Playing the Fool

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The centuries-old practice of making fools of people on April 1st is perhaps itself rather foolish. Nevertheless it makes the observation that human beings can frequently be foolish. In 1758 the great biologist Linnaeus decided to give human beings the species name, Homo sapiens, meaning "wise man". It’s a decision that has been questioned ever since. History and our own personal experience tells us that human wisdom comes mixed with folly.

In the Bible one strong statement on human foolishness is to be found twice in the book of Psalms, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ (Psalm 14:1, 53:1.). This may strike us as a puzzle; after all some – but not all – of the noisiest atheists are far from fools in the normally accepted sense of the word; they are very educated men and women with degrees and academic titles. Are they really “fools”?

The answer to this puzzle lies in the fact that what we consider to be intelligence is in reality not a single thing but a group of separate and very different abilities. So there is a “mathematics intelligence”, an “artistic intelligence”, an “emotional intelligence” etc. This idea shouldn’t be a novelty; after all whether from stories or personal encounter we are aware of those people as the brilliant scientist who dazzles in astrophysics but gets lost on the Underground or the artistic genius who struggles to hold a conversation. I suppose ideally we would all have a full complement of each kind of intelligence but the reality is otherwise.

To these types of intelligence, Christians and others would add “spiritual intelligence”: the ability to sense the spiritual world, to hear God’s voice and know something of his will. This spiritual intelligence is what the Bible considers the most valuable of human abilities, wisdom.  As the Bible, and especially the Old Testament reminds us, the pursuit of wisdom should be the goal of every life (see for example, Proverbs 3:13, 4:6-7, 16:16; Ephesians 1:17). There’s an excellent New Testament definition of wisdom in the Letter of James: “But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.”  (James 3:17). Wisdom – spiritual intelligence – is far more important than anything else and to lack it is disastrous; both for this life and the next.

There are two important features of wisdom or spiritual intelligence. The first is that it occurs completely independently of all the other types of intelligence. So someone who is a renowned academic genius may be utterly deficient in spiritual intelligence while someone else who is uneducated may be rich in God’s wisdom. The second and more important fact is that whereas many of the other types of intelligence are be the result of either the lottery of genetics or their upbringing, spiritual intelligence is a gift of God and can be sought and found. As James again says “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you” (James 1:5).  I suspect one reason why many people who are considered intelligent by the world have overlooked the pursuit of spiritual intelligence is that their rich gifting of other types of intelligence have allowed them to feel that they don’t need it. At the heart of an enormous amount of atheism, if not all of it, is pride. Sometimes you can be so clever that one thing you can’t believe is that you lack wisdom. Now that’s really foolish!

Revd Canon

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