and trust they get done.

The tricky part for me is that if things come together to begin a certain project, then I’ve got to try to do it. When I worked on an assembly line decades ago, if I was sick, someone else could fill my spot on the line that day. But I have a different calling now. The onus is on me to see a task through to completion. It’s a strange responsibility. I’m always praying to try to understand just what it is I should be getting done!

A focus these past months has been trying to determine, “Lord, what are you saying about COVID-19?” I don’t want to be spinning my wheels. So I haven’t said much publicly yet because I want it to be wisdom-based, and the penny hasn’t dropped yet. So maybe I could take this opportunity to ask your readers to say a prayer about this. I would like to get some traction on making some wisdom-based communications about this difficult season that we’re all in. I’ve got ideas floating around but I need an “Aha!” moment.

JS: Charles, bless you and thank you for all that you’ve been sharing. It’s been great to talk!

CS: Thank you so much, John. Any time.

©2020 by Charles Strohmer

Creative Commons photos: Badlands, by Destination360. Wave, by Sunova Surfboards. Other photos: the two of me, by Jeremy Daley. Charles & Linda, by Diane lee.

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.

They, as well as a large number of Americans, regret the war because they have learned wisdom from the war 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. In other words, this large group sees the bad fruit and now regrets the war.

But 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 there is a more fundamental answer. It  comes from those ethicists, theologians, and religious leaders who deal with the moral problem of war. These are the “just war” theorists.

In 2002 and early 2003, many and diverse just war theorists, with the support of their constituencies, 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 and 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 news 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.

Just war theory brings a lot of gravitas to the question of “why diplomacy?”, which 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)