Thursday, October 30, 2008

Knowledge, Experience & Wisdom

Expressions of disbelief, expert & experienced economists reduced to ‘speechlessness’, and a significant consensus of experienced experts confessing “we didn’t see this coming” have dominated the news of the last ten days.
I am only a dumb theologian, and wonder why it is that I am not in the least surprised?

Haves & Have Nots

This Web page is explicitly focused on contemporary theological issues, biblical studies and current ecclesiastical affairs. This does not, I feel, exclude comment on the current political scene though theologians need to tread warily here.
So here goes!

When I first came to live in the USA in 1971, I remember the Real Estate page (note the singular) in the New York Times Magazine section; there were usually about a dozen ‘superior’ properties listed, ranging in price from about $250, 000 to (very occasionally) $1m. At the time, since we were working in a boarding school that provided excellent accommodation, we began to think about where we would live when we retired. We agonized over the price of $68,000 with a loan rate of 12.85% for a house that was for sale.
It was this contrast that first began my musing about the structure of American society, wondering how anyone could afford what seemed to me the astronomical prices of the NYT advertisements; with my wife and I both working, our combined income was around $ 28,000 (including housing costs), and I was speechless that people could be making enough to pay a million or more for a house. Did this mean that they had an annual income approaching a million dollars?

We all know that in the last three decades the gap between the haves and the have-nots has become a canyon whose floor is almost out of sight, the result of unbridled capitalism that has made the river run uphill. The most recent edition of the NYT Magazine section has about a dozen real estate pages introduced by the title: Best of Luxury Homes & Estates. I did not have the time (4 or 5 hours?) to go though the whole collection carefully, but my quick check found just two properties, if that is the correct designation, for somewhat less than a million dollars. Each had one bedroom and a “spacious” additional living area, and one of them came with a $600 monthly fee for maintenance and security. The most expensive pied-à-terre I came across was an estate selling for $59, 000,000.

In another section of the NYT, I saw an advertisement for a Gucci handbag for the bargain price of $3,290.00. I almost feel like saying: “The case rests”; that would be so if the case were that vast economic inequalities have historically led to severe social and political instability: qu’ils mangent de la brioche (Let them eat cake).

But the case I want to make is, I realize after all, theological and not primarily about politics or economics.

Monumental Commandments

I have noted in several previous essays the striking difference between the USA and most of the rest of the industrialized world when religious statistics are compared. The overwhelming percentage of Americans who profess belief in God is remarkable; even more striking, (though not so striking as it once was) is that what is being referred to is the Christian God: sometimes just a ‘generic’ [g]God, but often Jesus, where Christos is not understood as a title – ‘the Anointed of Yahweh’, but as a kind of divine name. How much does his vast following really know about the New Testament, about the Jesus of history presented as the Christ of faith?
One test that suggests itself is the publishing of the Ten Commandments in the public domain, often in stone. The ensuing uproar suggests a profound commitment to Yahweh and to some pre-Israelite laws that treat wives as personal property. This is probably not the position of the generic god theists, but has more than enough adherents to create the uproar when the legality of the action is questioned.

In contrast, I do not know of any attempt to set up a monument inscribed, for example, with Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, or any other version for that matter. It is not clear to me what the reaction to such an attempt would be. Perhaps some, reading the Beatitudes for the first time, might find them interesting; right wing Republicans would probably accuse the author of being a Marxist, and very Conservative Evangelicals might mildly approve, while insisting that it was quite in order to own and drive several SUVs: fundamentalists, after all, do not insist on a literal reading of the text – a day can = a year, a century, a millennium – but on its inerrancy. Doubtless, the 10% who do not register belief in God would actively raise the Church and State issue.

Theology & the Social Contract

The theological crux of the whole matter is that the Beatitudes lead to the Cross, and what has been lost in the frenzy of spending, increasing year by year ever since WW II, is any attention to the sacrifices needed in individuals, families, corporations and the world at large for the maintenance of a stable, productive society. The execution of Jesus clearly does not emerge in the story at the eleventh hour. As early as his third chapter, Luke notes that the authorities consulted on how to get rid of him. The Beatitudes sum up the pattern of behavior that Mark and the Evangelists who followed him, clearly laid out for us: rejection of legalism; cutting across deeply embedded social and ethnic frontiers; a very clear understanding that love in a clash with power (bottom line – gold/$$/££ etc.) will inevitably suffer. It is that suffering, willingly accepted that constitutes sacrifice. I am not suggesting that a society can flourish only if all members are theists of one kind or another, but that the principles of, say, the “Golden Rule” can be followed by anyone.

The Politically Unspeakable

It is abundantly clear that there are things that politicians not only do not ever say, but cannot ever say. They cannot say that democracy is endangered when far too big a segment of the population, while literate, has never been trained to do any analytic thinking. Above all, they cannot even hint that our present situation is not only the result of bad policies, greedy financiers and supine legislators, but also the behavior of a vast majority of the population: wastefulness on an unprecedented level in history; piling up personal debt on multiple credit cards at astronomical levels; an increasing disregard for the most vulnerable section of our fellow citizens.

Of course, we hear that “belt tightening” will be necessary, that we may have to forgo some of our comforts (a house heated to 74°, fewer Christmas decorations), but has anyone heard a speech like Churchill’s in mid-1940 when he told the British people he could offer them nothing but “blood, sweat and tears”? I wonder what would happen if all night-time sporting events were to be cancelled.

Sub specie aeternitatis, this might seem a relatively small sacrifice, but would the fact that it would save countless millions of kilowatt hours, stem the howl of rage? I rather doubt it. And such a policy would be only a miniscule first step in the implementation of the much more draconian measures that are really needed.

Too Much Religion

Perhaps what emerges is that the USA has far too much religion, religion of the smiley face, hand-clapping kind; religion that insists that getting filthy rich is what Jesus really wants for us; religion that harks back much more to the Old Testament than to the New; religion that fails to take into account the potentials of human sin (except for homosexuals and commies). Perhaps what we need is not only an economic rescue, but an evangelical rescue, where ‘evangelical’ does not mean far right fundamentalism, but an embracing of the Evangel so clearly set out in the New Testament.
We also need wise leaders, and that brings me at long last to the title of this essay.

In Canto I of Choruses from ‘The Rock', T.S. Eliot says:

Where is the life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

It might be the height of presumption, but I would like to add:
“Where is the the information we have lost in Campaign Ads?”

Validation by Experience

There has been a great deal of talk about the importance of experience for many months now, and as is most often the case in political discourse, the talk is full of hidden assumptions, suppressed protases (first part of an “if” clause) producing damning apodoses (the “then” part of a conditional clause):

if X is educated, then he/she is out of touch.

Or, if Y is a septuagenarian, then he/she ought to have retired.

In the case of ‘experience’, the argument seems to be: if you have travelled widely, then you know how to deal with other nations. Unhappily, I know people who have spent their life travelling, who take pride in not knowing a word of any European or Eastern language, who insist that there is nothing like a good old American hamburger and who keep track of their itinerary by noting that it is Wednesday today.

It really does not take a great deal of thought to work out that experience which is not subjected to critical thought and analysis is somewhat like a frozen bank account. Quite by accident, as I was writing this I came on a passage in an essay of Michel de Montaigne, On the Art of Conversation (Four Essays in the Penguin 60s series - 1995 Translated by M.A. Screech).
Montaigne notes that in a conversation people of rank often get away with arguments that “are vain and silly”, and then they “clobber you with the authority of their experience” (52). He next introduces the case of a surgeon (doctor) to whom he would like to say that a recital of all his experience with this or that illness & success with many surgical procedures is in itself beside the point. What matters is how he is able “to extract from [his experience] material for forming his judgment”. His experience is irrelevant “unless he knows how to convince us that he has been made wiser by the practice of his medical art”. (53).

Perhaps Eliot is saying something like this in the last line of section II of East Coker:

The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.

Certainly the financial wizards with whom I began had a great deal of knowledge and immense experience, but they seemed signally to lack the wisdom that comes from humility.


Anonymous said...

Dear Simon,
John's Gospel presents three difficult questions for me. (1) John tells us that Jesus says, "I and the Father are one."; (2) John tells us that Jesus says, "I am the way and the truth and the life."; (3) John tells us that Jesus says, "No one will get to the Father except though me." Simon, I am a person of the 20th and 21st century. These sayings are hard for a person who suffers from materialism, realism, practicality and humanism. Help Simon. How is a human being of this new century to be a good Christian?

Canon Simon Mein said...


Thank you for your comment. I greatly sympathize with your dilemma.
Firstly, it is important not to think of "materialism....etc" as a malady. These are prerequisites for coming to grips with the human situation. I think that Jesus might be regarded as a prime example of realism.
Secondly, it essential to use all the tools of modern scholarship in dealing with the bible. The predominant dogmatic view of Jesus is not often fully found in the Gospels.

You might find a piece that I posted in April 2007 helpful (4.30.07). It is headed, Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus
There is so much more to be said, but I hope this may be a helpful beginning.

Canon Simon Mein said...


Sorry. I got the reference wrong; it should be 4.30.08.