United in Suffering, Distracted by What To Do About It (Part 2)

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Only a god could be wise. We are seekers, lovers of divine wisdom, but it is forever beyond our grasp due to human limitation.

In my last post I argued that an oft-neglected aspect of the discussions surrounding science and religion is the ethical framework of the discussion. What I meant by ethical framework was not so much questions of how to understand the status of an embryo, the moral status of gene editing, or if science has anything to say regarding biblical interpretation. These are important questions, but tend toward the propositional. My aim was to show that ethical concerns about living life well (eudemonia) undergird all propositional conversations regarding science and religion. The scientific and theological truths we adhere to and sometimes fight about regarding the relationship of science to religion mask a deeper and shared human experience. The experience of living in a universe that is dangerous and careless in its dealings with our lives, more pointedly, in suffering.

Plato suggested in the Phaedo that living wisely, i.e., engaging in the philosophical life, was the best preparation for death. Dawkins and Kitcher tacitly agree with this declaration offering their own conceptions of “living wisely” in their books. Christians also agree with Plato on this point as numerous scriptural injunctions from Genesis to Revelation support the notion of wise living. However, the question is then begged as to what is the nature of wisdom? It is in answering this question that the ethical framework of the science and religion discussion is brought forward.

The Nature of Wisdom

In order to get a sense of how wisdom is understood and the difficulties it raises in our contemporary situation regarding science and religion, one must begin in ancient Greece. Both Plato and Aristotle located wisdom as the ultimate expression of what it means to be a philosopher. The term philosopher itself means lover of wisdom. It is a trait of character, something to be cultivated over time through conversation and self-reflection. Plato and Aristotle disagreed as to what exactly wisdom entailed and how to cultivate it, but they agreed that wisdom was essential to understanding and living well in the world around them. Furthermore, the search or love of wisdom led both thinkers into the realm of theology. Anybody who has read Aristotle’s Metaphysics may have been taken aback as conversation turned toward a monotheistic conception of “god” and the frequent use of the term theology. This is because Aristotle, as well as Plato, understood that mankind could not attain perfect wisdom. Only a god could be wise. We are seekers, lovers of divine wisdom, but it is forever beyond our grasp due to human limitation. Thus, much of ancient philosophy conceived of wisdom as falling between ignorance and the divine. Here are the roots of Dawkins’ and Kitcher’s “happy atheism,” an understanding that is seeking faith and hope. The love of wisdom ends in theological rumination as to how to live life well.

Only a god could be wise. We are seekers, lovers of divine wisdom, but it is forever beyond our grasp due to human limitation.

The ancients put into motion a conception of wisdom that carries forward into today, but what of Christianity? Does not St. Paul warn the Corinthian church, “Let no one deceive himself, if anyone among you thinks he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is folly with God” (1 Cor. 3:18-19 ESV). Proverbs clearly states, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 9:10 ESV) and the author of Ecclesiastes has the following insight, “there is nothing new under the sun” (1:9 ESV). The insight captured by the biblical authors is surprisingly similar to the ethos of Dawkins and Kitcher in that understanding only takes one so far. At the end of a life lived wisely is still a further question: Does the life I actually lived measure up to my pursuit of wisdom? One is faced with their limitations in how well they truly understood everything in the first place. C.S. Lewis reminds us in Mere Christianity that our pursuit of wisdom will always be frustrated by an existential knowledge that we never quite live up to its exacting standards, uniting Christian and non-Christian alike as fellow travelers in failure.

This is where the biblical conception of wisdom flips the script on the atheist. Paul continues the earlier verse, “For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,” and again, “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.” So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s” (1 Cor. 3:19-23). Proverbs 9:10 concludes, “and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight” (ESV). Thus, I argue that it is true that there is nothing new under the sun, but everything is transformed under the Son. It is through faith in Christ that all is made right despite the struggles with wisdom and the ensuing suffering of our actual lives. In fact, one of the very powers of forgiveness is the courage, hope, and trust that I can get out there and try again. Scripture flipped the script on wisdom in that my pursuit of wisdom does not lead me to posit a theology completing my ‘happiness’. Rather, I go into the world seeking wisdom ‘happy’ in the forgiveness granted through Christ and comforted in the fact that my pursuit of wisdom is so much dust in the wind. I am not defined by the end of my understanding in faith, but by my faith spurring understanding.

Faith Seeking Understanding

Anselm (d. 1109) gave a name to this conception of wisdom when he declared that the Christian employ a life of faith seeking understanding. Augustine (d. 430), Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274), and Martin Luther (d. 1546) all worked within such a paradigm. This way of conceiving wisdom puts the object of faith, Christ crucified, at the center of human existence and experience. It begins with the hope and knowledge of forgiveness so that one may suffer in understanding the world around them. This is the great reversal that Christianity works on wisdom: worldly wisdom is so much folly that it ends in a search for faith while the Christian begins in faith. But, one must be careful with what I am stating. Beginning in faith and living in faith is not a rejection of worldly wisdom, it is all the more important to get into the world, understanding it in all its complexities to better serve our neighbor. And here is where we often run into trouble with our neighbors. Whereas the ancients are fearful of ignorance on the one hand and the arrogance of claiming to know god’s thoughts on the other hand, the Christian formulation of wisdom juxtaposes enthusiasm/fideism against idolatry. Our conversations within and without Christendom falter at the cross-sections of ignorance, idolatry, and forgiveness.

This truly is a messy world in which we travel. We are all entangled within a complex ethical web of communication between others and ourselves, failing to make ourselves clear and distracted by what is actually important in our interactions. If anything, my thoughts ought to remind us that every person we become entangled with is one suffering under the weight of trying to live life well. Whether committed to wisdom as understanding seeking faith or faith seeking understanding, issues of science and religion, abortion, same sex marriage, insert pet issue here, distract us from tackling the fundamental issue of failing to live rightly. Drawing attention to the ethical framework surrounding such conversations may just remind us that the other is a fellow traveler in this crazy cosmos, one worth keeping in dialogue. Who knows? We may even be able to share the hope that is within, transforming the wisdom of our conversations into that life truly well lived under the cross.