Wisdom is a virtue, patience a fruit of the spirit. Decisive action is necessary, but is not the norm.
This month's Atlantic includes an excoriating review by Leon Wiesleltier of A.O. Scott's new book Better Living Through Criticism. Scott has ample reason to comment on criticism--it's his day job at the New York Times. It is mid-way through this lumbering article that Wiesletier says the following of Scott's critical tendencies,
A take is an opinion that has no aspiration to a belief, an impression that never hardens into a position. Its lightness is its appeal. It is provisional, evanescent, a move in a game, an accredited shallowness, a bulwark against a pause in the conversation. A take is expected not to be true but to be interesting, and even when it is interesting it makes no troublesome claim upon anybody’s attention. Another take will quickly follow, and the silence that is a mark of perplexity, of research and reflection, will be mercifully kept at bay. A take asks for no affiliation. It requires no commitment.
Now the present irony is not lost on me. I am presenting a "take" on another writer's take on a book by a professional critic about having a take. This is the world we live in. Yet my aim is to advance a particular point in the guise of this irony--that a discerning wisdom is emblematic of mature Christian character. And therefore we ought to consider, as NT Wright encourages us in After You Believe, to develop the habits of heart and mind that will foster the character of discernment and the virtue of wisdom. Much has been made recently of the writings of Scott's fellow New York Times columnist David Brooks. I haven’t read Brooks’ recent book, The Road to Character, however I am grateful for the least it must mean: that we're talking about character again on a broad scale.
Perhaps the most compelling reason to resist the “take” and prize wisdom is this: truth depends on it. If we desire to demonstrate a compelling vision of Christian life to the world around us, we must be almost exclusively preoccupied with the pursuit of the true--I say almost because there's something to be said for the other parts of the classic trio, beauty and goodness. The take, however, pushes its proponent away from transcendent truth and towards a reactive subjectivity. In fact the response that forms the basis for an opinion comes from a root of subjective reaction. No doubt our reactions to reality are the first hand source material for our pursuit of truth. However, if we share them at a whim without due process of reflection, testing particularly in community, and submission especially to Scriptural authority, then what can we expect? Nothing more than reactions, raw subjectivity, and certainly not transcendent truth that we so crave in the midst of the conditions that illicit our reactions.
Mid-way through his undressing of A.O Scott's critical approach Wiesleltier raises this very question, asserting that Scott believes that any sense of definite truth is a "will to power." I have great sympathy to the call for epistemological humility, but for precisely the opposite reason that Scott does. As Andy Crouch's new book Strong and Weak argues, we are made for authority. Those of us who live in the affluent West have regularly outsourced that authority which we are called by God's grace to exercise with wisdom. Scott's assertion that "to participate in a debate on just about any topic is...to declare oneself a partisan and the difficult dialectical work of discerning the good, the beautiful, and the true is lost" belies his fear of proper authority.
"Perhaps the most compelling reason to resist the 'take' and prize wisdom is this: truth depends on it."
More to the point, Scott's take misses the mark. Discussing ideas requires strong, compassionate conversation partners. It demands the ardent representation of an opinion-imbued with a great deal of humility and love for one's partner in the conversation. Moreover, the truth of the human condition demands that we take a position in response to Christ's sacrificial love for the sake of our own souls. In response to Christ, we cannot outsource the responsibility of speaking wisdom with conviction to others. Christians should take an authoritative stance especially against those injustice perpetrated in the world. For the sake of our brothers and sisters who languish under injustice's effects we must.
A great deal of hand wringing has taken place of the apparent tendencies of millennials to follow trending injustice with passion, ostensibly forgetting the virtue of commitment to long-term involvement. There are a great deal of injustices being performed in the world today, and we need not lose our cool over it. Rather, I suggest two remedies to the tyranny of the urgent injustice. First, put down your device and look around you. Go find your neighbor in need and ask them about their life. Discover the closest person to you who needs someone to stand with them in their fight against injustice. Second, earnestly turn your heart to the Lord and ask for clarity on where to invest yourself. With patience you will be surprised at the response. Don’t do either of these alone however. None of us can carry the load of injustice in the world. Rather, that burden is Christ’s. But Jesus has chosen to express his burden bearing through his Body, the Church. Consider Paul’s advice about the Body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12. How ridiculous would it be for the finger to say to the rest of the body “I’ve got this one. The rest of you just let me handle it?” Find the Church and take them with you in your journey of getting to know your neighbor in need and discerning your response in prayer. That’s at least a first step towards mature, discerning wisdom with regard to injustice.
If you do both of these things you’ll quickly find yourself in odd company, that is the kind of company that makes you feel a bit out of sorts. When you spend time with different people you ask yourself all manner of different questions. Lean into them. Find within the Church those who you can passionately and humbly discuss the nuances of the injustice you see in the lives of your neighbors. Foment that conversation. Don’t let it rest. Spend the resources that young people have in abundance: energy and a vision for the new thing. Reject Scott’s assertion and dig into the details of even the most partisan issues. Aspire to a belief and reject the notion that eternally provisional statements are enough. But don’t forget silence. Wiesliter’s critique is telling here. The eternal take leaves no room for pause and reflection. Know the end you seek, but don’t look to get there before you’re meant to. Wisdom is not born in a day or raised in a week. With time, humility, and passion as your safeguards, take a step forward.
"The impossibility of perfect certainty does not condemn us to a vapidly uncertain life, to a life of small thoughts about small things" says Wiesleltier. True. In fact we are called to the hard road of deploying our authority, of arriving at conclusions, and naming evil and good. We have been baptized into the work of advancing the Kingdom of Christ. Lackluster intellectualism that leaves us without the capacity for certainty has no place there. We serve a good King, one who is the source of beauty, truth, and goodness. Who else will point the world back to that source but us? James calls us to resist the life of a "double-mind" and to ask the Lord for what we need with a sense of certainty. If we ask for maturity—and Proverbs calls us too—then we must certainly be ready for a sense of certainty about what is true, and about what is unjust. But most of all, we must be ready to take that certainty into our world with our own hands to create signposts pointing our neighbors to the true way to be fully human in the Kingdom of God.
- Jared Noetzel is a writer and advocate for the marginalized. A graduate of Wheaton College, IL, he has a passion to see a new generation represent Christ well in the public sphere.