Monday, April 4, 2016

Two Kinds of Wisdom

A priest and a nun were lost in a snowstorm. After a while, they came upon a small cabin. Being exhausted, they prepared to go to sleep. There was a stack of blankets in the corner and a sleeping bag on the floor but only one bed. Being a gentleman, the priest said, “Sister, you sleep on the bed. I’ll sleep on the floor in the sleeping bag.”

Just as he got zipped up in the bag and was beginning to fall asleep, the nun said, “Father, I’m cold.” He unzipped the sleeping bag, got up, got a blanket and put it on her.

Once again, he got into the sleeping bag, zipped it up and started to drift off to sleep when the nun once again said, “Father, I’m still very cold.” He unzipped the bag, got up again, put another blanket on her and got into his sleeping bag once again.

Just as his eyes closed, she said, “Father, I’m sooooo cold.” This time, he remained there and said, “Sister, I have an idea. We’re out here in the wilderness where no one will ever know what happened. Let’s pretend we’re married.” The nun purred, “That’s fine by me.”

To which the priest yelled back, “Get up and get your own stupid blanket!”

There are two types of wisdom. The most common type of wisdom is conventional wisdom. This is the mainstream wisdom of a culture, "what everybody knows," a culture's understandings about what is real and how to live. The second type is an unconventional and alternative wisdom. That wisdom questions and undermines conventional wisdom and speaks of another way. Now conventional wisdom in the story of the nun and the priest tells us the appropriate relationship between nun and priest and the familiar perception of married couples.

What are we to learn from conventional wisdom and as Unitarian Universalists should we challenge it?  I turn to the work of Biblical scholar Marcus Borg for help.  Much of what I ask you to consider today is drawn from his book Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time.  Borg was a leading liberal scholar and theologian.  He was the leading scholar of the historical Jesus.  That is, he attempts to reconstruct the life of a man, not a deity, using critical historical methods. Borg’s understanding was not rooted in dogma but spiritual challenge, compassion, community, and justice.  That sounds very Unitarian Universalist to me.  I read his book as suggested by a member of the Congregation and it gives us a lens through which we can look at wisdom today.

Borg uses the historical Jesus to name two types of wisdom.  Conventional wisdom is taken-for-granted knowledge about the way things are and how to live. It’s what everyone tends to know through our socialization process and growing up. It gives us guidance on how to live, including basic etiquette and larger images of the good life, perhaps like the American Dream in this country. Generally, it teaches that if you work hard, you will succeed, and you will get what you deserve. Conventional wisdom becomes internalized and is the internal cop and the internal judge of what society generally thinks is right and wrong and should be rewarded or punished.

And Radical, unconventional Wisdom leads to an entirely new way of living, a new ethic and social vision in which one turns the other cheek, loves not only one’s neighbor, but also one’s enemy, judges not lest one be judged oneself, and does to others only what you would have them do to you. Radical, unconventional Wisdom transforms our personal sense of identity, moving us beyond what our cultural conventions say we are and liberating us from the anxieties and preoccupations that mark so much of our lives. It is a source of courage as well as endurance.

We know that conventional wisdom isn’t always the truth. Take, for example, the American dream I just described seconds ago that is conventional wisdom. It is not based in reality. If it were there wouldn’t be such disparity between the classes, racial inequalities and divides, American families who are hungry and homeless, and a government that risks the well-being of its citizens. If ideas are wrong, why do we persist in believing them and continuing the same action?  The reason may be that, after we have heard something a number of times, it becomes a part of our belief system, or to put it differently, it becomes a part of the frame through which we assess a situation and act.  It becomes our reality.  The mind doesn't know the difference between that which is real and that which is not. Our perception is our reality. 

In my own life I’ve had to defy conventional wisdom to maintain an emotionally healthy family.  When Richard and I adopted our children we knew how we wanted to raise them.  We knew what kind of home we wanted to build and we had hopes. We knew we wanted to raise our children the conventional way.  Because our children were so challenging we needed to lose our identities of the parents we wanted to be and defy conventional wisdom and become the parents we needed to be.  It was difficult and created a huge sense of loss.  But because we chose alternative wisdom, radical wisdom, our children are successful today and Richard and I are still in relationship.  Had we clung to the conventional. we and our children would now be at risk as adults and our relationship would be terribly strained.  We released ourselves from the anxieties of conventional wisdom, wisdom that held no truth for our family.

Conventional wisdom, according to Borg, creates the world in which we live. It provides guidance about what is socially acceptable and, in the West, comforts us with the belief that we will be rewarded for hard work. Rewards and punishment are a part of our conventional wisdom. Work hard in school and you will succeed. Strive in business and you will do well. Keep a perfect house and your family will be happy.

The problem is that there’s a rather harsh backside to this wisdom. If you aren’t succeeding you must have done something wrong. If you don’t prosper than you aren’t worthy. If your family has problems you must be using the wrong dish detergent. The world of our conventional wisdom is a realm in which we measure ourselves against others. Compared to others, how attractive, prosperous, intelligent and popular are we? It is a world in which there is plentiful stress and a multitude of reasons to become disillusioned.

You see, as Unitarian Universalists we are called to redefine conventional wisdom and employ unconventional, or radical, wisdom.  Wisdom that brings us closer to our values of love, compassion, freedom, and reason. What Marcus Borg helps us to see, using the historical Jesus, is that living a life engaged in alternative or radical wisdom has several dimensions: a passion for social justice, understanding the importance of life in community, and limited concern about the afterlife in favor of a transformed wisdom that requires challenging the dominating systems created and maintained by the rich and powerful to serve their own interests.  Compassion as a virtue for individuals is partially blind unless it’s married to an understanding that much of the world’s misery flows from systemic injustice and then having a willingness to work to change it. He presents Jesus as a man whose spiritual experiences led him to see beyond the conventional wisdom of his day and the boundaries that it created between people. The model life he associates with this image of Jesus is a continuous journey of transformation -- not arriving at a new conventional wisdom and a new set of rules, but always challenging our conventional, rule-based way of thinking.  These are exactly some of the principles to we commit to in our Unitarian Universalist faith.

Think of an issue in your life or in the world today. What does conventional wisdom say about it?  Conventional wisdom becomes conventional because it has an inherent truth to it, or at least it once did. In our rush to adopt the shorthand of business, we can easily miss the subtleties and nuances that should give pause, and thought, to what we are doing. Sometimes things get said without much substance and then these things become conventional wisdom that we all go along with even though the reasoning may be flawed in the first place. Even when misguided actions are pointed out to people they often do not or cannot hear what is being said because they are doing something that "everyone" knows is right because it is "conventional wisdom".  What conventional wisdom have you seen do more harm than good? What have you done about it?

How should we listen to Wisdom? We should go out of this church trying to live and move and have our being in Wisdom as the Spirit of life that helps us to love, both in deed and in truth. That requires a radical social ethic which is willing to work against systemic injustice in the world. We should try to stop worrying and fearing and being anxious, for that closes our eyes and ears to the abundance of life all around us here and now that we can savor and appreciate, even as the world is yet to be fully transformed and redeemed. 

Let me share with you some unconventional wisdom:

  • Before you criticize someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes. That way, when you criticize them, you're a mile away and you have their shoes.
  • Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach him how to fish and he will sit in a boat and drink beer all day.
  • If you lend someone $20 and never see that person again, it was probably worth it.
  • If at first you don't succeed, skydiving is not for you.
  • Do not walk behind me, for I may not lead. Do not walk ahead of me, for I may not follow. Do not walk beside me, either; just leave me the heck alone.
  • It's always darkest before dawn. So if you're going to steal your neighbor's newspaper that's the time to do it.
  • Don't be irreplaceable; if you can't be replaced, you can't be promoted.
  • Give a man the fire and you'll keep him warm for one day. Set the man on fire -- and you'll keep him warm for the rest of his life.
  • No one is listening until you make a mistake.
  • Always remember you're unique, just like everyone else.
  • It may be that your sole purpose in life is simply to serve as a warning to others.
  • It is far more impressive when others discover your good qualities without your help. If you tell the truth, you don't have to remember anything.
  • Some days you are the bug, some days you are the windshield.
  • Good judgement comes from bad experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgement.
  • There are two theories to arguing with women. Neither one works.
  • Generally speaking, you aren't learning much when your mouth is moving.
  • Never miss a good chance to shut up.
  • Experience is something you don't get until just after you need it.
Dare to challenge conventional wisdom every day and enjoy your journey. Question your core belief system, one that you have been told is the absolute truth. You must open your mind to the possibilities. We are radical thinkers, a community of brilliant, passionate dreamers and doers to lead the way. Just when you realize that you don’t know everything you truly start your journey.
May it be so.

Two Kinds of Wisdom, a sermon delivered by the Rev CJ McGregor at 1stUUPB, April 3, 2016.

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