Wisdom’s demanding dialectic: three things they will tell you that you must believe, and three other things you must believe instead
Caribbean Graduate School of Theology, Kingston, Jamaica
Graduation 3 July 2009
The Governor General of Jamaica, The Most Honourable Sir Patrick Allen and Lady Allen, Senator Hyacinth Bennett, Vice Chairman of the Board of Governors, Rev Dr Alston Henry, other members of the Board of Governors, President Dr Les Newman, Vice President of Academic Affairs, Dr Anthony Oliver, other members of the platform, graduands and their families, well-wishers and friends, may I express my gratitude to you for the honour you have afforded me of speaking to you on this occasion?
My dear graduands, this is your day, not mine. Yet it falls to me as a great joy to offer some words of encouragement and orientation in this, your moment of achievement. I am so very grateful for the opportunity.
I have entitled these brief remarks ‘Wisdom’s demanding dialectic: three things they will tell you that you must believe. And three other things you must believe instead.’
Dialectic, of course, is that form of interaction that begins when a statement is laid out as a thesis. Someone else counters that thesis with an opposing statement. We call this the antithesis. Finally, out of consideration of the two statements there emerges a synthesis. In the best of cases, this endpoint does justice to the initially contradictory claims of the synthesis and the antithesis.
We might feel a sense of harmonious satisfaction at the moment of discovering a synthesis. Yet life is not so simple, for that synthesis becomes in due course a new thesis, which invites an antithesis, which in the best of cases is resolved into a synthesis. And so does life march on, stumble on, limp on, or in the style of your estimable Mr Bolt, sprint on.
This is dialectic. It is a sketch of the way things behave, the way human minds and human communities work out their journey.
Entire philosophies have been built upon the observation of this pattern of human behaviour. One thinks of Mr Hegel, whom you might have met in your studies. His name is often associated with the term ‘dialectic’, though I come to you today as a fellow disciple of Jesus Christ rather than as a Hegelian. I have little stomach for comprehensive philosophical statements and, besides, the event that brings us together in this place is not really a moment for philosophizing.
My purpose this evening is much more modest. I wish simply to invigorate our graduands with the assertion that wisdom takes shape in the quest for synthesis. Wisdom is seldom to be found in the convenient absolutes that demagogues and well-intentioned wordsmiths pour into our ears, whether such persons be followers of our Lord Jesus Christ or not. On the contrary, wisdom emerges in the radical, thoughtful, alert middle ground between banal assumptions of how things are and how things must be. Though wisdom is sometimes simple, it is never simplistic. It takes account of competing claims and discovers truth and reality among them.
That great anthology of accumulated sagacity which we call the biblical book of Proverbs offers us this stunning observation, which immediately upon being heard strikes us as true to our experience:
tsaddiyq hari’shon beriybo uba’ re’ehu vacheqaro (Prov. 18:17)
The first to present his case seems right,
till another comes forward and questions him. (NRSV)
Now note, my friends, that the proverb does not claim that the first to present his case was wrong or misleading or misguided or a dangerous liar. The scriptural maxim simply alerts us to the fact that a second speaker’s coherent word makes it seem less certain that we knew the whole truth when we had heard out the first.
Life, we are being told here, is seldom adequately guided by uncritical acceptance of assumptions about how things are or how things must be. Rather, wisdom emerges in the battle for understanding that occurs in the hurly-burly of human affairs. The quest for wisdom allows us little time to rest and affords us less certainty than we might have preferred. It invites us into the invigorating experience of immersion in the life, affairs, and times of real people with deep and abiding needs, dilemmas, hopes, fears, anguish and joys.
Wisdom emerges in life’s ever-pressing dialectic. It is to be found both in the street and in the library, in the philosopher’s study and at the Ministry of Industry and Commerce, in the I.C.U. and at Savina Park.
Facing this elusive, demanding character of wisdom, a dear friend of mine puts it this way:
It is not the passion of your convictions that matters most, but rather the integrity of your compromises.
Dr. Timothy Laniak, of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, does not refer with this ingenious maxim of his to any moral laxity or failure to shape our lives around unbending truth. He does not mean compromise of that sort. Rather, in his own way and out of the furnace of his own experience and affliction, Tim recognizes that wisdom emerges most often in the lives of those who engage competing claims with eyes wide open and hearts attuned to the movement of God in the real-world matrix of human experience.
Wisdom, as often as not, demands engagement with competing claims. It requires the patience to consider what is best here and now in this or that combination of circumstances. It asks us to become intelligent, discerning, reflective. It requires that we be buyers of truth more than sellers, that we listen more often than we pronounce. The wise among us show us that they have become so because they have chosen to listen for a very long time before they open their mouths to speak. They have developed a holy resistance to quick and easy slogans. They know that the devil, as another folk proverb of our times has it, resides in the details and that he is not best opposed by pretending he is not there.
The reason the wise men and women of the Bible are called elders is precisely because one has to spend a lot of years observing how things work before one can develop the quality we call wisdom. It takes a very large amount of time to grow wise because wisdom gives up its lessons in small doses.
Now all of this is prelude to what I really want to share with you this evening, so let me get on to two or three of those things. I want to chat with you about things they will tell you that you must believe.
Someone will ask, ‘Who is the “they”, Dr. Baer?’
It is right of you to ask me to identify my villains. Yet I am going to refuse to name names. I do this with a purpose. Most of the damaging simplicities that threaten your continual journey into wisdom are things that people whom you love and respect would never lay claim to in a word-for-word way. Rather, some of the most lethal wolves that crouch at your door are unarticulated assumptions. They have few vocal partisans. They sneak around and fill up our consciences with half-truths that claim to be whole truths. These half-truths have few proud parents. They are orphan children whose paternity is largely unknown. Yet they constitute a dangerous mob.
They will stop your path to wisdom, dear graduates, if you give them half a chance.
They say things like this:
You don’t know anything!
All that head knowledge you’ve accumulated is worthless. The mastery of Greek and Hebrew, the analysis of history, the intense immersion in theories that attempt to explain the movements of the human psyche or the family system or of political economies good and bad, this is all a waste of time. You should instead spend all your time meeting the needs of people. Your studies are irrelevant!
If they tell you this, they are wrong.
You have invested these years of study in learning to see the world as God Himself sees it, so that you might think God’s thoughts after him, as one of our great theologians has put it. You have read many books because you realize that truth and wisdom have been articulated not only by people who live in your moment and close enough for you to touch them and hear them. Truth and wisdom have also reigned in the lives of people who have lived and died long before you, human beings who have lived too far away for you ever to meet them. My dear graduands, you have received the gift of immersion into the Great Conversation. You are most fortunate. Don’t ever let them tell you, in some spasm of egotistical privileging of their own historical moment, that you don’t know anything.
You have sat and you will continue to sit with the masters, wherever and whenever they have lived. Ah, but you know some valuable things, things to be treasured, things to be turned day in and day out into wisdom, insight, and service. Grow this knowledge. Turn your eyes to heaven every day and thank God for it. Smile courteously when they tell you that you know nothing, but turn a deaf ear to that lie.
They are wrong.
Ah, but they are also right: you don’t know very much.
The closest thing to a definition of a fool in the pages of biblical wisdom goes like this:
The fool is wise in his own eyes.
You really don’t know very much, at least not yet.
You must continue to read, to think, to listen, to probe, to study, to analyse, to reflect, to grow. Auspicious as this graduation day is, it is only one day. If you serve your people for the rest of your lives by repeating only what you’ve learned to this point, then may the graduation certificate you hang on your wall shrivel and fade. May worms devour your lecture notes!
You know far too little to stop now!
Discipleship is a life-long process of learning to understand God’s world as he understands it. If you ever stop engaging this rigorous process of learning, you have only two justifiable causes for doing so: death or senility.
You know so little today! But you are equipped to know so much more. May you live lives of doxology as learning fills you up with two empowering impulses: to praise, on the one hand, and to serve, on the other! These are the two proper outcomes of knowledge.
And then, they will tell you this:
It’s all about you!
You are the educated professional, you are the robed pastor or vicar or priest, you are the Christian leader who will by force of will and strength of conviction transform Jamaica or Puerto Rico or Trinidad.
Ah, but they are wrong.
It is not about you. When you have given all of your strength, poured out all your prowess in service to your fellow man, accomplished all that God allows you to achieve in his name and, yes, in yours, you are merely a broken reed, a fatigued servant, an empty vessel.
You are not sufficient to any cause that matters. Yet grace is always sufficient.
It is not about you!
And yet, somehow, it is.
If you do not walk in the ways of justice and mercy and call others to walk with you, who will? If you do not invite others with winsome grace to build and rebuild their lives by the grace of Jesus in Christian community, who will? If you do not give a cup of cold water to the famished or the prisoner, who will? If Jamaica cannot count on you to do the right thing today and tomorrow, to whom will Jamaica turn? If the nations of the Caribbean zone cannot look to select followers of Jesus for well-considered wisdom on drugs, justice, the economy, corruption, poverty and the production of wealth, why should anyone look to our Christian community for those other matters that are more familiar to our shared discourse?
Our cousins the rabbis taught their followers—and allowed us to listen in as they did so—by means of compact phrases like this one:
Whoever performs one act of mercy creates the world to come.
My friends, it turns out that it is about you! You must not turn away from the challenge, you must not settle for mediocrity, you must not shrink from that kind of golden opportunity that may this very moment rest very near to your hand.
It is not about you! It is about you! Truth and wisdom require that you embrace both these realities in that wisdom-drenched synthesis that God alone makes possible.
May I offer one more simplistic half-truth that you will be asked to believe, and then offer a slightly more complex truth in its stead?
You will find fulfilment in Christian leadership.
They will tell you this. It is not true.
Here is the better truth: you will find difficulties much too large for you to bear. You will be brought time and again to tears and anguish. You will hear your motives questioned, your competency demeaned, and your character discussed by people who have no idea what your service has cost you.
Where you expected happiness and approval, you will instead experience apostolic tears not unlike those of the biblical Jeremiah and Paul. Where you anticipated celestial intimacy with God, you will find that he has asked you to traverse deserts in solitude, catching only furtive glimpses of Him along the way.
What you thought was a calling to be celebrated will turn out to have been a burden to be endured.
When you have spent sleepless nights preparing for some formidable task, you will be told your words were precisely what was not needed. You will become acquainted with stunning ingratitude.
This, not happiness at every turn in Christian service, is the truth.
But, my friends, I mean to encourage you not to discourage you. It is not difficult for me to attempt to do so, for here is another truth, which I place before you in antithesis to the former one so that you can find God’s own synthesis along the path of your service:
You will find the deepest, most satisfying fellowship in the gospel. You will learn to love those who dare to weep and to laugh with you and you will luxuriate in their love for you. You will watch in astonishment as colleagues of demanding countenance and varied opinion work with you to solve one knotty problem after another. You will glimpse God’s own redeeming hand when people report to you long after the fact how this or that word or deed of yours marked a turning point in their own lives.
You will sing for joy at the evidence that God has transposed your own little song into a symphony you could not have imagined.
You will say, ‘Why me?’, not in bitterness or anguish but in stunned gratitude as God employs even you for means and ends that are gloriously his own.
You will learn to glimpse his beautiful face both in your pain and in your delight. You will learn to count on his presence in both feast and famine. You will know his friendship via his apparent absence and in his abundant presence. Sometimes you will not know for sure whether your soul is laughing or crying, but you will know that He is listening to its sounds.
May I close by asking you to listen once more to the ancient wisdom?
tsaddiyq hari’shon beriybo uba’ re’ehu vacheqaro (Prov. 18:17)
The first to present his case seems right,
till another comes forward and questions him. (NRSV)
You are poised today to become wiser servants of Jesus Christ than you were yesterday. As you walk the path of wisdom, engaging its demanding, dialectical way, you will be wiser still ten years from now as God gives you breath, and still wiser ten years after that.
From that vantage point, the old slogans will seem pale, a bit lifeless, good perhaps in their moment but useless for articulating what you now know of God and his world. Truth will have become ever richer, ever more layered, ever more beautiful and you will find yourselves sought out as its gentle, insistent teachers.
Dear graduands, may you become wise indeed without ever realizing you have become so. May no claim to special knowledge ever fall from your lips even as ever-increasing knowledge lights your path.
May your words instead be syllables of gratitude, of mercy, of insight, and of praise.
Such sounds make for an offering that, on earth, constructs the world to come and, in heaven, is always and forever well received.