Monday, March 5, 2018

The Cardinal Virtues: Wisdom

The scriptures referred to are 1 Corinthians 1:18-25.

When you create a character for a role playing game, you have certain qualities you have to provide. And they are determined by a roll of the dice. If you are a fighter, you want high scores in areas like strength and constitution. If you are a thief, you want to roll high numbers for stealth and slight of hand. If you are a wizard, you want to get the highest scores possible in not only intelligence but wisdom. I like that this game, which millions play, differentiates between intelligence and wisdom, between what you know and how you use that knowledge. As one joke goes, intelligence is knowing that the tomato is a fruit; wisdom is knowing that tomatoes don't go in a fruit salad. Wisdom is knowing how things relate to one another and work together.

We have all met intelligent fools: people who know a lot but can't seem to navigate certain common sense aspects of life. They have brains but lack good judgment. I'm talking about those who get themselves into trouble because they don't understand other human beings or the easily foreseen consequences of their actions. Bill Cosby and Louis C.K. have shown in their comedy that they are shrewd observers of human nature. Yet that didn't apply to their own actions. It didn't stop them from doing things that were morally wrong and which hurt others. Nor did they see how this would inevitably come back to haunt them, by destroying their careers and their legacies. I wonder if they will become like Fatty Arbuckle, once a more popular comedian than Charlie Chaplin, now consigned to obscurity over a scandal. (Though in Arbuckle's case, it was not what he did but what the media said he did. Check it out here.)

The reverse is also true. You have no doubt met people who were not well educated but who had acquired a lot of wisdom. They may not have a PhD but they have a deep understanding of people and of how one should lead one's life. Unfortunately because society doesn't quantify and certify wisdom as it does mere knowledge, such persons rarely rise in society. Their legacy is in how they influence others who encounter them and who are wise enough to recognize their wisdom.

Another saying states: A cynic knows the price of everything but the value of nothing. Wisdom is about values. Knowledge can tell you how to do something; wisdom is asking yourself if you should do it. Folks usually gain such wisdom in either of two ways. One is to do foolish things and learn from them afterwards. The other is to learn from the mistakes of others.

Or one could simply listen to those who are wise. Philosophy literally means the “love of wisdom.” And the Bible has a category of books which openly declare a love for this subject. Its Wisdom Literature encompasses such works as Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job and in the New Testament, James. These books are quotable and offer practical advice. Ecclesiastes famously observes, “There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under heaven.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1) In regards to what we just said about people brought down by misconduct, Proverbs says, “The evil deeds of a wicked man ensnare him; the cords of sin hold him fast. He will die for lack of discipline, led astray by his own great folly.” (Proverbs 5:22-23) We are told, “A kindhearted woman gains respect, but ruthless men gain only wealth.” (Proverbs 11:16) Ecclesiastes says, “Whoever has money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income.” (Ecclesiastes 5:10) This explains the fact that millionaires and billionaires often complain bitterly about taxes even though, after paying them, they are still millionaires and billionaires. It also says, “Do not say, 'Why were the old days better than these?' For it is not wise to ask such questions.” (Ecclesiastes 7:10) Even back in the good old days people had nostalgia for the good older days.

Knowledge increases and technology advances but people stay the same. Which is why a 2000 year old book can still teach us things about ourselves. And yet folks often resist the wisdom found in the Bible. Much of what we learn in it about human beings bums us out. It shows us cruelty, arrogance, greed, rage, deception, laziness, mistreatment of women, slavery, and apathy to the plight of others. We learn that everyone, even the most saintly persons in the Bible, is capable of doing evil. We learn that the powerful have always exploited the poor. As it says in Proverbs, “A poor man's field may produce abundant food, but injustice sweeps it away.” (Proverbs 13:23) That sounds like the modern exploitation of third world countries for their cash crops, which they export rather than grow much needed food for their own people. Because of such observations, the writer of Ecclesiastes concludes, “For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.”

Human wisdom can only go so far. The reason Ecclesiastes is such an uncharacteristically pessimistic part of the Bible is that the writer is looking at life “under the sun,” that is, without God's perspective. Seeing that everything we accomplish ends with death, it all seems like chasing after the wind.

There is another way to look at things and that is to take death off the table as a consideration. But that doesn't seem wise; it sounds crazy. That is what Paul is referring to in our passage from 1 Corinthians. “The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing...” Substitute a modern method of execution and Paul's idea becomes clearer. “The message of the electric chair/gas chamber/firing squad is foolishness to those who are perishing...” Of course it is. “You say God came to earth but let himself get executed like a slave or traitor? That's nuts!” You bet! Especially since we are all perishing. As Ecclesiastes says, “Like the fool, the wise man too will die!” (Ecclesiastes 2:16) A recent headline from the satirical website the Onion illustrates this perfectly: “Existentialist Fireman Delays 3 Deaths.” No life is saved in this world; its ending is just postponed. As the Shel Silverstein song goes, “You can have safe sex, but you're still gonna die; You can switch to Crest, but you're still gonna die; You can get rid of stress, get a lot of rest, get an AIDS test, enroll in EST, move out west where it's sunny and dry, and you'll live to be a hundred but you're still gonna die.”

So Paul's message about the crucified Jesus being Lord didn't make sense to those who were worldly wise. “We're all dead men walking; what good can an already dead guy do us?” And Paul understands that. Later in 1 Corinthians he says, “If the dead are not raised, 'Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.'” (1 Corinthians 15:32) And “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.” (1 Corinthians 15:19)

Wisdom is one of the cardinal virtues, recognized by believers and non-believers alike. But this is where the Christian conception of wisdom differs from the world. By worldly reasoning, treating others as you would like to be treated makes sense up until the point where others don't reciprocate. Then you should treat them as they have in fact treated you. Or worse, punish them for betraying your goodwill. Turning the other cheek is an invitation to be hit again. Why be merciful to your enemies, let alone love them? Why help the poor? Look out for yourself. If this is the only life you get, enjoy it and don't worry about others. They'll be put out of their misery soon enough. And don't worry about God. Why garner brownie points with him if it all ends in an eternal dirtnap?

God's wisdom is not the wisdom of this world (Isaiah 55:8) It doesn't begin with our experiences which can warp how we see the world and cause us to draw erroneous conclusions. It comes from something more firm. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom...” says Proverbs 9:10. Just as a healthy respect for the sea is crucial to being a good sailor, a healthy respect for God is vital if you want to navigate a truly good life. The existence, power and nature of God are the premises upon which spiritual wisdom builds.

The existence of God is foundational to spiritual wisdom. The fact that the universe is governed by physical laws and marvelously and minutely organized makes the idea that there is a rational creative mind behind it rather obvious. The alternative is that order spontaneously arises out of chaos over billions of years. This is like that saying that if you gave a million monkeys a million word processors that in a million years they would produce the works of Shakespeare. Really? The Shakespeare we have? No typos, no misspellings, the same breaks into acts and scenes? More pertinently, do we really think the product would have the same coherent plots, the same psychological insights, the same dramatic beats, the same deep philosophical soliloquies, the same 16th century puns and jokes? I find the idea that chaos gives birth to obviously intentional content incredible. At least Albert Camus, the French existentialist, did not believe a godless universe could have meaning, nor could we impose one. A godless universe, he said, was an absurd one. Or you might say, a godless universe is an absurd idea. Unwittingly Camus agrees with the psalmist when he wrote, “The fool says in his heart, 'There is no God.'” (Psalm 14:1)

Another pillar of spiritual wisdom is the power of God. If God was the watchmaker of traditional deism, who put creation together, wound it up like a clock and walked away, nevermore to interfere, then that still accounts for the intricate day-to-day operations of the universe. But it means we cannot appeal to him to suspend this routine or waive the physical laws that govern everything when something goes wrong. If grit gets in the gears, no one will fix it. Nobody is doing maintenance or repairs. Which would argue that God put all this work into this marvelous creation but is not otherwise invested in it. He does not love it or the many beings who populate it. I have a routine that I follow day to day, but I would interrupt it in a heartbeat should someone I love need me to rush to their aid or take them to the ER or do some other out of the ordinary act to save or help them. We call God our Father because we likewise feel that he loves us enough to intervene in the ordinary workings of this world in extraordinary circumstances. He is not powerless to help us, nor is he subject to the laws of creation, because he is the creator. He will not interrupt their functions capriciously but only when he judges it necessary, the way Jesus refused to frivolously perform signs merely to impress his skeptics. (Matthew 12:38-40)

Another foundation of spiritual wisdom is the nature of God. When we ask what kind of God is he, the Bible answers: he is just; he is merciful; he is life; he is love. Let's look at each of these assertions.

God is just. That means he is fair. He cares about how we treat each other. Ultimately there are consequences to what we think, say and do. Sometimes we see this play out in this life, such as when those who harm others are caught and punished. But human justice is not perfect. Some people get away with murder. Or any number of things that are technically not crimes, like being an unjust boss or a verbally abusive parent or an emotionally neglectful caretaker. If there is no just God and no afterlife, not being fair can be a winning strategy in life. We have seen unethical people get to the top. But spiritual wisdom says that what you do now matters beyond your physical death. God will not ignore it. There are no technicalities to derail his justice.

That said, God is merciful. He understands how hard our lives are firsthand through his son Jesus. He knows we are all fighting battles. He knows that people who are hurt tend to hurt others but he also knows that they have another option. They can turn to him for healing. When Jesus forgave the unscrupulous tax collector Zaccheus, or the woman taken in adultery, or the thief on the cross, or Saul who was an accessory to the martyrdom of Stephen, he wasn't saying that what they had done didn't matter. He was healing them of the spiritual sickness of which their sins were the symptoms. He was setting them on the path to spiritual health. The kind of person you are becoming is a process that will go on for eternity. You can be someone who is growing ever closer to the likeness of God or you can focus on yourself and deteriorate into a ever shrinking, eventually subhuman mass of anger, resentment, bitterness and regrets. You can become a spiritual black hole that sucks in everything and gives nothing back or you can become a star, expanding and radiating light. All it takes is turning from yourself to him who is the source of light and healing.

God is not only the source of light but of life. He created life, he gives life, he heals life and when death comes, he can give life back again. God doesn't desire the death of anyone but rather that they turn to him and live. (Ezekiel 18:23, 33:11) Giving life and restoring it are God's modus operandi. His way is the way of life. (Psalm 16:11) Spiritual wisdom proceeds from the God of life and is about nurturing and restoring life. It's life, not death, having the last word that makes spiritual wisdom so hard to understand by the worldly wise.

Finally, God is love. And we see the image of God in us most clearly when we are acting together in love. Indeed God's justice, mercy and commitment to life all come from his love. And so does his wisdom.

But we live in a world where people externalize their inner conflicts and export their pain to others. You know, one thing they never say about these mass shooters is that they were happy untroubled persons. They were traumatized, often socially isolated, cut off from community and sources of love. But they are only extreme symptoms of a sick world. Most gun deaths are not the result of mass shootings. Many are one on one, often family or friends whose conflict escalates. (When I was in school, conflicts between students resulted in fist fights. I once went home with a black eye from a bully. Today the same situation might result in a kid going to the morgue with a bullet in his brain.) One thing rarely mentioned by either side in the debate over guns is that two thirds of gun deaths are suicides, people who are so desperate to end their pain that they decide to end their lives.

Sadly the wisdom of the world is that the way to end problems and problematic people is by death. They tried to do that with Jesus. And he let them. He let them transfer their pain, their rage, their fear, their trauma onto him. He absorbed it as only God Incarnate can. But instead of hurling it back at them, he let it be buried with him. And when he came back, he left all that sin and sickness behind. He came back to life to give life to all who come to him. The Lord of Life died that we might live forever.

Those who encountered the risen Christ lost their fear of death. They went from cowering in a locked room to preaching the good news in the open. They proclaimed Christ nailed to a cross to a world paralyzed by the dominance of death. They preached faith in a risen Lord to a world prostrate with fear. Death is the routine way things end. Nothing violates that rule. Except Jesus' reign breaks the rule of death. And it makes things this violent and deadly world sees as foolish—living not for self but for others, giving without expectation of return, turning the other cheek, loving your enemies, renouncing yourself and taking up your cross—into wisdom of the highest order. If you have no fear of death there is no limit to what you can do.

James wrote, “But the wisdom from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.” (James 3:17) Not everyone would agree with all of those qualities. Submissive? But they would agree with impartiality, that is, true justice. Which we will talk about next week.

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