When a student of Christianity has taken all the Sunday School lessons, and attended church every Thursday evening for confirmation class, and written a statement of faith, and gone through a confirmation of baptism ceremony, and done all these wonderful things, what remains? Is this person any stronger a Christian than he would have been without all the folderol? He might certainly be more educated, but is he actually better off? And what is he to do next?
I would argue that the faith of such a person is actually a very brittle thing; he has the faith his parents and his church have given him, not the faith he must eventually forge for himself. Typically, people go through confirmation right around high school age. College follows a few years after this, or if not college, then independence in some other substantial form. Young adulthood is, spiritually, a very dangerous time. There is little protection against the wild predators of the world, and unimagined beauty lures one away from truth at every turn. It is a wonderful time, but also a risky one; some will get lost never to find their way home again.
We should not seek to ensure that our new confirmands, as they head out into the world, never get lost. Someone who lives life so well protected does not grow, and is of little use. Anyway, most of them are going to get lost, whether we want them to or not. Their best chance is for us to outfit them with the basic tools which will allow them to one day find their way back home.
I would argue that one of the most valuable of such tools is the ability to think critically. This ability will help them to separate the true from the false, to recognize the good, and to not be fooled by beautiful temptation. It will also be necessary if they are ever to develop their own, personal understanding of Christianity—aside from the bookish, brittle doctrine assigned to them by their church. They need to understand for themselves not only why they believe in Christianity, but also why they do not believe in something else.
The rugged sort of faith that grows from such critical thinking is the best protection against alluring falsehoods. An unthinking confirmand is easy prey for a seasoned Adidaist, communist, Hare Krishna, radical feminist, or what have you. Note I do not include ‘atheist’ on this list; an unthinking confirmand, already knowing what atheism is, would likely turn from it without thinking. But this same ignorant, naive confirmand will pick up Jainism or Kemetic philosophy or something out of innocent curiosity, and be turned inside out by it before recognizing it for what it is.
A confirmand who can think critically is not so easily captured. In fact, such a person can explore other systems of thought and mine them for whatever good ideas they do actually possess. This is an incredibly important skill, and we miss a great opportunity when we do not spend what few years we have with new confirmands teaching them how to deal with the wilderness of the larger world—before they actually venture out into that world.
So it seems to me that after confirmation, what should come is a study of other religions and other systems of thought. Just what does Buddhism teach, and how does it differ from Christianity? Was Mohammad really a prophet? Is Hinduism monotheistic or polytheistic, and how do Hindu ethics conflict with Christian ethics? What do people mean when they say that Christianity is “spiritual Judaism”? What are we to make of Lao Tzu? Tackling questions such as these not only teaches about other religions, but it brings one’s own Christianity into sharper focus.
There should also be—though not at the same time—opportunities to question, probe, and poke at Christianity itself. Christianity makes some incredibly bold claims, and any reasonable person is going to want justification for some of those claims. These issues are addressed in confirmation classes, but in class there is a deadline, and an expectation, and a student may sit on a bothersome question rather than slow things down. The privacy of a youth group is an excellent place to open up about doubts, and to explore awkward questions—are we really sure about Mary being a virgin? How literally can we take Genesis? Outside of the Bible, is there evidence that Jesus actually existed? Students can be asked point-blank what their doubts and reservations are, and in a safe environment, they should be able to open up. This should be encouraged, and one hopes that lively, questioning discussions would come from it.
Seeking to prepare some of my students for future forays into other religions, I prepared a lesson in which we critically analyzed some Christian apocrypha. This is the shallow water; I didn’t want to start with the Zoroastrian Arda Wiraz Namag. But in this shallow water we can learn how to approach a text critically, rather than buying into every pretty thing the book says. The tools that are introduced here are the same tools we would bring to bear on the deeper waters of the Upanishads or the Jataka tales. The lesson begins with a reading from the book of Proverbs…
Proverbs 3:13-24 Happy is the man that findeth wisdom, and the man that getteth understanding. For the merchandise of it is better than the merchandise of silver, and the gain thereof than fine gold. She is more precious than rubies: and all the things thou canst desire are not to be compared unto her. Length of days is in her right hand; and in her left hand riches and honour. Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her: and happy is every one that retaineth her. The LORD by wisdom hath founded the earth; by understanding hath he established the heavens. By his knowledge the depths are broken up, and the clouds drop down the dew. My son, let not them depart from thine eyes: keep sound wisdom and discretion: So shall they be life unto thy soul, and grace to thy neck. Then shalt thou walk in thy way safely, and thy foot shall not stumble. When thou liest down, thou shalt not be afraid: yea, thou shalt lie down, and thy sleep shall be sweet.
The book of Proverbs was purportedly written by Solomon (scholars suspect it was actually written by anonymous sages who were inspired by and imitating Solomon’s ideas and style), and is part of the wisdom literature, a collection of books that are concerned with what wisdom is, what it can do, where it comes from, and how we get more of it. Notice that wisdom is discussed as though she were a woman; this is a characteristic device in this kind of literature.
The Wisdom of Solomon is an apocryphal work. Catholics and Orthodox Christians include it in their Bible, but Jews and Protestants do not. This exclusion seems to have come about due to its authorship. Though also ascribed to Solomon, the author was identifiably a Greek. We know this partially from grammatical clues, but it is also easy to see in the style of thought reflected in the book; the author’s method of reasoning is very western, very Greek. When first translating the Bible into Latin, Jerome noted this Greek authorship, and excluded this book from the Christian canon. It snuck back in anyway, until Martin Luther threw it out again.
We need to take care when studying apocryphal works. Similar to the sacred books of other religions, the ideas in it can be seductive, and its pitfalls very difficult to see. One should not engage such texts while actively wrestling with one’s one Christianity; there is too great a danger of being lured away on false (though promising) paths. It is best to set aside such doubts (for the time being) and reaffirm our own Christian faith. This will be our anchor, our safety line as we descend into a deep and wonderful cave. Without that safety line, there is a very real risk of becoming seriously lost.
It is also important, before we begin, to be clear about why we are going into this cave. We are not looking to be converted, or to find answers to questions we might be wrestling with, or to in any way embrace what we find. We are not looking to prove everything wrong and denigrate it all, either. In fact, when studying scriptures of dubious authority—both apocryphal works and texts from other religions—we will occasionally find little gems of ideas that (after long and careful scrutiny) agree with Christianity very nicely, and are a help to us. The existence of these gems is proof that there is some good in this literature.
We study this literature because as adults, we have an obligation to learn about the world. If we explore these things now, at our leisure, then we can do it with our safety line of Christian faith firmly attached, and with the possibility of uncovering some useful ideas which we will carefully test and scrutinize. If we do not study this literature, then we will be unfamiliar with it and unprepared when this literature eventually comes to us. Because it will come to us, and probably in a time of crisis. If at that time we have no familiarity with it, then we will be unprepared for its seductive promises and false ideas. It will easily confuse our thinking and lead us to ruin. Better to explore that cave now.
Wisdom of Solomon 9:1-11 O God of my fathers, and Lord of mercy, who hast made all things with thy word, and ordained man through thy wisdom, that he should have dominion over the creatures which thou hast made, and order the world according to equity and righteousness, and execute judgment with an upright heart: Give me wisdom, that sitteth by thy throne; and reject me not from among thy children: For I thy servant and son of thine handmaid am a feeble person, and of a short time, and too young for the understanding of judgment and laws. For though a man be never so perfect among the children of men, yet if thy wisdom be not with him, he shall be nothing regarded. Thou hast chosen me to be a king of thy people, and a judge of thy sons and daughters: Thou hast commanded me to build a temple upon thy holy mount, and an altar in the city wherein thou dwellest, a resemblance of the holy tabernacle, which thou hast prepared from the beginning. And wisdom was with thee: which knoweth thy works, and was present when thou madest the world, and knew what was acceptable in thy sight, and right in thy commandments. O send her out of thy holy heavens, and from the throne of thy glory, that being present she may labour with me, that I may know what is pleasing unto thee. For she knoweth and understandeth all things, and she shall lead me soberly in my doings, and preserve me in her power.
We can see how similar this is to Proverbs in tone, content, and imagery. Wisdom is a woman, she was with God at creation, and Solomon yearns for this wonderful quality. If we didn’t know better, we might actually think this passage came from Proverbs. So far, so good. But Proverbs actually predates Wisdom by a couple hundred years. Elsewhere in the book, the cultural differences become impossible to hide. Consider this passage, in which “Solomon” is speaking to God about idolators:
Wisdom of Solomon 14:27-31, 15:1For the worshipping of idols not to be named is the beginning, the cause, and the end, of all evil. For either they are mad when they be merry, or prophesy lies, or live unjustly, or else lightly forswear themselves. For insomuch as their trust is in idols, which have no life; though they swear falsely, yet they look not to be hurt. Howbeit for both causes shall they be justly punished: both because they thought not well of God, giving heed unto idols, and also unjustly swore in deceit, despising holiness. For it is not the power of them by whom they swear: but it is the just vengeance of sinners, that punisheth always the offence of the ungodly. But thou, O God, art gracious and true…
This passage is remarkably atypical, given who the speaker is. Throughout the Bible, there are scenes where God declares who he is going to punish, and why. But here is a scene in which Solomon is declaring who God is going to punish, and declaring them to God, no less. Of course, what is really happening in this passage is the author is lecturing to us, the human readers, through the literary device of a prayer made by Solomon to God. And while what the author is saying might happen to be valid, his presentation has a thin layer of falseness to it; this is a record of a conversation that never would have taken place, this is a literary conceit to give the author an outlet for his own views.
The above passage gives us some good reason to believe (as the scholars already tell us) that Solomon is not the actual author of this book; the passage includes things that Solomon would be very unlikely to say. So if our author is not Solomon, who is he?
Wisdom of Solomon 13:1-5 Surely vain are all men by nature, who are ignorant of God, and could not out of the good things that are seen know him that is: neither by considering the works did they acknowledge the workmaster; but deemed either fire, or wind, or the swift air, or the circle of the stars, or the violent water, or the lights of heaven, to be the gods which govern the world. With whose beauty if they being delighted took them to be gods; let them know how much better the Lord of them is: for the first author of beauty hath created them. But if they were astonished at their power and virtue, let them understand by them, how much mightier he is that made them. For by the greatness and beauty of the creatures proportionably the maker of them is seen.
An alternate translation renders the last two lines as the following:
And if the people were amazed at their power and working, let them perceive from them how much more powerful is the one who formed them. For from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator.
We have seen that this author is writing in a style similar to that in Proverbs; we could say he is writing in a Hebrew style. But the sort of logic used in the very last line of this passage is not Hebrew, it is Greek. The Greek system of formal reasoning is a cornerstone in Western civilization, and is responsible for math, science, and technology as we know them today. This style of thinking is characterized by a degree of formal abstraction and generalization that no other society ever hit upon. It allowed the Greeks to make statements (scientific statements, mathematical statements, whatever) that held true no matter what the statement was about. That last line, for example, does not need to be a statement about people and God. It can just as accurately describe a chicken and an egg, a house and its carpenter, an object and its reflection. It is a perfectly formal, abstract statement.
And in the days when the Wisdom of Solomon was written, the Greeks were the only people in the world capable of thinking that way. (The Romans had inherited the culture of the Greeks, and high-minded Romans would emulate this way of thinking. But they typically wrote in Greek and almost thought of themselves as Greek when they did it.) Everybody else– the Chinese, the Indians, the Parthians, the Huns, even the Jews– looked at the world through a prism of subjectivity, a world in which relationships could not be imagined apart from the particulars that were related. Our mystery author is a Greek.
This is very exciting, because now we understand who our author is and what he’s up to; He’s a Greek who’s trying to write wisdom literature in the Hebrew style. What would such a man want to teach us? What was important to him, and what might we be able to learn? (That’s a dangerous question, but one we have to ask. Fortunately, knowing our author goes a long way toward neutralizing the risk.)
Wisdom of Solomon 8:7And if a man love righteousness, (wisdom’s) labours are virtues: for she teacheth temperance and prudence, justice and fortitude: which are such things, as men can have nothing more profitable in their life.
Nothing more profitable than those four things: temperance, prudence, justice, and fortitude. Coming from a Greek, this is hardly a surprising answer, but there it is; those cardinal virtues are the one thing over all that this Greek would have us practice. And here is where we need to be the most careful. These four virtues may be everything the author claims, or there may be some subtle flaw in them that would slowly lead to problems. We don’t know which, and we won’t be able to tell just by thinking about it for a while. Certainly on their face they don’t seem to be bad, but then again, neither does communism.
When we’ve explored a text (like the Wisdom of Solomon) of dubious reliability and found in it an idea (like the four cardinal virtues) that might be a genuinely good thing, three things are needed:
1) Patience. It might not take long to identify a bad idea, but it can take very long to identify a good one. When we emerge from our cave with a potential gem like the four virtues, we should keep that gem at arms length for a long time. We should carry it around (at arm’s length) and see how it measures up against reality. But we should be very slow to pocket it as our own, and even then we must always remember where we first picked it up.
2) Reflection. While being patient, don’t forget to think. In the case of the virtues, do they make sense? How is prudence supposed to work? How do temperance and fortitude complement each other? Just what do we mean by justice? In the course of such deliberation, watch for flaws in the gem. If flaws appear, test them, and try to break the whole thing apart. Don’t grow attached to the ideas you’re testing, or you won’t be able to throw them away when they break.
3) Further study. There probably isn’t a word of scripture in any religion anywhere that hasn’t been commented on by somebody. Seek out what has been written about the ideas you are testing, and learn from those who have come before. Try to identify the different positions people usually take, and weigh the statements that commentators make. You’ll find this to be a rich source of ideas, and it will point out traps you never would have found on your own.
For testing the cardinal virtues with patience and reflection, you are on your own. But further study will be easy. An immense amount of material has been written on this topic. In the following example (from the Summa Theologica by Thomas Aquinas) we see a very technical discussion on the necessity of prudence as a virtue. Do not be intimidated by the obscurity of the text; books like Summa Theologica were written with the intention that they be read, and are meant to be accessible to any educated audience. If it gets difficult, just take it slow; we explored that cave at our leisure, and there is plenty of time.
Summa Theologica Prima Secundae Partis Question 57 Article 5.
Whether prudence is a virtue necessary to man?
Objection 1. It would seem that prudence is not a virtue necessary to lead a good life. For as art is to things that are made, of which it is the right reason, so is prudence to things that are done, in respect of which we judge of a man’s life: for prudence is the right reason about these things, as stated in Ethic. vi, 5. Now art is not necessary in things that are made, save in order that they be made, but not after they have been made. Neither, therefore is prudence necessary to man in order to lead a good life, after he has become virtuous; but perhaps only in order that he may become virtuous.
Objection 2. Further, “It is by prudence that we are of good counsel,” as stated in Ethic. vi, 5. But man can act not only from his own, but also from another’s good counsel. Therefore man does not need prudence in order to lead a good life, but it is enough that he follow the counsels of prudent men.
Objection 3. Further, an intellectual virtue is one by which one always tells the truth, and never a falsehood. But this does not seem to be the case with prudence: for it is not human never to err in taking counsel about what is to be done; since human actions are about things that may be otherwise than they are. Hence it is written (Wisdom 9:14): “The thoughts of mortal men are fearful, and our counsels uncertain.” Therefore it seems that prudence should not be reckoned an intellectual virtue.
On the contrary, It is reckoned with other virtues necessary for human life, when it is written (Wisdom 8:7) of Divine Wisdom: “She teacheth temperance and prudence and justice and fortitude, which are such things as men can have nothing more profitable in life.”
I answer that, Prudence is a virtue most necessary for human life. For a good life consists in good deeds. Now in order to do good deeds, it matters not only what a man does, but also how he does it; to wit, that he do it from right choice and not merely from impulse or passion. And, since choice is about things in reference to the end, rectitude of choice requires two things: namely, the due end, and something suitably ordained to that due end. Now man is suitably directed to his due end by a virtue which perfects the soul in the appetitive part, the object of which is the good and the end. And to that which is suitably ordained to the due end man needs to be rightly disposed by a habit in his reason, because counsel and choice, which are about things ordained to the end, are acts of the reason. Consequently an intellectual virtue is needed in the reason, to perfect the reason, and make it suitably affected towards things ordained to the end; and this virtue is prudence. Consequently prudence is a virtue necessary to lead a good life.
Reply to Objection 1. The good of an art is to be found, not in the craftsman, but in the product of the art, since art is right reason about things to be made: for since the making of a thing passes into external matter, it is a perfection not of the maker, but of the thing made, even as movement is the act of the thing moved: and art is concerned with the making of things. On the other hand, the good of prudence is in the active principle, whose activity is its perfection: for prudence is right reason about things to be done, as stated above (4). Consequently art does not require of the craftsman that his act be a good act, but that his work be good. Rather would it be necessary for the thing made to act well (e.g. that a knife should carve well, or that a saw should cut well), if it were proper to such things to act, rather than to be acted on, because they have not dominion over their actions. Wherefore the craftsman needs art, not that he may live well, but that he may produce a good work of art, and have it in good keeping: whereas prudence is necessary to man, that he may lead a good life, and not merely that he may be a good man.
Reply to Objection 2. When a man does a good deed, not of his own counsel, but moved by that of another, his deed is not yet quite perfect, as regards his reason in directing him and his appetite in moving him. Wherefore, if he do a good deed, he does not do well simply; and yet this is required in order that he may lead a good life.
Reply to Objection 3. As stated in Ethic. vi, 2, truth is not the same for the practical as for the speculative intellect. Because the truth of the speculative intellect depends on conformity between the intellect and the thing. And since the intellect cannot be infallibly in conformity with things in contingent matters, but only in necessary matters, therefore no speculative habit about contingent things is an intellectual virtue, but only such as is about necessary things. On the other hand, the truth of the practical intellect depends on conformity with right appetite. This conformity has no place in necessary matters, which are not affected by the human will; but only in contingent matters which can be effected by us, whether they be matters of interior action, or the products of external work. Hence it is only about contingent matters that an intellectual virtue is assigned to the practical intellect, viz. art, as regards things to be made, and prudence, as regards things to be done.