Why wisdom is so difficult

From where I sit, one of the most urgent needs for everyday people, especially believers, is wisdom. Actively cultivating wisdom is difficult even when such a pursuit is universally acknowledged to be worthwhile. How hard is it when almost everything in a society is encouraging the abandonment of wisdom, the suspension of careful thinking, and outsourcing virtuous belief to political tribes? I fear losing wisdom is a loss that compounds interest. The less of it you have, the less of it you can recognize.

Why has wisdom become more difficult to cultivate? Here are three main stumbling blocks I see:

1) The spiritual problem

By this I mean more than unbelief and the noetic effects of sin. Yes, those are real and devastating. But they’re also evergreen; they’re never not problems. The spiritual problem I have in mind here is the loss of common spirituality and community virtue. Call it polarization, call it identity politics, call it what you want: it’s a fundamental loss of shared religious and moral commitments. I’m not pining for “civic religion,” but it does seem to me that the alternative to Christ-less public spirituality ought not to be social disintegration.

The reason cultivating wisdom is threatened by social fragmentation is that wisdom assumes its own possibility. To be wise is to look at disparate things in life and understand them coherently. In an age of expressive individualism, we despair of the possibility of understanding. It’s why we stop thinking and start asserting our own right to self-definition. A friend of mine recently sent me this passage from Charles Taylor:

That is what is self-defeating in modes of contemporary culture that concentrate on self-fulfillment in opposition to the demand of society, or nature, which shut out history and the bonds of solidarity. These self-centered ‘narcissistic’ forms are indeed shallow and trivialized; they are ‘flattened and narrowed,’ as Bloom says. But this is not because they belong to the culture of authenticity. Rather it is because they fly in the face of its requirements. To shut out demands emanating beyond the self is precisely to suppress the conditions of significance, and hence to court trivialization.

2) The technological problem

On this issue Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows has been a revelation for me. We simply do not talk enough about technology’s potential to radically alter public epistemology. One of the points Carr makes in the book is that the printed reading and internet reading position reader much differently. Printed reading, especially after Gutenberg, centered the individual reader and asked him to come to terms with ideas and arguments that could be presented in a linear structure. Internet reading, however, de-centers the reader and centers the disparate elements of digital text: hyperlinks, comments, etc. Internet reading blurs the lines between receiving meaning and giving back interpretation, which is one reason why trolling is effective at altering people’s perceptions of an idea.

As daily reading shifts almost entirely online, linear thought is threatened by “loaded” digital forms. An embedded link can transform the context of an argument. A “related article” or algorithm can imply logical connections subliminally but illegitimately. Comments, tweets, and “Likes” manipulate our intuitive response to written words. This is all noise—noise that handicaps the authentic pursuit of wisdom. Instead of becoming wise we are often becoming marketers. Minutia dominates our emotions. We see enemies where algorithms tell us to enemies. We lose wisdom in the weeds of the online jungle.

3) The tribal problem

Our response to the above problems leads to the third wisdom roadblock: hyper-tribalism. In the absence of thick communities of shared value, the internet atomizes and manipulates our thought, making judgments simultaneously more difficult and more instant. The only logical thing to do is to preserve our energy by letting political categories think for us. We “sort, lump, and dismiss” ideas instead of engaging with them. We lose the ability to communicate as words become hijacked by movements. Everything is ideology, ideology is everything.

Biblical wisdom is about perceiving the way God designed the world and patterning our thought and life accordingly. Wisdom is living in reality: the reality of divine providence, grace, judgment, mercy, and design. All three of these roadblocks to wisdom plunge us into unreality. We are left adrift by fragmentation, tricked by technology, and rendered passive by tribalism. I’ll say more later about this. For now I’m trying to look more soberly into my own intellectual and spiritual habits to see traces of these problems. I know they’re there. They don’t have to be.

Billy Graham Rules!

Right now the Big Thing On Twitter™ is the “Billy Graham Rule.” A new debate was flared up by news that Vice President Mike Pence practiced his own form of the rule. Some well-followed progressives wasted no time before lambasting Mr. Pence as a sexist. Some well-followed progressive evangelicals likewise jumped in by chastising the rule and Christians who practice it. Apparently, pastors who won’t meet 1 on 1 with a woman who is not family are guilty of “anti-gospel” objectification.

I’ve defended the Billy Graham rule before. I’ve also written about the many issues I have with the particular quadrant of progressive evangelicalism that concerns itself with “purity culture.” While some of the critiques that come from this space are good and helpful, a suffocating amount of them are, in my view, thinly-veiled gospel revisionism, pretenses for protesting the Bible’s clear teaching on fornication, marriage, and homosexuality. Most of the derogatory comments I’ve seen from bloggers about the BG rule confirm this suspicion. I cannot imagine this kind of hostility against a personal policy designed to protect spouses and families, except hostility that is aimed at a much wider target.

But I honestly have no desire to retread my arguments in favor of a Billy Graham rule. I do favor it, but I don’t necessarily look down on men who don’t. Issues of prudential wisdom require context and nuance. Where Scripture refuses to lay down a binding on the conscience, we shouldn’t either.

I have only one last comment about this whole thing. I think every Christian should ponder the wisdom of G.K. Chesterton:

A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth: this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert-himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt…

For the old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether.

This is the key to understand the dispute over the Billy Graham ruleThe men who I have known that take painful care to avoid situations of either temptation or compromising appearance do not doubt the value of the women in their church. They do not assume that their sisters in Christ are temptresses waiting for an opportune moment of either pleasure of blackmail. Rather, the men in my life who taught and modeled to me the value of the BG rule had a low view of themselves, and they were absolutely OK with that.

It’s this attitude that cuts so cleanly against the grain of contemporary culture. It makes absolutely no sense to Millennial ears why a person would doubt their own resolve, their own courage, their own fortitude, and seek to strengthen themselves through weakness. Such a worldview violates every possible permutation of the spirit of the age, which is: “You are enough, you are in control, and your self-actualization is what will bring you happiness.” This is the mantra of the book club, the religion of the Disney Channel. It is the air we breathe. And it has become so intrinsic to every corner of our culture that we only notice it when someone actually rages against it to the detriment of their career or reputation.

Chesterton’s point is the essence of the BG rule. A high view of my marriage covenant, a high view of the reputation of others, and a low view of myself: That’s what it’s all about. Those first two sound fine in the age of expressive individualism. The third one is heresy, and it is the worst kind of heresy–the heresy that puts the unspoken question into the air, “So what are you doing to do?”