A Meditation on Knowledge & Wisdom

I spent many years earning a doctorate in history. When I began that quest, I had turned my back on the Christian faith. I wondered if the world of academia could provide the answers. One master’s degree, a multitude of courses, and three comprehensive exams later—all prior to the doctoral dissertation—finally convinced me that the educated elite were just as clueless as the rest of the world.

“Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age?” These questions come from the pen of the apostle Paul. He answers himself:

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.

He then makes a statement that I’m sure sets the intellectual elite’s teeth on edge: “The foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”

Am I saying that higher education is worthless? It can be. It all depends on the context of the learning. Anything divorced from God’s truth is not going to be beneficial in the long run. Knowledge for knowledge’s sake is pointless. Man’s wisdom is often little more than arrogance and stupidity—people thinking they are intelligent, yet not realizing they are intellectual pygmies in light of God’s truth.

Some people seek advanced degrees to feel better about themselves. They want to be respected; they want to be important. Yet,

God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God.

Boasting is one of man’s primary activities. This is particularly true of those who hold political power. They make promises seemingly without end: “Here is what we will do for you”; “We will end this problem once and for all”; “If you want answers, elect us!” Most of them, however, trust in their own minds and are disconnected from the Ultimate Mind.

The apostle Paul continues,

We speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God predestined before the ages to our glory; the wisdom which none of the rulers of this age has understood; for if they had understood it they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.

What was true of Paul’s age remains true today. There is a wisdom that comes from God that provides all we need to know for having relationship with Him and with all others. If followed, it solves the world’s problems. Sinful man, though, refuses to submit his mind and his will to the One who has the answers.

“Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you thinks that he is wise in this age, he must become foolish, so that he may become wise.”

This calls for humility; humility only appears after genuine repentance; repentance only occurs when a person is grieved over his sinful heart. How often does this happen? According to Jesus, not often enough:

Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.

May we all come that place.

Learning to Love Learning

There are a number of different critiques of the state of American education. Some are most concerned about the lack of discipline in the schools. Others decry the dumbing down of the standards. They point to the decline in scores on standardized tests such as the SAT. A lot of that decline has been hidden by the trick of “centering” the scores. For instance, a 1200 on the SAT today means a whole lot less than it meant in 1963.

Then there’s the grade inflation technique, powered in many instances by adherence to self-esteem philosophy. We wouldn’t want our students to feel bad about their lack of knowledge. We need to understand, however, that eliminating the idea of failure also undercuts success. How do you measure the latter when the former is not allowed? All of this has led to a dumbed-down society.

The problem is deeper, though. It has to do with the desire to learn. Most students, at least in my personal experience, have never developed a love of learning. This malady has multiple causes: broken families, uninspired teachers, an educational bureaucracy more concerned about its perpetual existence than the good of students [this includes the teachers’ unions], and loss of purpose in teaching. When we dismiss the Biblical worldview, we no longer have a reason to learn beyond the mundane desire to make a living. We become earthbound creatures with no vision of the heavenly.

I have a “truism” I share in class that goes like this: “Ignorance can be corrected, but apathy makes learning impossible.” I was sadly amused recently when one of our culture’s iconic comic strips captured the spirit of apathy perfectly:

One of my goals as a professor is to help students develop that essential love of learning. Christians should have it naturally. After all, who created the mind? Who gave us the ability to reason? If God went to all that trouble to make people who aren’t simply marionettes, shouldn’t we explore the grand design He established? Some of my favorites Scriptures along this line come from the book of Proverbs:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction. . . . The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.

Fear—reverence—of God is the starting point for all knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. If we have that reverence, it opens the door to a wide field of knowledge, a proper grasp of the significance of that knowledge [understanding], and the application of that knowledge to one’s life [wisdom]. What better rationale could ever be provided for developing a love of learning?

Most education in America ignores God. By doing so, it robs the individual of any solid basis for wanting to learn. Only by restoring reverence for God in our education will we have any hope of restoring education itself.

The New Paganism & the Christian Response

American Christians have had it pretty easy for the past few centuries. Whether or not the majority of the population was actually Christian at any time (only God knows for sure), the society, as a whole, always recognized the value of Christian belief and held a certain degree of respect for it.

Even during the debate over slavery that led to the Civil War, both sides were claiming to be following Scripture and used the Bible to argue their points.

That appeal to Scriptural authority no longer appears to be operative in the mainstream of American culture. The disdain for and rejection of Christian morality has now come to the forefront. It is most painfully obvious in the militaristic (I use that term advisedly) agenda that attempts to force everyone to embrace homosexuality as normal and legitimate.

I was teaching a Bible study last week where I used a passage from the Old Testament prophet Hosea, chapter 4, as he chastised his people for their faithlessness, and I believe it speaks to what we’re experiencing now:

Hear the word of the Lord, you Israelites, because the Lord has a charge to bring against you who live in the land: “There is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgment of God in the land. . . .”

My people are destroyed from lack of knowledge. “Because you have rejected knowledge, I also reject you as my priests; because you have ignored the law of your God, I also will ignore your children.”

That last line is not God being callous; rather, it’s simply pointing out that the faithlessness of the people has led to no real knowledge of Him, with the consequences naturally falling on the next generation.

The sins of the fathers definitely do reverberate through the generations. As I look at America as a historian, I can see the beginnings—the first generations—where knowledge of God was pervasive in the culture. Then I survey what has happened since. Here’s how I explain it:

  • First Generation: The nation began with vision and zeal based on Christian faith, whether we are referring to the early settlers or the Founders who fought for independence and set up the government.
  • Second Generation: The knowledge of God and the true faith continued in the society, but that initial vision and zeal began to abate. America still believed that Christianity was the bedrock of the culture, but the heart was not the same—head knowledge, not as much from the heart. When did this occur? I place it as starting after the Civil War with the introduction of new philosophies like evolution and new movements like progressivism.
  • Third Generation: This is when the true knowledge of the faith began to diminish and society operated primarily on the tradition that had been handed down. We continued to think certain things were moral and others were immoral, but we lost our rationale for why that was so. We stopped explaining morality from a Biblical foundation and just declared that some things were right and others were wrong. We had “Biblical memories” without Biblical knowledge.
  • Fourth Generation: As things progressed (regressed?), we then began to toss aside even the traditions that kept a certain morality in place. We lost our moorings and constructed different foundations with an entirely new concept of right and wrong.

That Fourth Generation is what we are now entering with a vengeance. “Who says that abortion and homosexuality are wrong? Sin? What an outmoded term. Those who continue to harbor those old ideas are narrow, bigoted, and need to be coerced into accepting our new enlightened age that rejects those silly restrictions.”

Yes, we’ve come a long way.

Many Christians are shocked by what they see developing. We have to fight for civic rights that we once thought inviolable. Businesses run by Christians are under attack for not bowing to the New Enlightenment.

Is there a Fifth Generation coming? If so, what will it be? Are we going to get even further from God’s truth in the next generation, or will there perhaps be a backlash as the consequences of accepting immorality as normal become more evident?

Like you, I would prefer a society that respects Christian faith. However, we need to see this time of spiritual stress also as an opportunity. As those who enter into the New Paganism (which is the more correct description) begin to suffer for it, we need to be ready to offer the hand of healing and direction back to Biblical truth.

Are we ready to do that? Rather than spending our time bemoaning the loss of what once was, are we willing to follow our Lord into this new field of harvest for Him?

Open & Closed Minds

I teach at a Christian university. A concern I’ve expressed before in this blog is that sometimes Christian academics have a tendency to think they are lesser scholars than those in the more prestigious centers of higher education. Then they make the mistake of trying to become respected by secular academia by minimizing their faith publicly.

I’m not saying that’s the norm for Christian academics, but it is a temptation for some. There sometimes is a haughtiness emanating from the confines of Ivy League and other “top” schools that tells us we don’t really match up.

However, God disagrees. We’re told in Proverbs, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” and “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” That last verse goes on to say, “And the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.”

When we jettison that first step—reverence for God—we set out on a path that leads to foolishness, not genuine knowledge, understanding, and wisdom.

It’s as C. S. Lewis noted in Mere Christianity:

There is a difficulty about disagreeing with God. He is the source from which all your reasoning power comes: you could not be right and He wrong any more than a stream can rise higher than its own source.

When you are arguing against Him you are arguing against the very power that makes you able to argue at all: it is like cutting off the branch you are sitting on.

All the talk in circles of higher education of having an open mind sounds nice. Sometimes, those of us who teach at a university that has a basic statement of beliefs are considered close-minded. Yet as Lewis reminds us in his The Abolition of Man,

An open mind, in questions that are not ultimate, is useful. But an open mind about ultimate foundations either of Theoretical or Practical Reason is idiocy. If a man’s mind is open on these things, let his mouth at least be shut.

I’m reminded also of an incident related by Whittaker Chambers in his autobiography, Witness. As a child, he once said something to his mother about God creating the world. His mother, decidedly nonreligious, told him that he had to think for himself, to have an open mind. He was not to accept other people’s opinions, she declared. Then she followed that with this statement: “The world was formed by gases cooling in space.”

Chambers continued,

I thought about this many times. But it was not the gaseous theory of creation that impressed me. . . . What impressed me was that it was an opinion, too, since other people believed something else. Then, why had my mother told me what to think? Clearly, if the open mind was open . . . truth was simply a question of which opening you preferred.

In effect, the open mind was always closed at one end.

I have no problem saying I begin my understanding of history (which is what I teach) with the knowledge of God. After all, history came into being by His creation. Why would I ever omit Him from an analysis of history?

My mind is open when it comes to the facts of history and whether I need to change my perspective on particular events. My mind is blessedly closed, though, on matters of ultimate significance. Neither do I suffer from feelings of inferiority for saying that. Staying faithful to God’s truth leads to proper understanding and wisdom.

Lewis, Learning, & War (Part One)

C. S. Lewis with BookI believe I’ve read most of C. S. Lewis’s essays sometime during my life, but some of them I read so long ago I have forgotten the pearls within. I recently re-read his “Learning in War-Time” reflections as Britain was engaged in WWII and was reminded why others have commented on it so often.

The big question he asks and attempts to answer is why should people continue to be interested in what are considered the normal, routine matters of life when the whole fate of Europe may lie in the balance of the outcome of the war. Why focus on learning, philosophy, history, and similar pursuits when others are sacrificing their lives on the battlefield? “Is it not like fiddling while Rome burns?” he asks.

His response undoubtedly shocked some people when he stated, “The war creates no absolutely new situation; it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it.” Lewis then adds a large dose of common sense:

Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun.

He doubles down on that premise as he continues:

We are mistaken when we compare war with “normal life.” Life has never been normal. Even those periods which we think most tranquil, like the nineteenth century, turn out, on closer inspection, to be full of crises, alarms, difficulties, emergencies.

As a historian, I can vouch for the accuracy of Lewis’s statement. I’m aware of periods in American history that are usually considered peaceful, but if examined in greater depth, one finds turmoil always bubbling under the surface, if not openly. Lewis further notes,

C. S. Lewis 12Plausible reasons have never been lacking for putting off all merely cultural activities until some imminent danger has been averted or some crying injustice put right. But humanity long ago chose to neglect those plausible reasons. They wanted knowledge and beauty now, and would not wait for the suitable moment that never comes.

It is no different for the Christian, Lewis concludes:

An appetite for these things exists in the human mind, and God makes no appetite in vain. We can therefore pursue knowledge as such, and beauty as such, in the sure confidence that by so doing we are either advancing to the vision of God ourselves or indirectly helping others to do so.

I like this splash of reality from Lewis. It’s worth contemplating today.

Lewis: Logic the Cornerstone

Some people think that scientific knowledge is somehow better than other types of knowledge. While it’s true that the scientific method is important, we need to have the proper perspective. I think C. S. Lewis provides that in an address he gave during WWII that showed up later in a collection of his essays as “De Futilitate”:

C. S. Lewis 1The physical sciences, then, depend on the validity of logic just as much as metaphysics or mathematics. If popular thought feels “science” to be different from all other kinds of knowledge because science is experimentally verifiable, popular thought is mistaken.

Experimental verification is not a new kind of assurance coming in to supply the deficiencies of mere logic. We should therefore abandon the distinction between scientific and non-scientific thought.

The proper distinction is between logical and non-logical thought. I mean, the proper distinction for our present purpose: that purpose being to find whether there is any class of thoughts which has objective value, which is not merely a fact about how the human cortex behaves.

For that purpose we can make no distinction between science and other logical exercises of thought, for if logic is discredited science must go down with it.

I think this is important to grasp because sometimes those of us who are not in the narrowly defined field of science may be tempted to think our thought processes are somehow inferior to “pure science.” Not at all. If we become proficient in basic logic, we have the cornerstone for all understanding. In fact, those too focused on a narrow definition of science can often be tunnel-visioned, and cannot provide real answers for life.

So don’t feel inferior, but do everything you can to develop your powers of thought. The Christian faith is not an emotion; it begins with a reasoning that flows logically: man is sinful; sin destroys the relationship with God and others; God intervened in human history to provide a way to redeem those relationships; if we turn from sin and turn to Him, we can be restored.

Pure science can’t reveal that, and even pure science is dependent on clear, logical thinking.

Snyderian Truism #1

When I teach, I try to impress upon students certain truths. I know that sounds impertinent to the ears of some. “What is truth?” they may say. I seem to recall a historical figure named Pontius Pilate who asked the same thing. Jesus, standing before him, had already made it clear He was the truth.

So, yes, I believe truth exists. There are certain things I’ve gotten in the habit of telling students over the years, so last summer, before the new fall semester began, I attempted to catalog as many of them as I could recall. I even put them on slides to incorporate, at appropriate moments, in my PowerPoint presentations in class. I needed to give them a title. Rush Limbaugh, I remembered, came up with his Undeniable Truths of Life, so that was taken. Eventually, I settled on “Snyderian Truisms.” I thought the title was at least unique, if a little strange. But it does make it clear these are statements that I personally believe to be true, and students have seemed to enjoy seeing them light up the screen from time to time.

They are in no particular order of importance; the numbers assigned to them are in the order that I recalled them. What I call Snyderian Truism #1 is the first one I use in my American history survey courses as I attempt to show students that they should be interested in what we will be studying. So what is #1?

Since God gave you a brain, He undoubtedly expects you to use it.

I’ll let you decide how profound it is, but I do believe it’s important to communicate it to students, some of whom would rather shut down in class and coast. My survey courses are part of our General Education requirements, so when some students take them, they are expecting an easy course, something where they can receive a high grade with little or no effort. I try to disabuse them of that mistaken proposition.

On that first day, I give them a quote from nineteenth-century evangelist Charles Finney, which instructs thusly:

It has been no part of my aim to spare my pupils or anyone else the trouble of intense thought. . . . You were made to think. It will do you good to think; to develop your powers by study. God designed that religion should require thought, intense thought, and should thoroughly develop our powers of thought.

Biblical WorldviewAll too often, Christians want to shelve intense thought and depend primarily on feelings. God does give us those feelings, and we should rejoice that we’re made with them. However, He never intended for our emotions to guide our actions. He wants us to think seriously about what we believe and why. He wants us to learn as much as we can about this world—its history, cultures, etc.—and then use that knowledge to accomplish His purposes in this world.

Thinking Christians need to be leaders. They need to be the best at analyzing their culture and pointing to Biblical solutions. By doing so, we fulfill Jesus’ desire that we be light and salt in our society. I hope my emphasis in this Snyderian Truism will stay with my students. And I hope it will stay with you as well.

More truisms to come in future posts.