Tag: wisdom

Passion & Wisdom in the Modern Age: Musings on Proverbs 29:11 (LXX)

As Christians, we are called to think rightly; we are called to wisdom. But what are the characteristics of wisdom? What does it look like to think rightly, especially in our modern age? The Bible goes about answering these questions in various ways, but one particular passage I have been thinking about lately is Proverbs 29:11. My love for the Greek New Testament has ignited a love for the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint (LXX). So, wanting to deepen my reflections on this verse, I ran over to the LXX to read it: holon ton thymon autou ekpherei aphrōn, sophos de tamieuetai kata meros. I have loosely translated this as, “The foolish person lets out all of his passion, but the wise person does so reservedly, in a measured way.”

A simple first glance reveals that the “foolish person” (aphrōn) is set in direct contrast to the “wise” (sophos). Here, “foolish” (aphrōn) denotes wrong thinking. It is the opposite mindset of God and his people (cf. phronimos in Matt 7:24 and phroneō in Phil 2:5). There is, therefore, a way of thinking that is characteristic of God and his people—namely, a mindset based upon wisdom, insight, and prudence. Simply, aphrōn (“foolish”) in Prov 29:11 means “not wise” or “unwise.” Biblically, to call someone a “fool” is not to digress into name-calling, but rather to point out that someone is behaving, practically speaking, in a way that betrays their very human calling to a life of wisdom.

The “wise person,” sophos, behaves differently than the aphrōn. In what way? It all has to do with what each one does with thymos (passion, anger). The foolish person does not hold anything back; they have no filter. To be foolish, at least here, is to show no restraint in what one does with his or her passion. The wise person, by contrast, is not necessarily without anger (as the text of the LXX implies); rather, they are simply more reserved and careful with it. That is, they let it come out “in measure.” One gets the sense that the sophos lives a much more quiet life than the foolish person (cf. 1 Thess 4:11ff). The wise person, it seems, is less rambunctious and less imprudent with emotion than his or her counterpart.

What can we, people of the 21st century, learn from this verse? Ours, after all, is an age of passion, of hype and hysteria—a time when access to social media affords us a quick outlet for every little thought and every whim of passion that enters our mind and heart. People are—and always have been—passionate, whether over their religion, their non-religion, their entertainment, or their politics (I have written briefly about that last one here). In this way, the 21st century is no different than other times. But having been thrown into our modern, technological age, our passion has the unique ability to go public in an instant, sometimes to our detriment (not to mention others’). There is nothing wrong with going public with our passion. Sometimes it is necessary. But indiscreet passion is unbecoming for anyone, and unreasonable passion is dangerous to everyone. While anger and passion are never wrong in and of themselves (both have a place, as I say), each person is obligated to show measure and restraint. This is the essence of wisdom. Passion, of any sort, is never beneficial if it is allowed full reign without sound reason and self-control restraining it. I do not make an idol out of human reason (I do not buy into rationalism), but I do think wisdom and understanding, sophia kai phronēsis, are indispensable to the life that God requires. It is the wise person, after all, who shows constraint with emotion. How come? Because he or she, as a prudent thinker, understands the consequences that an overly-rash life tends to bring. 

As Christians, we are said to embody Christ in the world (1 Cor 12:27); if that is so, then may our fervent passion be the pursuit of wisdom and right thinking. May every passionate thing we say (or do not say) be founded upon sound reason. May we be a passionate people who think rightly, carefully, and wisely. 

Two things that prevent Christians from thinking well

Part of the reason I started Trinityhaus was because I wanted to encourage Christians to think deeply, clearly, and carefully. It’s been my conviction that modern Christianity–particularly within the evangelical tradition, of which I am part–has failed at this God-given task. I don’t call this a “God-given task” flippantly. Jesus himself says, “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). The word for “mind” is dianoia. It connotes the idea of using one’s intellect rightly, that is, reasoning well and the ability to reach truth by means of critical, logical, thinking.

My hope in life–as both a pastor and director at Trinityhaus–is to help Christians glorify God with their minds, spurning their relationship with God to go beyond just flutters of the heart. My calling is to provide believers with the resources they need in order to learn Scripture and engage other thinkers (whether Christian or non-Christian) in a critical way. By doing all this, my hope is that each learner will get closer to truth and therefore closer to God himself. (Truth, after all, always leads to God.) In short, I want Christians to learn how to think carefully, to reason well.

But what are some things that keep us from being careful thinkers? I’ve identified two items below: The first is a false belief, the second is a misguided attitude.

(1) We believe ignorance is a virtue and thinking is unbiblical. A Pastor once told me that the Bible never tells us to use our head; the point of the Bible, he urged, was to simply love and trust God. This is the classic problem with what is wrong with much of modern Christianity. Has God not called us to think, to use our minds at all? The truth is that he has. Even the slightest glance at our own religious writings tells us so much. Take the wisdom literature, Proverbs, for example. Here, an entire section of Scripture is devoted to urging God-followers to think wisely. The book of Job, too, is an invitation to encounter God while pondering the blessed reality of the good and the harsh reality of evil and suffering. In the New Testament, Paul likewise encourages his readers to engage his meticulous arguments in his letter to Rome, a task not for the faint of heart. The truth is that the Bible not only calls us to think, but it actually requires us to think if we are to engage it in a meaningful way (again, think of how Paul depends on the logic of his arguments. Jesus, by the way, is no exception; he can argue quite well, too). Therefore, ignorance is not a virtue; it’s actually a vice (Prov 18:2; 19:2). And thinking is not unbiblical; having knowledge and knowing how to use it is thoroughly biblical, a Christian virtue in fact (2 Peter 1:5).

Moreover, thinking is also essential to our being human. Central to the Judeo-Christian worldview is that God has endowed us with his image and likeness. This entails the gift of volition, of free agency. That is, we have the ability to make meaningful choices. And God expects us to make good choices, wise choices, choices that result in blessings and not curses. But such choices, by definition, assume deliberation. Every wise person will, before making a hard decision, engage in reasoned and diligent deliberation (Prov 14:15; 21:5). A person is to ponder their decisions well, carefully weighing in their mind the potential consequences of future choices. It’s a myth, therefore, that God has not called us to think. It’s clear that he has not only called us to think but to think well.

(2) We refuse to read widely. Another way Christians will fail to fulfill their call to think well is to refuse to consider the opinions of differing people. In evangelical circles, I’ve noticed something. Often, we evangelicals get “cliquish” in our beliefs and convictions. For example, we often find ourselves reading and listening only to those authors–pastors, theologians, philosophers–with whom we happen to always agree. It’s not at all bad to have favorite authors. Neither is it wrong to primarily associate yourself with a group of thinkers that you can easily and comfortably identify with. There’s no problem with being proud of, and comfortable within, your own respective ecclesiastic distinctives (most reformed believers find themselves in a reformed church, charismatics in a charismatic church, etc). The problem, though, is that all too often evangelical Christians never get outside their comfort zone. Rather, they remain content never to read, for example, another author that might challenge their own tertiary beliefs, even when these new ideas spring from the pen of a fellow believer in Christ. I think this is dangerous for a couple of reasons.

First, if you never read outside your tribe’s own wise men, then you may not fully appreciate your own tribe’s convictions. One of the reasons I enjoy reading other thinkers with whom I most definitely disagree is because it actually serves to strengthen and solidify my own convictions. By reading other authors, I come to realize that their counter viewpoint is fairly weak and how mine is actually to be preferred. I’m sure a fish appreciates the water most when it finds itself flopping on a dock.

Second, you may actually be wrong about your beliefs. It may be the case that your conviction or belief is actually the result of, say, a bad interpretation of Scripture. Perhaps you’ve always believed you were right about “________” but, in reality, you have been wrong the whole time because you didn’t have all the right facts. Or maybe you simply mis-arranged the facts such that the truth became distorted and you have been, despite your firm confidence to the contrary, wrong the entire time. To be sure, this describes all of us at some point in time. In fact, I’d venture to say that both you and I believe some falsehood right this very second. Unless we have come to believe we are infallible creatures (a claim I’m not willing to make), perhaps we have some more learning to do in the future?

But here is the deal: You will never come to find out you are wrong if you never read opposing opinions. What’s interesting is how many evangelicals (again, I include myself on this charge) are so quick to point out how “the opposing side is wrong,” yet actually never take the time to listen to the other side at all. This isn’t smart (Prov 18:13). Do we read other works from other sectors of the Christian world in order to be challenged and learn truth? We should: Semper Reformandathey say. Do we stop to listen to other viewpoints, even those that don’t come explicitly from Christians? We need to. Even the Church Fathers saw glimmers of truth in the Greek philosophers. So did St. Paul, who found an opportunity to quote a pagan philosopher and poet (Acts 17:28). I’m glad the Apostle read widely, outside his tribe. If we–modern Christians, not least those in the evangelical tradition–fail to do so ourselves, we will portray ourselves as poor thinkers. We will also continue to exist in ignorance in the presence of an unbelieving world, displaying an arrogant folly too self-infatuated to be cured. The truth is that our Faith urges its adherents to do the opposite: to think deeply, clearly, and carefully.

 

From personal experience, that’s why I’ve enjoyed being a research student. It’s been sanctifying. As a grad student, I’m actually required to engage with, and leave ample room for, other thinkers who would disagree with me. Uncomfortably, I’m constantly being challenged by opposing views. It has even been the case that, after spending time in study, I’ve had to change my own beliefs. I’ve had to admit that I was wrong. There is a certain level of humility involved when you are forced to confess that. Maybe even embarrassment. But at the end of the day, humility and confession have always been part of the Christian way. “The first to plead his case seems right, until another comes and examines him” (Prov 18:17). It’s good to be examined. We should admit more often that there really does exist areas of the ocean that we, like our proverbial fish above, have yet to explore. You don’t have to be doing a PhD to come to that realization. This is common sense stuff–truth that any sound, well-reasoned mind will reach on its own.

So, let’s not be mistaken: ignorance has never been a virtue, especially in traditional and apostolic Christianity. Let’s commit ourselves, then, to loving wisdom, seeking understanding, and reading widely. By doing so, we will become better and more careful thinkers, the very thing God has called us to be.