Tuesday, April 10, 2018

How Not to Crash and Burn (1)

Wisdom is rare today: rarely understood, more rarely expressed, even more rarely followed.

As a result, we live among people with a chronic inability to connect the dots; to discover where and how the choices they made at various points in their lives have inexorably rung in the consequences they experience and bemoan today.

In a ward full of patients, we are desperately short of diagnosticians.

Explaining Away

Among Christians, the wisdom literature of the Old Testament has probably never been less studied. When it is, it is largely for the purpose of explaining it away (after all, that “rod of discipline” can’t possibly be literal, and there’s no good reason a Proverbs 31 wife couldn’t work outside the home while raising kids, be single, or even be a man, other than the fact that she’s unrealistic, impossible, misunderstood and an unreasonably guilt-producing corny fifties stereotype anyway).

The lack of attention to the Bible’s wisdom literature explains a great deal about the condition of our current society, because Proverbs especially is all about how not to crash and burn.

Cat Ladies and Reluctant Moral Judgments

Another word for wisdom is prudence. Name your daughter Prudence today and you’ll condemn her to life as a cat lady unless she can figure out some way to wear her moniker ironically. If you are prudent, you are probably a prude, and nobody likes prudes. Is it any wonder wisdom is out of fashion?

We live in the so-called information age, but nobody wants to do anything useful with all that information — especially not apply it to life. The most critical element of the modern Western ethos is a reluctance to pass moral judgments; and the most effective way to avoid passing moral judgments and incurring the wrath of one’s fellow citizens is to be effectively rendered incapable of forming any in the first place.

Science Sez

Related to wisdom: here is some interesting data about teenagers from the University of Rochester Medical Center. I’ve seen it confirmed elsewhere.
“It doesn’t matter how smart teens are or how well they scored on the SAT or ACT. Good judgment isn’t something they can excel in, at least not yet.

The rational part of a teen’s brain isn’t fully developed and won’t be until age 25 or so.

In fact, recent research has found that adult and teen brains work differently. Adults think with the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s rational part. This is the part of the brain that responds to situations with good judgment and an awareness of long-term consequences. Teens process information with the amygdala. This is the emotional part.

In teen’s brains, the connections between the emotional part of the brain and the decision-making center are still developing — and not necessarily at the same rate. That’s why when teens experience overwhelming emotional input, they can’t explain later what they were thinking. They weren’t thinking as much as they were feeling.”
That’s a plateful to digest.

In Pursuit of the Prefrontal

One thing this does NOT mean is that the so-called “age of accountability” is actually 25, or that those who do not yet possess a fully developed set of connections between the emotional and decision-making areas of their brains are all hereby excused from each and every consequence of their misbehavior. That one is off the table. A set of reasoning equipment that is partly complete or almost complete is still immeasurably more useful than no equipment at all. In any case, it is evident from scripture that God holds children responsible for their choices.

However, the University of Rochester data does help explain why some children who have been well-instructed by their parents (just as Solomon instructed his own son in Proverbs 1) have nonetheless managed to careen off the rails and make a hash of their lives anyway. It seems reasonable to question whether some of these kids are yet capable of fully understanding all the long-term consequences of a particular set of actions. Or perhaps they can comprehend the information they have been given intellectually, but simply refuse to recognize that it could easily be their own lives lying in the ditch in smoking ruin, not some statistic on a website.

Teach Your Children Well

It also does not mean that it is useless to give our children, teens and young adults detailed logical and moral reasons to behave in a particular way, or that we should expect them only to respond to rhetoric rather than dialectic. In fact, scripture commands we teach them, and the instructions given Israel in Exodus suggest this ought to include not just the commands of God but the reasons behind the commands. Not only do children begin to use their prefrontal cortexes to a greater extent at different ages from one another, but it is also next to impossible to know in any given case which sorts of decisions they are currently capable of making rationally and which they are not.

Thus the way Solomon reasons with his son in Proverbs makes perfect sense, regardless of his age.

Trust and … Wait, You Mean There’s Really NO OTHER WAY?

What the science might reasonably suggest to the Christian is that a child — especially a young child — who characteristically obeys his parents is not doing so because he always agrees with them, or even because he ever agrees with them. If the data is right, he or she is not really rationalizing most of the time. Rather, obedient children are either (i) high in trust, or (ii) put a premium on obedience for obedience’s sake. (The latter can be a conscious or unconscious thing: we all know children who are only obedient because it hasn’t yet occurred to them that there is a viable alternative to doing what they have been told that may provide certain rewards in the short term. We cannot truly be certain whether they are behaving morally until that possibility occurs to them — as it often does the first year away at university or college — or whether they are merely little robo-kids waiting to malfunction.)

Thus, if our purpose is to reinforce moral character, the best way seems to be by encouraging trust, and trust of the right people and things. This may help explain the severity of the Lord’s warning about stumbling “one of these little ones who believe in me”: in doing so, we destroy their character-building mechanism. If we want children to trust us, we had best be trustworthy; meaning that we behave predictably and in accord with the moral teaching we are giving them. It is not necessary that they understand all the various reasons it is prudent to obey in any given situation, but it IS necessary to a child that his parents appear to understand those reasons and behave consistently with them.

The Value of Wisdom

Hence the value of biblical wisdom, particularly that of the Proverbs. As adults, most of us are capable of processing the moral rationale behind the wisdom of Solomon. The question for us is whether we are determined to provide a living illustration of the wisdom of God, or whether we would prefer to serve as the cautionary tale that makes everyone around us wish we had paid greater heed to what we read.

Including and especially our kids.

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