In the previous essay, written about a week ago, I set out briefly what I think it means to be an educated person. Just a few days later during a conversation with some good friends one of them recalled an article that listed the 100 books one “must read” to become an educated person. Since then I’ve thought about that claim and concluded that—though containing much truth—it misses the mark. Among the many problems with this idea, the most damning is its identification of reading with understanding and knowledge of facts with wisdom. One can read those 100 books and thousands more without becoming wise or gaining understanding. And surely we would call no one educated who does not possess understanding.
Searching for Understanding
So, I’ve been thinking recently about what it means to be wise and possess understanding. As a teenager, I felt a great need for wisdom and lamented my lack thereof. I read the Old Testament book of Proverbs over and over and took it to heart. I read the New Testament book of James for the same reason. I took James at his word when he advised, “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you” (James 1:5). And, of course, I pondered Paul’s profoundly counterintuitive claim that God’s deepest wisdom and power were revealed in the cross of Christ (1 Cor 1:18-25). Much of my reading throughout life has been given to the search for wisdom and understanding. What, then, is wisdom and how can we gain understanding?
My search has been for knowledge about how to live a good life, for discernment to make good decisions, and for the intellectual and moral virtues that make that good life possible and protect us from foolishness and evil. It is a quest to understand myself, the human condition, our age, and the possibilities for the future. It is a pursuit of the “happy life,” which Augustine of Hippo defined as “joy based on truth.” It is desire to know my place, do my part, and complete my assignment. It is life in hope of hearing the words of the Master, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!” (Matt 25:21).
Understanding the Spirit of the Age
This morning I read an article on “History” in one of my encyclopedias of theology. I found the section on the philosophy of history especially stimulating. It reminded me of my quest for understanding and wisdom, especially of my desire to understand our age and my place in it. I believe strongly in divine providence: God is the beginning and end of all things and Jesus Christ reveals the goal and meaning of history. This faith gives me confidence that history as a whole possesses meaning, that in looking to Jesus we can know what we need to know about God, and in following Jesus we can live good lives. Nevertheless, in trying to understand the spirit of our age and how I can best live in relation to it, I sometimes feel like I am lost in a forest. I believe the “forest” has an edge and a shape, but I can’t rise above the canopy to find my bearings.
Much of my intellectual quest has been devoted to finding—if not the top of the forest canopy—some higher ground from which to survey a larger area of the landscape in search of a wider historical perspective. At least half of the 350 essays I’ve written for this blog have been devoted to this task. As frequent readers know, I view the “spirit of the age” as the energy unleashed by the Enlightenment’s and Romantic Movement’s transfer of God’s attributes to humanity. In my April 18, 2022 essay, “How God Became Man: The Story of Progressive Humanism,” I observed that human beings always see their ideals and ambitions exemplified perfectly by God/gods. In the late Middle Ages (1300 to 1500) theologians began to view God primarily as an all-determining, omnipotent, and absolutely free will rather than an infinite intellect, perfect in goodness, self-diffusive in love. God is everything and human beings are nothing. The modern world held on to the ideal of absolute freedom as the highest good but reversed the relationship between God and humanity: Humanity became the central player in history and God became no more than a supporting actor! Divine providence was replaced by human planning. For the past 400 years, the driving force of history—the spirit of the age—has been the human quest to realize its ambition and presumed right for absolute freedom, for a sort of divinity.
This quest for unlimited freedom has unfolded in stepwise fashion from around 1600 until today. In an essay from October 11, 2013, “In the Year 2013…Will There Be Faith on the earth?” I distinguish between two different types of logic at work in historical development—linear and dialectical logic. (By “logic” I mean the connections ideas and actions have with each other whereby one leads to another.)
The thesis that
“Humanity is in its inner essence absolutely free from all alien limits and can attain this freedom in actuality through its own effort”
is teeming with revolutionary implications impossible to grasp at once. Only in the history it inspires does its latent meaning become manifest and understandable. Only with historical hindsight can we see that this thesis stated above was at work all along. In that history, the moment human beings are liberated from one alien “oppressor,” others oppressors come into view, and so on without limit, without end. The church and kings were dealt with first. History since the American and French Revolutions witnesses one liberation movement after another driven by the linear logic that seeks to unfold the real-world implications of the principle of self-determining freedom. Today, we have reached the point a which the physical body itself—understood as a biological given—has come to be seen as oppressive. Human nature, body and soul, must now submit to the absolute freedom of human subjectivity and willfulness.
However there is another logic at work in the history of freedom—a dialectical logic.
(“Dialectic” refers to conversation or debate wherein one partner’s affirmation provokes the other’s denial. The denial, then, provokes a defense, and so on. You can unfold an idea linearly by yourself, theoretically, but dialectical logic requires conflict with others.)
Strong and unambiguous assertions always provoke denials, and radical acts provoke strong reactions. At some point it becomes apparent—or at least felt—that if the ideal of absolute freedom was put into practice consistently it would mean absolute destruction of all order, truth, reason, and rules. That is to say, freedom without limits works total destruction. Nihilism is the secret spirit of the age, the source of its power, and the mystery of its appeal. But not everyone is fascinated with the specter of total destruction. They foresee that using the ideal of unlimited freedom even in a relatively just cause—for example, the quest for liberation from slavery, racism, and sexism—will eventually destroy the principles by which we understood those causes to be just to begin with. Hence they push back against the “spirit of the age” and “the arc of history.” Such “conservatives” may succeed in the short term, but they will fail in the long term unless they expose the secret nihilism of the age in a way that convinces the cultural leaders of their errors. Sadly I don’t see this happening. The linear logic of nihilism-disguised-as-freedom, of humanity masquerading as God, will continue its destructive course until it is unmasked by history itself or everything is destroyed.
Christ Crucified or the Spirit of the Age
Christian people are not immune to fascination with the spirit of the age. After all, it appeals to that universal human desire “to be as God” discussed in Genesis 3. And if we think God’s divinity and eternal joy are rooted in his power over everything and his freedom from all limits, we will desire such power and freedom and resent that do not not possess them. We have no defense and nothing significant to say to a culture that pursues openly what we desire in secret. Our only hope is to embrace the counterintuitive truth that God’s deepest wisdom and power are revealed in the cross of Christ (1 Cor 1:18-25). God’s deepest nature is self-giving, other-oriented love. This divine love should be our highest ideal and following the way of the cross our loftiest ambition. The spirit of our age is a substitute god, an idol. And in my estimation coming to see this clearly is a mark of wisdom and an achievement of understanding.
19 We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one. 20 We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true by being in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. 21 Dear children, keep yourselves from idols (1 John 5:19-21).
To be continued…