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.

King David’s appetite got the better of him. What he wanted was good, but not for him.

In the Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas affirms that love was God’s reason for the making of the world and that his goodness permeates creation—but in pieces, disassembled like a jigsaw puzzle. He writes: “The perfect goodness that exists one and unbroken in God can exist in creatures only in a multitude of fragmented ways.”  

So David was drawn to a fragmentary good. His desire was one that we instinctively appreciate, because without it none of us would be here, but the wrongness of his acting on it was severe. Our appetites cause trouble when we are heedless of the good of others, and the puzzle as a whole.

What is love? “Willing the good” of another person, according to Aquinas. David’s motive wouldn’t count as love. He wanted Bathsheba for himself. Perhaps her feelings were reciprocal, but David left her husband’s good, his kingdom’s good, and other puzzle pieces, neglected on the floor. Inconveniently, a pregnancy occurred. Plan A was to give Uriah, the husband, grounds to believe he was the father. When that plan failed the king successfully arranged to have him killed in battle.

Evil, according to Aquinas, is a corruption of the good. “Power tends to corrupt,” as Lord Acton warned, and in this story we see why. Only a king could be tempted to sin like David did, because it would take a king to pull it off. David’s failure is common to men in high places, shadowing the lives and times of several of our recent presidents and even Martin Luther King. Like kings and presidents, prophets are susceptible.

When I started SUMMA, the high school theological debate camp, I named it partly for the Summa Theologiae––“the Summa,” for short. SUMMA, the camp, highlights faith’s intellectual dimension. According to the Summa, the book, our intellect is like an appetite. As David’s eye was attracted to the beauty of Bathsheba, our mind’s eye is drawn to truth. We call this attraction “reason.” Aquinas writes; “As the good denotes that towards which the appetite tends, so the true denotes that towards which the intellect tends.”

If truth is the sun, sometimes our sight of it is fogged by other appetites. David had broken three of the ten commandments (the sixth, seventh, and tenth, if you are keeping score) but he was oblivious. Nathan the prophet found a way to lift the fog. Lawyer-like, he caught the king’s attention with the case of a poor, honest sharecropper and his beloved lamb. David’s first job had been tending sheep, so he could relate. A selfish plantation owner took the poor man’s lamb to feed his party guests. The king was livid. “Is this for real?” “For real.” David’s appetite for justice burned. “That Simon Legree will pay!” he swore. Coming from a king that was a verdict, not an empty threat. Nathan had him. He drew out his mirror and held it to the king’s face. Look close, he said. You are that man. “The moment of truth.”

“We must no longer be children,” Paul writes to the Ephesians. “We must grow up,” he says, by “speaking the truth in love.” At SUMMA, the camp, the highest honor, “the SUMMA Prize,” is awarded to the camper who best shows us how that’s done. The prize is one thousand dollars. That is one way to make our point that truth and love are intertwined.

Often, finding truth takes expertise: science, logic, math. Aquinas’s expertise was logic and it took him years to learn. Not everyone would have the skill even if they afford the time. By God’s design, love requires no expertise. Everyone can understand and anyone can do it if they will. “It is evident,” Aquinas writes, “that not all are able to labor at learning and for that reason Christ has given a short law. Everyone can know this law and no one may be excused from observing it based on ignorance. This is the law of divine love.”

For a counterpoint, Franklin Roosevelt once compared our nation’s moral progress to our scientific progress unfavorably, which might suggest that finding truth is easier than loving. According to Jon Meacham, Roosevelt had drafted a speech to give on Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, April 13. This was 1945. The speech was discovered on Roosevelt’s desk in Warm Springs, Georgia, April 12, the day he died. This is FDR:

Today, science has brought all the different quarters of the globe so close together that it is impossible to isolate them one from another . . . Today we are faced with the preeminent fact that, if civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships—the ability of all peoples, of all kinds, to live together and work together in the same world, at peace. . . . Let us move forward with strong and active faith.

That’s from Meacham’s book The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels. From 1776 to now, the book tracks our national ups and downs in answering to what what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” Meacham wrote the book because he thinks we need to listen much more closely to those better angels now. Who could disagree?

Aquinas and Roosevelt were both right. Aquinas, because only an Isaac Newton could discover calculus; and Roosevelt because, once discovered, truth is ours to keep. Libraries are full of it. Love is more like breakfast—we have to make it every morning. Aquinas called theology the “Queen of Sciences” because it's the science that has to reckon with both the library and the kitchen.

SUMMA, the camp, is a crash course in truth detection. I tell the students: “I didn’t bring you here to tell you what to think, but to show you how.” They learn the three parts of an argument: claim, evidence, and warrant. Claim: ‘What are you trying to get me to believe?’ Evidence: ‘What are you giving me to go on?’ Warrant: ‘How does the evidence support the claim?’

For example, claim: I say “Tomorrow it will rain.” Evidence: You ask “Why should I believe that?” I answer: “Open the window and take a whiff.” You open the window. “Oh,” you say, “the paper mill.”  Warrant: By what logic does this smell support my claim? It’s called an “inference from sign.” Does the Pine Bluff Paper Mill cause rain? No, but it lets us know the wind is from the south, and southern winds bring moisture from the Gulf of Mexico. Summer heat means afternoon convection: hot air rising from the earth. Add moisture and boom! Summer thunderstorms.

In one sentence in our gospel reading, Jesus makes two claims: (1) God sent me.  (2) Faith in me is a sign of God’s activity in the heart and mind of the believer. “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent,” he says. Again: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” Smartly, people ask Jesus for evidence to support these claims. Moses gave us evidence, they remind him, out there in the wilderness. Our ancestors were hungry and thirsty. Miraculously, he gave them manna for bread and water from a boulder. So show us. “What sign are you going to give us that we may see it and believe in you?”

For John, the gospel writer, this question is like a student’s who had dozed off in class. It is summer school, the air conditioning is out and the windows are open. The air is hot, moist, and heavy with that familiar smell. The boy wakes up and asks the teacher to answer something she had just explained in detail: “So why should we believe that it will rain tomorrow?”

Jesus’ questioners had been dozing. In John’s gospel, signs followed everywhere he went. In Cana, he turned water into wine. In Capernaum, he healed a dying child; in Jerusalem, it was a sick old man too weak to walk. The latest sign had been the most spectacular so far, and these people who were asking for a sign had either seen or heard about it. From five loaves and two fish, five thousand hungry appetites were satisfied. In a fog, these interrogators fail to draw the inference from sign.

Jesus backs up and tries another tack. With Moses still in mind, he offers an analogy. Analogies are warrants that work by comparison. “This is like that.” You know what its like to hungry and be given bread? They nod, still digesting loaves that he had given. I am like that he says. “Those who come to me will never hunger and those who believe in me will never thirst,” he promises. He isn’t talking now about digestion, but about that activity of God in human hearts and minds––also called the Holy Spirit.

By this, he puts us on watch for good that answers to a longing deeper than hunger even, and more thrilling even than that dizzy dancing feeling that draws us to each other sometimes. Powerful and necessary though they are, these appetites, they point to only fragments of the good we need as human beings. We are made for more.

We don’t need faith to know this. Aristotle knew it. Reason, he taught, is like an appetite for good things greater than our emotional enjoyment and even our physical survival.

We do not live by bread alone. Reason shows us that much. Faith, hope, love—the activity of God in the minds and hearts of all believers––now show us more: eternal truth, everlasting goodness, and transcendent beauty. They are like coffee, eggs, and bacon cooking in the kitchen early in the morning, smells wafting up the stairs into the bedroom as we’re dressing, getting ready for the day.