Learning Wisdom From the Serpents

  1. Paths to Human Maturity: by David Field
  2. A Radical Modesty: a response by Peter Leithart
  3. Paths of Maturity: a response by Uri Brito
  4. Learning Wisdom From the Serpents: a response by Alastair Roberts
  5. A Crisis, Not a Conversation: a response by Douglas Wilson
  6. The Conversation Continues: a final word from David Field

‘The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?’ The investigation of the mystery of the human heart is a quest in which psychologists and Christians may often discover themselves to be fellow travellers, who may have something to gain from attending to each other’s findings. Due to its deceitfulness and complexity, addressing sin within the heart may be more akin to the task of defusing bombs, which must be undertaken with the greatest skill and care, than to some game of moral whack-a-mole. Indeed, the blunt force approaches that some Christians adopt when tackling sin can prove profoundly counterproductive; there are a great many lives that bear the wounds of irresponsible and foolish attempts to address sin without due consideration of the complex ways of the heart.

In Paths to Human Maturity, Dr. David Field foregrounds the need for wisdom in our treatment of human hearts and how our inattention to the subtle operations and power of sin in our lives leaves us ill-equipped to address its deeper roots, leaving us frustratedly wrestling with recurring symptoms of subterranean issues that elude our treatment. In his example of the angry pastor, Ira, Dr. Field highlights a case where more specifically Christian concerns might be well assisted by the insights of persons with psychological wisdom and skill. As a Christian concern to tackle the deeper roots of sin in our lives will be hampered by a lack of deep experience, insight, and skill in tracking the ways of the deceitful hearts, here is a point where psychological wisdom will be much needed. In particular, Dr Field suggests that we might learn from depth psychology, Zen Buddhism, and the Desert Fathers.

That many Christians committed to the authority of Scripture would be wary of such an approach is not just understandable, but also appropriate: there is a necessary caution that we must always bring to the study of thinkers whose thought may be grounded in various anti-Christian presuppositions. Were we to lack such caution, we would be in a dangerous position indeed! Thinkers like Freud and Jung were antagonistic to orthodox Christian faith in ways that lie deep within their systems of thought, Zen Buddhism is a false religion, and the Desert Fathers represent a very different tradition of Christianity, about which we have many strong reservations as Reformed Christians.

Dr. Field advocates the investigation of the paths these traditions offer, not their wholesale adoption or validation. Warrant for such investigation can be found in the fact that we are all dealing with God’s world; whether these thinkers recognize it or not, they are seeking to trace the grain of a creation that is not autonomous, but which has been established by and belongs to God. No matter how autonomous some of these thinkers might fancy themselves to be in their thinking, they simply cannot be autonomous to the extent that they are devoting themselves to mastering the ways of God’screation. Conversely, our conviction concerning the non-neutrality of reality should propel Christians into receptive yet critical engagement with any who are, to any extent, trying to discover that reality, even though they may be pagans, atheists, or apostates. Any insights that they may possess concerning reality ultimately belong to us as sons and heirs of the creation and we should have the humility and the courage to receive our inheritance.

When considering a book such as Proverbs, it is important to consider the manner of its revelation. God did not just deliver a large set of proverbs to Solomon to write, but gave him understanding and breadth of heart, by which he was able to perceive and speak of the grain of reality itself (1 Kings 4:29). The revelation was fundamentally given in reality itself, mediated by eyes that were divinely awakened to it. In this task of perceiving reality, while Solomon may have enjoyed a remarkable divine gift of insight, he was not engaged in a fundamentally different task from the wise men of surrounding nations, nor enjoying an essentially different revelation from that which they too had received in creation. His wisdom exceeded theirs, but they still possessed wisdom.

Unsurprisingly, the greater wisdom of Israel (and Solomon) attracted people from other nations, who recognized that Solomon and Israel were more advanced in the investigations to which they too had committed themselves (1 Kings 4:30-34; cf. Deuteronomy 4:6). Israel’s advantage over the pagan nations in the task of wisdom came from their attunement to the depths of reality when they began with the Law and the fear of the Lord.

Despite their initial advantage in the task of wisdom, Israel still had much to learn from other peoples who pursued wisdom, even those who were wicked and rejected the fear of the Lord. While such ‘wisdom’ is ultimately founded upon foolishness, even the enemies of the Lord have insight into reality from which we must learn. Wisdom is not only associated with the righteousness of prudent and good rulers, but with the cunning and the shrewdness of serpents. The serpent in Eden had a form of wisdom twisted away from its proper ends, which was ultimately self-destructive. However, it was a form of wisdom nonetheless, and the serpent excelled all other creatures in this respect. The disciples of Christ are instructed to emulate the wisdom of serpents, while retaining the innocence of doves (Matthew 10:16). Christ also commends the shrewdness of persons such as the unjust steward as an example to the children of light who are often naïve by comparison with the unrighteous children of this generation (Luke 16:8).

Rightly recognizing the danger of serpents, as Christians we risk inoculating ourselves against their wisdom, forearming ourselves against the openness of our common reality with ideology. The concept of ‘worldview’ has sometimes played such a role for Christians, as a coherentist system of thought brought to reality has prevented us from pursuing the task of wisdom on its proper terms, in a manner that would reveal that, whether we are Christians, Freudians, Zen Buddhists, or hesychasts, we are all engaged in the same great human project of understanding the variegated dimensions of ourselves and our world as God’s creations, with various forms, aspects, and degrees of wisdom and folly.

Here, a proposal like Dr Field’s does present very particular dangers to any who, sometime ideologically quarantined from investigation of a common reality in critical conversation with serpents and others, may lack the sort of robust immune system and the ‘skin’ of a well-defined framework of Christian truth. Where the quarantine of a totalizing Christian ‘worldview’ has been removed and we find ourselves in the non-sterile common world of reality, which we are investigating alongside unbelievers, we are in considerable danger of uncritically ‘biblicizing’ whatever we discover there, assimilating into our faith truths greatly alloyed with error. While I believe it is very important to remove this quarantine, I am concerned that many Christians simply have not been well-prepared by their Christian education or churches for engagement within an ideologically non-sterile environment. Point them in the direction of Freud and they are in danger of swallowing him whole.

Christian counselling is an area where many of the tensions between different Christian epistemologies have played out. Dr Field’s position appears quite different from that of the nouthetic or biblical counselling movement, for instance, which has emphasized a radical antithesis between Bible-based counselling and unbelieving psychology, the former grounded firmly upon Scripture and the latter deriving and fundamentally compromised by antichristian presuppositions. In contrast, Dr Field’s approach seems to be more integrationist, testing, weighing, and critically appropriating aspects of non-Christian psychology within an approach fundamentally committed to Christian truth, yet not entirely derived from Scripture. This may not promise the same security as the quarantine chamber of a system exhaustively derived from Scripture, but it may enable us to engage with a far more extensive reality. While his approach is not exhaustively derived from it, what Dr Field most definitely is not offering, however, is a vision of psychology essentially untethered from Christian truth.

Where psychology and counselling have been pursued from a confidence in biblical authorization and the tidiness of a neat biblicist system, yet without the extensive experience and skill that wisdom requires, the result has often proved very damaging. Dr Field’s approach, by immediately bringing us into contact with serpents like Freudianism and Zen Buddhism, provokes a sense of profound danger and trepidation. This sense is a very healthy one: psychology and counselling are dealing with dark, dangerous, and deceitful realities and, unless we approach it with care and caution, our actions can prove destructive. Wisdom moves us beyond the enclosed and domesticated realm of the garden and into the wider world, where we must deal with dangerous and untamed beasts with shrewdness and skill, not merely with the more binary categories of the Law that are most prominent in our childhood.

Historically, Protestant Christians have been exceedingly careful to distinguish the way in which pastors in particular address the binding authority of the Word of God to their hearers’ consciences and the ways in which they venture beyond the explicit authoritative Word of Scripture into matters of contextual wisdom and prudence, which they must also frequently do. Upholding the authority of Scripture requires care neither to constrain it nor to overextend it, both of which end up diminishing it. If a pastor only ever presents scriptural truth in terms of his probabilistic theological suppositions, devoid of authoritative weight, it will be quite emptied of its proper force. Conversely, if a pastor’s teaching on everything from the doctrine of resurrection to universal healthcare policies comes with the unmitigated force of a ‘thus saith the Lord!’ the authority of Scripture will be compromised through overextension.

This danger of overextension has been especially pronounced for those of us who stress the authority of Scripture and the bearing that it has upon all of life. Articulating this bearing carefully, in a manner that recognizes the degree to which it is necessarily alloyed with fallible human reflection upon reality and practical deliberation by which it is prudently (or imprudently, as the case may be) rendered concretely effective is an essential task that falls to us, especially when we are dealing with matters such as Christian approaches to psychology. Protecting the authority of Scripture from compromise through overextension may require a greater modesty on our part when claiming its warrant for practices that fall well outside of its primary ambit. Here, I think it is appropriate to note that Dr. Field does not seem to be claiming to be presenting ‘biblical’ psychology, but that he merely highlights affinities between biblical themes and some of the themes that he is identifying in the psychological material he is exploring.

One of the features of the Isaianic eschatological vision is the coexistence of predator and prey animals together in the new heavens and the new earth, so that the lion lies down with the lamb and the toddler can play at the viper’s nest. This vision describes the ‘domestication’ of the wild world beyond the garden, so that beasts will no longer hurt and harm. We are not yet in this eschatological order, but there are ways in which we are called to tame the wild beasts that we discover in the world. A thinker like Freud, for instance, might be compared to an ornery and stubborn mule, who, if not broken by a skilled person, will prove unmanageable and may cause a great deal more damage than he is worth. However, if carefully broken, he could bear some burdens around for us and live in our stables. Yet, while he may reside in our stables, we will not admit him into the house.

Dr. Field’s article gives a tantalizing glimpse into a doubtless much broader vision that he will lay out in his forthcoming Intensive Course. Dr. Field is a gracious and wise man I admire and from whom I would love to learn more, even though I suspect our perspectives might differ at points.

At Theopolis, we are invested in the ongoing task of learning together under the light of God’s truth revealed in Scripture, moving from Bible, through liturgy, out into the culture, then back again, bearing the treasures of a vast and often wild creation into the heavenly city. Dr. Field’s work is an example of a practice of this, of deep exploration into treacherous territories, unearthing treasures that need, as all things, to be closely studied under the searching illumination of Scripture and with extensive cross-examination from thoughtful Christians.

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham) is adjunct Senior Fellow at Theopolis and is one of the participants in the Mere Fidelity podcast.  He is also the contributing editor of the Politics of Scripture series on the Political Theology Today blog. He blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria and tweets using @zugzwanged