In observing Christian responses to the coronavirus, perhaps nothing has stood out to me so much as the way that it reveals fundamental habits of mind, either characteristic of wisdom or of folly.
The wisdom literature is often rather neglected in our churches. Its sapiential character does not fit well within the narrow constraints of our information and doctrine-focused teaching. Its more open-ended and less definitive forms of knowledge unsettle the security of our dogmatisms. Its empirical and pragmatic focus discomforts our ideological abstractions and our personal detachment. Its positing of a common and knowable world shared by all human beings resists our desire to assert a Christian monopoly on truth and insight.
Even in some Christian circles that make confident appeal to ‘wisdom’, the true character of wisdom can easily become distorted, often out of a desire to subdue wisdom to ideology and its modes of belief. ‘Wisdom’ can be presented to people as if it were a complete pre-packaged system of what to think, rather than as a lifelong formation in disciplined and responsible thought and the art of living well. A certain ideological position can be identified with ‘wisdom’, while actually functioning to do people’s thinking for them. We can be trained in a complete system that is to be brought to reality, without obliging us to assume the responsibility of the sapiential task of relating deep and principled reflection with empirical attention to the world. For many, wisdom, it seems, is also largely the possession of one party—the party to which they so happen to belong—absolving them from the task of listening and engaging receptively and humbly with people of a great many different backgrounds, beliefs, and vantage points.
All of these grave deficiencies in people’s training in, understanding and practice of wisdom have become amply and painfully evident in many Christians’ responses to the coronavirus.
Much of the wisdom literature is addressed to the simpleton, giving the person who lacks wisdom and expertise a nose for wisdom and the character to receive it. It is about gaining an instinct for the shape of wisdom, even before you have developed knowledge or been formed in wisdom yourself. It is how the non-expert conforms himself to wisdom despite his lack of expertise. It is often less about the specifics of what one believes than it is about how you come to and continue to believe it.
But the wisdom literature is also the literature for kings. There might seem to be something of a paradox here, but on closer examination it should make sense. In many ways, the king is called to be the consummate non-expert simpleton. Likewise, wisdom is largely built upon the virtues of the righteous simpleton and never leaves those virtues behind, actually resting more and more weight upon them as wisdom grows.
The wise king is not the universal expert. Rather, he is to be someone with mastery of the task of judgment. And he exercises such judgment well through his gifts in the discerning, taking, and weighing of expert counsel. Ruling with expert counsellors is a rather different thing from rule by experts. Domain-specific expertise and knowledge factors into the wise king’s judgment, but in exercising such judgment he considers and weighs a great many voices of expertise and wisdom before determining upon a specific course of action.
As the wise king is not the universal expert, he must arrive at his wise judgment by some other means, which is a tricky business. And the means by which he does so are largely the same means as those by which the simpleton arrives at any sort of wisdom in the first place, yet developed to a high degree. Because of the vast scope of his responsibilities, the king’s exposure to his non-expertise rapidly grows along with the extent of the obligations for which his wise judgment equips him.
As Scott Alexander observes, the people who were the best at anticipating and preparing for the coronavirus were largely not domain experts, but were people who were attentive to domain experts, while being gifted in the synthesizing of insight from diverse experts and the exercise of prudent judgment in uncertain situations with great risks. This is an important species of wisdom.
In what follows, I would like briefly to outline a number of fundamental principles of a Christian account of wisdom that should guide us in how we respond to coronavirus and other such crises.
- The wise find security in a multitude of counsellors
The wise surround themselves with a multitude of counsellors. By contrast, fools merely appeal to whatever ‘expert’ will confirm them in their ways, dismiss the experts as agents of a conspiracy or blind servants of an ideological agenda, or absolve themselves from the task of discernment by appeal to the fact that ‘experts disagree’. Fools generally appeal to experts to validate them in their positions, rather than genuinely familiarizing themselves with the scope and shape of the conversation between experts of varying perspectives and insights.
The solitary counsellor is a dangerous thing, as is the clique of unanimous counsellors—whether ‘orthodox’ or contrarian (those who are temperamentally contrarian can often mistake their criticisms of mainstream opinions for genuine stress-testing, while not being alert to the ways that their own positions are open to serious criticisms). True wisdom is to be found in attention to a multitude of counsellors, where the viewpoints of many informed and wise persons are constantly cross-examined, stress-tested, revised, honed, and proven through searching conversation with each other, a conversation often directed by the judicious ruler.
One of the typical hallmarks of cranks is that they simply dismiss peers in the mainstream guild as agents of a conspiracy, as malicious, or as stupid, rather than engaging in sharpening good faith dialogue with them or allowing their work to be cross-examined by them. They will speak of the stupidity of the mainstream experts, without ever closely engaging with them face to face, or truly understanding their viewpoints or arguments. Most actual experts tend to treat other experts who disagree with them with rather more respect.
- The wise closely examine matters
Fools will readily believe a case without closely seeking out and attending to the criticisms of it (Proverbs 18:17). They routinely judge before hearing. They also attend to and spread rumours, inaccurate reports, and unreliable tales, while failing diligently to pursue the truth of a matter. The wise, by contrast, examine things carefully before moving to judgment or passing on a report.
In following responses to the coronavirus, I have been struck by how often people spread information that they clearly have not read or understood, simply because—at a superficial glance—it seems to validate their beliefs. They do not follow up closely on viewpoints that they have advanced, seeking criticism and cross-examination to ascertain their truth or falsity. And when anything is proven wrong, they do not return to correct it.
- The wise know the limitations of knowledge
Fools are credulous, jumping to belief or disbelief. They are also opinionated, loving the proud confidence of a false certainty. They lack the capacity to weigh up many different and contrasting witnesses and viewpoints to arrive at a clearer sense of a matter, neither trusting any party wholly and unquestioningly nor lightly dismissing them when tensions appear. The wise, by contrast, know the limitations and uncertainties of their knowledge and have grown in the humility that accompanies such awareness. The wise resist the urge prematurely to jump to the security of firm yet false conviction, but faithfully endure the struggle of limited knowledge or lack of knowledge in order to search out matters diligently and thoroughly.
The coronavirus is a challenge attended by a multitude of ‘known unknowns’ and ‘unknown unknowns’. Responding to such extreme uncertainties requires both decisive and swift precautionary efforts to minimize some of the extreme risks to which we might be opening ourselves up and intense open-ended enquiry into the exact shape of the threat that we are facing. Uncertainty doesn’t feature much in the thinking of the fool (save when he appeals to the supposed indeterminacy of opinion among experts as an excuse for confidently insisting upon whatever he wants). The fool tends to gamble overconfidently on his expectations and gives little thought to the many contingencies that are at play.
The fool scoffed at the supposed panic and fear of people who, while not necessarily expecting coronavirus to hit back in January, nevertheless took precautionary measures to ensure that they were prepared for such an eventuality. He scoffs in the same way now at people who are taking precautionary measures against other real but lower-risk scenarios. He is not really invested in the urgent task of breaking the risks we are assuming down to size through the pursuit of knowledge, because he has never not already had his mind made up on the matter.
- The wise are on guard against the flatterer
The wise recognize that the danger of the flatterer is encountered not merely in the form of such things as obsequiousness directed towards us personally. Flattery also expresses itself in the study or the expert that confirms us in the complacency or pride of our own way, bolstering our sense of intellectual and moral superiority, while undermining our opponents. The fool is chronically susceptible to the flatterer, because the flatterer tickles the fool’s characteristic pride and resistance to correction and growth.
The fool will pounce upon studies or experts that confirm him in his preferred beliefs and practices, while resisting attentive and receptive engagement with views that challenge him (or even closely examining those he presumes support him, as such examination might unsettle his convictions). The fool’s lack of humility and desire for flattery make him highly resistant or even impervious to rebuke, correction, or challenge. You have to flatter a fool to gain any sort of a hearing with him.
Ideology is the friend of the fool. Ideology can assure people that, if only they buy into the belief system, they have all of the answers in advance and will not have to accept correction from any of their opponents, significantly to revise their beliefs in light of experience and reality, or acknowledge the limitations of their knowledge.
By contrast, the wise know that the wounds of a friend are faithful and seek correction. They surround themselves with wise and correctable people who are prepared to correct them. They are wary of ideology.
- The wise love reproof and the wisdom that arises from it
The fool will not carefully consider opposing positions to discover what element of wisdom might lie within them, but will leap at whatever excuse he can find—the tone, the political alignment, or the personality of the speaker, etc., etc.—to dismiss and ignore them. Ultimately, whether he realizes it or not, he hates wisdom, as the task of wisdom is discomforting for him and he will avoid it at all costs. By contrast, the wise will endure considerable discomfort to seek wisdom wherever it is to be found. He will willingly expose himself to scathing rebuke, to embarrassing correction, to social alienation, or to the loss of pride entailed in learning from his sharpest critics or opponents or climbing down from former stances, if only he can grow in wisdom.
The wise constantly tries to increase his sensitivity to truth through the practice of close attention, whereas much of the intellectual effort of fools is expended in explaining away unwelcome truth or rationalizing error (for instance, the wise reader of Scripture tries to read the text on its own terms, whereas the foolish reader tries to avoid the force of the text either by introducing ambiguity wherever he can, or imposing his own sense upon it). The wise diligently and desirously seek out wisdom, whereas wisdom has to be force-fed to the fool.
- Fools take refuge in scorn and scoffing
When a fool is faced with an unwelcome viewpoint, his characteristic response is scoffing, ridicule, or dismissal, rather than careful and thoughtful engagement. Levity and scorn are a refuge against correction and Scripture frequently highlights the way that fools’ first recourse when challenged is to such a response. The fool will also slander the wise as an excuse not to listen to them.
Fools are typically threatened by the proximity of opposing viewpoints and require defence mechanisms against them. This is the case even among fools who hold genuine truths. For too many Christians ridicule of others functions primarily to address the fool’s psychological need to inure himself against all other viewpoints, of ensuring that he does not feel any pull of truth in other positions that might dent his unearned self-confidence. Indeed, even evangelism itself can be perverted from a loving sharing of truth with others to a self-defensive assertion of truth against others in order to resist genuine encounter with different viewpoints.
Those with a genuine confidence in their knowledge and a real commitment to truth are much less likely instinctively to employ ridicule. The wise can use ridicule, but it is one of the less employed tools in their toolbox and isn’t deployed without care.
- Truth is marked by consistent witness
The wise are concerned to demonstrate consistency in their viewpoints, as agreement between witnesses and viewpoints are evidence of the truth of a matter or case. However, the beliefs of a fool are generally marked by great inconsistency. They lack the hallmarks of truth because they are adopted for their usefulness in confirming the fool in his ways, rather than for their truth. The fool will jump between inconsistent positions as a matter of convenience. The consistency of the positions and beliefs of fools are found, not in the agreement of their substance, but in the fact that they all, in some way or another, further entrench the fools in their prior ways and beliefs. Also, the intellectual laziness of fools means that they will not diligently seek to grow in a true consistency (although some might develop a consistency in falsehoods designed merely to inure them against challenge, rather than as a pursuit of truth itself).
- The fool is all mouth
The fool has a love for expressing his opinion, but much less pleasure in the hard work of earning the right to one. The fool would know everything even if he studied nothing. The fool broadcasts his folly and will not hold his peace in the presence of those wiser than himself. To submit to the wise in holding his tongue is too much of an affront to the pride of the fool, who hates correction and the indignity of having to honour the greater wisdom of others. The fool’s incessant speech is a defence against listening and a way to avoid admitting the limitations of his knowledge, all while constantly exposing their limited knowledge.
- The wise learn from experience and are revealed through crisis
The wise closely reflect upon and draw lessons from their experience and practice. Wisdom in Scripture is commonly seen in the outcome of things and our own wisdom and folly are most clear in retrospect, where sufficient interval of time and distance of ego intermediates between us and our past wisdom or folly. Faced with a crisis like coronavirus, it is important honestly to reflect upon how our past actions and habits prepared or left us unprepared for this moment. The wise commit themselves to this often painful task of self-examination and reformation and seek to silence the flatterer in themselves first of all, speaking truth to themselves about their failures. The wise try to internalize the voice of wise rebuke.
Coronavirus is a time of testing and a time of humbling. It is a time when the strength or weakness, the truth or falsity, the faithfulness or unfaithfulness of things and of persons is being revealed. The wise will be deeply attentive at a time like this, (re)considering the people with whom they keep company, the voices to which they listen, the beliefs that they hold, the practices that they observe, the beliefs that they hold, etc. In a time of humbling, the limitations of foresight, providence, and strength are revealed. However, in such moments of humbling, when the pride of many is dashed, the wisdom of the humble, the cautious, and the modest, who reckoned with those limitations in time of plenty, can be made manifest.
- The fool is characteristically reckless and careless, lacking rational fear and caution
The fool is marked by his dismissal of rational concern about the dangers of his way and by his reckless overconfidence (Proverbs 14:16). The fool is a gambler and a compulsive risk-taker. He rejects warnings about future dangers, blithely convinced that all will continue as it has to this point, that his careless actions will yield no harvest of consequences.
On those occasions when he escapes disaster he acts as the gambler who bets his entire fortune on the horse with the best odds then praises himself on his foresight when it wins. He does not consider the many ways in which he has suffered on account of his recklessness and failure to consider the uncertainties of the future (and when such risks are being taken with people’s lives, the fool is breaking the sixth commandment, even if his gamble ‘pays off’). The fool is a creature confined to the immediate present, a person for whom the future is merely the continuation of the present. He neither considers his past mistakes nor reflects on the risks to which he is exposing himself and others in the future.
The wise, by contrast, considers and makes preparation for the uncertainties of the future. He is practiced in anticipating and securing himself for various possible eventualities and does not merely gamble on his preferred outcomes.
- The fool is unprepared
One of the chief characteristics of fools in the teaching of Jesus—the fool who built on the sand, the fool who sought to build bigger barns, the foolish virgins—is the fact that they are unprepared. Their fixation on the present and the continuation of its conditions, their resistance to correction, their laziness and lack of appetite for the pursuit of wisdom, and their stubborn delight in their own way leads to their being taken by surprise by foreseeable disaster. Their folly can be made openly manifest by their unreadiness for the disasters that hit them. The fool, however, will often mock the wise in their calm preparations—“Why panic!?” Yet, when disaster strikes, they are generally the ones flailing and not knowing what to do.
The present-oriented fool finds it difficult to recognize danger creeping up on him. On the 29th February, he would point out that it is ridiculous to consider taking measures against coronavirus as only one person in the US is known to have died from it. A month later that number was 4,066 and he would point out that there were only a couple of deaths in his city. Now, a month after that, the deaths have passed 62,000 and he is still finding ways to ignore the many ways in which that number could rise much, much further, unless significant measures are adopted. Future threats simply do not register to those focused narrowly upon the immediate present.
The people and nations who were best prepared for the coronavirus crisis were those that took decisive action before developing circumstances forced action upon them. Those that delayed action and dragged their feet, wanting to avoid any sense of ‘panic’ or overreaction are now generally the ones that find themselves in the most constrained situations, where return to anything resembling ‘normal’ will prove most difficult, or where the greatest gambles must be made (even if such gambles pay off, they shouldn’t have needed to be made). They are the nations that are frantically scrambling to acquire medical supplies and equipment and protective gear and to put testing, tracking, and other measures in place in an extremely short period of time. Being prepared gives us a lot more latitude for action and a much lower risk of actual panic in the future.
When faced with risks such as those posed by a novel coronavirus, about which we know extremely little, some have argued that we don’t know enough to justify extreme action and it is quite likely that the threat presented by it is actually fairly minimal. They will accuse those advocating for more extreme measures of claiming a false certainty. Yet this is quite misguided, for anything resembling good policy must always factor what we do not know—both the known and the unknown unknowns—into its deliberations. Much as it is possible, or even likely, that they are accurate—and much as we all hope that they are—in a situation of uncertainty, it is dangerous folly to gamble on the most optimistic models. The wise person can be and often is quite optimistic, while taking necessary precautions against what he believes to be less likely, yet potentially devastating, eventualities. The extreme measures that have been instituted in most countries are not merely a response to known threats, but also to the realistic unknown ones, which need to be broken down through scientific research.
The threat of a novel coronavirus was never merely its final absolute death toll (whether mitigated or unmitigated), but about the far-reaching and costly burdens and limitations that societies typically must assume when faced with threats of such exceedingly uncertain proportions, especially when they have allowed those threats to creep up on them and only have more drastic or risky courses of action remaining open to them.
Why have Western societies devoted such costly and extensive resources to tackling terrorism, compared to the threat of falling furniture, which kills more people in a typical year? While the threat of falling furniture is a clearly bounded one and never going to rise to that great a scale, the threat of terrorism has much more flexible upper bounds. The same is also true of a novel coronavirus. While the severity of flu seasons can fluctuate year by year, they generally do so within clear bounds (and people should take flu statistics with much greater caution, especially when comparing them to the much more solid data that we have for coronavirus deaths). A novel coronavirus like COVID-19, which is so much more deadly than the flu, poses a threat that is much less bounded to our scientific awareness. We really do not know how effective and long-lasting any immunity will be. We do not know whether to expect worse waves in the future. We do not know whether and how it will mutate into something more or less deadly. We do not know how effective any vaccine will be, or how long it will take to find one. We do not yet know what the long-term health effects of it might be for people who have had the illness.
Fatalism can be an attractive proposition for the fool, as it absolves him of the imperative of responsible agency. Many of the factors determining future outcomes in all sorts of areas currently rest in our hands. The fool, however, not considering the future, regards the future as a matter of inevitability, for which his agency is irrelevant. It has been worrying to observe how many people cannot tell the difference between conditional projections and predictions or expectations. The various projections that presented worst case scenario deaths came with radically different projected death tolls—and never certain predictions—for scenarios in which people responded effectively and situations in which they did not. The failure to consider the way in which the difference between drastically different future outcomes lies in our present action is not apparent to the fool, who can be much more likely simply to think in terms of a single prediction that will or will not come to pass, inconsiderate of the pronounced differentiating effect that his present action can have and the fact that prompt and effective responses to recognized threats can avert crises, ensuring that they do not fully materialize.
- The wise exhibit self-mastery
In Proverbs, the wise are particularly identified with their hearts, while fools with their mouths. The heart is a realm of meditation, reflection, and deliberation. It is the place where things are weighed and tested before they are expressed in words or actions. The fool, by contrast, is someone who lacks the self-mastery of a heart and is defined by ungoverned impulses, particularly in speech and temper. The quarrelsomeness of the fool arises in part from this. Lacking a self-mastered heart, he is threatened by the proximity of differing opinion and lacks the humility to learn or be corrected, so he must fight it.
The fool, by his characteristic failure to consider and make preparation for the uncertainties of the future, also puts himself in a position where reaction to events is often the only option remaining to him. The wise, by recognizing the uncertainty of the future, and readying himself for various eventualities, allows himself a lot more latitude and flexibility for response when improbable crises hit.
The wise internalizes the voices of many wise counsellors in his heart, enabling him to give the sort of counsel to himself that considers many vantage points. The fool, by contrast, only has an internal monologue and has not learned to address wisdom to himself.
The self-mastery of wisdom recognizes the many ways in which our thinking tends to function as self-rationalization when not carefully managed. Our thinking is all too frequently driven by our passions. One of the most troubling things to witness has been the hijacking of the discourse concerning coronavirus by the passions of political partisanship, something that has been especially apparent in the American context. Rather than even-handedly pursuing truth with level heads, everything has become snarled up in the culture wars. Issues are then framed by the foil of the stupid or evil people on the other side, dominated by the need to resist granting any ground to people we dislike, or maintaining the correctness and prescience of our camp or ideology. All worthwhile thought will swiftly be asphyxiated in such a context.
Perhaps the greater part of wise thought is self-mastery. Upton Sinclair—at least the quotation is typically attributed to him—famously remarked: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” Motivated reasoning is an immense problem in a situation where, for instance, becoming persuaded of the legitimacy of radical measures to combat the virus would endanger your livelihood, unsettle your political ideology, or go against your instincts or the tendencies of your personality. Right thinking requires that we take close inventory of our motivations and guard against their unhelpful swaying of our opinion.
Self-mastery is especially important in fraught and antagonistic contexts, where our thinking can get sucked into reactive antagonisms. Where this occurs, we will swiftly lose the ability to hear and properly weigh the criticisms of others. We must keep a very close watch upon ourselves: the moment that we find ourselves engaging with issues out of the urge to prove some other party wrong, for instance, we are in real danger of starting to prioritize the service of our party or the defeat of some other party for the pursuit of truth. It is important that we seek and/or create contexts—whether solitude, away from the passions of socially and emotionally charged media and settings, or in good faith discourse between persons of differing viewpoints—where true stress-testing of our thought can occur, where we can genuinely weigh and consider positions on various sides and calmly arrive at measured opinions. The hold that the passions of partisanship have upon the thinking of most people today have made true thought nigh impossible.
If you find that a context you are in is driven by ideological and political antagonisms and their attendant passions, in a way that resists close, sustained, and critical self-reflection, I would highly advise you to step away. You will find it difficult to think clearly in such a context, as your own instinctive antagonistic tendencies will kick in and self-rationalization will swiftly replace the quest for self-critical understanding and self-knowledge. It is very difficult to think well when you are fixated on people who are wrong on the Internet. Wean yourself off the drug of catharsis through attacking opposing positions. Put on your own mask first: slow yourself down, level your head, master your emotions, give yourself space, and practice attention, seeking to discover the strengths and weaknesses in various viewpoints in a much less charged atmosphere.
Of course, achieving this requires the development of a strong ‘heart’ within which to meditate, reflect, and deliberate, away from the intrusive passions of your environment and society. It requires the internalization of a multitude of voices that test your viewpoints. It requires developing the equanimity necessary to be around people of strongly opposing opinions, without feeling threatened by them. Where people lack such a ‘heart’ and the self-mastery it manifests, thought won’t escape the tyranny of the passions.
- The fool is a creature of the herd
The fool seeks company and will try to find or create a confirming social buffer against unwelcome viewpoints when challenged. The scoffing and the scorn I have already mentioned are often sought in such company. The fool surrounds himself with people who confirm him in his beliefs and will routinely try to squeeze out people who disagree with him from his social groups. The fool’s beliefs, values, and viewpoints seldom diverge much of those of his group, which is typically an ideological tribe designed to protect him from genuine thoughtful exposure to intelligent difference of opinion or from the sort of solitude in which he might form his own mind. He has never gone to the sustained effort of developing a pronounced interiority in solitary reflection and meditation, of attendance to and internalization of the voices of the wise, or of self-examination, so generally lacks the resources to respond rather than merely reacting. When the herd stampedes, the fool will stampede with them, finding it difficult to stand apart from the contagious passions of those who surround him.
- The wise recognize the cosmopolitanism of truth
One of the important features of wisdom is its cosmopolitanism. The wisdom literature of Scripture is related to a wider ancient sapiential project and Scripture includes non-Israelite voices as voices of wisdom, both inspired and uninspired. The wisdom literature is not direct revelation unique and exclusive to Israel, but is for the most part inspired reflection upon realities common to all mankind—the world and the events, persons, and realities within it. The Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Romans, and many other shrewd pagans were also engaged in the task of wisdom and Israelites could learn things from them, even if their wisdom literatures did not have the same inspired character as that of Israel. Solomon’s wisdom is compared favourably to the wisdom of other men of the east and attracted people of other nations to hear him, as they recognized Solomon’s insight and perception into reality. But the people of God never had proprietary rights upon the practical wisdom gained through thoughtful engagement with reality, which was the common possession of humanity, albeit enjoyed in varying degrees.
One of the dismaying features of too many Christian contexts is their narrow fortress mentality, their failure to interact receptively with and learn from insightful non-Christians, and the way that their thinking is so driven by political and ideological antagonism and entrenchment (see Alan Jacobs’ comments on this).
I know hardly any Christians who were ahead of and deeply informed about the coronavirus crisis from early on. I was alerted to its seriousness back in January—I bought masks on January 24th—because I closely follow a wide array of voices outside of the ideological echo chambers that can dominate the discourses both of Christians and of our societies (discourses that are extensively entangled), discourses that are far too often playing to the impulses of folly. By virtue of the way in which they are structured and pursued, such discourses function more to lock people into partisan ideologies that relieve their discomfort of reckoning with the limitations of their knowledge and the contestability of their beliefs and behaviours than they do to expose people to the difficult challenge of truth.
A great many of the voices I have benefited and learned from, far more than I have from the great majority of Christians that I follow, come from a variety of sharply contrasting viewpoints with which I have quite profound differences—rationalists, techno-futurists, neoliberals, atheists, evolutionary psychologists, alt-right types, liberal Christians, Jews, heretics of different flavours, feminists of various stripes, Marxists, postmodernists, progressives, race theorists, neo-reactionaries, etc. However, to the extent that many of them are rigorously engaging with specific aspects of the common reality of the world in ways that few Christians are, it is worthwhile to listen to and learn from them. Christians who are driven by a fortress mentality can be so concerned to establish how the positions of such persons are wrong and why they should be dismissed that they seldom pause to consider whether they might be seeing anything that we are not.
A greatly disproportionate number of these interlocutors are what have been called ‘high decouplers’, people who are able to bracket—without necessarily neglecting or dismissing—the unpleasant emotional, ideological, moral, social, and political connotations of ideas in order rigorously to ascertain their truth value. Many of these voices have been squeezed out of our public and institutional discourses, as they are more committed to rigorous engagement with reality than they are with ideological allegiance or alignment, or with avoiding creating discomfort or offence. This is one of the reasons why people caught up in the dominant cultural discourses were oblivious to the coronavirus for so long. It does not fit into any of the partisan issues of fixation—it is not really about social justice, about Trump, about Brexit, about feminism, about transgenderism, etc., etc. It requires an attentive and humble posture to a reality that exceeds our narratives, categories, and concerns. The opinionated ideological postures that are so attractive to the foolish simply are not equipped to grasp it.
And it is interesting to see how a sense of common reality can bring such a diverse group together despite huge differences. While there are genuine and considerable dangers in abandoning concern for the connotations of ideas—as thinking about ideas is never merely detached reflection upon reality, but always already invested in the task of acting within reality—such decoupling does have the effect of pushing back against many of the instinctive impulses of folly, for which the connotations and associations of ideas are routinely used to dismiss all unwelcome challenge.
When dealing with such voices, we must recognize that the task of wisdom is by no means a safe one. We will often be learning wisdom from serpents, while having to resist adopting their character. Our interlocutors may hold profoundly volatile or dangerous ideas and shrewdness is needed to discern their errors and handle more volatile—yet potentially true—beliefs and ideas with appropriate care. We will need to determine whether we are indeed mature enough to interact with them more directly. Nevertheless, a sober caution in the dangerous venture of wisdom is much to be preferred over the approach of those who, despite remaining locked into an ideological echo chamber, without genuine engagement with challenge, mistakenly think themselves to be engaged in the task of wisdom.
One problem Christians face in the coronavirus crisis is the fact their ‘subaltern counterpublics’—separate schools, universities, and other institutions—cocoon them from the broader world of academics, politicians, etc., greatly limiting their trust and information networks. And the detachment of ministerial education from the broader world of the university—an institutional embodiment of the cosmopolitanism and unity of wisdom—doesn’t help here either. For many lay people, their pastor will be their natural guide in how to relate to various academic and political positions. If pastors are educated in an ideological cocoon, with little extended exposure to people outside, it can encourage kneejerk distrust of authorities and experts, and stunted information networks in their congregants.
- The wise honour and submit to authorities
As Oliver O’Donovan observes, ‘An authority is someone I depend upon to show me the reasons for acting’ [The Ways of Judgment (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), 131]. He elaborates:
Where authority is, freedom is; and where authority is lost, freedom is lost. This holds good for all kinds of authority. Without adults who demand mature behavior, the child is not free to grow up; without teachers to set standards of excellence, the scholar is not free to excel; without prophets to uphold ideals of virtue, society is not free to realize its common good. To be under authority is to be freer than to be independent. 
Wisdom begins with the fear of the Lord and the honouring of father and mother, with the recognition of and a proper humble and submissive posture towards authority. The simple person does not yet know how best to act, yet submission to parents and other authorities enables him to act in terms of wisdom, even without an internal grasp of the rationale for doing so.
If we lacked such authorities, our capacity to act in terms of wisdom would be greatly curtailed. When each man does what is right in his own eyes, he can only act with any degree of wisdom within the horizons of his own sight. However, in a society with good authorities, it is much easier to order people’s actions towards wise and good ends. And everyone can be freer as a result. Reliable food safety laws, for instance, free me to eat my meal with a measure of confidence that would not be possible in a society without effective and wise authorities supervising such matters for their citizens.
The wise recognize the limits of their own vision and the importance of submission to authorities that can extend the scope of reality to which their actions are well-ordered. Fools, by contrast, hate to submit to authorities over them. They are proud and insubordinate and only appreciate authorities when they support them in their ways. They will leap to disobedience, resistance, and opposition to authorities, as they instinctively reject that the authorities might know a great deal better than them.
Submission to authorities need not be blind. Authorities can be proven through their manifest character. The virtuoso musician who has developed in herself the skills that she claims to teach to others has a manifest authority that someone who did not display those skills would lack. Submission to authorities can be further encouraged by the recognition that they are invested in and concerned for our good. The wise child sees in the love of their parent a warrant for their trusting submission.
Healthy authorities will also frequently provide rationales for the obligations that they lay upon people. An authority does not depend for its legitimacy upon the provision of a rationale to the subordinate (and the defiant ‘why!?’ can be a characteristic response of the disobedient), nor upon the subordinate’s understanding of it. Yet good authority is concerned to be scrutable, reasonable, and, where possible, to encourage willing and mature compliance through the practice of persuasion with those able to receive it. Finally, good authorities can prove themselves through their track records, through the demonstration of the outcomes of wisdom over time.
Nevertheless, even when faced with deeply imperfect authorities, the wise recognize the importance of submission. Such submission need not require agreement or unquestioning compliance. There are submissive ways to raise questions and concerns, to appeal to authorities, or to negotiate with them. Such submissive interaction with authorities will also tend to bring the true character of the authorities into clearer focus. The wise desire to understand the reasons for the obligations laid upon them by authority, but they are humble enough not to require such reasons for recognizing the legitimacy of the authority and their need to submit to it. The loss of authority over us, and the rise of a situation where everyone does what is right in their own eyes, is ripe for folly.
Of course, the foolish, being inclined to rebellion and insubordination, are poor judges of authority. The fool presumes that authorities do not have a concern for their own or the common good, resists recognizing wise character in others, loves to dismiss the competence of any over him, and brings the most jaundiced eye to the assessment of any authority’s track record. By contrast, the wise operate in terms of a presumption in favour of authority that is displayed throughout Scripture. The wise delight in good authority, so seek out authority, endeavour to submit to authority in the very best way that they can, and desire to see and encourage the good in authority where they can.
Where great distrust of or even paranoia concerning authorities prevails or where a radical valorization of individual or familial autonomy leads to a resistance to higher authorities, the degree to which wisdom is attainable—or the degree to which persons can live in terms of it—can be quite curtailed. One problem here is that many people do not have meaningful personal connections with persons in government, academia, and various forms of expertise. And many feel a partly justifiable sense that people in those contexts are not trustworthy, that they do not have their best interests at heart. The loss of mediating institutions really has an impact here, as mediating institutions serve to foster trust in the governed and demand greater trustworthiness from those that govern.
Networks of authority are related to networks of trust and information. The coronavirus crisis has served to reveal how narrow, shallow, homogeneous, and binary many Christians’ networks of authority, trust, and information are. In such networks, the weight of trust seems to rest very heavily upon a very few key dominant authorities, who can offer security through their projection of extreme confidence and certainty. However, a healthy trust network is more like a tree’s root system, which supports the vast bulk of a tree through the wide yet varying distribution of its weight through a root network, none of whose individual roots would be at all sufficient to bear the weight of the whole. Such a wide distribution means that we are not placing too much weight on any one part. It means that some parts can fail without everything coming crashing down.
A characteristic problem of evangelicalism in some circles is its oscillation between paranoid distrust and extreme levels of credulity (a credulity that is fertile soil for all sorts of conspiracy theories, health fads, and the like), a dynamic often resulting from social alienation and isolation. Whether it is the government and politicians, the schools, the scientific or medical establishment, the ‘liberal elite’, or something else, the levels of distrust can be extreme, driving people to place excessive weight upon the opinions and expertise of people in their own narrow circles, many of who simply do not know what they are talking about and very few of whom have enough counterbalancing or supporting voices to give their opinions real weight.
Returning to the point with which I began, it is essential to extend our circles of counsellors, so that we are not placing too much weight on any specific expert or party. We must devote ourselves to developing the cosmopolitanism of wisdom. We must really listen to voices outside of our camps and do so charitably, not merely intending to find some reason to reject them. In the multitude of counsellors we will be weaned off our desire for infallible gurus. We will be able to draw a great deal more insight from many flawed sages in honest conversation than from one much less flawed sage in isolation.
I believe Christians also need to think very carefully about some of the ways in which our capacity for wisdom has been curtailed by our over-dependence upon the institutions of our own Christian party and the detachment of those institutions from a wider society where we are routinely exposed to challenge. Perhaps one of the greatest truths of wisdom is that our capacity for wisdom lies, much less in individual brain power and capacity, than it does in a well-mastered spirit and an extensive and carefully managed root system of trust, authority, and information, where we can draw upon and rest upon insights from a wide scope of different quarters. We must extend our networks of trust, authority, and information and distribute their weight much more broadly. We must master our spirits—keeping calm in ourselves, seeking where possible to be at peace with others, devoting ourselves to the pursuit of truth over conflict.
In forgetting these things, many Christians have ended up taking the path of the foolish.