When Even Brilliance is Foolish (Lent 3B/1 Cor. 1:18-25)

There are so many ideas that come from reading 1 Corinthians 1:18-25.  The worst is the notion that many foolish human notions are actually divine wisdom.  Paul doesn’t tell us any such thing.  Certainly human wisdom falls far short of God’s wisdom, and we may have some very foolish ideas that we mistake for wisdom, but at the same time there are still very foolish human ideas, and we must, as we are told in Proverbs 2:1-8, seek wisdom.

Now there are a number of things that will turn whatever wisdom one has into foolishness.  It is said that a little knowledge is a very dangerous thing.  But actually, a little knowledge can be a very good thing.  Where the problem comes in is when one overestimates one’s knowledge.  If I accurately understand who I am and what I am capable of doing, then my little knowledge can be valuable.

It’s critical to understand just what “little” means.  As one learns more, one may either become puffed up by the new knowledge, or one can continue to realize one’s limitations.  I know, for example, that I can repair an old style circuit with components soldered in using various sockets and connection devices.  But many years ago such circuits were largely replaced by circuit boards.  My knowledge of circuit boards is much too limited, and I am often not steady enough to work safely with a soldering iron.  I could burn up the entire board.  So I limit my activities.  Overestimating my skill could be very, very expensive.

When we apply this specifically to knowledge, any insight can look fairly primitive and stupid when looked at from a much broader context.  Much of the advance of science has gone that way.  Ideas that worked within a more limited body of knowledge become much less workable in a larger context.  I am told by various friends who are physicists that Newton’s ideas are not so much wrong as limited.  Within the proper constraints, Newton can be quite useful even today.  Einstein brought theories that explain much more data, but still don’t explain many things, especially at the subatomic level.

When we consider that all human knowledge is confined to a finite, and indeed very small, perspective, we might understand how the wisdom of the world looks like foolishness from God’s infinite point of view.  It always will!

But here’s where we make a mistake.  When we think that it’s OK to stop thinking, to stop learning, to stop growing because we’re limited, then we are going to stop living, and we will be in great danger.  Einstein may not have given the last word on explaining the universe, but his ideas produced many more that were valuable.  The only foolish thing would be to think that there would never be another advance and that all was now explained.

One might even say that limited wisdom + unlimited arrogance = foolishness.

Limited knowledge is also not necessarily a bad thing.  When I was in school I found that I could force my way through just about any subject I chose and get a good grade.  How much stuck with me was another matter.  But I could make it happen.  Math was more work for me than social science, but I could get there. The first necessity was for me to recognize that even though I might be able to choose anything I wanted, I was very, very limited, and couldn’t choose everything within my lifetime.  The temptation to push a number of different fields was very great.  But then I realized that I could get limited knowledge in certain areas and then rely on others.

Often we don’t want to rely on others.  We privilege information we collect for ourselves.  But we are all reliant on others for so many things, and that is not a bad thing.  My limited knowledge helps me sort through the many voices in each area and decide what range of voices I have time to study.  I took nearly a minor (3 quarter hours short) in political science.  That doesn’t make me a political scientist, but it help me identify real hacks when I hear them, and look for those people with challenging ideas on which they have done their homework.

One of the dangers of post-modern thinking as it’s practiced on the street is that people will decide that there is no point going after better information because they have determined that they will never get perfect information.

There was an arrogance about 20th century thinking in which people felt they could get a completely objective view of various topics.  That arrogance required some correction.  But many post-modern people conclude that because perfect objectivity is impossible, they shouldn’t pursue knowledge at all.  That is also a dangerous view.  I do note, however, as I did here, that there are still those who seem to think such objectivity is attainable, so we have both errors active in the 21st century.

Not all ideas are equal; within our limited sphere, some ideas work better than others.  Climbing down the cliff with a rope tested for the roper weight, for example, is much better than the idea of jumping, or of climbing down using a piece of light string.  There are better things and worse.

So let’s seek divine wisdom.  Let’s recognize our foolishness.  But let’s always look for the better way, even when it seems distant and unattainable.

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