Don’t Turn Wisdom into Mantras

We love to simplify complex ideas, to make big thing small and sum things up as neatly as possible. It is the easiest way to keep thoughts organized and make sense out of the complicated. We try to take entire ideologies or theologies and sum them up in tight paradigmic phrases. We especially do this with quotes pulled from deep thinkers. Rather than do the work of learning absorbing the entirety of their arguments we lift the one or two phrases that seem to sum up the ideas nicely and just run with those.

Martin Luther King Jr. – “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

C.S. Lewis – All sin stems from Pride.

Mother Teresa – “If you love until it hurts there can be no more hurt, only more love.”

Tim Keller – “All sin is idolatry.”

Gandhi – “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.”

John Piper – “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.”

Winston Churchill – “You have enemies? Good; that means you?ve stood up for something in your life.”

William Shakespeare – “Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.”

Truth is easily apparent in each of these quotes or ideas. So the problem isn’t finding the wrong paradigms, it is settling for too few and doing so too readily. When we adopt a single paradigm, or maybe two, as our inspiration and guidance they easily become mantras – phrases repeated endlessly with little thought in the hopes it will transform. Mantras are meaningless. Christians can even do this with “life verses.” Jeremiah 29:11 becomes the quick fix for all problems and Romans 8:28 is the comfort for all troubles, an band aid for our spiritual and emotional boo boos.

Three main problems present themselves when we settle for such simplistic, mantra-like wisdom.

First, is that we are settling for synthesized and compacted thought. The strength of these singular thoughts comes from the massive scaffold of other thoughts on which they are built. If all we take is the single mantra we know little of the true power of the thought process and deep truths.

The second problem is more one of human nature: anything repeated often enough, no matter how brilliant, becomes rote and fades into the background. In order for truth to maintain its radiance in our eyes it must remain varied in its expression (how it is expressed, who expresses is it, when we see or hear it expressed). Truths repeated endlessly become tired (though not less true).

The third problem is also a function of humanity – that of human error and finitude. No one mantra sums all of life or truth perfectly. No one piece of wisdom answers all the questions or is clearly applied in every situation. So to claim one or two or three bits of wisdom as what you “base your life on” is to leave yourself with a largely empty tool box while facing the complex project of life.

There is no simple way to find and learn wisdom for life. Simplicity functions to create easier opportunities to begin discovering. It is not to be the end of discovering. Even biblical truths cannot be isolated and claimed apart from the full canon. Our response to brilliant bites of wisdom should not be to treat them like the samples at Costco but rather as an appetizer for the seven course meal. Each bite should titillate the senses and create wonder as to what more there might be.

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