Plunder the Egyptians
The Wisdom of the World and the Idols of the Heart
Have you heard the one about the guy in the hurricane? It’s a preacher cliche, of sorts.
As the waters rose all around him he kept refusing the help of others - first from someone in a large truck as the water covered his street, then from a boat through a second story window as the water filled the first floor of his house, and finally from someone in a helicopter as he sat on the roof of his house, one tiny island in the archipelago of rooftops that used to be his neighborhood. Each time, in response to each offer, his reply was always one of deep faith: he didn’t need the truck, or the boat, or the helicopter to save him, because God would save him.
But the waters rose, and so, eventually, did he. And as he stood before the throne of God, he was more than a little annoyed at God for not coming to his rescue. “I trusted you!” he said, “I believed! Why didn’t you save me?”
God wasn’t having it. “What are you talking about?” responded the Almighty, “I sent a truck, and a boat, and a helicopter!”
It’s easy to laugh at this guy for being so obtuse. After all, followers of the God of Abraham have almost always been open to finding blessings from God in worldly sources. The book of Proverbs, the Old Testament’s compendium of wise sayings, sounds more like the kind of street smarts you could pick up from your grandma than the kind of thing you’d expect to hear in a Sunday sermon. Several of these sayings even seem to be drawn from an Egyptian source, The Instruction of Amenemope (see Proverbs 22-23).
Early Christians weren’t afraid to borrow liberally from Greek philosophers. In Athens the apostle Paul quoted an ancient poet and even made use of a pagan shrine to explain the gospel to the Athenians. A few centuries later some Christians, impressed with the insight of the Greek philosopher Plato, thought that he must have had access to some divine revelation. There was even a story about him being tutored by the Biblical prophet Jeremiah. Unfortunately that’s impossible; the great Athenian and his supposed Jerusalemite prophet/tutor weren’t even alive at the same time. Fortunately that didn’t stop early Christians who happened to notice that lack of timeline overlap from learning a thing or two from Plato. If Plato discovered some true things, why shouldn’t Christians make use of them?
If this license to borrow from secular wisdom needed further justification, at least a few early Christians offered some by means of a clever Biblical analogy drawn from the story of the Exodus. As God’s people were finally freed from slavery in Egypt by Pharoah they left in a hurry and took advantage of the kindness of their Egyptian neighbors:
“The Israelites did as Moses instructed and asked the Egyptians for articles of silver and gold and for clothing. The Lord had made the Egyptians favorably disposed toward the people, and they gave them what they asked for; so they plundered the Egyptians.” (Exodus 12:35-36, NIV)
Just as ancient Israel wasn’t shy about making use of the Egyptian’s physical treasures, so the early Christians reasoned they were free to make use of their world’s intellectual treasures. As the cliche goes, all truth is God’s truth. If Socrates or Epictetus stumbled upon some illuminating insight, why not use it?
Well, there is one glaring risk. The danger of plundering the Egyptians is always the temptation to do exactly what the Israelites eventually did with a lot of that treasure - melt it down and make a golden calf out of it.
This is not a good thing. The many examples of Christians borrowing from worldly wisdom only to turn that wisdom into a replacement for God are instructive here. And I think the many examples we could point to here are why some Christians are opposed to appropriating the wisdom of the world.
But just because Origen went a bit overboard in his conversations with gnostics, seeming to posit things like the preexistence of souls, doesn’t mean that we can’t learn from those who aren’t perfectly card carrying orthodox Christians. Just because Thomas Aquinas and his followers got a little too into their metaphysical systems, doesn’t mean we don’t have anything to learn from Aristotle or other non-Christian philosophers. And the excesses of some Christians bending the faith a bit too far to include modern science doesn’t mean we should ignore science and all that the disciplines that go by that name are learning about the world we inhabit.
And that brings me to what got me thinking about all of this to begin with. I find it fascinating that some Christians are so skeptical of science amid our current global pandemic. I appreciate the resistance to anxiety – I really do. And I certainly understand the quarantine fatigue – and that some of the public health recommendations are just plan uncomfortable. But, to take only one example, I don’t see any reasonable Christian rationale for a “we don’t believe in masks” view in churches. Scientific consensus changes – especially when it comes to a virus like the present one that we know so little about. But at the moment there is good evidence about things like mask wearing and social distancing and other recommendations, and it seems silly to reject them. Your Egyptian neighbor is trying to hand you a bowl of diamonds, why not take it? By no means should you worship that bowl or its contents, but it seems reasonable to treat it as a gift from God.
Of course I know safety can be an idol, and of course following scientific advice can too. The human heart is a factory of idols, as Calvin said (or should have). But faith is not at odds with prudence. So I wear a mask in public for the same reason I exercise, try to eat healthy, and don’t play Russian roulette - because I think it’s better for me.
And in the case of mask wearing, it is also an opportunity to love my neighbor. What’s more Christian than that?
Moreover (and with this I’ll give it a rest), ignoring the world’s wisdom in favor of your own can just as easily become an idol as anything else.