9/17/2006

Jesus was Smart

I'm re-reading Dallas Willard's The Divine Conspiracy, and Emily and I just finished Proverbs together. Reading the two concurrently was enlightening, because they both share a central theme: the intelligence of holiness.

One of Willard's most striking observations is that Jesus is usually not thought of as smart, even by Christians. They would not explicitly deny it, of course, but intelligence is not a characteristic typically associated with him. Just a moment of reflection, however, ought to convince you that this is a vital prerequisite to discipleship. As Willard puts it:

Our commitment to Jesus can stand on no other foundation than a recognition that he is the one who knows the truth about our lives and our universe. It is not possible to trust Jesus, or anyone else, in matters where we do not believe him to be competent.

and

The world has succeeded in opposing intelligence to goodness.... And today any attempt to combine spirituality or moral purity with great intelligence causes widespread pangs of "cognitive dissonance." Mother Theresa, no more than Jesus, is thought of as smart - nice, of course, but not really smart. "Smart" means good at managing how life "really." is.

The bulk of The Divine Conspiracy is an exposition of the sermon on the mount from this perspective: it is instruction on how to live in the kingdom of God (which is the smartest way to live) from the one who knows it best. One example of many is Willard's remarks on the passage about laying up treasures in heaven (Matt. 6:19-34):

The first thing that Jesus tells us with respect to treasures is that to treasure things that are "upon the earth" is not a smart strategy for treasuring. Treasures of the earth, by their very nature, simply cannot be held intact.... So the wisdom of Jesus is that we should "lay up for ourselves treasures in heaven" ([Matt.] 6:20), where forces of nature and human evil cannot harm what we treasure.

and a few pages later:

But of course if we do value "mammon" as normal people seem to think we should, our fate is fixed. Our fate is anxiety.

Emily and I used to have a neighbor with a very nice truck. One day, we walked out to our car to see a note on the windshield. Apparently we had parked too close to his truck and he was afraid we might accidentally ding his $3,000 paint job. After that we were careful to park far enough away so that it was not even possible to hit his truck by opening the car doors, but even so he started placing a pvc contraption next to his truck in order to protect it from us. He moved a little while later, in part because he wanted a private garage for his truck. I can't help but think that, however much he liked his really nice truck, it just wasn't worth the anxiety it caused him. Wouldn't he be happier in an old, beat-up Ford pickup?

Laying up your treasures on earth, where they might be taken from you (or you from them) at any moment, is not smart. Wouldn't it be fantastic if there was a way to be certain that the things you value are absolutely secure, that you do not need to worry about losing them because they cannot be lost? Well, there is! Follow the advice of Jesus and re-orient your life to value eternal rather than temporal things.

To a large extent, the theme of Proverbs is the same as Jesus' advice for living in the sermon on the mount. The Proverbs are practical instructions for living well, and if you read them with that in mind (rather than with the assumption that they are concerned with "holiness" or "wisdom" as esoteric concepts not connected to real life) you'll be surprised at how smart they are.

The principles of Christianity are not arbitrary rules for what you must do to be acceptable to God. They are instructions on how to live a holy life, which is the best way to live by all the standards that matter. This is not an unverifiable statement which Christians must simply accept. We are invited to test Jesus' teachings. If he really is smart, and if what he says is true, then we will never look back.