Public Square & Theology 101

A Biblical Perspective on Wisdom & Foolishness

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“Stupid is as stupid does,” quips Forrest Gump in the 1994 movie by the same name.

There is a curious statement about stupidity floating around on the internet that says: “Debating an idiot is like trying to play chess with a pigeon—it knocks the pieces over, craps on the board, and flies back to its flock to claim victory.” 

“The mass of people are so stupid, so gullible, because they want to be misled,” says one of the characters in Neal Stephenson’s novel Fall; or, Dodge in Hell. “There’s no way to make them not want it. You have to work with the human race as it exists, with all of its flaws. Getting them to see reason is a fool’s errand.”

What is Stupidity?

When we talk about stupidity, we are not commenting on intelligence. We all know brilliant people who do really stupid things. We usually laugh or shake our heads when we see this behavior, but twentieth-century German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggests stupidity is no laughing matter.

Stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than evil,” writes Bonhoeffer ten years after Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. Bonhoeffer had moved back to Germany to join a small circle of friends committed to the resistance in Germany.

It was a difficult time for Bonhoeffer’s homeland. Hitler had plunged humanity into a second world war, and his totalitarian “Third Reich” controlled the country with an iron fist. Bonhoeffer wondered how this had come to be. While considering the nature of evil, he concluded it was not evil that was the most dangerous enemy of the good but stupidity. Bonhoeffer writes:

Stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than malice. One may protest against evil; it can be exposed and, if need be, prevented by use of force. Evil always carries within itself the germ of its own subversion in that it leaves behind in human beings at least a sense of unease. Against stupidity we are defenseless. Neither protests nor the use of force accomplish anything here; reasons fall on deaf ears; facts that contradict one’s prejudgment simply need not be believed—in such moments the stupid person even becomes critical—and when facts are irrefutable they are just pushed aside as inconsequential, as incidental. In all this the stupid person, in contrast to the malicious one, is utterly self-satisfied and, being easily irritated, becomes dangerous by going on the attack. For that reason, greater caution is called for than with a malicious one. Never again will we try to persuade the stupid person with reasons, for it is senseless and dangerous.

And so it would seem that stupidity is perhaps less a psychological than a sociological problem… Upon closer observation, it becomes apparent that every strong upsurge of power in the public sphere, be it of a political or of a religious nature, infects a large part of humankind with stupidity. It would even seem that this is virtually a sociological-psychological law. The power of the one needs the stupidity of the other…it seems that under the overwhelming impact of rising power, humans are deprived of their inner independence, and, more or less consciously, give up establishing an autonomous position toward the emerging circumstances.

Bonhoeffer was shortly arrested and executed two years later in a concentration camp. Although he wrote the words above over eighty years ago, as one author writes, “…the ideas he left us with have an application in any century. For stupidity hasn’t disappeared. It is eternal.” Stupidity significantly impacts our lives, particularly in our vocational work or the work we do in our communities.

Biblical Wisdom and Foolishness

God has much to say about stupidity in his word. For example, throughout Proverbs, stupidity (often called the fool) is seen as a lack of wisdom (Prov. 12:1, 13:16, 15:21, 14:16-18, 14:23-24, 28:26). Wisdom comes from knowing God’s word and applying it as our guide to faith and practice. It is the solid food “…for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil (Heb. 5:14).

The great truth Bonhoeffer realized as he watched the rise of Hitler was that stupidity is necessary for evil people to take power, and that is why it is such a dangerous weapon. Evil people cannot take control unless they have stupid people to do their work. As one author writes: “Evil is a puppet master, and it loves nothing so much as the mindless puppets who enable it—be they in the general public or inside the corridors of power.”

Through God’s grace, we must strive to use Godly wisdom in all our dealings with others so we do not fall into the trap of stupidity. How do we do that? By being in the Scriptures and around God’s people. As the Apostle Paul writes:

It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ (Eph. 4:11-14).

We are instructed to “be as wise as serpents and yet as harmless as doves” (Matt. 10:13) and not become pawns of those who would do evil.

“Stupid is as stupid does”…not if you are a follower of Jesus Christ.

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