Good People, Smart People

Speaker: John McClarty

Audio Recording:

Sermon manuscript (preliminary) for Sabbath, June 17, 2017, at Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists

Texts: 1 Kings 4:29-34, Mark 6:34-38

A few weeks ago I was sitting in a Sabbath School class in St. George, Utah. The text under consideration by the class was 2 Peter 1. The discussion moved to verse 5:

Add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge.

The teacher asked, “What is this knowledge that we are to add to our virtue? I replied, “The knowledge necessary to respond to human need. If I am going to help my neighbor get his car going, I need to know something about cars. If I am going to repair a child’s defective heart valve I must have all the knowledge of a pediatric surgeon. If I’m going to help a friend with her clogged drain, I need a little knowledge of plumbing. As Christians we are called to respond to human need, we are called to help people. It is not enough to want to help people. We need all kinds of secular knowledge to turn our desire to help into useful action.

Someone in the class challenged me. “Do you really think Peter was thinking of the acquisition of secular knowledge when he wrote this passage?”

I had to admit she had a point. In the context of 1 Peter, “knowledge” probably referred to deep, spiritual insight, not to knowledge of cars or cardiac surgery or plumbing. But when we step back and look at the Bible as a whole, secular knowledge is pictured as one of the expected virtues of the people of God.

One of the most dramatic examples of this is the story of Solomon.

God gave Solomon very great wisdom and understanding, and knowledge as vast as the sands of the seashore. 1 Kings 4:29

Solomon was so knowledgeable, people came from all over the world to sit at his feet. Distant kings sent ambassadors to spend time in Jerusalem. To this day Solomon is celebrated as a wise man, the Wisest Man who ever lived.

It’s important to note that the Wisdom of Solomon was not religious knowledge. People did not come to hear him preach. They came to hear him talk about all kinds of things including biology.

He could speak with authority about all kinds of plants, from the great cedar of Lebanon to the tiny hyssop that grows from cracks in a wall. He could also speak about animals, birds, small creatures, and fish. 1 Kings 4:33

When the knowledge tourists came to Jerusalem, they could not miss the temple and the life-encompassing ritual and the moral ideals that lived at the heart of Israel’s culture. Solomon’s religion made an impact on his visitors. But it was not Solomon’s religion that brought them. It was his secular knowledge which was demonstrably superior.

The story of Solomon is instructive for us. We are most likely to gain a hearing for our faith, when we demonstrate secular competence. Adventists sometimes gain a hearing because our health practices have been shown to actually improve longevity. Think of the contrast between secular regard for Adventist health practices and secular opinion regarding Jehovah’s Witnesses’ refusal of blood transfusions even when they will save life? Or the Christian Science denial of the reality of disease. Adventist health practices in broad outline have been confirmed by modern science. And people think, if you’re right about that, what else might you be right about?

There is a second lesson in Solomon’s story. The text states that Solomon could speak “with authority” about all kinds of plants and animals. When it comes to secular knowledge, a person has authority only as far as they turn out to be right. Because we can check on them. Solomon’s statements about plants and animals and birds could be investigated. We could go check out the cedars in Lebanon and see if what he said was accurate. We could go watch the birds and see if what he said was correct. He was an authority only if what he said checked out.

This is obviously true today.

If someone says that the glaciers on Mt. Rainier are shrinking, we can climb up there and check it out for ourselves. If someone claims a vegan diet can fuel the life and sport of an ultra marathoner, we can go find ultra marathoners and ask what they eat. If someone says that adding fish to your diet can help an ultra marathon runner improve their speed, we can become an ultra marathoner and add fish to our diet to see if it helps. When the church claims Noah’s Flood built the Phanerozoic portion of the geologic column, it diminishes our credibility to speak of God because even the church-employed scientists cannot offer a plausible explanation of how Noah’s Flood could have done this. (Phanerozoic refers to the portion of the geological column that has lots of fossils, the Cambrian and later.)

It would be silly to try to settle these questions by intense Bible study or by studying the writings of our prophet. These questions can be answered by direct study and investigation.

The story of Solomon illustrates the right role of the Bible and religion in our lives.

Solomon became known as the Wisest Man who ever lived because he studied the realm of nature intensely.

And he was also one of the dumbest men who ever lived because he ignored the moral/spiritual guidance available in and through religion. (The thousand women he “married” vitiated the moral and spiritual culture of the nation.)

He did not need the words of prophets to instruct him in biology. And biology was completely ineffective in guiding him in the moral and spiritual realm.

It is the same today. The Bible is not a useful guide for doing science. We become knowledgeable in the sciences the same way Solomon did ”through vigorous study and investigation.”

On the other hand, science is not a useful guide when it comes to moral and spiritual culture. It is possible to be a brilliant person AND to be a fool.

The purpose of the Bible is to make us good.
The purpose of study is to make us smart.
Both are important. And neither will adequately substitute for the other.

Some Christians make our faith appear fanciful by attempting to use the Bible as the source for their “science.” Some scientists and engineers make science appear to be inhuman by insisting that virtue, beauty, and goodness are illusory because we cannot learn these things through science.

If we pay attention to the Bible story, we see even the ancient people were well aware of the value of both study and direct investigation and the value of faith and visions. Both are valuable. They are useful for different things.

This same interaction of concrete, hard fact and faith and vision shows up even in the stories of Jesus.

It is common for us to give a lot of prominence to Jesus’ statements about faith.

To Jairus after he received news his daughter had died: “Don’t be afraid. Just have faith, and she will be healed.”  Luke 8:50

I tell you the truth, you can say to this mountain, “May you be lifted up and thrown into the sea,” and it will happen. But you must really believe it will happen and have no doubt in your heart. Mark 11:23

These passages and others like them challenge our notions of common sense. But then we encounter other statements by Jesus:

In the story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, the disciples come to Jesus and tell him he needs to send the people away. It is late and they need to find something to eat. Jesus tells his disciples. Well, if the people are hungry, just feed them. In the Gospel of Mark, the disciples respond, “Should we go buy a bunch of bread?” Jesus asks, “Well, how much do you have on hand? Go see.” The disciples head off and eventually come back and report all they have is five loaves and two fish.

The point I would draw out of this story is that important information, crucial information, really, must be acquired in the usual way. Go and see. Go count. The numbers are not “revealed.” There is no vision. Go, count. Do your homework.

The story moves forward. Jesus performs a miracle. But the miracle was no substitute for the ordinary work of counting. Further, in preparation for the miracle, Jesus directs his disciples to seat the people in groups of hundreds and fifties. When the dinner is finished the scraps are collected and again counting features in the story. There were twelve baskets of left overs. How do we know? Through a vision? By revelation? No. Because they were counted.

One last story in the gospels that features counting. I’ve referenced it several times in previous sermons. After the resurrection, several of Jesus disciples head north to Galilee and go fishing. While they are fishing, Jesus appears on shore and miraculously fills their nets. When they haul the fish to shore, they count them, 153 large fish.

They are in the presence of the resurrected Jesus. This is the most astonishing fact in the history of humanity. Jesus is alive. But the disciples are still fishermen. They were not satisfied to say, “We caught a bunch of fish.” No. They caught 153 large fish. They knew the number because they counted.

Even in the presence of Jesus, the ordinary activity of using our brain is still required.

How does this play out in our life?

Here in our congregation we have a lot of engineers. People who build planes and write code and map traffic patterns. We don’t want our engineers to substitute faith for knowledge. We want our airplanes to be built using accurate, hard information. We don’t want software engineers getting their code sort of correct. We depend on them to do it exactly right.

We want our engineers to be like” Solomon” world-renowned for their knowledge and accuracy.

We have doctors in our congregation. We count on their faith to inspire them to do the greatest possible work of healing using all the available tools. But we don’t want our doctors to substitute prayer and faith for knowledge and skill.

We have business people and scientists, musicians and counselors. In each of these areas their work depends on the acquisition and smart use of information. No amount of faith will substitute for the disciplines of learning and study.

Bible knowledge is not enough to do the work that God has called us to do.

The Bible inspires us to acquire knowledge and to use that knowledge to make the world a better place. But the Bible itself does not give us the information.

I mentioned the Sabbath School class in Utah where we talked about knowledge and its role in the Christian life. Curiously, the teacher was a geologist, someone who has devoted his life to the study of rocks, in particular the sandstone and other sedimentary rocks in Utah. He has also devoted himself to the local Adventist Church, having served as one of the indispensable leaders for thirty years. He seems to me to be an ideal embodiment of a believer who is serious about the pursuit of knowledge. He knows that Noah’s Flood did not create the Navajo Sandstone. And he believes that God is active and present with us. His life is a nearly perfect example of someone devoted to learning and to faith.

We are at the end of a school year. Some among us have graduated. Finished school. Congratulations. Now take all that knowledge you have acquired and spread hope and help and healing in the world. Make things better.

For those among us who are scientists, we honor your work of chasing knowledge. You honor our faith most by continuing to push the edges of knowledge. When people around you suggest that we can’t really know anything, don’t listen. Keep pursuing knowledge. If the people in the church suggest that your work as a scientist is unimportant or untrustworthy, push back. Tell them the story of Solomon.

I am concerned that many Christians are creating the impression that people must choose between knowledge and faith, between being smart or believing in God. I appeal especially to our young people to resist this erroneous thinking. Let’s create an entire society of people who are so successful in our science that the whole world honors it. And let’s create a society that is so effective in supporting and fostering holiness and goodness that the world gathers to learn our secret.