January 24, 2021

Wisdom Week on IM: “Why?” not just “What?”


Wisdom Week on Internet Monk
Post One: “Why?” not just “What?”

The older I get, the less I focus on what I think and I become more interested in why I think like I do.

In my opinion, this is why older people can become cynical and critical of younger generations. Many young folks are still coming to grips with the “what,” because that’s where the action is. That’s where decisions are made, alliances formed, directions taken, and, I might add, wars fought. The business of the world gets done on the basis of the “what.”

Because they have made their mistakes and achieved whatever success they enjoy, people in later years now have time to reflect, and when they do they may begin to realize that the choices they made came from someplace deeper than simply their opinions or “positions.” And therefore seniors may view much youth activity as foolish or shallow at best. It’s not just that they are critical of the their choices — they sense that they haven’t experienced enough of the world to have gained much wisdom and perspective. And so the elder may graciously watch and pray and let the younger ones make their mistakes and find their way, or he may become the curmudgeon that has little good to say about the current state of the world and the way it is being run.

I hope I will always represent the former.

But here’s my point: focusing on the “why” simply doesn’t promote productivity, and so people who are actively trying to advance agendas, whatever they may be, see little value in spending too much time and energy on such introspection and self-evaluation. Once one is “out of the game,” however, there is a tremendous opportunity to “know oneself,” to look back, to look up, and to look within. To develop wisdom.

As Richard Rohr writes in Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life:

We are a “first-half-of-life culture,” largely concerned about surviving successfully. Probably most cultures and individuals across history have been situated in the first half of their own development up to now, because it is all they had time for. We all try to do what seems like the task that life first hands us: establishing an identity, a home, relationships, friends, community, security, and building a proper platform for our only life. But it takes us much longer to discover “the task within the task,” as I like to call it: what we are really doing when we are doing what we are doing.

…It is when we begin to pay attention, and seek integrity precisely in the task within the task that we begin to move from the first to the second half of our own lives. Integrity largely has to do with purifying our intentions and a growing honesty about our actual motives. It is hard work. Most often we don’t pay attention to that inner task until we have had some kind of fall or failure in our outer tasks. This pattern is invariably true for reasons I have yet to fathom.

I have no illusions about becoming a sage. But a little bit of self-knowledge and perspective never hurts. So that’s the path I’m on these days.

In preparing to help our family commemorate my parents’ 60th wedding anniversary, I have been doing some genealogical research, picking up on work that my father began years ago. It is fascinating, and has given me a perspective about my ancestors that causes me to reflect deeply on my own journey.

Stories mean much more to me than propositions these days. “Doctrine” generally leaves me cold. Seeing God “in, with, and under” the narratives of life and people stimulates my imagination, feelings, and spirit much more. Think of the way Jesus taught, think of the way the Hebrew Bible and the Gospels are written. Remember that even the epistles are pastoral letters to real people in community with one another, and recall that the goal for apostles like Paul was to become “living epistles.”

I also find that I am searching for a different kind of depth and insight in my reading material. I want to read books that make me say, “Aha!” I want to savor fiction that makes me sigh with recognition at the beauty and brokenness of life. I want to find authors with genuine insight, who seem to have seen inside my innermost being and can describe the landscapes there.

For example, a real breakthrough came for me when I read Richard Beck’s book, Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality.

The central argument of this book is that the psychology of disgust and contamination regulates how many Christians reason with and experience notions of holiness, atonement, and sin. In a related way, the psychology of disgust and contamination also regulates social boundaries and notions of hospitality within the church.

Many puzzle pieces fell into place when I began to realize how many “theological convictions” have roots in one’s own sense of that which attracts and repels. These impulses run deeper than cognition and analysis. This book (and others) helped me see that my opinions are often more visceral than rationally-based.

In my Bible reading, I find that I gravitate toward “wisdom” portions of scripture. Pete Enns wrote last week: “I like these parts of the Bible because, the older I get the more I live where the script makes less sense. Too much of life has happened. It’s all too messy. As I mentioned in the comments section that day, it is becoming more and more apparent to me that the wisdom teachers of Israel had a strong hand in shaping the final text of the Hebrew Bible, leaving us with a book that not only tells a story but also calls us to reflect, lament, and trust in a God whose ways are far beyond ours and in most ways, past finding out.

This is also why I am led to think much more about creation and to appreciate the insights of the sciences these days. Freed from any political motivation to stand for a “side” in debates about faith and science, I can pursue wonder and perspective. Complexity and mystery no longer threaten me, they inspire me, they enlarge my spirit. So-called “contradictions” between the scientific and “biblical” meta-narratives do not flummox me; I am content to hold my own knowledge and understanding lightly, believing that there is always more light to come. I am no longer afraid to express views countering the loud voices who warn that one cannot be a “true Christian” (i.e. Scotsman) and embrace certain scientific findings.

This week, these are the kinds of thoughts I would like to try and express, illustrate, and discuss.

• • •

The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever else you get, get insight.

• Proverbs 4:7


  1. Life is messy; being in the last quartile, or maybe even quintile, of life my sadness is deeper and I’m every more dependent upon the living God who’s ways are not, necessarily, our ways.

    • Burro [Mule] says

      my opinions are often more visceral than rationally-based

      Every decision of any import I have ever made in my life has been decided by aesthetics.

  2. I’m no longer young. I’ve gotten old, but I have no successes to enjoy. I’m really a failure. I often struggle with envy and resentment toward those who have achieved successes in life, whether they are young or old. And I don’t have the time to reflect that being older affords, according to this post. I’m still struggling to survive, and will until my dying day, or I become incapacitated while still alive. But I will say this: my failure has come from some place deeper than my opinions or “positions”. Aside from that, I exist outside the boundaries of this particular discussion.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > I exist outside the boundaries of this particular discussion

      I don’t know about that. You have come here and bring all of us a wealth of perspectives and experiences. I enjoy your comments and yours is a name that always pauses-my-scroll in order to read what follows. Saying Robert F lacks the disposition or opportunity for self-reflection and consideration is demonstrably false.

      And one cannot exclude from this conversation all the aged [in whatever terms of age one chooses] who do not arrive at – or feel they have arrived at – a place of reflection…. when reflecting on this phasing of life. I know so many older souls who are angry, bitter, resentful, frightened, or just small; this, in truth, describes *most* of the older souls I know. I have no older-wiser-generation I would consider turning too, not a one; that is something I miss from the brief times I have had such a thing [older people, unfortunately, die]. I find more reflection and consideration in many of the younger souls I know then I do the older.

      I agree with the article; but it does not appear to me to be age that actually brings one to this phase of life. It is some confluence of experience, or relationships, or being touched by a particular zeitgeist.

      • “Saying Robert F lacks the disposition or opportunity for self-reflection and consideration is demonstrably false.”

        Most definitely true.

      • Michael Bell says

        You have come here and bring all of us a wealth of perspectives and experiences. I enjoy your comments and yours is a name that always pauses-my-scroll in order to read what follows. Saying Robert F lacks the disposition or opportunity for self-reflection and consideration is demonstrably false.


      • ” I have no older-wiser-generation I would consider turning too, not a one . . . .”

        Adam, I’m 76 and I fully agree with you. Older folks survived the Great Depression and “won” World War II, and for that they deserve much respect, but for the most part they are clueless. Just now I looked up Pope Francis and was surprised to find he is two years older than me. I would have thought he was younger. He is certainly an exception. Richard Rohr is quoted above and I would point to him as an epitome if you are seeking wisdom amongst living people, but he is four years younger than me. That seems to be about where the wave is starting to swell. people in their 50’s, 60’s, early 70’s, and by no means all of them. Not even close. Most as you say are “angry, bitter, resentful, frightened, or just small.”

        The church has spent nearly two thousand years fighting over doctrine and mostly misunderstanding or ignoring or attacking what Richard Rohr has to say today in his daily meditation: “The contemplative mind is the key to everything.” Most people would take that as saying it is good to think about things intellectually, whereas it is quite the opposite. I believe the church is finally starting to wake up to what Jesus and the wisdom tradition have been trying to get across these many thousands of years. I have much hope in you and younger people like you.

        • I’m in my late 50’s now, but well remember the situation 20 years ago or so when I was younger and more hopeful about the church. At that point the Depression-WW II generation(s) were firmly in control of the UMC churches I was trying to help lead. It was definitely true in my experience that these were the folks who were the biggest obstacles whenever anything other than what they’d always known was being attempted. And they were in charge. I’m not the only person who eventually gave up in the face of such opposition.

          Yet today, I feel sorry for many of those people. At least where I lived, church was much more a part of the fabric of society than a walk with Christ for them. You belonged to the volunteer fire department, the rotary club, and the [insert denomination here] church… because that’s just what people did. Your local church was YOUR church or the town’s church, and needed to stay the same way you and your parents and grandparents, etc. remembered. That’s what held things together, or so they thought.

          In many cases, I just don’t think they knew any better. They certainly would not have learned differently from those who came before them. The church was a source of stability for those who’d lived through the Depression and WW II; to start making changes was to take risks they did not want to take. They wanted that security, and saw their faith in those terms.

          At least, that’s how it always seemed to me.

          • Vera, that’s a very good summary and explanation. Yesterday the dying church I attend voted to close the doors as soon as it can be done decently and in order, 10-6, and the vote was probably across generational lines. The older people were devastated. They have watched their world collapse all around them until now when the last bastion falls. They do not have the means or ability either to support this institution for a dwindling handful of people, or to understand what is happening. We have another funeral tomorrow. Their world is coming to an end.

            And it is. I am convinced this ongoing collapse is the end of one age and the beginning of another, as it was when Jesus lived on the planet. Major, cosmic, earth-shaking, not just a big bump in the road or a new century. A new era. Please hang in there and look for the big picture. Be blessed.

          • Thanks Charles. You just described the current condition of the church I grew up in, and so many other churches these days. The older folks, when they were in charge, just didn’t know how or want to plan for changing times. Their world hadn’t equipped them to do so. And now all these years later comes the collapse. My mother, 80, doesn’t know if the church will be there for her funeral… and she devoted most of her life to it. Sad.

        • Adam Tauno Williams says

          > I would have thought he was younger. He is certainly an exception

          He isn’t American, so a bit of a different set.

          I will admit to having become somewhat ambivalent about our aging generation. One one hand I get it – they were *huge*, so it was easy to live in a sphere of *perceived* changelessness [until it inevitably falls apart] – on the other hand they were [are] the most prosperous and wealthiest generation to have ever existed in human history… and so many of them seem to have opted-out, if they didn’t just full-on sell us [the next generations] out. Unpopular sentiment to express, but I assure you I am not alone in feeling this way. Opt-ing out is a choice; when they talk about younger generations ‘sense of entitlement’ all I can think is “pot kettle much?”. Wise elders are precious things, doubly so due to their scarcity.

    • David Cornwell says

      Robert F, you are probably like the rest of us, and are more or less forced to look at success and failure in the terms defined by our culture, which in turn has to a large extent been defined by our inherent Puritan work/capitalistic mix. All kinds of things can go into throwing this perfect mix of hoped for results off the tracks. It’s sort of like a Cedar Point coaster ride– exciting so long as you grip the seat and hold your breath– but one bent rail can take the entire carriage and its occupants off the track and over the side– and the end of coaster rides.

      So lots of things may have removed you from this track, starting with inherited disposition and going through recurrent health concerns. I have no way of knowing what those things might be.

      But I do know that you have a head full of wisdom for the rest of us. Some of that must have arrived at its present state through the avenue of perceived failure.

      Sometimes I do not agree with you. But I’m hesitant to argue about it until I look more closely at your words, logic, and spirit. More often than not you have altered my opinion about something. Maybe not changed my mind completely, but brought new light to the subject. And then in other cases you confirm what I’ve been thinking, and I really like that!

      Importantly, this means you keep a clear head when you write. And it helps others of us clear out the webs in our heads.

      I know this probably does not bring much encouragement when it comes to paying the bills or coping with illness. But it does mean you have a real place of friendship, family, and community here at Internet Monk.

      • Robert,

        I also believe you have a lot of wisdom and richness in other areas. And I always value your comments even though you seem to be 180 degrees apart from me on some positions. Of course that does not help when there is fear, uncertainty, dollar pressures, health concerns. I believe I am judged successful by how my kids turnout rather than financial… but if there is no financial security the world has a completely different look.

        I pray something occurs to change your situation for the better. You are valued here.

    • Clay Crouch says

      Robert F, your struggle is, has been, and well continue to be the experience of the vast majority of humanity, of followers of Christ, and of Christ himself. Cold comfort I know. But brother, keep the faith.

    • Robert, in addition to agreeing with everything that has been said about you by Adam, Chaplain Mike, Michael Bell, and David, I will also add that (FWIW) I consider you my “best friend” here on IM. Your wisdom, generosity of heart, and insight are what I look for every day I spend here. I have thought of saying what someone else already said a week or so ago: “Whatever Robert F.. says, I endorse it.”

      Life hits us all very hard, and probably has hit you harder than many others. I also suspect that you, like me, have a tendency toward clinical depression, which can sap my energy and warp my judgement severely. (But this is probably presumptuous on my part — please forgive me if I’m wrong, end even more if I’m right. 🙂 )

      In any case, whatever your own measure of success is, I certainly would say that you have attained the kind of wisdom most of us aim for.

    • The Coming of Wisdom with Time
      W.B. Yeats

      Though leaves are many, the root is one;
      Through all the lying days of my youth
      I swayed my leaves and flowers in the sun;
      Now I may wither into the truth.

    • Robert, I know you understand that “success” is a cultural notion, and ephemeral. You’re probably better off without it… and I believe that those who love you value you more than all the fleeting value that “success” could ever give.

      Please stick around.

      “Beloved, now we are children of God; and ***it has not yet been revealed what we shall be,*** but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.” 1Jn3.2 NKJV


    • Robert F., I have only been commenting here a short time but I have been reading internetmonk almost daily for years. Yours is a voice that consistently speaks clearly and graciously to whatever topic is at hand. The experience, the insight and, yes, the wisdom you bring to each subject has helped me re-frame and re-think numerous issues and I am the better for it.

      May the grace and peace of Jesus be upon you.

    • OldProphet says

      So, Robert, you’re old. So what? My mentor, in his 90’s, was really an old prophet. He prophesied over me. “God has set some men aside, like fine wine, for many years, only then to be opened up then to be used as a blessing an to many”. That was my word, I believe it is yours also Robert. Like Caleb, you still have many hills to cross over.

  3. A hearty amen.

  4. While truth that the claim, “one cannot be a “true Christian” (i.e. Scotsman) and embrace certain scientific findings,” is false, how inclusive is our/your faith for anyone holding to a thought that one cannot be a credible/intelligible Christian and not embrace certain scientific findings?

    • Clay Crouch says

      I suppose that it might would depend on which scientific findings you cannot embrace. Of course being incredible and/or unintelligible and Christian are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Just ask my wife about her husband.

      • Clay Crouch says

        “might would” Jeez. see what I mean?

        • One of the things I find most charming about southern Ohio dialect (don’t know where you live, Clay) is the use of “would,” and “could” and even “should” as replacements for the more standard “be able to” after “might.”

          “I might could come tonight if my husband gets home early.”

          “He might would do it if his car is fixed.”

          These are purely grammatical SO statements.

          • Clay Crouch says

            I’m a little farther south. North Carolina, where we speak something close to English. 🙂

          • brianthedad says

            Not just southern Ohio, but southern in general. ‘might could’ is a general usage here in Alabama, along with ‘fixing to’. When I saw Clay use the ‘might could’ term, I immediately thought him from Georgia, for some reason.

          • In Texan it’s “matt cyould” ( y is almost silent) and “we’s fittin a”. Or, I was going to is “I’uz fittin a..”

          • Michael Bell says

            In Canada the “would” is silent.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > one cannot be a credible/intelligible Christian and not embrace certain scientific findings

      I would find it very odd for not embracing some scientific finding to negate the integrity of one’s religious convictions.

      As to credibility? Yes, personally I would find that refusing to acknowledge certain scientific facts to impinge on a persons credibility – generally. This doesn’t make them a ‘horrible person’, but it would cast doubt on the intellectual integrity of their assertions/positions. Flat-earthers, for instance, immediately everything else the person says I would automatically consider to be dubious.

      • Adam – well said. My thoughts were while there are limits regarding credibility, to push the acceptance or failure to embrace certain scientific findings as a marker to be in truth the flip sides of the same coin and artificial boundaries. Chaplain Mike’s point (I am content to hold my own knowledge and understanding lightly, believing that there is always more light to come) seems to be the path between those differing yet same artificial boundaries and allow for authentic God-talk and not simply debates as to which and whose views hold integrity and credibility requiring that intelligent believers submit to those standards.

    • There are certain “scientific” claims that seem to eliminate Christianity as it is represented in the Bible. I am thinking here of the claims such as, “Evolution gives a complete account of how homo sapians develop including the illusion of soulishness.” Many scientist make this claim. They also make the concomitant claims that as a result, we have no free will. Our thought life, choices, and actions on this physicalist view are a product of our genetics, prexisting conditions, and the laws of nature.

      Now I put the word scientific in quotes above because the claims above are actually philosophical in nature. I have no problem with certain aspect of the theory of evolution and don’t find it in conflict with the scriptures, however philosophical naturalism is directly opposed to scriptural accounts and as such violates the law of non-contradiction.

      It seems that the presupposition that we have souls, that those souls have free will, can direct our attention to learning certain things and not others, and can choose moral actions is assumed by every author in every book.

      That said the formulaic wisdom held up against trust in God’s wisdom is the right focus.

      When Adam ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil it was to gain a systematic understanding of the world so he would not have to trust God for that understanding. So we rightly must check our hearts to see if we are trusting God in the mess. For all who can bare it, I am Adam.

      P.S. I am touched by the care this online community has for its members

  5. CM,

    Side note – I did a lot of genealogy work back in the early 2000’s (lost all my work in a flood in 2007). The investigative work was really exciting, especially when I got a “hit”. But immensely more valuable were the stories, however “changed” as they provided the humanness over the numbers. Combine that with local history of the area my ancestors were living at the time, including local newspaper stories and the like and it really completed the picture. Thank goodness for the Mormons who collected a ton of information over the years for public access.

    • Michael Bell says

      Done a ton as well. Incidentally I am descended from both slave owners and slaves. (But not the slaves of the slave owners.)

      • Michael Bell says

        On another off topic note, I was thinking about writing about this when the whole how black do you have to be to be black debate was hot a few weeks ago. My best guess is that I am 1/16th black.

  6. I was a science teacher for 35 years. Once my department head sent me to a new instructor who was having trouble keeping on task. We were really just talking teaching and….out of the blue to me anyway….the man says all us Christians are control freaks. My faith was never mentioned by me ever at that community college. Now I knew by many happenings that others knew. But back then and now I’m enamored by the scientific method. My undergraduate degree is Forest Science. Back in the early seventies that was the prototype ecological degree. I’ve read extensively on the water cycle. My research had me attending the USGS in Reston, VA for ten years. If Chrisrtians have never read Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac, they are missing out on some beautiful wisdom about creation. Yes I’ve been born again, and I know that to be a very mystical experience then and now. Even way back then I was reading The Cloud of Unknowing,John of the Cross, de Chardin, Evelyn Underhill, Pascal, Luther, Kierkegaard……and most enjoy Barth, Brunner, Derrida, Dewey, Rorty. Today I find Richard Beck in that stream(and because of him I read some about the restoration movement having no experience). His The Authenticity of Faith is a must read. It shifts the research focus.
    It’s been a wild ride to live in a divide that is reality today between church and science. My favorite video for church people is getting a little old(2002), but because of very good cinematography it holds up…..”The Journey of Man” a PBS/National Geographic special by Spencer Wells. As Michael Spencer said 15 years ago, there is no good video for me to show scientists about faith that I know.

  7. In response to Robert F., Ecclesiastes says it all; our works, whether notable or not, are so very soon forgotten.
    God, somewhat to my frustration, has never been concerned about my glory, I was, but it didn’t exactly pan out.
    So here we are, out of desperation I cling to God lest I sink in utter despair.

  8. ” Freed from any political motivation to stand for a “side” in debates about faith and science, I can pursue wonder and perspective.”


    Perhaps the politics serve as a distraction from truly being seized by the wonder of it all. As long as God is just a subject of debate or a cause to be defended, we remain in control and can do what we want – in the guise of religious piety. The old Adam remains the most religious force within us.

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