Tony Woodlief | Author

Renaissance Radical

Something that has always bothered me about the theological enterprise is an undercurrent of arrogance, the notion that we possess so clear a discernment that we can build mental boxes to contain the wild God of the ages. I once heard a sermon where the pastor quoted a brilliant theologian, who was commending Jesus for drawing the right conclusion in a particular lesson. It put me in mind of the politician who declared in the midst of a speech, “As the good Lord said, and I think he was right . . .”

Recalling that the first theologian was the Devil himself, it seems a slippery enterprise at best. It isn’t surprising that the great reformations — Josiah having the Torah read to the people, Christ slapping down the Pharisees, Martin Luther suggesting the Pope get re-acquainted with the Bible — center on returning to what God has said, not what man has to say about what God said. (The aggrieved pedant often interposes a secondary discussion here, regarding the extent to which the Scriptures themselves are simply man’s interpretations of what God has said, and the best reply is that he educate himself through more than the books that speak to his preconceived bias on the topic.)

All the foregoing came to mind yesterday as I read this from Sir Walter Raleigh’s History of the World:

“Man, to cover his ignorance in the least things, who cannot give a true reason for the grass under his feet . . . that hath so short a time in the world as he no sooner begins to learn than to die; that hath in his memory but borrowed knowledge, in his understanding nothing truly; that is ignorant of the essence of his own soul, and which the wisest of the naturalists (if Aristotle be he) could never so much as define but by the action and effect, telling us what it works (which all men know as well as he) but not what it is, which neither he nor any else doth know, save God that created it . . . Man, I say, that is but an idiot in the next cause of his own life and in the cause of all actions of his life, will notwithstanding examine the art of God in creating the world . . .”

Or, as the good Lord said to Job (and I think he was right), “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?”

As might be expected, they lopped off Raleigh’s head, their anger no doubt heightened by verses like this:

“Tell faith, it’s fled the city;
Tell how the country erreth;
Tell, manhood shakes off pity;
Tell, virtue least preferreth;
And if they do reply,
Spare not to give the lie.

I don’t know about you, but I always delight in discovering a critic from ages past. It makes one feel as if one is part of a sacred tradition, or has perhaps been admitted to a secret society because someone forgot to check one’s references. And it shouldn’t worry us, that so many meet gruesome ends, because mostly that doesn’t happen any more, unless one lives in the Middle East. Or Africa. Or Pakistan. I guess there’s also China, Cuba, Venezuela (soon), Russia, and Europe, if the Muslim demographic invasion continues . . .

Ah, well. Perhaps we misanthropes can simply hope for Raleigh’s pluck on the executioner’s block. He thumbed the blade and declared, “This is that that will cure all sorrows.” And then, when the executioner dallied too long before the blow, Raleigh chided him: “Strike, man!” We’ll know we’ve turned the corner in our universities, when this Renaissance radical replaces the thuggish Che Guevara on chic t-shirts. But to judge from Raleigh’s poetry, academia was little better in his day, it seems:

“Tell arts, they have no soundness,
But vary by esteeming;
Tell schools, they want profoundness,
And stand too much on seeming
If arts and schools reply
Give arts and schools the lie.”


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