July 5, 2020

Sundays with Michael Spencer: July 5, 2015

Still Life with French Novels and a Rose, van Gogh

Still Life with French Novels and a Rose, van Gogh

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,”I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

• 1 Corinthians 1:18-19

• • •

Every so often, someone will say something to me that implies I’m smart.

It might be mildly critical, as in “Spencer thinks he’s really smart. Look at those big words he uses.” Or “You know, if you are so smart, then you should…..” Fill in the blank with agenda of the speaker. I have people try to flatter me. “You’re a very smart person. How did you learn so much?” And so on.

I’ve told myself I’m smart, or at least smart-er than someone else, on more than a few occasions. For example, despite their training and expertise, major league umpires are almost always wrong in comparison to my observation of the same third strike pitch.

Actually, when it comes to claims of intelligence, I’m quite a skeptic. I’ve had professors that were world class and couldn’t stick to a simple syllabus or balance a checkbook. I’ve been around smart people who didn’t know how to bathe, comb their hair or change their shirt.

Intelligence doesn’t follow predictable paths. My dad had an 8th grade education and was one of the smartest people I ever knew, but he didn’t have the usual tools to express his intelligence. I have lots of students who are brilliant, but they don’t care about school or the subjects being taught. Where their interest lies, they are smart. When they are bored, they appear “slow.”

It makes a lot of sense to be modest in claims of intelligence. History is full of examples of science made foolish and fools proven wise. Without questioning the value of intelligence and human wisdom, we can readily admit its limitations, especially in our own cases. In other words, the longer you live, the more examples of should have accumulated of the fragile nature of anyone’s claims to be truly wise, starting with yourself.

I love the passage in 1 Corinthians where Paul says God is out to destroy the “wisdom of the wise.” If that’s not enough to make you think twice about being told you are “smart,” I’m not sure what it would take. Over and over again, scripture says that intelligence as an autonomous foundation isn’t going to get to the real truth. No, scripture has the audacity to say that God is revealing to relative dummies what the world’s wise men won’t ever know.

At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” (Matthew 11:25-27)


Of course, the critics of religion immediately take this sort of post as evidence of the evil of glorifying ignorance. It’s no such thing, of course. I’ll admit that religionists of all types have a mixed record on the subject of the benefits of knowledge, but then it might be the case that someone needs to notice the exponential correlation between how smart we are and what terrible things we do to one another.

By all means, learn all there is to know. Have at it. God gave you the intellect, the curiosity, the senses and the world around you. Read. Study. Research. Think. Experiment. The accumulation of knowledge is part of our human business, dominion and stewardship.

The problem comes when we don’t see our knowledge in relationship to God. If you want to be stupid, the Bible says, then assume that God has become the object of your intellectual abilities and will be cataloged, analyzed and explained by the smart guys. They’ll do their thing, and God will do his.

The Bible is full of experts whom God is refitting with humbled viewpoints. Be they Pharisees, philosophers or realists with no silly thoughts of religion, God is regularly finding ways to shurt them up and turn their conclusions into dust.

Here’s a favorite:

And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, “What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?” And he said, “I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God said to him, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” (Luke 12: 16-20)


Still Life: Vase with Oleanders and Books, van Gogh

I don’t think God minded at all that this fellow knew a lot about farms, money and buildings. I really don’t. But his announcement that God wasn’t in the picture earned him the name “fool.” In other words, the writer of Ecclesiastes was right to warn us that we fail to remember God at our own peril. Disallowing God from any of our calculations isn’t smart.

The conviction of my own intelligence has a predictable effect: I draw the circle of possible knowledge ever smaller. In other words, what I know for certain is certain because that’s all there is to know.

The skeptic declares there is no God, but hasn’t looked everywhere, perceived everything, received every possible piece of information, considered every possible option. Oh…..she has? Well, excuse me. I’ll just sit down here and be amazed.

The knowledge of God a Christian ought to claim should be the most humble kind of knowledge. Arrogance has no place in the faith of anyone who has received everything as a gift. Our “certainties” are a matter of the assurances of faith. We doubt ourselves. We admit our ignorance. And as Augustine said, we believe in order that we may understand.

So if any of us are actually intelligent, we can demonstrate it by humbling our minds before whatever truth we venerate– the Trinitarian God in my case– and admit that whatever light we have is only a glimmer of the light we can’t see. If the true light shines within us, it won’t register on any of the academic registers. It will be the reflection of the deepest, simplest, most beautiful truths that come to us as a gift, and its greatest evidence will be love, not intelligence.

In the second half of life, I intend to be less impressed with anyone’s intelligence, and more humbled by what I see in the lives of people who really do provide examples of a life well lived.


  1. “An expert is one who knows more and more about less and less until he knows absolutely everything about nothing.” — Nicholas Butler (1862-1847). Nicholas Murray Butler was an American philosopher, diplomat, and educator. Butler was president of Columbia University, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

    Reading those New Testament passages on wisdom quoted above puts an interesting twist on my new church’s sermon series and our assigned reading. We are doing a sermon series from Proverbs, and have been asked to read a chapter a day of Proverbs both during July and August. Proverbs gives a different picture of wisdom.

  2. Christiane says

    “If the true light shines within us, it won’t register on any of the academic registers. It will be the reflection of the deepest, simplest, most beautiful truths that come to us as a gift, and its greatest evidence will be love, not intelligence.”

    golden lines

  3. Rick Ro. says

    As I’ve “matured” as a Christian – whatever that means – I’ve noticed that the more I try to put God in a box, the more He insists my box is too small for Him. I’ve become keenly aware that the more I understand God and Jesus, the more mysterious they become.

    I think my “maturity” comes in ENJOYING the mystery instead of wanting to know all the answers, and ENJOYING the fact that God’s box is way, way bigger than anything I can imagine.

    I think Michael’s article touches on that “enjoy the mystery.” We won’t have, and should never think we’ll have, all the answers, and we should begin being worried when we think we do. Unfortunately, there are a lot of Christians out there with minds already made up, beliefs set in stone, who will never enjoy the mystery and the massive box that God is in (or NOT in).

  4. I’m guessing that the great majority of faculty in the Divinity Schools of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, if driving thru Michael’s town and stopping for gas and coffee, would likely characterize it as a bunch of Kentucky hillbillies. I’m guessing this was pretty much the assessment Jesus and his bunch of Galileans got from the templers in Jerusalem as well.

    I’ve never heard Michael speak. I just now went to the archives to listen to a podcast but they won’t play for me. His writing is timeless. Some of it will become dated because dealing with contemporary issues, but this piece today will be as relevant a hundred years from now as the day he wrote it.

  5. *…but then it might be the case that someone needs to notice the exponential correlation between how smart we are and what terrible things we do to one another.*

    I have noticed no such thing. Unless you are trafficking in some form of the ‘soviets and nazis were totally super smart’ fallacy? Right, because concentration camps are surely the result of people being too reasonable.

    So no: seems to me that more-educated, more-scientifically advanced societies are better. You can have Lagos and Mosul, I will take Vancouver. You can have prayer, I will take teixobactin.

    • I read this section differently. Granted, it is a difficult point to really make because “intelligence” isn’t a very precise word. There is social intelligence, for example, as well as emotional intelligence, for starters. I think Michael was trying to say that it took a lot of brains to develop the atom bomb, so intelligence by itself does not preclude violence. In fact, intelligence is just power; the real issue is what is being empowered.

      • I really can see no way to read it other than ‘smart people/societies are worse’ which is just flatly incorrect. There’s no room for interpretation or any agreeing to disagree here: I’m just right and he’s just wrong is all.

        “Intelligence is just power”.

        Fair enough. But so is faith. The fighters of ISIS, the Lord’s Resistance Army of Africa, the christian genocidaires of Rwanda and the Central African Republic, and of course all the various tribes of godly warriors in our own history were all ‘sincere believers’.* There are no unalloyed virtues.

        *And no, I don’t accept any formulation of the argument that “Well, if they’re murderous then they clearly aren’t true believers. That’s a rather-too-handy escape pod.”

  6. Hey, Faulty~ I helped run a load of something we didn’t know what it was but it needed a hazardous load placard up to Vancouver once, the Kanuck one. Not sure if you’re taking it or the Warshington variety, but in either case you can have it and I’ll take LeRoy, sort of like Churchill and Stalin divvying up Europe. I had to look up teixobactin, which shows how smart I am, but then I already knew that organic dirt was an effective antibacterial agent. Given the choice, which apparently I have been, you can have that too, the teixobactin, not the dirt, if I get to keep prayer. Sounds like another win/win deal, tho naturally if I were smarter I might be able to figure out how to have my cake and eat it too.