Spiritual: July 2009 Archives

I've been accused by some Christians of having skewed judgments because I've drunk deeply from the well of academia. I've also been accused by atheists of having skewed judgments because I'm too willing to let my religious views shape how I think about issues where an unbiased person would come to an obvious conclusion opposite my own. So maybe I'm just suspect from both ends, but I wonder if in some ways I'm in a more ideal position to be able to see through ways people in both sides have allowed their preferences, value judgments, and assumptions to shape their thinking in non-rational and perhaps even irrational ways.

I spent a good deal of time last summer in commentaries on Proverbs, and my daily Bible reading has taken me back to Proverbs again, so I've been thinking about the secular basis of this fairly large biblical book. Scholars have found similar collections of proverbial material in Babylon and Egypt, and it's pretty clear that both wisdom traditions predate the biblical proverbs. Some of these proverbial collections include material that's extremely close to particular proverbs in the biblical book. The biblical narratives about Solomon, one of the few places outside Proverbs to discuss the content of the book, seem to indicate that had access to the wisdom traditions of other nations.

Daniel reports the righteous behavior of Daniel and his three Hebrew friends who were exiled to Babylon. They refused to worship other gods and insisted on keeping Torah dietary restrictions as much as possible, even to the point of eating no meat at all since they couldn't guarantee any of it had been killed properly. One thing they didn't do is refuse to learn the Babylonian wisdom traditions.

On the other hand, the prophets roundly condemn pagan prophets as unedifying and full of lies about false gods. They're not worth listening to. Paul speaks of the philosophy that the Colossians had been listening to as empty and something to avoid (though it's not clear that he says this of philosophy as a discipline or field of study, as most translations wrongly convey). Pagans like Ruth are perfectly kosher for intermarriage when they convert but completely forbidden when they don't, as the concluding evaluation of Solomon in Kings makes clear. Rahab seems to be another example.

What should we conclude? There's a spiritual threat from listening to false statements that have a bearing on important spiritual matters. But the biblical picture is not to avoid that at all costs. There are certain settings where avoiding it is the only thing to do, but those settings involve marriage and worship. There are other settings where learning it and considering it, as long as it's with discretion, are presented as entirely unproblematic. There are even strong indications that an entire book of the Bible derives from material that includes a significant amount of secular reflections on life.

As with many things in Christian life, there's a tension here between two principles that are both morally important. God created humans with the ability to reason and to arrive at truths about life and reality, and fallen humanity has found ways to corrupt and avoid using that capacity, in some cases leading to an ability to see the truth at all. One case that's especially so is our ability to come to understand the good news of the salvation God offers to us in Jesus the Messiah. But even with an inability to appreciate the gospel message apart from the Holy Spirit, that doesn't mean we're incapable of coming to understand true things that are related to that issue, and we're also talking about Christians who do have the Holy Spirit, who can indeed and according to Jesus' teaching are in fact guided into truth by the Spirit.

So why the absolute prohibition on drinking from the well of academia, whose secular assumptions and goals can certainly be obstacles to the truth but whose God-given abilities and resources for understanding the truth are nonetheless present? Why even the extremely strong resistance, even if not absolute, that many Christians have? Surely there's a need for discernment, and for some people that discernment might require staying away entirely from certain kinds of things, as with anything. But it seems to me that a lot of the resistance I see is highly unbiblical, despite its appearance of piety.

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