Religion and Wisdom

Finding a satisfactory definition of “religion” is notoriously difficult. For present purposes, I will use a definition offered by William James in his book The Varieties of Religious Experience.

Were one asked to characterize the life of religion in the broadest and most general terms possible, one might say that it consists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto. (53)
This “unseen order,” of course, is not “unseen” by all people all the time. There are exceptional individuals – including the founders and reformers of the world’s great religions – who “see” this “unseen order,” and then share what they’ve “seen” with the rest of us.

(I put the word “see” in quotation marks because it is not really a “seeing” so much as an “understanding.” It is important to understand that any talk of “seeing” the nature of reality is meant metaphorically.)

We are all raised to see reality in a particular way, but it is not the way reality actually is. Like the prisoners in Socrates’ allegory of the cave (from Plato’s Republic VII), we are given a particular image of reality, and we accept it as real.

What we inherit is the conventional wisdom of our culture.

Conventional Wisdom

As Marcus J. Borg explains,
Conventional wisdom is the dominant consciousness of any culture. It is a culture’s most taken-for-granted understandings about the way things are (its worldview, or image of reality) and about the way to live (its ethos, or way of life). It is “what everybody knows” – the world that everybody is socialized into through the process of growing up. (Meeting 75)
The “order” of reality is “unseen,” but we are given an image in its place, and told that this image is accurate. We are also raised to live in a particular way, and are told that this is in accordance with the “unseen order.”

The conventional wisdom of one culture will differ from the conventional wisdom of another culture. But, human nature being what it is, there are certain commonalities that crop up cross-culturally. As Borg points out, “conventional wisdom is intrinsically based upon the dynamic of rewards and punishments” (76). As children, this is how we are taught to behave. Even in the adult world there are social (and sometimes legal) consequences for behaving contrary to the norm. We internalise the rules of conventional wisdom, and live according to its dictates.
When conventional wisdom appears in religious form, God is imaged primarily as lawgiver and judge. God may be spoken of in other ways as well (for example, as forgiving and gracious), but the bottom line is that God is seen as both the source and enforcer, and therefore the legitimator, of the religious form of conventional wisdom. God becomes the one whom we must satisfy, the one whose requirements must be met. (Borg, Meeting 78)
Subversive Wisdom

When someone gains insight into the otherwise “unseen order” of reality, the discrepancy between this and the dominant image of reality will be very clear. The worldview and the ethos they proclaim will be considered subversive. And, as Socrates pointed out (and as he and countless prophets have demonstrated), they will be strenuously opposed (and maybe put to death) for proclaiming it.

Jesus challenged the conventional image of God as “lawgiver and judge” with a different image, that of a gracious and all-forgiving father. That the former image persists in Christianity is a testament to the endurance of conventional wisdom.

For Jesus, there is nothing we have to do to make ourselves right with God. We already are. “Consider the lilies of the field,” and all that. Paul has a similar message, but he could never shake the God of conventional religion completely – he assumed that this gracious gift had to be bought, and that Jesus’s death was the price.

The subversive message of grace was itself subverted even more. As Borg puts it, “this strong emphasis on grace got transformed into a new system of conventional wisdom”:
The emphasis was placed on faith, rather than grace, and faith insidiously became the new requirement. Faith (most often understood as belief) is what God required, and by a lack of faith/belief one risked the peril of eternal punishment. The requirement of faith brought with it all of the anxiety and self-preoccupation that mark life in the world of conventional wisdom. (Meeting 79)
For Jesus, the grace of God was not brought about by some event. “Gracious” is just the way God is. We do not have to be “made right” by some requirement having been met. But Paul introduced a requirement, the death of Jesus on the cross. Subsequent Christianity introduced more requirements, particularly belief, but later added other things as well. The subversive wisdom of Jesus was domesticated and eventually overcome by conventional wisdom. This happened before the texts of the New Testament were finished being written, and much of this conventional wisdom has been enshrined in its pages. As a result, most Christians pay lip-service to the idea of a gracious and loving God, but the idol they worship is a wrathful lawgiver and judge.

Recommended Reading

In addition to Borg's Meeting Jesus for the First Time (which is excellent), there is also his fantastic Jesus: A New Vision. Chapter 6 is called "Jesus as Sage: Challenge to Conventional Wisdom," and it's the best single chapter I've ever read about Jesus, including any single chapter in the gospels. There is apparently a "New Completely Revised Edition," but I don't know if this is available yet.

For a discussion of the very important distinction between salvation and justification, see this week’s edition of Basileia.

Works Cited


Blogger malleebull said...

Hey there,

I have been recommended the book by Borg by a good friend...I'm planning to purchase it the next couple of days...your Blog has whet my appetite even further.

Keep blogging.


7:56 a.m.  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...


I hope you enjoy it. Borg is one of my favourite writers.

I read your blog. Talk about writing for a niche audience...very specific subject matter!

9:15 a.m.  

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