Sorely Needed Wisdom

At a recent conference in Washington, D.C., the questions were asked: "Why Genesis? Why Now?" The event, sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Center, was a discussion of the new book The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis by Professor Leon Kass. Both Kass's book and the conference it inspired raise a question that Christians ought to welcome: What is the role of the Bible, in particular, Genesis, in twenty-first century American life? Do words written more than three millennia ago have anything to tell us about how we ought to live our lives today? The answer, according to Kass, a great scholar and the chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics, is "absolutely." Kass's book is the product of twenty-five years of studying Genesis and teaching it to his students at the University of Chicago. Those experiences led Kass to appreciate the "moral sensibilities and demands of the Torah," although he confesses that his practice is still "wanting." But he is no longer confident in the sufficiency of "unaided human reason" to answer life's most important questions. Genesis's impact isn't limited to the personal. What Kass, who is Jewish, calls the "crisis in modern thought," especially in the moral and ethical realms, stems from our culture's disregard for the lessons taught in Genesis. We have a "need for wisdom" in this area, one that requires a "serious examination" of the Bible, starting with Genesis. And what better place to start than at the beginning? Even a reader who doesn't believe in the inspiration of Scripture has to admit that Genesis chapters 1 through 11 are without peer in their accurate depiction of the "human predicament": our strengths and our weaknesses, our nobility and our folly. As Kass puts it, the stories in chapters 1 through 11, tell "what always happens" -- whether the subject is the relationship between spouses, between siblings, or between man and God. For instance, Kass's chapter on the story of Cain and Abel, "Fratricide and Founding," is a powerful antidote to our culture's sentimental and even utopian view of human nature. Genesis's account of how pride, jealousy, and anger cause us to prey upon one another is much more true to life than what we hear from contemporary "experts." Given Genesis's insight and accuracy regarding the human condition, it's reasonable to think that its insights on what it means to be human are likewise worth examining. Its account of what makes man unique and the dignity that flows from that status, like its portrayal of our faults, rings far truer to human experience than secular alternatives. Genesis's understanding of human nature and human dignity has implications for nearly every aspect of our culture: bioethics, human rights, religious freedom, war, and peace. That answers the question: "Why Genesis?" And the answer to the second -- "Why Now?" -- is that the alternatives to the biblical worldview have all failed. They have left us with the "crisis" Kass mentions, unable to find answers because we no longer remember the real questions: Who are we? How are we supposed to live? To remember those, we, like Kass, need to start at the beginning -- in this case, "The Beginning of Wisdom." For further reading: Leon Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis (Free Press, 2003). Roberto Rivera, "Patriarchy," BreakPoint Online, 7 July 2003. David Novak, "Ideals and Idols," The New Republic, 12 May 2003. (You must be a subscriber to access this article; there is a 4-week free trial subscription available.) For a transcript of the Ethics and Public Policy event "Why Genesis? Why Now?" call 1-877-3-CALLBP.


Chuck Colson



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