I have never thought myself arrogant. School and academic life were humbling. As a heavily medicated epileptic until my early teens, I could never acquire the physical skills to be successful in sports. So my only avenue of advancement was academic study. Alas, I struggled in elementary school and high school. My parents and my school principal did not think I could be successful or outstanding in college. My grades and objective test results justified their evaluation. I, too, thought I was a marginal student. All subjects seemed difficult to me. Math was a trial. I was admitted to college only because my college did not require my SAT scores. In college, I was able to avoid the subjects in which I was less capable and focus on subjects in which I could do well. I became a grind. I studied all the time. I closed the library. I snuck into empty classrooms late at night because the dorms were too noisy to study. I was rewarded with good grades. My confidence grew. I was invited to join a university honors program. The Ford Foundation paid my tuition. But my head never swelled.
As luck would have it, I became passionately interested in an intensely difficult subject, the history of science. It required competence in a host of forbidding subjects. For my MA, I researched the influence of Newtonianism on Scottish medicine in the 18th century. My doctoral fields were American history, the history of science, and (God so help me) 19th century German philosophy of physics. This odd combination of doctoral fields was dictated by my desire to work with the professors who supervised them. The fields required competence in two foreign languages, French and German. I was a slow language learner. The fields required understanding the most difficult intellectual achievements of the Western mind. Obtaining even familiarity (sometimes competency, and never mastery) was like clawing my way up the sheer vertical cliff of a high mountain. Added to the difficulty of the subjects was the normal insecurity of graduate study. My humility was reinforced by the brilliance of my major professors. They were dazzling lecturers, world-famous scholars, and leaders in their fields, holders of endowed professorial chairs of distinction, whose achievements were recognized by professional awards and two Pulitzer Prizes. Arrogant I was not. I just hoped for enough accomplishment to have self-respect and confidence in myself. As a professional historian, doing research and publishing books and articles in my fields, I retained my sense of proportion. I wrote about Einstein's theory of relativity in my first academic book; but I didn't think I was an Einstein. Intellectual humility was my normal state of mind.
Against this background, I am surprised to discover that, actually, I am intellectually arrogant. I always have been. And I have not really been humble, at least not "humble" in the sense of humility. I was mistaken about myself in both scores. This series of articles is about my discovery of my arrogance and what this discovery means for my spiritual life.
I should say, my lack of spiritual life. In my 1980s journal, I discussed the unsuccessful path of my Christian belief. When I arrived at the age of reason, I dug in my heels, unable to accept the doctrine of transubstantiation. I was led to the water, but I couldn't be compelled to drink. My intellectual confrontation with Christianity ended. I never advanced beyond that adolescent denial. My home became historical skepticism and the history of science. (I have written about this journey in my journals; see the sidebar for links to the journals.) I did not consider that Christian religious thought, theology or apologetics or philosophy, had anything to offer me. I certainly did not think they could give me insight to my personality. I was, to my surprise, wrong.
In this series of articles, I explore several philosophical issues, concerning science and belief, fact and value, and the Biblical vision of human nature. I am not familiar with the academic or religious literature on these issues. I do not pretend to originality here. This exploration is simply my personal intellectual curiosity. I gratefully accept suggestions from my readers.
I start with the Biblical response to my adolescent denial of faith. I would state my denial this way: I don't believe, because to my reason the religious doctrines are unreasonable. Paul answers this denial in an extended discussion, 1 Corinthians 1:18-25. What does Paul say?*
Paul discusses objections of the Greeks and Jews, in the congregation of the Corinth church, to the gospel of Christ crucified. The Jews object to the gospel, because Christ's crucifixion is not a "sign" from God. The Greeks reject the gospel because it is not "wisdom". Paul says, to quote 1 Corinthians 1:22,
"For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom."
His statement about the Greeks is a key idea to which I will return.
Paul responded with several arguments to both groups. I am interested mainly in his response to the objections of the Greeks. His responses comprise much of chapters 1:26 - 3:23.
One response points out the presumptuousness of the Greeks for the conceit that their wisdom is wiser than God. The notion is preposterous. "For the foolishness of God is wiser than men..." [1:25] And "God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise." [2:27]
For Paul, the Greeks' presumption was a form of, as we would say today, psychological denial, as well as of reasoned skepticism. "Let no one deceive himself. If any one among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, 'He catches the wise in their craftiness,' and again, 'The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.' So let no one boast of men." [3:18-21]
Second, Paul argues that the Greeks misunderstand, not what the gospel says, but what the gospel is. The gospel is not and does not purport to be, wisdom or philosophy. It is a message that the power of God has been demonstrated in Christ. "... my speech and message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God." [2:4-2:5]
Paul's third argument builds upon his second response. He argues that God's demonstration has come through his Spirit, not through worldly ideas that can be intellectually demonstrated; that is, God's demonstration has not come through the "spirit of the world" (2:12). The Greeks are wrongly approaching God's demonstration; so of course they can't understand it.
What Paul says seems straight forward enough; but closer examination will show that it contains philosophical, as well as doctrinal, issues.
2. Paul's Problem With Greek Wisdom
3. Greek Wisdom: From Homer to Aristotle
4. Greek Wisdom: Hellenism: Paul's Era
5. Paul's Meaning
6. The Weakness of Natural Knowledge
7. Natural Fact and Moral Imperative
8. How Is Moral Behavior Possible?
----------------*Except otherwise noted, all Biblical quotations are from the New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha, Revised Standard Version (1977). For a list of English Bible Translations, see (http://bible.ovc.edu/terry/interpretation/translat.htm), which ranks them according to literalness of translation from the Greek.
Egon Schiele Self Portrait from http://painting.about.com/od/famouspainters/ig/Van-Gogh-and-Expressionism/Schiele-Self-Portrait.htm
Revised. March 10, 2010.