Where is the wise man? (Or: Paul the skeptic)

Where is the wise man? (Or: Paul the skeptic)

This past week I was reading the first chapter of 1 Corinthians.  I came to v. 20:
 “Where is the wise man?  Where is the scholar?  Where is the philosopher of this age?  Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?”
This salvo of questions should give us at least some pause.  What is the shelf life of today’s “expert” advice?  Where are yesterday’s experts?  But surely the apostle goes too far.  Has God really “made foolish” the wisdom of this world?  How elusive could the truth be?
      This past week I (not coincidentally) started an absolutely fascinating read called Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing Us — And How to Know When Not to Trust Them by David Freedman, a journalist and contributing editor at The Atlantic.

In the Introduction Freedman writes:
“…this book is about why expertise goes wrong….we’re going to look at how experts—including scientists, business gurus, and our other highly trusted sources of wisdom—fall prey to a range of measurement errors, how they come to have deep biases that lead them into gamesmanship and even outright dishonesty, and how interactions among them tend to worsen rather than correct for these problems. We’re also going to examine the ways in which the media sort through the flow of dubious expert pronouncements and further distort them, as well as how we ourselves are drawn to the worst of this shoddy output.”
     Freedman’s research would appear to be, well, damning, and it (unwittingly) lends credence to the Apostle Paul’s unqualified skepticism of human wisdom.  With caution and keen self-awareness, Freedman marshals example after example of how key assumptions are left unrecognized in even the most highly esteemed research in a myriad of fields–with devastating results.  For example, before researchers even begin the difficult task of interpreting the data, there is the million dollar question of which data are to be interpreted.  He writes:

“…underlying these often authoritative- and confident-seeming conclusions is a rat’s nest of confusion and misdirection largely stemming from one big question: what do you measure? There are usually no obvious or standardized approaches to figuring out which data provide the most useful and reliable insight” (p. 9).
He then provides the following example:
“It might sound pretty straightforward, for example, to ask which hospital in a community provides the best care. But hospitals can be rated on any of a bewildering variety of considerations, including inpatient volume, staffing levels, readmission rates, university affiliations, costs of treatment, and specialty practices. Well, we could keep it simple and just look at death rates, as some experts do. Of all the things we’d like to see happen during a hospital stay, avoiding death is usually at the top of the list. But death rates don’t simply depend on the quality of treatment rendered by a hospital; they can also depend on how sick or old or poor the population served by the hospital is”–etc., etc. (p. 9).
But what makes Freedman’s work a truly interesting read is that he is self-critical.
     In Appendix 4, entitled, “Is This Book Wrong?”, he wrestles with the question:  Isn’t there something self-defeating about a book that cites expert research to disprove…expert research?  His answer is fascinating, beginning with a story of how his father, a research chemist for Dow Chemical, kept a single page from a scientific journal article in a framed picture in his office at work.  The article, published by another scientist, proved that conclusions that Freedman’s father had reached were in fact completely mistaken.  Freedman recalls how, as a boy, he responded when he first learned of the significance of the framed page:
Shocked and embarrassed for him, I asked why he would put such a thing on his wall. ‘It reminds me how easy it is to be wrong,’ he replied.”
He then admits:
“…to say that you don’t have to worry about my falling for expertise traps because I’m a journalist would be like a mugger offering the reassurance that she’s no car thief….I’ve probably spun, omitted, exaggerated, manipulated, and artfully selected facts and concepts in ways that bolster my case. That’s because I’m biased….”
But where does that leave Freedman?  Is he able to discover the truth?  Am I?  Are you?
     Paul’s fundamental argument is that human wisdom–what we might call “received wisdom”–is, ultimately, foolishness.  But it is foolishness in the same way that a counterfeit $100 bill is “foolishness”:  there is so much that is accurate, but the seemingly small number of inaccuracies (the presuppositions?) make all the difference in the world.  According to Paul, we humans know enough to know how foolish the “experts” can be.  That is why Paul is so deeply skeptical of human wisdom and  abandons it for that which could never have been discovered by any human–namely, divine wisdom.  That is, he utterly forsakes a commonsensical “received wisdom” for a highly counterintuitive revealed wisdom (something called the gospel).  And he commends the same to us:
“Do not deceive yourselves. If any one of you thinks he is wise by the standards of this age, he should become a “fool” so that he may become wise.” (1 Cor. 3.18).

3 thoughts on “Where is the wise man? (Or: Paul the skeptic)

  1. That sounds like an interesting read, Bruce, and the comparison with 1 Corinthians is striking.

    I will say that I find this issue pervasive in medicine, and yet wisdom is very rarely talked about, either in the “explicit” curriculum (that is, the didactics, the formal teaching from mentors) or the “hidden” curriculum (that is, what is taught to you in the call room at 03:00, or muttered outside a difficult patient’s room by your attending physician). We use other words (e.g., judgment, intelligence, competence), but they fail to convey the same meaning as the word “wisdom.” I’m not sure why we avoid that word in common parlance.

    Having said that, there is certainly received wisdom that we inevitably absorb from our teachers, colleagues and interactions with patients. Much of it, I think, has to do with things about on which the gospel is silent: how to perform a surgery well, or conduct an efficient diagnostic interview, or intubate someone. These are technical skills, but they also require measures of wisdom (e.g., about when to do it, how best to do it, etc) that you can’t gather entirely from a textbook.

    There are, however, as you point out, the presuppositions. The bodies are often in the basement, but it’s also easy to get lost exploring there. On the surface, a physician may appear virtuous, but what makes him act that way, and what does he believe about human dignity? About God? What does he believe about the patients whom he serves? The presuppositions matter for many reasons, one of them being that they inform what we will do in ethical dilemmas; another is they will inform how we integrate new data that may contradict our present worldview; still another is that they will affect how we approach those with presuppositions different from our own. They also tell us, fundamentally, what we believe about God, and everyone has a belief about God.

    I think we can talk ourselves blue in the face but if we’re not talking at the level of someone’s presuppositions when they’re different from our own, we will only produce heat without light (or, perhaps, a pretty light show without the heat necessary to melt hearts…). Jesus challenged people at the level of their presuppositions; he cut into them in a frightening way.

    But Jesus didn’t only speak. He did something; he was crucified, among other things (1 Cor 1:23-24). He didn’t sit on a mountain and pronounce proverbs his entire life. I think that’s important to remember as I work in the hospital. Wisdom isn’t merely intellectual endeavor, but is a matter of weakness/strength, righteousness/unrighteousness, faithfulness/unfaithfulness.

    I have a few questions about this, though:

    – Is there anything prescriptive here (i.e., because X you should do Y)? Or is Paul simply revealing the means by which God did something?

    – Is it notable that Paul leaves out the mention of “expert” professions? “Where is the master carpenter? Where is the master winemaker? Where is the powerful politician?” In asking about wise men, scribes and debaters, he seems to have set his sights on a particular category of folks, perhaps the religious establishment, and what they receive as wisdom about God, etc. and may not be directly applicable to experts in those fields. This could have implications for our abandonment of human wisdom (i.e., abandon “religious” wisdom, but maybe winemakers have some wisdom about making wine).

    – Which leads me to my last question: what does it mean to abandon human wisdom? The proverbs give a fair outline in comparing foolishness with wisdom (presumably, human vs. divine wisdom, so to speak), but Paul doesn’t give us clear examples here, instead limiting his discussion to abstract principles on the side of human wisdom (e.g., foolishness of men, strength of men) and one concrete example on the side of divine wisdom (e.g., crucifixion). Therefore, I feel like I’m put in a dilemma where I see, for example, my mentors, who are good at what they do, utilizing a kind of wisdom to help patients, but also am told that there is a divine wisdom that is contrary to that – but I don’t always know how to tap it for any given problem in medicine.

  2. Hey, Josh!

    Great thoughts: indeed, ‘the bodies are often in the basement.” To respond to your questions:

    1. What is prescriptive? I could answer this in a number of ways, but I think what is most striking to me is Pau’s statement in v. 22: “Jews demand signs and Greeks look for ‘wisdom.'” Whether one is in a specific religious community (Christian, Jewish, etc.) or not (“Greek”), we all live life with expectations: we are all implicitly (or explicitly) expecting–i.e., “demanding” or “seeking”–something. Asking of primarily of myself (and, secondarily, of others), “In this situation/relationship, what am I implicitly demanding/expecting AND WHY?” is an extremely fruitful question. Answering that will concretize our otherwise abstract/hidden presuppositions.

    But in terms of prescriptive ACTIONS, one extremely important–and sobering/challenging–implication is that, because the antithetical nature of received/human wisdom and revealed wisdom, our visions of personal and collective flourishing will be deeply antithetical. Hence, when we go to love another, how these two wisdoms call us to love them will look very different. And if I love according to revealed wisdom, and they desire to be loved according to be received wisdom, the latter will almost certainly not FEEL loved!! This leads to a very challenging and (to say the least) unpleasant, even tragic situation, epitomized in the cross: Jesus came to love the world, and he was rejected by the world. Ironically, it is Jesus’ rejection BY the world that constitutes his supreme act of love FOR the world. In short, when we love according to revealed wisdom, we should expect that those whom won’t always be elated. In fact, they may even reject us. This makes love an altogether challenging and risky business, not least because we are not Jesus.

    Personally, as a minister, I’m keenly aware that I can bring harm (and have at times) to the very persons I’m trying to help (by analogy, in Wrong Freedman states, “According to well-known physician-author Jerome Groopman, doctors misdiagnosed patients about one of six times, and about half of those misdiagnoses result in ‘real harm’”). But I am also keenly aware that, at times, I will faithfully love persons, and they will reject me for it. Because of this, it should be no surprise that the Bible places premium value on wisdom:

    “Get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding” (Prov. 4.7).

    “…wisdom is more precious than rubies, and nothing you desire can compare with her” (Prov. 8.11).

    And for the New Testament authors, Jesus wisdom incarnate. In 1 Cor. 1.30 Paul speaks of “Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God.” And at the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Whoever hears my words and puts them into practice is like a wise man….” (Mt. 7.24).

    So while love is indeed a challenging and risky business, if obeying Jesus makes us wise, that brings much needed simplicity and clarity to the act of love. But if it’s that simple, why don’t we do that? Because we know that if we obey Jesus in our vocations and relationships, it will mean rejection by the world. So we choose not to love. It leaves us with the question: Why wasn’t Jesus afraid of being rejected by the world? What was he missing? 

    2. I would be inclined to translate v. 20 as follows: “Where is the wise man? Where is the professional? Where is the controversialist?” The second term (which I’ve translated “professional”) is difficult to nail down (various versions: scholar, scribe, teacher of the law, etc.). Paul does not specifically mention (as you say) the master carpenter, etc., though I suspect the second term, which I’ve translated “professional” or “expert”, points to this. Further, to speak in general terms, in the Greco-Roman world, a concept like “wisdom” would be seen to underlie all the various “expert professions”: the “wise man” would have sought to persuade the master carpenter that, if he would be successful as a carpenter, he should embrace the wise man’s wisdom. Part of what makes Wrong such a fascinating read is that Freedman shows the pervasive folly of the “experts” across a wide range of fields and specializations. If I were to summarize my take away from Freedman’s book, it would be: rampant pride can be found in every vocation, especially amongst those who regard themselves as specialists—i.e., THE experts—in a given field. The gospel questions this expertise insofar as it frees the expert to question received wisdom, to re-think and challenge fundamental categories within his field and to publish those challenges, knowing that it may cost him/her their reputation. Expertise in any field is humble expertise, an expertise that knows how little it actually knows….

    3. What does it mean to abandon received/human wisdom? How does one actually do that? My very general five-word response: by studying the real thing. That is, one learns to identify counterfeit $100 bill by studying a real $100 bill, doing so in a community of persons who are also eagerly studying a real $100 bill. We live in a world of counterfeits, and wisdom is found by studying the authentic, so that the contrast between the two is more readily identifiable. It is a pursuit that is prayer-filled: God repeatedly tells his people to ask him for wisdom—indeed, “call out” and “cry aloud” to him for it and “search for it as for hidden treasure” (Prov. 2.3-4). How often do we do that? It is a pursuit that is humbling: right now we DON’T see a difference; we don’t know the differences. But we know the starting point: Jesus. And that makes all the difference.

  3. When I was a younger man I used to spend a lot of time reading my Bible and journaling. Then I began to listen to the evangelical world espouse the “wisdom” that, “quiet times are just a way to earn God’s favor. God loves you just as you are. Stop seeking his approval and feeling guilty for not doing your quiet time. All you need is Jesus. I mean you’re saved right?” These “wise” words struck my heart as I had lived with guilt nearly all of my life. Instead of bringing peace however, it brought more sin and guilt. When I get to meet with people and talk about their struggles I try to find a way to ask a very straightforward question, “are you reading your bible?” Or maybe a better question, “are you even interested in reading your bible?” This isn’t to guilt them, however if they feel guilty then so be it. It’s to encourage them. I’m so weary of men, young and old, telling me that they don’t read. Reading the Bible is not a foolproof way to avoid sin or errors but if the very Word of God is not a primary concern for how we live our lives, then where else can we turn?

    Peter says it well to Jesus in John 6:67-68 “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.
    Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”

    Oh that we might desire to feast on his word, soak his wisdom and delight in his love in this way and cry with Peter, “Where else could we possibly go!”

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