March 29, 2020

For Smart Guys Like Me

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1 Corinthians 1:18 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. 19 For it is written,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

26 For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. 30 And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

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 First 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.

Matthew 11:25 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; 26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 27 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.

Ouch.

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:

Luke 12: 16 And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man produced plentifully, 17 and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ 18 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. 19 And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ 20 But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’

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.

Comments

  1. Matt Erickson says

    Michael,

    Brilliant post. You must be really smart! 😉 Seriously, a very good reminder.

  2. Heteroclite says

    Verily, Michael. Still, God used really educated fellows to do some of His most important work: Moses, Solomon, Daniel, Paul. Those guys weren’t Peters. If God does everything with perfect wisdom, then there must’ve been a reason He chose Moses and Paul instead of lowly labourers or fishermen (I know, I know: Jesus was a carpenter, but one could argue that was in order to reflect His Cosmic Carpenter status)…

    My concern is that the Relativistic Crew(abounding these days) can twist the sort of thing you write here to reinforce their “your truth/my truth” canard.

  3. Heteroclite says

    MOD: I deleted the comment this responds to. Sorry. You can all play source/form critic.

    A bad writer, iMonk? NEVAH! You’re one of the best, which is why you get 94 comments on one essay! 😉 It’s me who must be the bad writer for having elicited a pained response. Sorry.

    To Clarify:

    Re the Relativistic Crew: “Our ‘certainties’ are a matter of the assurances of faith. We doubt ourselves. We admit our ignorance…that whatever light we have is only a glimmer.”

    The believer who knows, like Paul, that we “see through a glass dimly” will understand exactly what you mean there. But the other types (Emergents, “Jesus Seminar” and their ilk) are likely to use it as ammo for their futile reasoning that “we can’t know anything for sure; we all have different understandings [I get so SICK of seeing the “s” on that word!], blah, blah.” In other words, they’re the modern Pilates; they deny the existence of truth as well as the ability to know it (I was just debating with someone of that ilk a few weeks back at the CompuServe fora). Ultimately, their view leads to atrocities (starting with their torture and slaughter of all those who doggedly stand for Truth).

    And no, you didn’t disagree with anything regarding the “Smarties.” I wasn’t suggesting that. I was simply musing on the fact that even though smarts don’t suffice for finding salvation (as Paul says in 1 COR. 1:19), and high intelligence can sometimes indeed lead to arrogance, notwithstanding, in the history of Redemption, God used bright lights to accomplish some of His most crucial assignments.

    See, having lived in the South for almost 15 years, I encountered a lot of anti-intellectualism amongst believers (someone like you is an anomaly there)—a lot of times, a downright snobby attitude of “I’m better because I’m dumb.” Perhaps that residue in my memory was contributing to the positive comment about God’s “Smarties.” In any case, it was in no way meant antagonistically toward what you wrote.

    Hope this mends the rupture.

  4. Michael,
    Thank you for this post. It is true that it doesn’t hurt for us to be smart, but it is also true that God is infinitely more “smart”, not matter what level we attain. And that His Will always overrides our minds.

    Peter

  5. A salient reminder. Thank you. Just a question and a thought. I wonder if intelligence and academic credibility can result in expressions of love and humility?

    Augustine’s faith seeking understanding may well need to be complemented with understanding seeking faith if it is going to be true to Scripture and us being in the world.

  6. Michael,

    I think you hit something with this article. Many times we push people to get more educated and gain more knowledge, which in the end isn’t bad, but I don’t think we stress enough trust and dependence on God. When I read through the book of Acts, I’m continually reminded that Paul and the other disciples had the Holy Spirit along with them giving them the words to say and leading them to where they should go. God definitely used the knowledge they had, but as Jesus says in John 14,

    “But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.”

    The Holy Spirit is the teacher and we really only learn by trusting and depending on him. That is the true knowledge of this world. Knowing that we can depend on God in all circumstances to take care of our needs and live his life through us.

    Thanks for this post!

  7. Nicholas Anton says

    The contrast in 1 Co. 15 is not between wisdom versus foolishness, but rather human wisdom versus God’s wisdom (Gen. 3:6). Godly wisdom is praised throughout the Bible (note Dan. 12:3). Never does the Bible commend the ignorant.
    Human wisdom is in general uniformitarian as it relates to the physical universe. God’s wisdom is uniformitarian as it related to God (Heb. 13:8). This dichotomy plays into the “secular science versus Biblical science” debates. Frequently neither side realizes that their semantics can be quite different.
    As believers, God’s Wisdom should take precedence to human wisdom. Note Job 28:28; Ps. 111:10; Prov. 1:7; 9:10; 15:33;.
    God’s wisdom is objective. On numerous occasions I have heard agnostics, atheists, and sinners of all types give a better definition of the Gospel than many evangelical zealots. The problem is not one of not knowing, but one of not fearing it.
    The ultimate question is not “what do you know?”, but “Whom do you fear/trust?”.

  8. Bob Sacamento says

    Heteroclite,

    In other words, they’re the modern Pilates; they deny the existence of truth as well as the ability to know it …
    What wrong with Pilates? Pilates is helping all kinds of people lose weight and stay in shape these days. It’s a revolutionary …. oh. Never mind.

    See, having lived in the South for almost 15 years, I encountered a lot of anti-intellectualism amongst believers (someone like you is an anomaly there)—
    Sorry dude, but you just set my Scotch-Irish blood to boiling. I’m laughing as I say this. I wish there was some way to show this over the internet other than a stupid smiley face. But seriously, in a humorous sort of way, I am a life long southerner and I never encountered this attitude at all until my high school years when our church got a new senior pastor of a theological persuasion that was the “new new thing” at the time, but which will remain nameless here. I saw it again when I went to college at a big-name place in New England. The campus Christian group there was infuriatingly anti-intellectual. And I got a taste of what the chapters at other northeastern schools were like too — more of the same. As far as I could tell, they wanted my mind to be engaged only while my school text books were open, and even then, only to the absolutely minimum extent necessary to pass my classes. Over the years, with more experience in different places, I have had to conclude that anti-intellectualism is the default mode of operation across the country, not just in the South, and not just in churches either.

    Our churches all over the place love 1 Cor. 1:18, but don’t love doing the work of meditating on it in light of the full Biblical witness as Micahel has attempted to do here. I can’t remember the last time I heard a sermon on the verse from Proverbs, “Zeal without knowledge is not good.”

  9. This is a tough one. Yes, we are foolish compared to God but no, we cannot interpret that as everyone’s opinion is equal. And I’ve been trying to think through this one myself. It is extremely hubristic, not to mention absurd, to say that MY idea, conception, belief about God is 100% correct. We are looking through a glass darkly and so such statements are just not possible. Yet, some ideas, conceptions, beliefs about God seem so far “out there” that they just can’t be right — Koresh and Jones, for example. But do we really have the right to say that? Then there are the “doubtful” or “questionable” ones such as Heteroclite mentions. What do we, what CAN we REALLY do to judge these people?

    I think the point is that are NOT to judge others’ beliefs. If we put less effort into denigrating other people because of what they believed and, instead, put that effort into loving them, imagine the difference that would make.

    “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” is an excellent resolution. If someone is really, truly showing, displaying, living, acting on God’s love for the world, what does it matter which theological points they adhere to and which they don’t. “Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.” (I John 4:7)

    And for the record, I used dictionary.com twice to write this comment 😉

  10. Is that Simpsons character supposed to look like you? It DOESN’T. You already have a cartoon version of yourself. Hmph.

  11. Michael, thanks for the thoughts. I love reading your stuff. I have a friend who came to your blog through a link on my blog and she loves it too. So for the record, you got some readers from Alabama!

    Your post really hit me hard, because I teach apologetics to high school students. And yeah, when I am around the students, they make me feel smart! I walk them through the moral argument for God’s existence (which most have never heard before), and I think, wow, maybe I have learned a thing or two.

    But then today, I was reading through Alvin Plantinga’s argument against Naturalism. No longer did I feel smart or even remotely near to it, but rather like a snell! It seems everybody has been given the intelligence capacity needed to fulfill the role that God has for them (given that God is sovereign). This means, as you say, we look decently intelligent around some, but like idiots around others. And though all of us are intellectual idiots when compared to the knowledge of God, we are all commanded to learn as much as our capacity to learn will allow.

  12. Heteroclite says

    Bob S: what would you recommend as the spiritual equivalent of Pilates exercises? 😉
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    “I think the point is that [we] are NOT to judge others’ beliefs. If we put less effort into denigrating other people because of what they believed…” Apples and oranges, Ken: Jesus and Paul were quite assertive in condemning false *beliefs,* but that’s not the same thing as denigrating the person who holds the beliefs (although what are we to make of such terminology as “whitewashed tombs” and “liars” and “sons of Satan” and a multitude of other epithets? Then again, perhaps only The Son of God and His Apostles have license to use that kind of language…)

    Jesus DOES assure us, “You shall *KNOW* the truth…” Maybe not ALL the Truth in the universe, but solid truth all the same. That knowing is not to our own credit or of our own making, it’s granted by His Holy Spirit (whence the requisite humility you enjoin).

  13. Hi Michael

    I homeschool 2 children, have 1 at school, and think quite often about what’s best for them to learn. They are passionate kids with a lot of potential. One of them has tested as gifted, one as autistic, and one as the kid with the most magnetic personality you’ve ever seen. I’d rather they knew God’s call on their lives and spent their days working towards that, than for me to be fearful and fill their days with certain activities because I’m supposed to. They’re great kids and pick up so much from their own reading and learning. Trying to balance that out is a hard call sometimes.

    So, thanks for the non-twaddly articles you write. It’s great to have some meat to chew on in the morning. 🙂

    Cath

  14. iMonk,

    I read this post as a humble, carefully biblical way of saying (again): our faculties are impaired by the fall, including our cognitive ones, and thus whatever convictions we hold we should hold with humility.

    Your post is a message with *very* strong point, yet offered up in grace.

    But perhaps I’m reading my own agenda– the beauty and appropriateness of epistemological humility– into your post.

  15. “Jesus DOES assure us, “You shall *KNOW* the truth…” Maybe not ALL the Truth in the universe …” Apples and oranges, then, Heteroclite. If my little circle of truth doesn’t overlap your little circle of truth then I have absolutely no right whatsoever criticizing your truth. An expert on apples should not tell an expert on oranges how to grow her oranges.

  16. “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.”

    Ah what sweet gentleness is in these words. Paul writes elsewhere that we can be all up with the insider secrets of angels, but it is pointless if we don’t *do* love. Cheers.

  17. Great post, I have recently been thinking about this subject a lot. Since I am a student in philosophy I am forced to confront the issues involved with the worlds ‘wisdom’. This line of thought led me to wanting to doubt all reason and thought altogether. However, I learned that reason is only trustworthy when it is submitted to the Lord.

    I wrote about this recently on ex-icarus in the post Confessions of a Philosophy Major.

  18. Great stuff!! I was thinking: If I’m really smart, it’s a God-given talent. I should claim to be blessed for that talent He gave me. On the other hand, if I go around boasting that I’m smart or beat my chest after people throw accolades my way, I have begun the process of believing that He had nothing to do with it and that it’s all about me; and thus play God. It’s the human condition.

  19. A hearty “Amen” on the substance of the post. Human knowledge should never be confused with Biblical wisdom.

    But there is an opposite problem of sorts as well, which is the tendency of some evangelical churches toward anti-intellectualism — to be always suspicious of the profession of “intelligent” people (however defined), and not to welcome them into their communities.

    I remember as an undergraduate philosophy major (years ago now), I was speaking to someone from a church I had just begun visiting. She looked at me and said, “People like you usually don’t get saved.”

  20. caplight says

    Michael
    I appreciate your site not so much because you are “smart” but because you are wise. You have an ability to connect dots of information and more significantly, observation and make a picture out of it that others like me can’t seem to see. Often my response to your writing is ,”Hmmmmmmm, yea, OK, that’s what I’ve been trying to get my finger on.”

    The thing I find odd is that it seems to me that many people who are attracted to your site seem to be very intellectual and mental in their approach to their faith. That’s why I often lose interest in the chains of comments that often devolve into doctrinal fine tuning sessions. I think you even hang out blog-wise with those who seem of that bent just looking at your links.

    But that is not my take on you or at least that is not what I take from your writing. It’s the heart that you display on your journey.

    Evangelicalism has lost the music and the poetry of the Christian experience. You seem to be able to sense it in a new and fresh way, sometimes from rediscovering the old and sometimes from re envisioning the new. I can’t do that but I enjoy reading it when you do.

  21. Nicholas Anton says

    Evangelical Christianity has lost the music and poetry of the Christian experience because it has lost the basis for it’s faith. In it’s place, we manufacture artificial experiences via the multi media approach. We tend to move from the beauty of Christ, to the beauty of a “dolled up” Christ, to the beauty of the doll.

    With the exception of God, Who IS Truth, ultimate truth exists apart from the one who professes or practices it (Though one can profess to know, understand and practice the truth, one can never be that Truth in themselves). Neither can that knowledge be measured on the basis of one’s academic or “popularity” credentials.

    In contemporary society, largely because of bureaucratization, a paper trail is deemed necessary in order for one to be considered credible in any given subject.

    A few weeks ago, our oldest son stated; “Though 80 percent of the adults in my church have gone to Bible School or college, most of them are doctrinally illiterate”. It seemed to him that though they had the paper credentials, they did not have the actual knowledge. As someone else stated regarding graduates from a local Christian college, “They have a lot of knowledge, but very little conviction”. Why?

    A few weeks ago, our youngest son took his 2003 Jetta TDi to the Porsche VW dealer because of the lack of power. He had already personally diagnosed the problem to be the Turbo boost modulator (whatever it is technically called). The mechanic came to the same conclusion, replaced the part and sent him on his way. The car functioned worse than ever, and on his way home the engine code light came on. He returned to the dealer. After replacing a number of sensors, our son finally asked the mechanic how he had adjusted the modulator. The mechanic replied, “…by the previous one that failed”. Our son suggested that the mechanic go to the instruction manual and get the actual adjusting data. The mechanic did not do so, and again sent him on his way. The car functioned as badly as before. When our son came home, he went to the net, got the data, removed the modulator, adjusted it to spec (It had been adjusted to full boost continually), assembled it, and the car again functions like new. In this case the one who was “officially” qualified did not know what he was doing, and the one who had no “official” qualifications, did.

    That is one of the dilemmas in the church. We depend on Christian “professionals” to think, work and even believe for us. Yet Paul states; Co 14:29; “Let the prophets speak two or three, and let the other(s) (Plural in the original Greek) judge”. Every last one of us is called to hear, understand, believe, live and judge, where Truth is concerned.

  22. Heteroclite says

    Nicholas, excellent brass tacks illustration of (1) the importance of *The Manual* as the Ultimate Referent, (2) the priesthood of believers, (3) the Berean principle, and (4) the existence of objective truth and standards.

  23. I guess that our wisdom is the very reason God is having trouble with us; ever since Eve gave the apple to Adam. Yet it was God’s intention, wasn’t it?

    I like how you use texts from the Bible, it is a nice Book.