Wisdom That’s Not So Wise

June 2, 2014 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


Credit:  wired.com

Credit: wired.com

It was G.K. Chesterton who said, “It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s own. It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob.”[1]  There just seems to be something about one’s own age the dupes those living in it into thinking they are living in the best age – they are living at the pinnacle of human achievement, intelligence, and insight, unsurpassed by anything that has come before it, or, for that matter, anything that will come after it.

Case in point:  Albert Schweitzer, in his seminal work The Quest of the Historical Jesus, opens by touting his credentials:

When, at some future day, our period of civilization shall lie, closed and completed, before the eyes of later generations, German theology will stand out as great, a unique phenomenon in the mental and spiritual life of our time.  For nowhere save in the German temperament can there be found in the same perfection the living complex of conditions and factors – of philosophic though, critical acumen, historical insight, and religious feeling – without which no deep philosophy is possible.[2]

At least Schweitzer doesn’t have a confidence problem.

The ironic thing about Schweitzer’s opening paragraph is that on the back of this very book is this review:  “Schweitzer’s … proposals no longer command endorsement.”  In other words, Schweitzer, who thought his age was so wise that the people, and specifically the Germans, in it could in no way be mistaken, were, in fact, mistaken.  Perhaps his German pedigree wasn’t as intellectually impenetrable as he thought it was.

Whether or not we are as unabashedly arrogant as Schweitzer, we all, to one extent or another, use our age as the measuring rod for all ages.  We project the sensibilities of our age back onto the past and even forward into the future.

Greg Miller of Wired Science recently published a pithy little post, “Here’s How People 100 Years Ago Thought We’d Be Living Today.”[3]  Ed Fries, the former vice president of game publishing at Microsoft, shared with Miller a fascinating cache of vintage European postcards that offer a glimpse of how the people of yesteryear thought we would be living in our years.  For instance, there is one postcard featuring a prop plane with a spotlight and luggage attached to the top of the cabin ushering a group of tourists to the moon for “just another weekend trip.”  The year, according to the postcard, is 2012.  Are any rockets needed?  No.  And the people on the aircraft seem to be blissfully unconcerned with the fact that their cabin is not pressurized.  Another postcard features a videophone, projecting its picture onto a wall, just like the movies of the early 1900’s did.  Apparently, those at the turn of the 20th century simply could not envision the hand-held screens we enjoy today.  Perhaps most comically, the people in all of these postcards are decked out in their early 1900’s wears.  As Miller wryly notes, though everything else underwent radical evolutions, “fashion stayed frozen in time.”

For all the fanciful things these postcards envision, they are embarrassingly transparent products of their time.  No one would mistake these as accurate or modern depictions of our age.  The people of the early 1900’s, it seems, were stuck in the early 1900’s.

We would do well to remember that just like the people of the early 1900’s were stuck in the early 1900’s, the people of the early 2000’s are, well, stuck in the early 2000’s.  We too are products of our time.  Not that this is all bad.  Our age has much too offer.  But our age cannot lead us to disparage other ages – especially past ages.  For the wisdom of the past that we discount as foolishness in the present may just be the wisdom of our present that will be discounted as foolishness in the future.  In other words, we should take the wisdom of our age with a grain of salt.

One of the wonderful things about Scripture is that it self-consciously bucks the human tendency to jump on the bandwagon of whatever zeitgeist happens to be popular at any given moment.  Indeed, it sees past learning as key to present wisdom.    As the apostle Paul says, “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4).  This is why, according to one count, the Old Testament is cited in the New Testament some 263 times.[4]  Wisdom, according to Scripture, cannot be confined to just one age.  It needs many ages.

When you look at your present, then, don’t assume that your day is the greatest day and your generation the greatest generation.  Or, to use the words of Moses, “Remember the days of old; consider the generations long past” (Deuteronomy 32:7).  Wisdom is not just when you are.  It was before you.  And it will continue after you.  Wise, therefore, is the person whose memory and vision is long.

______________________

[1] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1908).

[2] Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus (Mineola:  Dover Publications, Inc., 1911), 1.

[3] Greg Miller, “Here’s How People 100 Years Ago Thought We’d Be Living Today,” wired.com (5.28.2014).

[4]New Testament Citations of the Old Testament,” crossway.org (3.17.2006).

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