Word to the Wise

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September 23, 2018

James asks: “Who is wise and understanding among you?” (James 3:13) We might answer: “We know it when we see it.”

I saw it at War Memorial Stadium: November 28, 2008. It was fourth down, one yard to go at the LSU 24 yard line, Arkansas trailing 30-24, less than a minute remaining in the game. Our running backs were small. Big Tigers crowded the line of scrimmage, their backs cheating up to stuff the run.  London Crawford—fast, but to this point unreliable—had single coverage on the right.  The choices: run, short-pass, or go for broke.  Nothing was guaranteed, except this: making the first down would still leave 20 yards to go, hard-slogging against a more talented team.  Coach decided that going for broke now would give the Razorbacks their best chance to win the game. Casey Dick threw it up, London hauled it in: touchdown, Arkansas.  Hogs win. (The good old days.)

Knowing it might well have gone the other way, yet seeing here the best opportunity to win,  playing the odds and rolling the dice: that is football coaching wisdom.

Wisdom comes in many flavors.

The wise teacher knows when to be strict—and when to cut a kid some slack.

The wise lawyer knows when to go to trial––and when to cut a deal.

The wise ninth grader knows to stay out of a car whose driver has been drinking.

The wise high school graduate goes off to college and finds new friends to match her values, rather than the other way around.

Wisdom is discernment. It perceives the opportunities and dangers in a situation, has a feel for the choice that will yield the desired result.

None of us is as wise we would like to be—raise your hand if you’ve never played the fool— but there is a lot of accumulated wisdom in this room: wisdom for doctoring and nursing, teaching, leading, lawyering, and simply growing up.  We bring this wealth of wisdom with us into church on Sunday mornings.

And here we ask God to help us understand our varieties of wisdom within the broader compass of the wisdom of a different kind: the wisdom about God and the value, meaning and direction of our lives.  This wisdom the early, Greek-speaking Christians called “Hagia Sophia”—“Holy Wisdom.”

You are that wise eighth-grader who has recognized that drugs can ruin a life before it has even started to unfold.  You bring this street-sense with you into the church and find that it folds into a larger meaning, which is that God has made us in his image. Which means that God has endowed you with God-like freedom, God-like responsibilities, and a God-like capacity to think and love. For all we know, there may not be any other creatures in the universe who hold so much value and potential. To your value and potential, there is nothing drugs can add; they can only take away.  To see this is Hagia Sophia: Holy Wisdom.

 “Religion is how we position ourselves with respect to that which we hold sacred.” Christopher Morse said that, one of my teachers. What we hold sacred is the truth about God and the value and meaning of our lives. This truth is gospel, which means that the news about God and our human dignity and worth is good.  It is not that we are naïve to the realities of sin, suffering, and evil.  It is rather that, in Jesus Christ, our eyes are opened to the realities of sin, suffering, and evil as taken on, and overcome. This is the wisdom of the cross: the sacred truth around which we, as Christians, organize our lives.

This truth guides our discernment: our reading of our situations with their opportunities and dangers, our conception of the desired result.

What is wisdom to us, looks like foolishness to some. That has always been true—but lately, more so. Echoing Carl Sagan, Neil DeGrasse Tyson intoned: “the cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be.”  “Metaphysical materialism” is the name for that philosophy.

Metaphysical materialism rejects the idea of God as superstition and the idea of human beings as cosmically important as grandiose delusion. It wants to justify these rejections with science. Steven Weinberg, a Nobel laureate in physics, famously wrote:

“It is almost irresistible to believe that we have some special relation to the universe, that human life is not just a farcical outcome of a chain of accidents . . . but that we were somehow built in from the beginning. . . . It is very hard for us to realize that [the entire earth] is just a tiny part of an overwhelmingly hostile universe. . . . The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”[i]

Robert Penn Warren’s great novel, All the King’s Men, evokes metaphysical materialism as “the dream of our age.” His protagonist, Jack Burden, flees the mess he has made of his life in old, corrupt, Christ-haunted Louisiana, and heads west to California:

“So I fled west . . . and in the West, at the end of History, the Last Man on that Last Coast, on my hotel bed, I had discovered the dream.  That dream was the dream that all life is but the dark heave of blood and the twitch of the nerve.  When you flee as far as you can flee, you will always find that dream, which is the dream of our age.”[ii]

The Steven Weinberg quote is familiar to workers in my academic field of theology and science. I ran across it often, including in a book by Stephen Barr, Modern Physics and Ancient Faith. Barr is a physicist and a very good theologian. His book is an excellent presentation of the strong case that physics actually supports a conclusion the opposite of Weinberg’s. That is to say: the better we understand the universe in detail, the further it affirms our faith that, as the psalmist said, “we are fearfully and wonderfully made.”

Jesus told us we should be “wise as serpents” and yet “innocent as doves.”  Wise, that is, to the world, and the ways our enemies can harm us, and yet not stooping to their level.  That sets a very high bar for Christian behavior!

The bar is just as high for Christian thinking; Christian theology should be as reasonable as Aristotle, as faithful as the Virgin Mary.

We perceive reason in faith and faith in reason. “Reason in faith.” A great practitioner was St. Augustine who, 1600 years ago, philosophically anticipated key elements of the Big Bang theory and Darwinian evolution.  One of the mind-bending discoveries of modern physics is that not only the universe but time itself had a beginning.  T=0 at the Big Bang. This science corroborates Augustine’s ancient philosophical  proposition: “There can be no time without creation.” In technical papers on quantum cosmology, one finds citations to St. Augustine’s Confessions.[iii]

As to Darwin, Augustine warned, in caustic terms, that it was a mistake for Christians to insist that the Bible be interpreted literally at points where the literal interpretation contradicts informed scientific judgment. Denying evolution in the name of faith would be an example. Augustine said this only makes Christians look like fools, and then our foolishness becomes a stumbling block for learned unbelievers:

“Now it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense. . . . If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about [books of the Bible], how are they going to believe our books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven?”[iv]

Then, having said that, and 15 centuries before Darwin published The Origin of Species, Augustine offered his own non-literal interpretation of the Genesis Creation story, going so far as to suggest that in some cases God may have initially provided the raw materials for life, from which species would subsequently develop. That is to say, St. Augustine recognized the possibility of evolution. This would have to represent a high water mark in the history of reasonable and faithful thinking.

Wisdom nurtures reason in faith and recognizes faith in reason.  Science itself is an exercise of faith: faith in the value of the truth, faith in the world’s intelligibility and order, and faith in human understanding.

Human beings thrive on faith and reason: in theology, science, and football coaching, and in lawyering, doctoring, teaching, parenting, and simply growing up. Their wisdom is the art of being human.


            [i] Weinberg quoted in Stephen M. Barr, Modern Physics and Ancient Faith (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003), 115.

            [ii] Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men (New York: Harvest Book / Harcourt Brace, 1996), 311.

            [iii] Barr, 47–48.

            [iv] Augustine, quoted in Barr, 7, cited from On the Literal meaning of Genesis.