This last week, I spent 45 minutes during a lunch trying to grasp for basic words. I did not know what was wrong with me. I could not ask a simple question of the person at the table, “What was your major in college?” Soon, I could not remember my lunch partners’ names. Fortunately, my lunch colleagues ended up running me to the hospital ER, where I faced a question we all face in many different forms a thousand times throughout our lives. It is a question about making a choice based upon the percentages.
The ER doctor gave the facts to me straight: “We have one FDA approved medicine we can give you to prevent brain damage and perhaps even save your life. There is also a six percent chance it can kill you. Do you want to take it?” It was a different form of Pascal’s famous wager one could say. And, like that famous wager, I decided to take my chances and accept the medicine.
Most of life is about choosing among percentages. When talking about ethics and social science research within my moral development classes, I continually try to point out two important realities pertaining to common grace forms of moral reasoning (versus reasoning from the Bible or Christian tradition). First, you have to figure out the purpose or telos of a particular identity or practice to assess it properly (e.g., what is an excellent spouse/marriage?). The purpose and associated identity is what helps you cross the famous “is-ought” gap to go from descriptive statements to moral admonitions and wisdom (e.g., marriage failure is indicated by divorce; cohabitation before marriage leads to a higher percentage of divorce; therefore, if you want to have a higher chance of avoiding marriage failure, it is best not to cohabitate before marriage).
Second, as this example illustrates, the wisdom we learn from social science is almost always based on percentages. The same is true with science. Which vaccine is better? Look at the percentages who contract the virus after taking it. Should we wear masks? Does it reduce the percentages who get Covid? Whether the topic is money, marriage, health, or the common good, life is often about the percentages.
Weeks before my ER visit, I was sharing this phrase, “life is about the percentages,” with a real estate friend who, of course, resonated with my view. He opined that he may not be very good in math, but he can still calculate 3 percent or 6 percent of most any number between $100,000 and $3 million. We then got to talking about this truth in comparison to the Biblical way wisdom is expressed, particularly in wisdom literature.
Biblical teaching regarding flourishing is rarely expressed using percentages. More often, biblical teachings take the form of general declarations: “A generous man will proper; he who refreshes others will himself be refreshed” (Prov. 11:25) or simple declarative dichotomies such as, “The poor are shunned even by their neighbors, but the rich have many friends” (Prov. 14:20). And finally, one that likely grates many conditioned by Marxist terminology today: “Better to be lowly in spirit and among the oppressed than to share plunder with the proud” (Prov. 16:19). In other words, the book of Proverbs is not exactly, at first read, nuanced social science. Therefore, how are we to receive it?
Well, obviously the authors of the Proverbs are not attempting to provide immediately applicable social science generalizations, but they are making certain kinds of generalizations that are closer to thinking about long-term investments and compounding interest. Sure, reducing your chance of divorce, bitterness, poverty, pride, etc. each year by 4-8% may not seem like much (in fact there may be years you have a negative return if you are a faithful Christian), but authors of the Proverbs recognize that these kinds of moral decisions tend to work like compounding interest. Soon, they add to a flourishing life as a whole (perhaps even in the midst of structural sin or catastrophe, although this is not to say we want either of those).
Wisdom literature takes the long life perspective that understands the overall life effect of various choices. Furthermore, it is often the best communication style, instead of an abstract from a social science publication, for hard-hearted and hard-headed humans, including fellow professors or students. One of my former colleagues who took a famous qualitative analysis professor for a class related the story to me once about the professor being asked, “Why are you so radical in your advocacy for qualitative research?” The professor simply replied, “To get higher education to move an inch, you have to move a mile.” Professors and advanced students, like anyone else, also need direct and forceful pedagogy to move them, like in the Proverbs.
Growing up, my father would take the same approach to sharing wisdom. He would point to a newspaper article about someone getting in an accident, being robbed, etc. after midnight and ask me, “What do you think they were doing out after midnight?” And then he would repeat his wisdom proverb, “Nothing good happens after midnight.”
Surely it is indeed possible for something good to happen after midnight, but he was using the Biblical form of wisdom provision. As parents, professors and/or church members, we may rely on pithy wisdom because it’s more effective (and not more nuanced), whether long-worn sayings from the Proverbs or other popular proverbs, because we need this kind of strong pedagogy. Plus, the reality is that once you know the percentages, you must then often make simple dichotomous choices, similar to my decision regarding taking a clot buster medicine, based on the percentages.
Unfortunately, as hard-hearted and headed humans, we usually think we can beat the percentages. I’m still struggling with a bit of wisdom my father shared with me some time ago. As part of his training as a pharmaceutical representative, he was educated on driving safety. He was instructed that the more you change lanes, the higher likelihood you will have an accident. I’m a lane changer (grew up driving in cities such as Houston, Los Angeles, Denver, Austin, Dallas-Forth-Worth, etc.). So far, I’ve beaten the percentages. Will they catch up to me? My wife and children think they will (and remind me).
The stat from my dad about lane changing that has stayed in my mind (even when I choose against it). Similarly, I find nonbelievers eyes are often opened when provided the social science percentages to help them develop their own wisdom—wisdom that may eventually lead to Christ. Working in public policy, I found common ground with nonbelievers through this use of data when we had ends in common.
Christians looking to make Christian ethics fresh to students should also turn to this kind of moral teleology derived from an identity practice combined with data. I find my students have no idea how many wonderful health benefits are correlated with church attendance, or how they can obtain wisdom from social science research for students at pluralistic universities regarding: consumerism and stewardship of stuff; binge drinking; sleeplessness; stewardship of the body; the practice of gratitude, forgiveness, generosity, etc.; and their overall well-being. They need to realize as well, that when it comes to the wisdom supplied by common grace, life is often about the percentages.
Thank you for this excellent post! Biblical dichotomies also establish boundaries for categories. Maybe the boundaries are fuzzy in our experience as we live within percentages but boundaries they are none the less.