Human Wisdom & Divine Foolishness

General 

Published on: Thursday March 4 2021, 11:46 am

Game theory is all about making decisions based on trying to work out what the other is going to do, and what is therefore of greatest benefit to ‘me’. There are various kinds of games, but the bottom line is our choices and those of others are always going to interact with and impact on each other.

So what?

Well, the received wisdom in the western world seems to be that we should always focus on self-preservation and the best deal for ourselves. This is for two reasons: first, the assumption that basically everyone is looking for the best deal for themselves regardless of the impact on others, and secondly that if we don’t look out for ourselves, then we will end up in a situation we don’t like.

This is a far cry from the wisdom of God in the bible, and the wisdom that Jesus teaches. That upholds the communal and collective ethic of mutual flourishing. In other words, if I do well, you do well, and vice versa. Together we are more than merely the sum of our parts.

But there’s a hitch in that – we have to trust the ‘other’. And the moment that trust is broken, it’s almost impossible to regain it, individually or collectively. Once trust is broken, fear kicks in, and it becomes ‘dog eat dog’.

Many people say that Darwin’s theory of evolution demonstrates that the world runs exactly this way – only the fittest survive. Well, maybe. But a close look at nature demonstrates mutual aid in all kinds of ways. For example, trees in a forest – they crowd each other in a desperate attempt to reach the sunlight but each species in an area also has an interconnected root network which actually shares sap and nutrients, so that they all survive.

For most humans, there is a gap between the reality of how we operate, and the ideal to which we aspire. We freely admit that a world of cooperation would be nice. But in the very next breath say that’s impossible because not everyone will get on board with that.

And that’s probably true. We’re frightened to trust, because what if it isn’t reciprocated?

But this doesn’t mean that we can’t make every attempt to minimise any negative impact we have on others, and that to do so will not only have little detriment to us, but likely make us feel a lot better. After all, there are few people who enjoy consciously hurting others. So when we do make decisions which are harmful, we prefer ignorance. Witness our throwaway culture, as merely one example.

This applies to so many areas of life. We all know the story of the Good Samaritan. But how many of us would actually do that? We have all heard in church and read in the bible God’s call to justice and an end to oppression, to love our neighbour as ourselves – but it can often feel impossible in today’s world beyond the limited circle of our acquaintance.

I wonder if changed actions can only come when we change the way we look at things. And so the bible readings for this Sunday make a lot of sense. God’s wisdom is indeed foolishness to people who live by the precepts of this world, where trusting others is for idiots. ‘If you don’t look after yourself, no one else will; in fact they’ll probably take advantage of you’. And all of that is rooted in fear. Fear of scarcity. Fear of missing out.

But that’s not how it works when we see from God’s perspective. When we apply divine logic, then trust is obvious, and love is always stronger than fear, no matter what form that fear takes. That’s why, if we stop and look carefully, the Ten Commandments are not just a list of “Don’ts”, but rather a list of key things to do or not do in order to avoid breaking trust, relationships, and community.

Last week I wrote about the power of words and the joy of poetry. Once again I find myself turning to William Blake. For me, his poem about the clod and the pebble exemplify exactly this difference of attitude.

“Love seeketh not itself to please,
Nor for itself hath any care,
But for another gives its ease,
And builds a Heaven in Hell’s despair.”

So sung a little Clod of Clay
Trodden with the cattle’s feet,
But a Pebble of the brook
Warbled out these metres meet:

“Love seeketh only self to please,
To bind another to its delight,
Joys in another’s loss of ease,
And builds a Hell in Heaven’s despite.”

We can change our experience of the world simply by changing how we look at it. Others may or may not change. The world is unlikely to change (unless enough people do!). But as St Paul knew (1 Corinthians 1.18-25), the message of Jesus would make sense to those willing to see it through the lens of love, but would sound like idiocy to people who see only through the lens of fear.

Shakespeare summed it up perfectly in Hamlet (Act2 Sc.2): “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

So, what glasses will I put on today? Fear? Or Love?

With Light and Blessings,
Revd. Talisker

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash