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The Circle of Raphael's "The Vision of the Cross"

To be clever and to be wise are two very different things: one can be clever concerning matters of the visible world yet lack wisdom, being blind to what touches the invisible world.

“The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’” (Psalm 14:1).


The line from the Psalm quoted above would seem, on the face of it, to be simply false. If the word “fool” is taken to mean, as it usually is, a stupid person, we are immediately confronted by the contrary fact that there are many very smart people who do not believe in God. There was even something of a fad a decade ago among such people broadcasting their unbelief as loudly as they could manage. The scientist Richard Dawkins, a leader among them, has called such people “brights,” and if IQ is taken as the measure, it cannot be denied that a lot of these unbelievers are very bright. It is of course also true that there have been and still are many intelligent people who believe in God, but it could hardly stand scrutiny to suggest that believers generally have possessed more innate intelligence than unbelievers.

What then are we to make of this verse? Much turns on the Scriptural meaning of the word “fool.” While the Scripture does not use the term in a carefully defined way, in general it can be said that a fool, scripturally speaking, is not someone who lacks native intelligence; it is someone who lacks knowledge of some aspect of goodness. Foolishness is largely a moral category. In biblical language, folly is typically contrasted not with brains, but with wisdom. This distinction helps to make sense of the bible verse about folly and unbelief going together, but it doesn’t get us entirely out of the woods. For one thing, while knowledge of God engages the moral realm, it is also at least partly a matter of intellect. For another, it would be unfair to suggest that a person who does not believe in God is necessarily involved in morally bad behavior. Have there been no morally upright atheists? So we still struggle with this scriptural claim: what does foolishness have to do with unbelief in God?

We live in a complex created order in which there are two distinct modes of reality. The Creed notes this when it speaks of God as the “creator of all things, visible and invisible.” The Creed is not distinguishing here between things we can see (trees, for example) and things we cannot happen to see (like germs, or air, or someone hiding from us). It is referring to the sacramental quality of the created order in which there are two forms of existence, material and spiritual, mingled and yet distinct Some aspects of our world are visible, meaning that they are capable of being attained by the senses. Yet that visible world rests upon and is sustained by far more important invisible realities that are unable to be perceived by the use of our senses. Rocks and trees are part of the created visible world; angels are part of the created invisible world. God, the Creator of both, is also invisible. Humans, hybrid creatures that we are, participate in both the visible and the invisible realms: we possess both a body and a soul, and we are meant to be alive to both visible and invisible realities.

We humans thus have two faculties of knowing within us, one of which gains us knowledge of the visible world, the other of the invisible. The two are intimately connected, but they are still distinct. For the purposes of this discussion we might use cleverness to refer to our ability to perceive visible things. Cleverness involves quickness of thought, skill at perceiving what comes to us through the senses, and adeptness in synthesizing and organizing what our senses are encountering into systematic form. This is the faculty that gets evaluated in IQ tests, that is possessed in great measure by scientific geniuses, and that university faculties pride themselves on possessing. Cleverness is a great advantage in negotiating the visible world. It is a native gift possessed by everyone to some degree, but given to different people in different measures. Cleverness can be developed by education and practice, but only up to a point. Like athletic ability or musical talent, there are limits beyond which its development cannot go, and there will always remain a significant gap in aptitude between the highly clever and the slower-witted.

On the other hand, in addition to our physical senses we also have what could be called spiritual senses or senses of the soul. The operation of these soul senses gains us understanding of the invisible world and leads to wisdom. Unlike our physical senses, our spiritual senses are profoundly affected by our moral character. They are sharpened by the practice of virtue and are dulled by habits of sin, and they are only brought into full operation under the influence of spiritual light from God. This means that our ability to perceive the realities of the invisible world is not a matter of natural gift or well-educated cleverness, but rather the result of God’s action and our chosen moral stance before God and the world.

This being so, it becomes clear that to be clever and to be wise are two very different things. Further, it should be possible to find people who are clever concerning matters of the visible world and yet blind to what touches on the invisible world, and conversely we should expect to encounter people who are not very educated or gifted in cleverness, but who are wise in the ways of invisible things. That is just what we find all around us. Who has not come across highly clever people who seem to have no sense of right and wrong and little understanding of human nature? Who does not know people who are very aware of invisible realities and wise in their mode of living even though they are not highly educated or notably clever? It is a special grace when cleverness and wisdom are found in the same person, but that happy combination is hardly the rule.

St. Paul writes: “If our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the likeness of God” (2 Corinthians 4:3-4). The blindness Paul is speaking of here is the dulling of the soul’s senses. He also writes: “We impart this [spiritual wisdom] in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who possess the Spirit. The unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:13-14). In these passages Paul is articulating an important epistemological principle that in our day is often forgotten or denied. While the quality of visible things can be made clear to anyone who has the requisite cleverness and educational opportunity, the invisible world is not open in the same way to all comers regardless of their spiritual state. Invisible truths become clear to us only when we are in a proper moral posture, and when God’s spirit is present and imparting spiritual discernment.

What then is the particular moral stance before God and creation that sharpens our spiritual faculties and enables us to see the invisible world? The short answer given forcefully by the Scriptures and the Christian tradition, is: humility. It is humility that opens our eyes to invisible realities, while pride blinds us to the existence and the nature of the invisible. St. Paul points to the way pride leads to blindness of mind when at the beginning of his letter to the Romans he lays out in short form the human drama. Speaking of the race in general, he says: “Although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened” (Romans 1:28). When Paul connects pride – the refusal to honor God – with darkness of mind, he is not suggesting that humanity’s pride robbed us of the ability to perceive and investigate the visible world. He knows that the pagan societies around him – Greeks, Egyptians, Romans, Mesopotamians – were very impressive at their skill in negotiating the natural world. He is linking pride of mind to blindness of a different kind, a dullness in the perception of everything invisible: God, the human soul, conscience, the moral order, and the ultimate purpose of human life.

Certain consequences follow from this fundamental principle. If pride leads to darkness of mind concerning invisible realities, we should expect to find a correspondence between the level of pride in individuals or of cultures and the degree to which they are afflicted by spiritual blindness. We would predict, along general lines, that an individual, a philosophy, or a culture characterized by pride would necessarily be seriously blind toward matters of the invisible world. We would expect to find a humble stance going hand in hand with wisdom about the unseen world. Once again this is what we find to be the case. Where does the Gospel most easily gain ground? Among individuals and peoples who have a fundamental stance of humility. Where are the truths of God and the soul getting most lost? Among individuals and cultures characterized by pride.

There has perhaps never been a culture so caught by pride of mind as the modern West. Our technological ability to manipulate the material world surpasses anything before known, and we have become convinced that our cleverness holds all the answers to life. It should therefore come as no surprise that there has perhaps never been a human society so ignorant of invisible realities as our own. We have relegated God, the one who holds creation in being from moment to moment and whose plans and providence rules all things, to a harmless and doubtful personal hobby for those who might wish it. We hold the angelic order that exercises a momentous influence on all things human to be nothing but a fairy tale, and the malicious and powerful being whom Jesus called “the Prince of this world” is left entirely and unwisely out of account. The immortal human soul, meant for a divine destiny with God, has been denied existence, and we have reduced the human creature in all its mystery and complexity, with its loves, hopes, sufferings, desires for goodness and justice, intimations of immortality, to an accidental occurrence of random and meaningless matter and force. We are living in an age of great cleverness that has been caught by profound folly.

Much might be said about a crafting a wise practical response to inhabiting such a culture. Two immediate conclusions suggest themselves. For one, we should avoid the serious mistake of thinking that educating ourselves in cleverness alone – the most prevalent current mode of education – is anything like adequate to the human condition. However useful such training may be, it ignores our most important responsibility, namely initiation into wisdom. And for another, we should be wary of looking to the merely clever for guidance about how we should order our individual and our social lives, or to sort out questions that touch on invisible things such as God, morality, and the soul. Our time instinctively looks to experts to tell us how we should live. But whatever the “brights” mentioned earlier may have achieved in the visible realm, it is evident, and should not be surprising, that their spiritual senses have become inert to matters invisible. It is a sign of wisdom to look for further wisdom, not from clever fools, but from the truly wise.

“I, Wisdom, dwell in prudence, and I find knowledge and discretion. The fear of the LORD is hatred of evil. I have counsel and sound wisdom, I have insight, I have strength. Pride and arrogance and the way of evil and perverted speech I hate” (Proverbs 8:12-13).

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