God’s Foolishness vs. Man’s Wisdom

I love learning. I’d better love it, seeing as how I live in an academic environment. Reading, studying, going deeper into a knowledge of history and government naturally draws me. Yet that plunge into knowledge can never be divorced from the proper heart motive—love of God and His ways.

The temptation for people like me is to think that we have become experts, which can then border on arrogance, which is decidedly opposed to God’s will for our lives.

It’s always good to come back to a certain passage in I Corinthians, where the apostle Paul offers this timely reminder:

For the word of the cross is foolishness 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 cleverness of the clever I will set aside.”

If we ever begin to think that God’s way—the way of the cross—is just too simplistic or beneath us, we are straying from the path. Paul continues with this stark message:

Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?

For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.

Wait a minute. Am I not to strive for wisdom? Am I not to be a dedicated student/scribe? Shouldn’t I sharpen my skills of debate? I don’t think this passage means we are to put away those aims. What it does do, though, is remind us to keep our priorities straight. He concludes,

For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

God has called me to be one of His in the academic world. I will fulfill that calling only if I put first things first. I intend to continue doing that.

In this blog, I comment constantly on the ways of the world, whether in politics, education, morality, or the culture in general. As long as I do so with the proper perspective, recognizing the highest message of all—Christ crucified for sinners—I will be carrying out His will for my life.

I just thought that was a reminder worth sharing today, no matter what your calling may be. Jesus Christ and His overwhelming love for sinful men is the cornerstone for everything we say or do.

Lewis on Sayers’s “The Mind of the Maker” (Part One)

In a previous post, I wrote about why C. S. Lewis liked the writings of Dorothy Sayers, and I focused on her radio plays The Man Born to Be King, which she turned into a book.

There was another Sayers book that Lewis read prior to that one: The Mind of the Maker. It was published in 1941; Lewis wrote a short review of it in the journal Theology. He introduces the theme immediately: “The purpose of this book is to throw light both on the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity and on the process whereby a work of art (specially of literature) is produced, by drawing an analogy between the two.” Of this he wholly approves.

Then he proceeds to caution the reader about the one feature of the book that gives him concern:

I think that in an age when idolatry of human genius is one of our most insidious dangers Miss Sayers would have been prudent to stress more continuously than she does the fact that the analogy is merely an analogy. I am afraid that some vainglorious writers may be encouraged to forget that they are called “creative” only by a metaphor.

This concern for Lewis was centered on the arrogance that sometimes infuses the mind of the artist. He merely wished Sayers had stressed more the very distinct difference between the actual Creator and humans who sub-create at a lower level.

Yet that is his only negative remark on the substance of the book. “In general,” he continues, “I find Miss Sayers’ development of her analogy full of illumination both on the theological and on the literary side.” He concluded,

This is the first “little book on religion” I have read for a long time in which every sentence is intelligible and every page advances the argument. I recommend it heartily to theologians and critics. To novelists and poets, if they are already inclined in any degree to idolatry of their own vocation, I recommend it with much more caution. They had better read it fasting.

In their early correspondence, Lewis doesn’t really expound further on his views of The Mind of the Maker, but an analysis of some of the concepts within it may offer some clues as to what else he would have admired in the work.

The very first chapter, “The ‘Laws’ of Nature and Opinion,” serves as a complement to the way Lewis later expounded on the subject in Mere Christianity. There is a reality built into the universe, Sayers asserts, that no one in his right mind would ever attempt to deny.

Sayers goes on to say that there is a universal moral law that is behind even the moral code by which a society may function. Christianity, she maintains, has called this the natural law, and “the more closely the moral code agrees with the natural law, the more it makes for freedom in human behavior; the more widely it departs from the natural law, the more it tends to enslave mankind and to produce the catastrophes called ‘judgments of God.’”

A society may have a moral code that wants people to behave like St. Francis, she posits, but what if that society prefers a code more in line with the Emperor Caligula? One must then refer to the natural law upon which the moral code ought to be based. By doing so, one should be able to prove “at the bar of experience, that St. Francis does in fact enjoy a freer truth to essential human nature than Caligula, and that a society of Caligulas is more likely to end in catastrophe than a society of Franciscans.” Her conclusion is very Lewis-like:

Defy the commandments of the natural law, and the race will perish in a few generations; co-operate with them, and the race will flourish for ages to come. That is the fact; whether we like it or not, the universe is made that way.

This commandment is interesting because it specifically puts forward the moral law as the basis of the moral code: because God has made the world like this and will not alter it, therefore you must not worship your own fantasies, but pay allegiance to the truth.

That’s only one point she made that I know Lewis would have liked. There are others, but I’ll save those for future Lewis posts.

About Those Ongoing Investigations

I have studiously avoided saying much about the ongoing Russia probe and the accusations of spying by the FBI on the Trump team. Why? Because it’s all so up in the air when it comes to actually knowing what happened and whether any of it makes any difference.

To be sure, there were contacts made by some of Trump’s people with Russians. Trump Jr. is a solid example. He went to a meeting expecting to get dirt on Hillary and was disappointed when nothing came of it. So, is he guilty or not? Trump supporters say that since nothing happened, it’s a moot point. Others will note the intent—after all, God looks at the heart.

Some people see the Russia probe as just an attempt to get Trump by whatever means possible, especially Democrats who continue to play with the idea that somehow Russia determined the outcome of the election. This particular probe seems to be going on forever.

After a while, the public loses interest, but congressional leaders, even Republicans, after viewing some of the evidence at a closed hearing, believe it should go on. I agree. Let’s find out the truth, wherever that may lead.

Then there’s that spy thing. There is certainly evidence that some FBI people hated Trump and wanted Hillary to win. Yet, on the other side of the argument, Trump kept hiring shady advisors, particularly Paul Manafort (who ran his campaign for a while), who has made his living being paid by Russian entities.

At the very least, I can understand why the FBI might want to know more. Yet we now know the name of the so-called “spy,” a respected academic from Cambridge who never had access to anyone high up in the campaign.

Is this really spying? Of course, it would be nice to see an evenhanded approach to fact-gathering.

And by the way, wasn’t it James Comey’s reopening of the Hillary investigation right before the election that drew attention once more to her underhanded activities? While I have little to no respect for Comey, if he had been “all in” for Hillary, why would he have done that?

You can’t watch CNN or MSNBC if you want a balanced understanding of what is real or imagined in these investigations. As far as those outlets are concerned, Hillary was cheated and Trump was the cheat.

Neither, though, can you get a fair and balanced presentation on some of the Fox News programs. There are some that are so pro-Trump that you never hear a negative word. We have dueling networks, each with an agenda of its own.

So I’m still withholding judgment on what is true and what isn’t. I would advise others to do the same. Conservatives, don’t just accept anything Trump says as being lily-white truth. He’s not usually comfortable offering that; it goes against his entire personal history and character.

Yet, liberals (assuming there are any who read my posts), you have to be willing to accept that all these investigations may not go where you want, simply because there may be no foundation to the main accusations.

Democrats thought they had a winning approach for the upcoming congressional elections. Now, some aren’t so sure.

There was all this happy talk among Democrats about a Blue Wave this November. Polls are now indicating that might not be in the cards for them after all.

If Republicans do manage to maintain control of both houses of Congress, they should breathe a huge sigh of relief and then get down to business. If they can ever figure out what their business is.

On Lewis Reading Sayers

Dorothy Sayers was never present at an Inklings meeting. She was never considered as a member of that weekly sharing of readings and thoughts. Yet she is often seen in conjunction with the Inklings because she graduated from Oxford herself and was friends with two of its leading members: Charles Williams and C. S. Lewis. Lewis, responding during the last year of his life about his connections with Sayers, gave this summary:

Dorothy Sayers, so far as I know, was not even acquainted with any of us except Charles Williams and me. We two had got to know her at different times and in different ways. In my case, the initiative came from her. She was the first person of importance who ever wrote me a fan-letter. I liked her, originally, because she liked me; later, for the extraordinary zest and edge of her conversation—as I like a high wind. She was a friend, not an ally. Needless to say, she never met our own club, and probably never knew of its existence.

Although I have been an avid reader of Lewis my entire life, my only interaction for a long time with anything Sayers wrote was her essay, “The Lost Tools of Learning,” which I read sometime in the early 1990s as I was delving into the movement among homeschoolers to establish a more classical education model. Her explication of the medieval emphasis on the grammar, logic, and rhetoric connected with all subject matter was enlightening.

But there my reading of Sayers stopped until my interest in Lewis led to writing a book on him and awakened a desire to seek out more writers of his ilk.

When the Wade Center’s blog, Off the Shelf, began a short series on one of Sayers’s novels, The Nine Tailors, I was intrigued enough to order the book in an electronic version (my bookcases are already on the verge of succumbing to the inevitable overflow quite common for an academic) to see why it was considered so significant.

I found the novel, which centered on her favorite aristocratic and amateur detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, to be intelligent, suffused with an understated humor, and somewhat different from what I had always considered to be the classic detective story. At the end of the book, there was a teaser for the next one in the series, Gaudy Night, and the teaser worked—I purchased that one as well. In all, I read five of the Wimsey novels and came away impressed with Sayers’s storytelling with a solid emphasis on character development.

At the same time that Lewis was doing his BBC broadcasts that eventually became Mere Christianity, Sayers had written a series of plays on the life of Jesus that the BBC was also broadcasting. Those plays, The Man Born to Be King, ushered in a major controversy that revolved around her approach to the sacred: she made Jesus, His disciples, and everyone else in the stories speak in the language of the common man in Britain at that time. For some, this was sacrilegious. It was denigrating the person and work of Christ. Sayers, though, held her ground, and the BBC stood with her.

When she turned the plays into a book in 1943, she set out her rationale for what she had done—an apologetic for its appropriateness.

There was a law at that time that had forbidden any representation of the Trinity on the stage (radio plays apparently were thought to be part of “the stage”). That law, she complained, “had helped to foster the notion that all such representations were intrinsically wicked” and led to a “totally heretical Christology which denies the full Humanity of Our Lord.”

She realized she had shattered that tradition “in the face of a good deal of prejudice,” but she had good reasons to do so. “The knowledge which the British public has of the New Testament is extensive,” she admitted, “but in many respects peculiar. The books are, on the whole, far better known as a collection of disjointed texts and moral aphorisms wrenched from their contexts than as a coherent history made up of coherent episodes.” Her plays were an attempt to correct that perception.

Moreover, the words of the books . . . are by great numbers of British Christians held to be sacrosanct in such a sense that they must not be expanded, interpreted, or added to, even in order to set the scene, supply obvious gaps in the narrative, or elucidate the sense. And this sacrosanctity is attributed, not to the Greek of the original and only authentic documents, but to every syllable of a translation made three hundred years ago (and that not always with perfect accuracy) in an idiom so old-fashioned that, even as English, it is often obscure to us or positively misleading.

Sayers sent Lewis an advance copy of The Man Born to Be King in May 1943, to which he responded, “Thanks awfully! I loved the one I heard on the air . . . and look forward to reading the whole series.” Three days later, he gave her an update: “Have started your book (in bed) but am still in the Preface—very vigorous!” Ten days after that, he had this to report: “I’ve finished The Man Born to be King and think it a complete success.”

Although he questioned her interpretation of Judas, he conceded her conception of him was a valid possibility. Overall, though, he was nothing less than enthusiastic, writing, “I shed real tears (hot ones) in places: since Mauriac’s Vie de Jesus nothing has moved me so much. . . . I expect to read it times without number again.”

Lewis was true to that pledge, letting her know in letters in 1947 and again in 1955 that he was in the process of re-reading it, something that became a sacred ritual for him during Lent.

He also informed an American correspondent in 1949, “I think D. Sayers Man Born to be King has edified us in this country more than anything for a long time.” And what of the critics of Sayers’s approach to the retelling of the gospel story? “I seem to get v. little reading done these days,” he confided to Arthur Greeves in June 1943. But he added, “One thing I have read recently is D. Sayers’ The Man Born to be King wh. I thought excellent, indeed most moving. The objections to it seem to me . . . silly.”

As I finished reading The Man Born to Be King earlier this week, I was struck by how Sayers dealt with betrayal as she has the disciples questioning how their flight away from Jesus during his hour of greatest need affects God. In her words:

Peter: Master—when I disowned you—when we disbelieved and doubted you—when we failed and deserted and betrayed you—is that what we do to God?

Jesus: Yes, Peter.

James: Lord, when they mocked and insulted and spat upon you—when they flogged you—when they howled for your blood—when they nailed you to the cross and killed you—is that what we do to God?

Jesus: Yes, James.

John: Beloved, when you patiently suffered all things, and went down to death with all our sins heaped upon you—is that what God does for us?

Jesus: Yes, John. For you, and with you, and in you, when you are freely mine. For you are not slaves, but sons. Free to be false or faithful, free to reject or confess me, free to crucify God or be crucified with Him, sharing the shame and sorrow, and the bitter cross and the glory.

I was deeply impressed with that passage, as Sayers not only put the episode into the everyday language of the British public, but as she also clearly explained what sin does to God and everything He intended in this world. The sin is pointed out clearly, as is the call to discipleship as the remedy for our failings.

In the eulogy Lewis wrote for Sayers in early 1958, he ended with these thoughtful words: “Let us thank the Author who invented her.”

An Encouragement to All Who Teach

As a professor for nearly thirty years, my aim has been to instill solid Biblical principles and sound historical teaching based on original sources and insightful secondary works, with the ultimate goal that students would be able to see for themselves how those principles and sources reveal truth.

The trendy phrase is “to develop critical thinking.”

Professors/teachers sometimes wonder how successful this endeavor has been, especially when teaching a class that few of the students seem to care about or when mired in all that grading.

Despite discouragements along the way, I’ve never doubted God’s call on my life for any serious length of time. And then there are those encouragements that pop up unannounced, like the e-mail I received from a recent Southeastern history major who graduated and is now teaching high school at a classical academy.

With his permission, I’m going to share what he is experiencing.

He began by commenting that my blogs this past week on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn were “wonderful.” That was the first encouragement, but it was only the beginning.

He just finished teaching an American history/literature class based on a Socratic method of questioning. He then related that he began the course with a thoughtful quote from the book I use in my American history survey courses, Paul Johnson’s A History of the American People. He used it to spur their thinking; it became the cornerstone of everything they studied during the semester. Here’s the quote he used:

American history raises three fundamental questions. First, can a nation rise above the injustices of its origins and, by its moral purpose and performance, atone for them?…

The Second question provides the key to the first. In the process of nation-building, can ideals and altruism—the desire to build the perfect community—be mixed successfully with acquisitiveness and ambition, without which no dynamic society can be built at all?…

Thirdly, the Americans originally aimed to build an other-worldly “City on a Hill,” but found themselves designing a republic of the people, to be modeled for the entire planet. Have they made good their audacious claims? Have they indeed proved exemplars for humanity? And will they continue to be so in the new millennium?

Is that typical fare for a typical high school? I doubt it. My former student was up to the challenge of helping these students think through American history with that as the backdrop.

What he described next stirred my heart:

My class spent a full two hours dissecting this quote in an attempt to mine its meaning and see what kind of answers we could put forth. To say the least, the students’ answers were antiquated and bereft of any deep historical knowledge.

So, for the rest of the year I used Paul Johnson’s work as a supplementary guide to my lectures, and tried my best to emphasize the principles you taught me in undergrad about self-government, constitutionalism, the need for citizens of a democratic-republic to adhere to moral/religious principles, etc.

I had students read and discuss the Mayflower Compact, Plymouth Plantation, the Declaration, the Federalist Papers, Jefferson’s anti-federalist essays, the Constitution, Democracy in America (which we spent two weeks on), the Lincoln-Douglass debates, Fredrick Douglass’s Narrative Life of a Slave, Walden, and much more.

Note two things here: first, the principles he saw as important; second, the original sources he used to explore those principles.

But he didn’t stop there with just the first part of American history; he went on to examine the philosophies that arose to undercut those founding principles:

Along with all these great works of American literature and political philosophy, I also spent a substantial amount of time teaching students about Marxism, communism, the eugenics movement (including Margaret Sanger’s contributions), and the advent of progressive welfare politics.

My students were horrified and amazed that although they had heard many times about the 11 million people killed by Hitler’s regime, they had never heard about the 19 million (or more) killed by Stalin’s regime, the 40 million (or more) killed by Mao’s regime, and the 200,000 (or more) killed by Pol Pot’s regime.

They were even more surprised to learn that “Nazism” stood for “National Socialism.” Our all-too-brief lesson on Whittaker Chambers and the Hiss Case was also a big hit with the students. Although most of my lectures focused on the overall narrative of American political/social history, I couldn’t help going off on these very important tangents.

What a joy it was to learn that these students were being exposed to facts, ideas, and principles that weren’t the focus of their thinking prior to his class. What did the students actually learn? What did they take to heart?

Yesterday was our very last class of the year, and I asked students to discuss Paul Johnson’s questions again to see if they could arrive at different answers based on what we learned this year. Their responses were absolutely fascinating.

They pointed out (without any prompting from me) that the ideals of human rights, the dignity of the individual, the fallen nature of man, private property, and self-government were principles that truly made the U.S. a “city on a hill.”

They also pointed out that nearly all of the many failures and injustices that our country has perpetrated were violations or rejections of these founding principles. I then asked the class “where do these ‘rights’ come from? What gives us the impression that all human beings possess intrinsic dignity? What grounds these American ideals?”

The answer to his question?

One of my very intelligent students pulled out the Declaration of Independence and read the opening words aloud with an emphasis on “our Creator.” It was a very fulfilling moment for me, and a confirmation of how important these lessons are.

The final encouragement—a personal one—concluded his e-mail when he wrote, “I just thought you would like to know that your lessons did not fall on deaf ears, and are already being reproduced in the minds of my own students. Thank you for your commitment to Christ-centered scholarship and education.”

For all you teachers reading this, please know that what you do is significant. Even when you don’t see immediate results, you don’t know what’s going on inside your students. I had no doubts about this former student; I knew he was solid. But there are others you may never hear from who have been impacted by what you have said and, even more important, how you lived your Christian faith before their eyes.

Be encouraged today.

Politics & MS-13

There’s a world of difference between being an honest evaluator of Donald Trump and being a dishonest purveyor of distortions. My goal, as I’ve shown many times in this blog, is to point to the problems I see in Trump’s character that could lead to disasters and to the steps he takes that can do some good.

My goal is honesty in evaluation.

That’s why when he makes a statement that is sound and reasonable and the media and Democrats (I know, I know, I repeat myself) make it into something he never said, I will point to the truth.

Trump, in reference to the murderous, violent MS-13 gang, which consists predominantly of El Salvadorans who have come to the US, called them “animals.” He was not referring to all immigrants; he was mentioning specifically only this deviant crime “family.”

That’s not how some in the media played it:

According to an article in Time—that vehement expositor of right-wing rhetoric (note to those who are not in the know—sarcasm alert!)—MS-13 operates in 42 states and Washington, DC, with approximately 6,000 members nationwide. When I was living in Northern Virginia, just outside DC, I heard many accounts of its activity in my area.

The Time article goes on to say that murder and drug trafficking are staples of MS-13. Then it quotes New York Governor Andrew Cuomo calling them “thugs,” as he announced new initiatives to take them down for their crimes. No one has ever accused this ultra-liberal governor of being anti-immigrant.

Other Democrat politicians are not quite as connected to this part of reality:

Trump had a good reason for his comment about MS-13.

That’s my honest evaluation.

The Lewisian View of Democracy

My doctorate is in history. My teaching career included seven years in a graduate school of government, showing how history needs to be taken into account when considering the function of government and public policy. And of course the basis for everything I have taught has been Biblical principles.

Therefore, it’s not hard to understand why I maintain an active interest in politics and current affairs. I seek to educate others in those principles and hope to see them influence our nation’s public policy.

I’m also a devotee of a republican form of government, one that is usually called “democratic,” but which is more properly “republican,” meaning that there is a certain amount of representation of the governed involved. In an imperfect world, this outward form is the closest to a government tied to what I consider to be Biblical principles.

But as I said, this is an imperfect world, and there is no such thing as a perfect government.

C. S. Lewis recognized this also. In his essay, “Equality,” he used the word democracy to write about it, but I can give him some leeway on that. He meant the same thing as I would mean by representative government, i.e., a republic.

What’s so good about his ruminations on “democracy” is his understanding for why it is desirable despite its faults.

I am a democrat because I believe in the Fall of Man. I think most people are democrats for the opposite reason.

A great deal of democratic enthusiasm descends from the ideas of people like Rousseau, who believed in democracy because they thought mankind so wise and good that everyone deserved a share in the government. The danger of defending democracy on those grounds is that they’re not true.

Many reading those words might be startled. Where is Lewis going with this? To the foundations of Biblical principles, of course.

I find that they’re not true without looking further than myself. I don’t deserve a share in governing a hen-roost, much less a nation. . . . The real reason for democracy is . . . Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows.

Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters.

The rub, though, is that many men and women jockeying for political office really do think they are well suited to be the masters of others. They all do it in the name of the people, naturally; they use the grand rhetoric of “democracy” to convince others they should be trusted with power. They are grand in their own minds.

In another essay, “Democratic Education,” Lewis offers this warning:

Democracy demands that little men should not take big ones too seriously; it dies when it is full of little men who think they are big themselves.

As I survey the political field currently, I see a lot of little men—and women—who think they’re really something wonderful. They think that leading a nation is the apex of life. They think nations are greater than individuals. They are wrong. Why? Lewis explains in a familiar passage in Mere Christianity:

Immortality makes this other difference between totalitarianism and democracy. If individuals live only seventy years, then a state, or a nation, or a civilisation, which may last for a thousand years, is more important than an individual.

But if Christianity is true, then the individual is not only more important but incomparably more important, for he is everlasting and the life of a state or a civilisation, compared with his, is only a moment.

If our political leaders were to grasp that truth, it would be a start down the path of proper humility. Humility is in short supply in the political realm; it is one of our most urgent needs.