When we read of a murder in the newspapers or hear of one on television, we often read or hear that it was “senseless.” Observers offer this characterization not only of drive-by homicides or the methodical shooting of strangers by a crazed killer on a crowded subway train, but also of the first-degree murder of a businessman by his greedy partner, or the enraged slaying of a wife by her jealous husband—even of murders committed in the course of robberies and rapes. Indeed, we hear of almost any murder that it was “a senseless slaying,” “a senseless act,” an example of the “senseless violence” that keeps threatening society.
But why senseless? After all, unless the killer was grossly impaired, the killing probably made sense to him. He was trying to silence a witness, or gain revenge, or express his power, or act out his racist hatred, or stimulate and satisfy his lust. In a culture whose up-to-date intellectuals often drift toward moral subjectivism, how can an act that makes perfectly good sense to its perpetrator be judged senseless by outsiders? The outsiders cannot mean that the act was motiveless. Do they mean, then, that the act was unintelligent? That it lacked alertness, say, or foresight? Do they think that the killer stupidly miscalculated the odds of getting away with murder?
Not likely. The truth is that, when pressed, even the most avant-garde observer drops his moral subjectivism, forgets all Nietzschean attempts to get “beyond good and evil,” and joins the rest of us in expressing shock, indignation, and the metaphysical judgment that a murder does not belong in the world, no matter what its author thinks of it. The murder of a human being is “not the way it’s supposed to be.” This act is out of order. It is senseless because it saws against the grain of the universe, because, as Christian believers would say, it doesn’t fit the divine plan for peace and comity.
Senseless is only one word people use to express this conviction. People who prefer not to judge or confess sin will nonetheless concede that some objectionable act was stupid, tragic, shortsighted, mistaken, unfortunate, miscalculated, erring, regrettable, or out of line. Suppose a white-collar criminal, for example, confesses to a “judgmental lapse” or to “inappropriate behavior” after cheating thousands of retirees out of their life savings. Despite the ludicrous and cowardly nature of his euphemism, the criminal has nonetheless admitted that he was wrong in an important way. He has admitted that he was out of order, out of line—that he was, in a word, foolish. He will not concede that he has been a knave, but he feels obliged to concede, in effect, that he has been a fool.
By so doing, ironically enough, he enters a mainstream of biblical thought, and a route to the biblical concept of sin. For biblical writers think of sin as the main species of folly. Indeed, if a person confesses folly, and then admits that he is to blame for his folly, he has as good as confessed his sin. A person who calls his theft of two packages of AA batteries from a supermarket checkout display “inappropriate” or a “lapse in judgment” thus puts us in position to reflect not only on folly, but also on the nature of sin, and then to deepen our understanding of both by exploring the relation between them.
In order to carry out this reflection, we must first understand the biblical concept of wisdom. In the literature of Scripture, wisdom is, broadly speaking, the knowledge of God’s world and the knack of fitting oneself into it. The wise person knows creation. He knows its boundaries and limits, understands its laws and rhythms, discerns its times and seasons, respects its great dynamics. He understands that creation possesses its own integrity and significance quite apart from his claim on it, and quite apart from any possibility that creation will make him happy. The wise person gives in to creation, and he gives in to God, and he does the first because he does the second. He knows that the earth is the Lord’s, and so the fullness thereof. He knows that wisdom itself is the Lord’s. He knows some of the deep grains and textures of the world because he knows some of the ways and habits of its maker.
In the biblical view, the wise are righteous and the righteous are wise: These are people who love and fear God, affirm God’s world, live gladly within its borders, and make music there according to divine time and key signatures. The wise are always “in order.” Insofar as they live right, they also live well. The Book of Proverbs doesn’t for the most part even bother to distinguish righteousness and wisdom: It pairs righteousness with wisdom and wickedness with folly in such a way that the distinction between a moral judgment and a prudential one fades. In Scripture more generally, the standard for judging the course of a human life includes a blend of morality, prudence, metaphysics, and religion. Thus the Scripture writers exhort, but they also instruct. As Frederick Buechner once pointed out:
The Bible is not first of all a book of moral truth. I would call it instead a book of truth about the way life is. Those strange old scriptures present life as having been ordered in a certain way, with certain laws as inextricably built into it as the law of gravity is built into the physical universe. When Jesus says that whoever would save his life will lose it and whoever loses his life will save it, surely he is not making a statement about how, morally speaking, life ought to be. Rather, he is making a statement about how life is.
Wisdom is a reality-based phenomenon. To be wise is to know reality, to discern it. A discerning person notices things, attends to things, picks up on things. He notices the difference between tolerance and forgiveness, pleasure and joy, sentimentality and compassion. Where high-profile athletes are concerned, he can tell the difference between celebrities and heroes. He can spot real humility and keep it distinct in his mind from its thinner cousin, unpretentiousness. (Consider the ambiguity of the claim, “He’s a humble man,” which might mean that the man virtuously sees others as his equal, or else might mean that he leads a lowly life and never pretends otherwise.)
Discernment, in other words, shows a kind of attentive respect for reality. Thus the discerning person notices not only the differences between things, but also the connections between them. He knows what God has put together and what God has kept asunder, and can therefore spot the fractures and alloys introduced by human violation of creation. He knows, for instance, the way a particular sort of request can contaminate a friendship. Moreover, he possesses an eye for such oddities of reality as the anxieties that sometimes lie behind overbred chitchat, namedropping, and the overuse of foreign phrases at dinner parties. He knows that kindness sometimes coexists with stupidity and integrity with humorlessness. He knows that people full of shadows may also be full of a light that causes them. In these and other respects, Lewis Smedes remarks, “a discerning person has the makings of a connoisseur.”
But such “cognitive discernment,” as Smedes calls it, isn’t enough. The really discerning person, the one whose discernment marks genuine wisdom, does not merely inspect reality, or analyze it: The one who discerns also loves. He possesses what Jonathan Edwards called “benevolence to being in general.” At some level, he affirms the reality he knows, and even commits himself to it. Just as the knowledge of God in the theology of Calvin includes active engagement with God (what students of Calvin call acknowledgment of God, or existential knowledge of God), so knowledge of God’s creation and deep perception of its creatures requires the commitment of the knower.
To discern realities at their deeper levels, we have to become engaged in them, to bring both empathy and care to what we know. Discernment of the hopes and fears of other persons, for example, depends on compassion for them: Knowledge of these persons comes in to us only if our hearts go out to them. Only so, Smedes remarks, can we see behind the status of divorce, or homosexuality, or disability to discover complex persons who possess wholeness greater than their troubles, gifts unseen by the unloving.
To be wise, then, is to know and affirm reality, and to speak and act accordingly. The wise accommodate themselves to reality. They go with the flow. They tear along the perforated line. They attempt their harvests in season. Ordinary people proceed with such a program no matter whether they have derived their wisdom from Scripture or from more general revelation. From Proverbs, or from absorbent attention to the life played out before them, or even from their grandmother, the wise eventually learn, and then accommodate themselves to, such truths as these:
The more you talk, the less people listen.
If your word is no good, people will not trust you and it is then useless to protest this fact.
Trying to cure distress with the same thing that caused it only makes matters worse.
If you refuse to work hard and take pains, you are unlikely to do much of any consequence.
Boasting of your accomplishments does not make people admire them. Boasting is vain in both senses of the word.
Envy of fat cats does not make them slimmer, and will anyhow rot your bones.
If you scratch certain itches, they just itch more.
Many valuable things, including happiness and deep sleep, come to us only if we do not try hard for them.
If wisdom is knowledge of God’s world and the knack of fitting oneself into it, then, predictably, folly is contrariness or destitution in these areas—a kind of witlessness with respect to the world and a tendency either to bang one’s shins and scrape one’s elbows on it, or else to miss its opportunities and waste its gifts.
Many, but not all, instances of folly count as sin. Suppose a person unthinkingly places a subway ad that reads, ILLITERATE? WRITE TODAY FOR FREE HELP! Suppose, in one of his speeches, a politician says with an air of significance, “Things are more like they are now than they have ever been.” Or suppose a presidential candidate campaigning in a department store feels a hand in his back, whirls to shake it, and discovers that he has taken the hand of a mannequin. Small campaign bloopers, playful nonsense, ridiculous puns, two-headed headlines (“Grandmother of Eight Makes Hole in One”), portentously delivered commonplaces or confusions, and other such gentle mischief scarcely qualify as evil, let alone as sin. These small follies do not disturb peace and comity; some of them may even contribute to it.
We find such follies amusing, not blameworthy. Even such industrial-strength folly as the food chain foulup in Borneo may have been wholly innocent, at least the first time. Common sense tells us that a lot of things human beings do are loopy, but not sinful, and that the right response to those things is a guffaw, not a rebuke. Common sense also tells us that some things human beings do are loopy and sinful (a bank robber, responding to a teller’s inspired request, fills in a withdrawal slip with his real name and address), and that the right response is amazement.
In the kingdom of folly we find a whole circus of wonders-carelessness, for example, and other attention-deficit disorders. We find discernment deficits. In a familiar lapse of discernment, certain contemporary fiction in adolescent fashion conflates love, romance, and sexual obsession, as if they were all the same thing. Then there is plain poor judgment. Consider middle-aged parents who want to become chums with their teenaged children, or who try to buy their children’s love. Consider parents who sense some lack in themselves and try to get their children to fill it. Whether in peer popularity, or athletics, or money-making, or intellectual achievement, parents who have disappointed their own expectations often double them for their children. Then, when children resist, these parents feel wounded.
Of course, poor judgment may handicap the learned as well as the ignorant. Some of us have met people who can speak three or four languages, but cannot say anything sensible in any of them. There is no contradiction, said C. S. Lewis, in being a Master of Arts and a fool. The reason is that intelligence and education are only raw materials for good judgment. The same is true of knowledge, attentiveness, and discernment. Using them, a person must also estimate, appraise, and infer. He must conclude, choose, and act—all in a way that is firmly based in reality and relatively undistorted by personal whim and bias.
Folly includes poor judgment, lack of discernment, inattentiveness. These deficiencies may be innocent or partly innocent: Perhaps God distributes common sense and alertness as gifts, and distributes them as unequally as foot speed and good looks. Perhaps common sense and alertness can also, to some degree, be taught by family members and teachers. Indeed, Scripture sometimes talks as if wisdom is a gift and sometimes as if it is an acquired discipline. In either case, no doubt, people vary widely in their mere access to it.
But they also vary widely in their attitude toward wisdom. Some attend to a parent’s teaching and some ignore it. Some listen with interest to the Word of God, and some scoff at it. Some welcome criticism and seek to learn from it; others automatically assume that every criticism is unjust, or even irrelevant.
These facts lead us to consider another: While some folly is relatively innocent and some pretty funny, a good deal of it is neither. Teachers and preachers who would rather be fashionable than faithful; parents who prefabricate their children’s lives in order to fulfill dreams; undiscerning Christians who prefer comfort to compassion, who cannot be bothered to look at human trouble and cannot be provoked to feel it because they have closed the door to their hearts—some of these persons have involved themselves in culpable folly.
As this last example suggests, the foolish gain their status not only by what they do, but also by what they fail to do. Carelessness of one’s health, neglect of one’s marriage or children, obliviousness to one’s calling, disregard of one’s faults, and other inattentions to duty and opportunity belong in the large class of follies of omission. Naturally enough, because wisdom is essentially a practical matter—less a body of knowledge than a way of applying it, less a fine art than a knack—the follies of omission often take the form of simple failure to “follow through.” People know what’s right, but simply don’t do it—like all those well-educated libertines who have become AIDS encyclopedias without ever practicing either chastity or “safe” sex.
The shortest and clearest way to state the relation between sin and folly is to say that not all folly is sin, but all sin is folly. Sin is both wrong and dumb. Indeed, wherever the follies are playing, sin is the main event. Sin is the world’s most impressive example of folly.
What is it about sin that makes it so foolish? Sin is the wrong recipe for good health; sin is the wrong gasoline to run human life on; sin is the wrong direction and the wrong road to get home. In other words, sin is finally futile.
Pride, for example, is futile because self-fascination is so often unrequited. Moreover, pride is subject to the tolerance effect, the law of diminishing returns: The more self-absorbed we are, the less there is to find absorbing. Commenting on some themes in Ernest Becker’s Denial of Death , Robert Roberts adds that the pride project in human life—the attempt to become our own first cause—is carried on by people who are riven with the knowledge that though they may be gods, transcendent above the rest of creation, they are also worms and food for worms. We live with “the dreadful contradiction lying drugged and groggy in our bosoms: the need to be heroes and the fact of being worms.”
What’s more, we try to resolve this contradiction by adopting another: We try to exalt ourselves by meeting other people’s standards of acceptability. What would be the point of doing thunderous slam dunks or of performing rock songs if everybody just yawned? Our goodness (being known, admired, envied) depends on the standards and opinions of people just as riven as we are. “Stars” are really only moons, says Roberts, drawing upon and reflecting the light of others.
Apart from the values which we breathe cozily in our social environment, our behavior and our self-esteem would suffocate, and our psychological identity would expire. Anyone who opens his eyes will see how contradictory is the project of divine self-creation on the basis of what other people think; and yet this is what we do. Few of us are in a position to make ourselves as obviously absurd as King Elvis, but in our “humbler” ways our project is the same.
Hubris is the first and most popular form of idolatry. But all forms of idolatry involve us deeply in folly. All idolatry is not only treacherous, but also futile. Human desire, deep and restless and seemingly unfulfillable, keeps stuffing itself with finite goods, but these cannot satisfy. If we try to fill our hearts with anything besides the God of the universe, we find that we are overfed but undernourished, and that day by day, week by week, year after year, we are thinning down to a mere outline of a human being.
Sad to say, this kind of thing happens all the time. People hungry for love, people who want to “connect,” open up a sequence of shallow, self-seeking relationships with other shallow, self-seeking persons, and find that at the end of the day they are emptier than when they began. The whole project has been as idle and dehumanizing as the conversations on those dating-and-mating TV programs that explore the sump level of lubriciousness. Beneath all their surface liveliness, the sadness of these programs is that they reduce their participants to mere leering silhouettes.
Sin is futile and therefore foolish. Georges Bernanos’ country priest remarks that Satan has involved himself in a hopeless program of swimming against the stream of the universe, of “wearing himself out in absurd, terrifying attempts to reconstruct in the opposite direction the whole work of the Creator.” Thus, while moral evil is destructive, and sometimes infuriating, it is also in some way ludicrous. Mere Christianity, says C. S. Lewis, commits us to believing that “the Devil is (in the long run) an ass.”
Sin is folly: No matter what images they choose, the writers of the Bible say this again and again. Sin is missing the target; sin is choosing the wrong target. Sin is wandering from the path, or rebellion against someone too strong for us, or neglecting a good inheritance. Above all, at its core, sin is offense against God.
Why is it not only wrong but also foolish to offend God? God is our final good, our maker and savior, the one in whom alone our restless hearts come to rest. To rebel against God is to saw off the branch that supports us. As Richard Lovelace remarks, to flee from God to some far country and to search for fulfillment there is to find only “black-market substitutes”: instead of joy, the buzz in your temples from four or five martinis; instead of self-giving love, sex with strangers; instead of a parent’s unconditional enthusiasm for you as a person, only the professional support of a fashionable therapist who will indeed pump up your ego whenever it loses pressure, but who also keeps his meter running. Rebellion against God and flight from God remove us from the sphere of blessing; these moves cut us off from our only invisible means of support.
Thus sin dissipates us in futile projects, but also in self-destructive ones. Sin hurts other people and grieves God, but it also corrodes us. Sin is a form of self-abuse. Promiscuous persons, for example, coarsen themselves. They disqualify themselves for the deepest forms of intimacy, the ones bonded by trust, and “condemn themselves to social superficiality,” as one of my friends once put it. Something similar is true of liars and cheats. As Christopher Lasch remarks, “Whoever cheats his neighbor forfeits his neighbor’s trust, imprisons himself behind a wall of enmity and suspicion, and thus cuts himself off from his fellows.” Envy—the displeasure at another’s good and the urge to despoil him of it—traps and torments the envier, turning his life into a hell of resentment. Proud persons isolate themselves. Pride aborts the very possibility of real friendship or communion, namely, “benevolence toward being in general.”
More basically, pride amounts to a kind of phantom wisdom. Because of pride, fools are unteachable. They know it all. You can’t tell them anything. They are “wise in their own eyes”—a sure sign of folly. Badly educated ministers who are both vague and dogmatic, off-key singers who insist on contending for solo parts, children of Israel who wander forty years in the wilderness because (already then) the men were unwilling to ask for directions, pinball enthusiasts who devote ten years of their adult lives to becoming the best player in their neighborhood tavern, rejecting every inquiry about the worthwhileness of this project with the remark that the inquirer must be envious—these and other standouts from the ranks of the foolish display one of human life’s most wondrous combinations: the stubborn combination of ignorance and arrogance. The foolish, as the saying goes, are often in error, but never in doubt. Moreover, when their dogmatism is challenged, they increase it. Some of them give you a piece of their mind they can hardly afford to lose.
Willfulness of this kind causes the foolish a good deal of misery and also prevents their escape from it. For to escape from a foolish line of thought or a destructive course of action, a person has to stop, admit he is wrong, turn around, head back to safe ground, and then try a new route. As C. S. Lewis once said, when we have gotten a wrong sum at the beginning of a sequence of calculations we cannot improve matters “by simply going on .”
A proud person tries to reinvent reality. He tries to redraw the borders of human behavior to suit himself, displacing God as the Lord and boundary-keeper of life. At bottom, the proud fool is out of touch with reality. For of course our wills are not sovereign. We are not really our own centers, anchors, or lawgivers. We have not made ourselves, cannot keep ourselves, cannot ultimately oblige or forgive ourselves. The image of ourselves as center of the world is fantasy—perhaps, in its sheer detachment from reality, even a form of madness. This is especially clear at the most ominous levels of evil. Only a fool, Milton believed, would rise from his flaming ruins, look out across a “dismal Situation waste and wild,” filled with “huge affliction and dismay,” and declare: “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heav’n.”
Sin corrupts. Corruption spreads and kills. Hence the note of urgency, even of desperation, in many of the biblical prophecies. The prophets rebuke sin in Israel not just because it breaks God’s law, but ultimately because it breaks the peace, because it breaks even the people who commit it. Israel is a nation constituted, redeemed, and regulated by the acts and covenant of God. Israel depends for its very existence on its gracious benefactor. In the prophetic view, sin against God is therefore outrageous folly: it’s like pulling the plug on your own resuscitator. When Nathan accuses King David of selfish encroachment on people’s lives; when Micah cries out against injustice, or Hosea against idolatry; when Isaiah warns against national pride, or Amos against phony worship, the complaint is never generic and the context never abstractly legal. The complaint is always particular (e.g., “officials and judges want to be bribed”) and the context always a crisis: The nation has committed itself to jackassery. It is carrying on like a damned fool and is in danger of self-destructing.
In this role, the prophet acts as seer and wise man. He sees that in sin the stakes are higher, the reverberations wider, and the corruption deeper than people suspect. And he tells them so, often in disagreeable ways.
Because it is futile, because it is vain, because it is unrealistic, because it spoils good things, sin is a prime form of folly. And, of course, folly has its fashions. This, indeed, is one of the reasons folly is so foolish. It is just as foolish to have fashions in folly as to have them in burps or in cockroaches. Predictably, fashions in folly reflect the characteristic sins of the age—in our own case, impatience, hedonism, narcissism, flight from accountability, and the deifying of the self and its choices. “Corrupted modernity” chafes under restraint and accountability, says Thomas Oden: It displays a kind of “adolescent refusal of parenting.” If we know the characteristic sins of the age, we can guess its foolish and fashionable assumptions—that morality is simply a matter of personal taste; that all silences need to be filled up with human chatter or background music; that 760 per cent of the American people are victims; that it is better to feel than to think; that rights are more important than responsibilities; that the right to choose, even among children, supersedes all other rights; that real liberty can be enjoyed without virtue; that self-reproach is for fogies; that God is our chum, or even our gofer, whose job is to make us rich or happy or religiously excited; that it is more satisfying to be envied than respected; that it is better for a politician or a preacher to be cheerful than truthful; that Christian worship fails unless it is fun.
How do we recover from bad judgment of this kind? We have to go back to basics. A much-defeated basketball team goes back to layup and footwork drills. An out-of-shape violinist goes back to scales and arpeggios. A husband and wife who are trying to shore up their crumbling marriage may have to relearn elementary forms of courtesy to each other.
The same is true for all would-be conquerors of folly. Where unteachableness, presumption, general bad judgment, and lack of discernment are concerned, the prescription is to gain wisdom. And “the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord.” Wisdom begins with awe. As C. S. Lewis knew when he characterized Aslan in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, God is good, but God is not safe. God is “good and terrible at the same time.” That is why only a foolish person would describe a meeting with God as “fun.”
God-fearing people have a dreadful love for God, an awe-filled love that knows God is not mocked, that we reap whatever we sow, that God is not to be fooled with, scorned, or ignoredbut trusted, loved, and obeyed. Everything wise and righteous is built on this unshakable foundation. “Fear and love must go together,” said John Henry Newman; “always fear, always love, to your dying day.” God-fearing people know that God’s first project in the world is not to make us happy, and that we will gain happiness only after we have renounced our right to it. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” As Frederick Buechner reminds us, when Jesus says these words he is not telling us how, morally speaking, life ought to be. Rather, he is simply telling us how life is.
Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. is Professor of Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary and author of Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, from which this article is adapted.