The Wisdom to know the Difference
Richard R. Crocker
April 29, 2012
This is the last word on wisdom and the first word on courage. I will try to speak about both of them, briefly. My comments are intended to provoke thought and discussion, so I hope many of you will be able to attend the dinner discussion following worship.
I may surprise you to know that while the word “wisdom” (Sophia, logos) occurs very frequently in the Bible, the word courage (ometz) occurs very rarely. We might well wonder why? Is it that wisdom is more important than courage? I think not. I think, rather, that wisdom is a larger category; that one who is wise is also, necessarily, courageous, but that one can be courageous without necessarily being wise.
Perhaps the most common conjunction of these two words occurs in the prayer written, we think, by the very famous 20th century theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr. I am sure you have heard it. It is also called the Serenity prayer, and its popularity shows how deeply helpful it is to many people. It is: “Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” This prayer has penetrated into many lives through the agency of Alcoholics Anonymous – a group that has made the recitation of this prayer a part of almost every meeting. It is both popular and profound. Indeed, it speaks to every one of us.
The prayer warns us of two errors: the error of accepting things that we can and should change, and the error of trying to change things that we really cannot change. I think the first error is rare at a college like Dartmouth, which is full of young people who have been told that they can change almost anything, that they can in fact change the world. And this is good, because we do need courage to change things that we can in fact change. But disillusionment often sets in when we discover that it is not easy to change things, or when we discover that some things simply cannot be changed. And so, while we need courage to try to change, and serenity to accept what cannot be changed, we need, most profoundly, to know the difference.
To explore this issue more deeply, let us look for a moment at Jesus, our Christ, who is for us, as we have established in these last few weeks, the wisdom of God. Now it is interesting to ask ourselves: what was there about Jesus’ life that he could have changed, and what could he not have changed? Such a question puts us right in the middle of profound theological questions: Jesus as God, Jesus as human, etc. If Jesus was God, surely he could have changed anything and everything? But Jesus as human faced the limitations of being human, so there were things he could not have changed? It is too deep a mystery to sort out. But we are given one profound moment when the issue became focused: it is the moment in Gethsemane when Jesus pondered his coming crucifixion and prayed that such a death might be avoided. You know his words, reported to us in the Gospels of Mark and Luke: “Abba, father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want but what you want”, or, in an earlier translation, “not my will but thine be done.” (Mark 14:36) Here we see the mysterious union, as Jesus prayed, essentially, that something be changed which could not be changed. And so Jesus faced his agonizing crucifixion with courage, and serenity and wisdom.
We learn from this passage that Jesus did not want to die. He did not want to be crucified. But, in the will of God, it could not be changed. He could not simply be a great moral teacher who lived a happy life, married, become prosperous, worked for Goldman Sachs, and started a foundation to support good deeds. For it was by his death, Paul tells us over and over, that he became for us the wisdom of God. And his death and resurrection have indeed changed the world. There is an old joke that Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God, but what he got was the church. And we know that the church is a very human institution, devoted, far too often, to its own privilege and self-preservation. But there is another side as well. As disappointing and wrong as it has sometimes been, the history of the Christian church, overall, has made a profoundly positive difference in this world in how we think of people, how we treat people, and how we hope for the future. Hospitals, charities, fairness, compassion – while the church has certainly not had a monopoly on these ideas, it is true to say that the church has promoted them throughout the world, not always consistently, but persistently, and our world has been changed fundamentally by our vision of Jesus not as a worldly potentate, but as a crucified savior.
But let us think of ourselves. Throughout the Kim administration, Dartmouth students have been told explicitly and repeatedly that you have been selected to change the world. And many of you have responded to that call. The Tucker Foundation, especially, is full of world-savers who, after spending ten weeks in a needy part of the world, become devoted to changing the world. I, of course, applaud such energy and such idealism. But I also note a comment in Thursday’s Dartmouth, from a student who reacted to the news that Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America, has been selected as the commencement speaker. The student reportedly reacted by saying she hopes that the address “does not take on a… sermonizing tone”, because although “This is a serious time in our lives, … I don’t want to hear ‘Go save the world.”” (The Dartmouth, 4/26/2012, page 5) I too am somewhat tired of sermons, and of the expectation that we are anointed to save the world!
But at the same time, we are aware, aren’t we, of things in ourselves, and at Dartmouth, that need to be changed? We are aware that, despite all the hype surrounding Dimensions, we are inviting idealistic young people to join a culture that is often depraved and cynical? We are aware that we are part of a culture that promotes false visions of success. We are aware, inescapably, that unhealthy and harmful things happen here. There is an attitude that I sometimes hear that excuses these things by saying, “It’s not just Dartmouth. It’s worse at many other colleges, It’s unfair that we should be singled out. It isn’t as bad as here as it is elsewhere.” Well, you know what? We do not have the capability of changing any other college. But we do have the capability of changing Dartmouth. And we do not have the capacity to change any other person. But we do have the capacity to change our own attitudes and our own behavior.
I was very encouraged when I heard, from a student who works with the Facebook page of the entering class, that a prospective student, after reading the Rolling Stones article, wrote: “We are now 25% of the Dartmouth student body. We can change this place.” And many others added notes of affirmation and support.
So, will the entering class in fact have the courage to change the things they can? Or will they be lulled into a fall sense of serenity that accepts drunkenness, hazing, sexual promiscuity and sexual assault as inevitable and unchangeable? What about you and me? Have we been lulled into that serenity? Do we lack the courage to change the things we can? Do we in fact pray for the wisdom to know the difference?
You all know also the statement attributed to Margaret Mead: never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Dr. Meade was not talking about the church, probably, which is a shame. She should have been.