The Beginning of Wisdom

Maybe self-preservation doesn't represent the pinnacle of virtue.

The Covid pandemic has been, in very real ways, an apocalypse. I use the word apocalypse advisedly and not just as a synonym for catastrophe. The Greek origin of the English word apocalypse actually means "to reveal, to uncover, to disclose".  Covid has been an unexpected revealing, a surprising uncovering of something that was there all along.

Someone once said that war doesn't make heroes, it reveals them. That's a clever way of observing that character precedes action - that our outward actions emerge from who we already are on the inside.  So in that sense heroic actions reveal what was previously there but unseen.

To a surprising degree, Covid has been similarly revealing, though not always in a good way. It has shown us something unexpected about the fault lines in our society, to be sure. But it turns out that those fault lines existed even within our own more intimate social circles. The tiresome media always assumes that fault lines fall cleanly along left/right political boundaries. But that isn't really how things have panned out with Covid.

Bari Weiss has been writing on Substack, and publishing other writers there, those whom she deems as having something important to say. Yesterday she published a post by Jennifer Sey, recently fired marketing executive for Levi's.

Yesterday I Was Levi’s Brand President. I Quit So I Could Be Free.
I turned down $1 million severance in exchange for my voice.

Ms. Sey tells her story of advocating for children in the context of Covid, and how that eventually cost her her job at Levi's. What most interests me about Ms. Sey is that she is not a card-carrying member of those the media often depicts as the hairy-unwashed.  She is no right-winger that the media can characterize as a troglodyte. She is the very picture of the progressive left. Nevertheless, her unwillingness to embrace the government-sanctioned narrative regarding Covid health safety, especially where her own children were concerned, along with her determination to advocate in her private capacity for child safety, ended up costing her a lucrative job.

The Covid fault lines revealed by the pandemic seem to reflect the variations in how different people react to complexity and the fear of uncertainty. For some, the reaction has been to cling to the "official" narrative as their guide to the way forward. Some of those who cling to this narrative have been surprisingly intolerant of those who do not. Ms. Sey just happens to be a recent victim. But for those who have taken an approach similar to Ms. Sey's, it has involved proactively attempting to unravel the complexity (and their own uncertainty along with it) by examining the data for themselves. They are charting a course that reflects their own conclusions about the way forward.  

Many others have remarked upon the loss of faith in our institutions. The watershed moment for the health care bureaucracy may have been the BLM riots of 2020. At the very moment when the marching and burning and destruction by the riots was being applauded by the health-care bureaucracy, churches and schools and restaurants and small businesses of all kinds were being shut down.

What the BLM riots inescapably revealed to millions of people was that the health care bureaucracy was concerned about something other than actual public health.

Trust, once squandered, is hard to regain.

The Ms Sey's of the world are trying to find their way in the absence of trustworthy institutions. While others cling to the hope that the betrayal by the bureaucrats was limited in scope, and that the official narrative can still be trusted.

In none of this do I intend to dismiss the legitimacy and importance of narratives generally. But any narrative is either helpful or harmful by turn, depending on how closely it tracks with reality.  

At one level, a narrative is just a lens through which we perceive events. If the narrative is true, it acts like a magnifying glass – even small things are more perceivable. But when it’s false, it acts more like a funhouse mirror – it distorts our perception of reality.  

Perhaps it's understandable that our grip on narrative tightens as our trust in institutions declines. Viruses are overwhelmingly complicated.  The science is actually uncertain. But people don't want the science to be uncertain. As moderns, we conceive of ourselves as technological masters of our domain. Flannery O'Connor perceptively observed that "mystery is a great embarrassment to the modern mind." Covid has delivered a massive torpedo to our hubris, right below the water line.

In response, we have busily worked to reconstitute the definition of "science" and to patch the holes left by the Covid torpedo.  Millions have embraced the narrative that “the science”, reconstituted to mean "the pronouncements of bureaucrats", is not only for our good from a utilitarian perspective, but amounts to an actual moral good. This narrative alleviates, I suspect, the burden of sifting through all of the complex and scary uncertainty. It also offers comforting reassurance that we have things under control.

The problem with the Covid narrative though, as set forth by the bureaucratic class, has been that it is far from clear that Covid avoidance was ever considered within the hierarchy of other goods. We have been operating as if avoiding the threat of Covid is the paramount good among many different possibilities. There seems to have been little effort given by the authorities to a serious consideration of the collateral effects of their policies. The problem with the prevailing Covid narrative, then, has been that it is oddly detached from the realities of lives lived by actual flesh and blood human beings.

Christians have a longstanding reputation as preservers of life. Even in the earliest days of Christianity, faithful Christians were known to be people who plucked abandoned infants off the rubbish heaps of the Roman empire, taking them home to raise as their own.  But Christians have also understood that there is a hierarchy of goods in the universe of moral concerns, and that every good exists within that hierarchy.

So even though Christians have advocated against the taking of life, the very existence of Christianity is a testament to someone who willingly gave his own life away.

Preserving human life is a high priority in Judeo-Christian thought, but it has never been the highest nor only priority.  

I confess, the response of some Christians during Covid has come as something of a surprise to me. I have wondered at times if Christianity's longstanding and appropriate pro-life ethic has become somehow absolutist in the minds of some. Whatever the cause, some Christians seem to have forgotten that, though taking an innocent life is always wrong, there are nevertheless some things worth dying for. One hears an echo of this idea in the commendation of those who fought the dragon in the book of Revelation: "they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death".

The prohibition against taking innocent life does not change the fact that a willingness to risk our own lives can sometimes represent the epitome of virtue.  Jesus' words, "greater love has no man than to lay down his life for his brother", spring immediately to mind. Perhaps we should have been more cautious about reshuffling the hierarchy of Christian virtues in such a way that self-preservation ended up being very near the top. Given the overwhelming nature of the Covid panic, maybe it's important to speak this kind of contrarian reminder out loud.

I have wondered if the challenges that Christians have had with navigating Covid have been because, to some small degree, we have forgotten where wisdom comes from. Fear of Covid seems to have led many to confuse mere technical knowledge with wisdom itself.

But there is a vast chasm between knowing what the virus does and having the wisdom to discern which policies are therefore humane and truly beneficial. (Actually, there has also been a large gap between what the bureaucrats really know, and what they claim to know. In the interests of maintaining a compliant population, the bureaucratic class has consistently over-stated both its competence and its expertise.)

The difference between wisdom and folly may hinge on the extent to which the narrative running around in our heads really reflects the ground truth for our existence.

When we read the biblical words "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Proverbs 9:10), there are a least two ways we can understand that. On the one hand, we can view it as prescriptive - as an instruction directing us to fear God.

But sometimes statements in the biblical text are descriptive. Rather than giving instructions, descriptive statements offer an explanation for how reality itself has been arranged. As descriptive statements, those biblical words would then be saying that obtaining wisdom is not possible unless pursued from a vantage point that takes into account our proper place in relation to God. In such a case, obtaining wisdom is impossible if it does not emerge from accepting these foundational truths about our existence.  

It may be, then, that the very nature of things is such that the acceptance of God's divinity is the only gateway which can ever lead to wisdom.

This same notion shows up in the first chapter of the apostle Paul's book of Romans.

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Romans 1:21

The two great failures that Paul attributes to the people he is describing there are that they (1) failed to acknowledge God as God, and (2) they failed to give God thanks. The second failure necessarily flows from the first: gratitude can only ever emerge from the recognition that it is owed to someone.  The obligation, to acknowledge God and give him thanks, sounds very much like the "fear of the Lord" described in other places.

What does the apostle claim is in store for those who don't honor and give thanks to God? Why, they lose the ability to reason well. The text actually says "their thinking became futile".  It's as if our ability to think and reason is, in some way, tied to the assumptions we make about God, and about our moral obligation to him.  This sounds awfully similar to "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom".

Now, it could be that the text is saying that God is just the great bossy-pants in the sky, unwilling even to allow us to think well without first extracting our obeisance. But an alternative interpretation could simply be that God is actually real, and we are inescapably living within that context. If so, then accepting the implications of God's existence is simply the prerequisite to obtaining any true wisdom. It's simply a question of being reality-based in our thought life.

So the nature of our existence is of a sort that the difference between having wisdom and having mere expertise is that having wisdom requires a firmer grip on the ground truth of what is real. If God is real, to neglect the fear of God is, in some essential way, to live with a delusion, and to place wisdom forever out of our reach.

The Judeo-Christian narrative for millennia has been that God is real and perceptible, and that we live our lives in obligation to Him. As an aside, we might want to consider the possibility that the historically disproportionate success of western culture has been an outgrowth of this reality-based Judeo-Christian narrative.  But I digress.

While the Judeo-Christian narrative does not necessarily offer answers to the technical questions,  it does set those questions within the larger context of God's existence, and of our obligations to him. The Judeo-Christian narrative doesn't tell us whether vaccines will "work", but it does tell us something about the importance of human freedom. This narrative teaches unambiguously of the need for us to restrain our fallen inclination to impose our will on others. It doesn't tell us whether lockdowns "work", but it does tell us that policies which force us to abandon our parents and grandparents in their dying moments are assuredly evil. It doesn't tell us whether masks "work", but it does teach us that the human countenance matters, and that simply ignoring such a consideration is incompatible with wisdom.

If it is embraced, the Judeo-Christian narrative actually has a simplifying effect on our current complexity as it provides a framework for placing Covid within the larger context of human and spiritual concerns.

The Judeo-Christian worldview teaches us that grounding our perspective in the truth of God's existence, and in our obligations to him, is the only pathway that leads to wisdom. Nothing that does not take into account our obligations to God, and the hierarchy of goods that HE has established, will ever approach the kind of wisdom we need to find a path forward.

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