Thursday, August 4, 2011

Worldly Wisdom

God's wisdom is not the wisdom of this world. It is a wisdom that is for this world, but not of it. The wisdom of the world is something else entirely. The Bible teaches this pretty clearly (1 Cor. 1:19-21, 1 Cor. 2:4-5, 1 Cor. 3:19, James 3:15, Colossians 2:8). What sometimes seems misunderstood by Christians is that warnings like these are lodged against the wisdom of the world. These verses, and others like them, don't warn of the danger of worldly foolishness, for example, but of actual wisdom. 

But isn't wisdom, in any form, a good thing? Isn't understanding something always better than not doing so? It's easy enough to understand that the ways of the world are sometimes -- if not always -- foolish. We know this from first hand experience. But when the world is wise, what harm is there in recognizing, or even adopting, that wisdom as our own? Shouldn't we be able to discern between the world's wisdom and its foolishness, and separate the wheat from the chaff? But if this were true, why warn against worldly wisdom at all? Why not simply call the ways of the world foolish and leave it at that? The fact that this isn't what Paul (primarily) does must have some significance. So what are some examples of 'worldly wisdom' and what are some of their potential dangers, viewing them from a Christian perspective?

  •  Scientism / Evolutionism - There's nothing wrong with science or 'evolution' (properly defined), as both are studies of God's creation, and we know from scripture that it pleases him when he delight in his works. Problems arise when this natural and healthy wonderment at creation metastasizes and becomes an end unto itself. When the economy of immanent causation is idolized and elevated as a god of its own, or as the proper 'stopping point' when it comes to causation. Note that, from a wholly worldly perspective, this isn't stupid or wrong, it's completely wise. 
  •  Political Thought - While it is important how we decide to organize and run our governments -- if and when we actually have a say, such as in a democracy -- these considerations are secondary to how we live as citizens in the Kingdom of Christ. Again, the potential for idolatry is great. Even the most venerable impulses in political organization, which aim to achieve justice and compassion for humanity, are often prioritized wrongly, or the state is elevated and viewed as final arbiter and authority. 
  • History and the Bible - If history is conceived of as the unfolding of events at the hands of blind, material causes, rather than as the unfolding of the providential creation of a loving God, this results in two very different views of the world. This will dramatically affect your view of what history is, what the Bible is, and what Authority is. Working with the first view of history you can reach various reasonable conclusions, within that framework, that aren't wrong per se, but which are only wise within that system that necessarily excludes God, or at least deems God irrelevant.
  • False and elevated view of Humanity - Worldly wisdom dictates that there is nothing inherently 'wrong' with humanity. Rather we simply what we are. Our nature, the things that we tend to do, whatever they are, are neither good or bad. Contrast this to the wisdom of the Bible which teaches that our initial state is fallen, broken and sinful. A neutral view of humanity at large, in its most fundamental state, is an overestimation of humanity in Biblical terms. Further, within a worldly framework, from this neutral starting point it is imagined that humans can will themselves, collectively, to do good and progress through their own efforts, apart from God, again in stark contradiction to Biblical claims. This utopian view of humanity can't be negotiated with from a Christian perspective, because it is in direct opposition to Biblical truth. 
  •  False and degraded view of the Human Being - While worldly wisdom overvalues humanity as such, it undervalues actual, individual human beings. Within a worldly economy, it isn't unreasonable or unwise to consider unborn infants, the crippled and diseased, the comatose or the very elderly, less valuable than healthy adults. The intrinsic value of each individual certainly doesn't follow from worldly premises or the view of the cosmos as the mere machinations of chance acting upon energy and matter. The Christian vision of reality, in contrast, views every human life as having infinite worth. While it is true that many secular, worldly people would also affirm the inherent value of every individual, I would argue that this is a view that is merely a secularized version of Christianity. 

Much more could be said on each of these points, and other categories could be added I'm sure, but it should at least be quite obvious that the wisdom of the world can often conflict with the wisdom of Christ's Kingdom. 

If I'm right then this presents a rather large difficulty for liberal Christianity, which often allies itself with worldly wisdom. I'm not saying that all wisdom traditionally counted as 'worldly' necessarily is wholly -- or even primarily -- 'worldly'. Of course much of the wisdom of the modern world, where it exists, is the result of Christianity being co-opted and secularized, so I don't have any problem reclaiming that wisdom which is rightfully God's for God, so to speak. But some wisdom, like most of the examples I've given, is legitimately only wise within the economy of the secular and is ultimately unwise given the truth of the Christian claim. Yet liberal Christianity seems to make no such distinction, indeed it often wants to affirm wisdom of any sort as intrinsically valuable and rarely dangerous or troublesome. Or -- when they are self-aware enough to avoid affirming worldly wisdom as entirely legitimate -- they attempt to make concessions to, and compromise with, it, instead of rejecting it outright as they ought, which can be just as problematic. 

Rob Bell's recent book Love Wins created a firestorm in evangelical circles, mostly due to its universalism. And while I would also disagree with its universalist theology, a more fundamental problem with that book is just this brand of capitulating, concession-making and meeting-worldly-wisdom-half-way in areas where negotiation is not an option. 

For example, rejection of Christ is a sin, a sin more significant than any other, and Rob Bell makes excuses for people who reject Christ. Because of bad things Christians have done that give the Church a bad name, or because of the mood they were in when they were taught about Jesus, or because they don't really understand who Christ is or what he is about (even though the Gospel has been preached to them), these people can't be held accountable for their rejection of Christ. Or, to phrase it as Bell might, "these people can't be held accountable for their rejection of Christ, can they?" According to Biblical wisdom, yes, they can be. According to worldly wisdom, no, they can't be. Bell wants to bridge that gap, rather than simply reject worldly wisdom outright. 

This methodology isn't exclusive to Love Wins, of course, rather it colors the thinking and methods of a very wide swath of liberal Christianity, if not all of it, I'm just giving a recent famous example. 

So rather than affirm the worldly conception of history, morality or the value of the human, liberal Christians will often try to meet these views halfway, or attempt to explain the impulse that leads to such views, and apologize for them, rather than simply recognize them as sinful or false. 

So, what do liberal Christians make of various Biblical teachings that explicitly renounce worldly wisdom? Do they simply ignore them? Do they use their vaunted historical-critical methods of exegesis to downplay them, or otherwise explain them away? I'm not really sure. I imagine that many of the more well-known liberal Christians must have been challenged on this point at some time, (and if this is the case, please direct me to any of their writings on the matter) I just have never seen it done, and can't even imagine a coherent theoretical response to this criticism of their views. 


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