What's Wise, What's Right, and What's True...

...are three different things. But they're closely related to one another.

I got to thinking about that after Sunday's message on Psalm 1, when I described what wisdom literature means in the Bible. There I said that the Bible's wisdom passages focus not so much on what's right, but rather on what's smart. Yet I don't want to imply (and hopefully no one inferred!) that wisdom literature is uninterested in truth or in morality (right & wrong). Actually, morality is based on truth, and wisdom in turn is based on morality.

Truth is simply what is: statements and ideas are true to the extent that they correspond with reality. As a simple example, the statement "there are two apples on the table" is true if in fact there are two apples there. If there is only one apple on the table, the statement is untrue. So when the Bible says things like God is one, the end result of sin is death, and salvation is attainable only through Jesus' atoning death on the cross, these are true statements because they describe the way things really are -- not just the way we imagine them to be. In this way, truth is the foundation of knowledge: it all starts with understanding things the way the really are. Once we do, we have a basis for...

Morality, which simply put is the difference between right and wrong. Morality comes from one's view of truth. For example, murder is not just illegal, it is immoral (in other words, it's wrong) because human life is sacred in reality. If I take an innocent person's life I haven't just done something violent and illegal, I've done something reprehensible and fundamentally wrong because I've acted as if I had a moral right to claim the victim's life. But in reality, I have no such right. In this way, reality itself determines what is right vs. what is wrong. So our view of truth determines what actions we will consider as being right. And putting the idea of truth together with the idea of morality leads us to...

Wisdom, which in the Bible basically means living successfully in the world. In other words, being smart rather than stupid. Wisdom basically means, because I understand the way the world works (truth), I'm able to see how I should and should not live (morality), and so I'm able to make daily choices that result in a happy, successful life (wisdom). It's that last phrase that the Bible's wisdom literature emphasizes: making smart choices that lead to long term success. This smart choice is always the right choice (morality) which is based on reality (truth).

Wisdom literature:

  • doesn't talk much about truth or morality (but it assumes them both). Instead it focuses on the positive consequences of living in concert with truth & morality vs. the negative consequences of ignoring them,
  • doesn't emphasize the rightness or wrongness of various lifestyle choices, but rather focuses on the results of making either choice,
  • is written from the concrete perspective of living life, rather than the abstract perspective of describing truth,
  • separates the "wise" (smart) person from the "foolish" (stupid) person.
So hopefully it's clear how the three concepts interrelate: how truth leads to morality which leads to wisdom. Sometimes the wisdom literature can seem weaker than other parts of the Bible because isn't as declarative of truth or as morally charged as many other passages are. But it isn't at all - it's another angle on God's teachings. Wisdom literature simply points out that not only are right choices right, they're also smart.

True + Moral = Wise. Now that's an equation for success.

Completed - A tribute to my bride

Today is a significant day in the Guerino household, as my bride celebrates her 38th birthday. Her birthday in April and our anniversary in August are two times I try to carve a little space out of the daily schedule and reflect on who Amy is, and what she's meant to me.

This year, the word that comes to mind is "completed." I feel completed by her in ways that are probably not evident to others. I specifically benefit from the way Amy's mind works, and how her thinking completes mine. I tend to be a big picture, thinker-type (just look at my last three posts for evidence!) which has its strengths. For one, this helps me be an effective teaching pastor because God has so wired me that I enjoy understanding and explaining.

But it has its downsides too, and maybe the biggest is that most of us don't live life on the "big picture" plain. We live in the here-and-now, and while we need to see how that relates to the big picture, we also need the big picture to relate to us. What I'm getting at is that I can tend to miss people, or fail to connect with "real life" as I get lost in a multitude of ideas. And this is where Amy comes in. She keeps me grounded.

Most people probably don't realize the extent to which I lean on her for this. Even in sermon prep, she helps ground my conceptual thinking in daily living. I typically talk through most sermons with her while they're still developing. Sometimes she just listens, often she comments or makes suggestions. And 99.9% of the time her suggestions focus or even change the direction of where I'm going, because in having talked to her I suddenly realize what needs to be said.

She is able to play this role because of how hard she has worked to internalize the Bible, theology, and biblical worldview. She is able to understand me when I'm up in the conceptual clouds, and so she serves as a bridge from the clouds back to the earth. I'm extremely proud of the way she's studied, learned, and allowed her mind to be stretched, and her example challenges me to allow my soul and my feelings to be similarly stretched. All that makes me a better preacher, leader, and father. So, to the extent that any of you enjoy my teaching on Sundays you're benefiting from Amy's influence whether you realize it or not.

Amy, I'm proud to be your husband. And I wouldn't be the man, the father, or even the preacher I am if I were married to anyone else. I thank God for making you exactly the way he chose to, and for letting me walk the road of life with you. Happy birthday!


NOW, for any readers who know Amy please consider this post an online birthday card: consider leaving a comment for Amy (she'll read them all) and expressing what you appreciate about her on this 38th anniversary of her birth. Thanks!

Amy and I at the 2008 Emerald Bowl in San Francisco (where Cal beat Miami 24-17!)

In Support of Capitalism, America Style (part 3 of 3)

If you've stuck with me through part 1 and part 2, then here comes the payoff.

With moral influence now privatized and shunted out of public life thanks to the prevalence of postmodern thinking, the law is the only place to turn to when we see the need to regulate human behavior. And this situation undermines the essence of what America's founders called "self government." Here's why.

The way self government was designed to work can understood by the continuum below.

On the left is license, or the freedom to do whatever one chooses. This is good, obviously, to some extent, but the freedom to do whatever I want must be checked or chaos and anarchy result. On the right is the law, or the government's authority brought to bear to limit the actions of citizens. Now the key insight: in between, and buffering the two, is morality -- our internal sense of what's right and wrong. Self government works the best when public morality is strong:

Here, the "license" segment is small, meaning people don't fly off and do a massive amount of crazy, destructive, chaotic things. There are always exceptions of course, but generally this situation results in peace and stability. However, the "law" segment is also relatively small. Since people usually do the right thing even though the law doesn't technically require it, there's not as much need for tons of laws. This is a free society in which the government doesn't intrude excessively into the lives of the citizens. And the key to it all is a strong sense of public morality -- a shared sense of what's right and what's wrong. To put it another way, the more people govern their own behavior the less the government has to. This is why John Adams famously said, "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other." He wasn't saying everyone should be forced to go to church on Sunday. He was saying a society which doesn't t have a moral base cannot govern itself and will thus have to be governed from outside, which is tyranny. Morality is essential to self government, and this is at the heart of the American ideal.

But when morality becomes privatized it loses its public influence. The result looks something like this:

Here morality's public influence has shrunk, and notice what happens: both license and law expand to make up the difference. License increases, meaning more and more people feel free to do more and more of whatever they want; even things that were seen as shameful a generation or two ago. And at the same time laws multiply, becoming more detailed and increasingly intrusive, because the law is the only hedge left against chaos once public morality is taken off the table. This is the kind of substantial government power that America's founders sought to avoid.

So, my conclusions...

  1. The current economic crisis is not a failure of capitalism, and it is certainly not a failure of the American version of democratic capitalism. It is a failure of public morality.
  2. Because the problem is moral, government is not the solution. This is why the supporters of socialism (even European-style democratic socialism) are wrong when they denounce capitalism as a failure. Ceding more economic control and authority to government institutions (or quasi-government institutions like the Federal Reserve) will only result in what America's founders would call tyranny: the government sphere becoming too large and dominating the other two, upsetting the delicate balance at the core of our way of life.
  3. Finally, since the current economic crisis is at heart a moral one, the solution is also moral. While government always has a role to play in society as I've said previously, the fact is more laws and stronger regulation will not make better people. And without better people we won't face a better future.
And this is where I think our president, politicians, business leaders, and intellectuals (including church leaders) are mostly missing a huge opportunity. They should be calling us back from the brink of our irrational love affair with postmodernism and radical, atomistic individualism. What kind of impact would President Obama have, with his skill at oration and high approval ratings, if he were to urge Americans to get back to the lifestyle, worldview and morality that built such unprecedented wealth over the past 50 years? Instead he seems interested in the same thing most modern politicians are: tarring the other side and using his "political capital" make "his mark" on the nation.

And where are the church leaders? Largely silent, lost in the marginalized and privatized world too many of us have accepted. There are some notable exceptions: church leaders who are speaking about the failure of public morality and warning us against human and government saviors. Chuck Colson, who's been consistent in pointing to the moral roots of the problem, is one.

Well, for what it's worth let me add my meager voice to those who see the big picture, and who try to bring it out in the open even during difficult times when we tend want quick and easy answers. And the big picture is not several steps toward socialism. It is the need to return to a moral world: a world in which there is right & wrong, and where it's understood that violating that norm will have consequences. At root our current economic difficulties are symptoms of our own national worldview, and our insistence that clear standards of right and wrong are subjective, tyrannical, and have no place in public life.

The economic indicators that get so much press are like the harsh buzz of an alarm clock. I say, let's stay away from the snooze button. Time to wake up from our postmodern dream.

Or has it been a nightmare?

In Support of Capitalism, America Style (part 2 of 3)

As I wrote previously, the pragmatic genius of America at its founding was more than three branches of government. It was in dividing the entire life of the nation into three separate "spheres," and working hard to make sure each sphere could perform its natural function without undue interference from the other two.

Of course each sphere is influenced by the others, such that the three spheres I illustrated last time aren't completely isolated. They interact.

  • The political sphere ensures many things (security, stability, justice, etc.) that both business and religious/artistic/philosophical institutions need to exist.
  • The moral/cultural sphere provides the raw material for public policy, as well as the guiding principles that regulate the doing of business.
  • The economic sphere provides the resources and practical know-how to fund and shape much of what happens in both political and moral/cultural institutions.
So the key point to all this is America works when each of these three spheres is able to influence and shape the other two without undue interference from the other two. It's a beautiful balancing act - one that is no longer happening.

In fact the Moral/Cultural sphere is all but neutralized in public life. There are many reasons why this is so, but I think the main one is postmodern privatization. By that I mean that postmodernism is now the common view, along with its its insistence that no one can know truth. In other words no one is thought to have any real insight into morality (what's right and wrong); all they have is their opinion. The result is that morality has become "privatized": you have your view of right & wrong, I have mine, and that's all there is. It's assumed there is no morality that applies to everyone, and consequently the moral/cultural sphere has no power to influence society any longer as it should (and as it once did). So what we have now looks more like this, with morality privatized off to the side and thus playing virtually no role in public life:
And what are the consequences of privatizing morality and removing its influence? Breakdown. Since the moral sphere provides the guiding principles for both law and business, if we remove its influence we cut ourselves adrift as a society, and business, being less restrained, is more likely to give in to excess. Which is exactly what is currently happening. As I wrote when this whole mess started the decimation of moral/cultural influence is why we have an economic crisis to begin with. The issue at the root of our financial woes is greed (on the part of millions of Americans, incidentally, not just a select few scapegoats) and greed is a moral problem. Unable to identify the immoral nature of their actions (or unable to restrain themselves from doing what they knew wasn't right) millions of people went for short-term profit, drastically over-inflated the economy, and now it's correcting. Hard.

So the economic failure is a failure of shared public morality, NOT the failure of capitalism as an economic system. But with the moral/cultural sphere in tatters only two spheres remain: government and business. So when people perceive a problem with business, where do they turn? To the only option they think is left: government. And with one final post I'll note why I think turning to the government for long term answers is the worst thing we can do.

In Support of Capitalism, America Style (part 1 of 3)

Hugo Chavez needs to zip his lip.

I've never heard Venezuela's bombastic president say anything that wasn't boldly anti-America, so I'm not surprised to see him criticizing us yet again. But his recent rants about capitalism being dead and socialism, of all things, being the answer for the future (yes, he really said that) are completely out of touch with both history and reality. Still, I don't normally pay much attention to goofball thugs like Chavez so why even mention it? Because Chavez, sadly, is not alone in his anti-capitalist furor. And some of those who are joining the capitalism-is-dead chorus are right here in the good ol' US of A.

I've been frankly stunned to see the number of newspaper articles, Op-Eds, blogs and even polls that are hinting or outright declaring that the whole American capitalist experiment is a failure, simply because of the current recession. I think most of them have incorrectly identified the problem, and thus they've incorrectly identified solutions (such as long term government intervention at many levels). All of which leads to a misguided reflection on American capitalism, and the mistaken notion that it has somehow "failed."

Now, I do not confuse my love for America with my love for Jesus, and my passion for our nation takes a firm back seat to my passion for the Kingdom of God. However, that said, I'm an unashamed believer in the principles that founded this nation, and I'm sad to say I didn't learn many of them until long after graduating from high school. So even though this blog is mostly about Christian theology and comparative worldviews I want to spend a few posts hammering out some of the many thoughts that have swirled in my head over the past few months. I've been consistently frustrated as I watch the talking heads miss the point, the citizenry unknowingly abandon core principles, the president squander a colossal opportunity, and everyone look for easy scapegoats. I'll explain all this in the next couple posts, so if you can stand my rants and ruminations then sit back and enjoy a defense of democratic capitalism, America style.

3 Spheres of American Society
When they created this nation our Founders were engaging in an experiment -- an attempt to order a society in a way that had never been tried before. Most of our civics classes taught us that this boiled down to three separate branches of government with a system of checks and balances. That's true, but the experiment was much larger than just the structure of the federal government. The Founders actually divided the whole of American society into three spheres: the political, the economic, and the moral/cultural.

The political sphere exists for maintenance of law & order, national defense, the enforcement of justice, etc. It is made up of all the institutions of government: courts, legislatures, executives and law enforcement at the federal, state and local levels.

The economic sphere exists to generate the wealth (money, products, services) that both the citizens and the government need to survive and to thrive. It is made up of all the institutions of business: factories, corporations, farms, stock exchanges, shops, banks, etc.

The moral/cultural sphere exists to provide meaning, purpose, and direction to the society (the "soul of the nation," so to speak). It is made up of many different institutions which traffic in ideas, meaning, theology, and philosophy such as churches, schools and universities, the press, the arts, etc.

These three spheres were identified, separated from, and protected from one another with a great deal of intentionality. In his challenging but masterful book The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, Michael Novak puts it this way:

"What the founders of democratic capitalism most feared is the gathering of all power into one. No human being, they believed, is wise or good enough to be trusted with undivided, unitary power. For this reason they separated moral-cultural institutions... from the state. But they also separated economic institutions from the state.

"In earlier eras, clergymen and aristocrats alike had much to say about economic life. Bureaucrats of church and state controlled economic activities, bestowed licenses, imposed taxes and tariffs. Similarly, clergymen meddled in politics and political leaders in religion. Both censored intellect and the arts. It is a distinctive invention of democratic capitalism to have conceived a way of differentiating three major spheres of life, and to have assigned to each relatively autonomous networks of institutions." (emphasis added).

The separation and interrelation of these three spheres form the superstructure, or skeleton, of America. Next: how these three sets of institutions were to influence, and yet remain protected from, one another.

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