Posted: September 25th, 2012

Sheep Smarts

By, Fr. Mark Sietsema

The original article, not as printed in the Orthodox Observer. This is a follow-up to feedback on my Halloween article, which is posted on the Metropolis of Detroit website (see article for link).

Halloween article as posted on the Metropolis of Detroit website

Book smarts or street smarts: which is better?  Years ago my dictionary company was approached by an Oprah-style TV show: would one of the editors appear as a guest to help settle this question?  The PR department was thrilled about free publicity.  The editors were not so eager: they knew a set-up for nerd humiliation when they saw one!

Forget book vs. street smarts.  What about “sheep smarts”?  Aren’t these the best of all?  Typically we don’t think about sheep as intelligent animals.  But when it comes to the flock of Christ, sheep smarts is one of the goals of the Christian life. 

When you were baptized, the priest prayed that you would be made a próbaton logikón of the holy flock of Christ. How do we translate this expression?  Literally, it means “a logical sheep.”  It’s an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms intended to grab our attention.  Some translators soften the metaphor’s force by rendering it as “rational” or “reason-endowed” sheep.  Either way, it is clear that through Holy Baptism we are meant to become something that sheep by nature are not.

Sheep are gentle, quiet beasts, easily led … and easily led astray.  A sheep with powers of reason, though, would be a wonderful creature: mild and friendly, but also thoughtful and wise, able to see past appearances and spot the wolves in woolly clothing that show up to prey on the flock.  A logical sheep would both save his own skin and warn other sheep of danger. Surely the Lord Jesus Christ had this combination of sweetness and savvy in mind when He told His disciples (Matthew 10:16), “Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”  


Come, Let Us Reason Together

The goal of a competent spiritual father, like any earthly father, is to teach his children knowledge and discernment so that over time they learn to make wise choices for themselves, so that the logical sheep become less dependent on the shepherd for decision-making.

What will we do to give ourselves and our children sheep smarts? Do we emphasize scholarship and mastery of the Scriptures?  Do we study methods of critical thinking?  Or … do we teach that intellect is an enemy of Orthodoxy?  Do we pit faith against philosophy, religion against reason? 

I have read the Fathers of the Church, and I see how they made their case for Orthodoxy.  They used closely reasoned arguments based on facts and logic.  When St. Basil sought to persuade people about the divinity of the Holy Spirit, he did not appeal to angelic visitations or mystic visions.  He quoted Scripture, analyzed grammar, and offered an in-depth study of prepositions!  His writings on every subject are works of scholarship, not pronouncements based on clairvoyance. He was a well-read man who expected his readers to follow logical arguments: St. Basil used book smarts to increase sheep smarts, as did the other great teachers of the Church.


Don’t Fear the Reader

Even so, a specter is haunting America: the specter of anti-intellectualism.  It manifests itself in subtle ways, only occasionally rearing its head high  enough to show what it really is, a knee-jerk fear: of change, of modern life, of a complex world, and consequently of the scholarly achievements that shape today’s world. 

Anti-intellectualism wishes all things to be black or white, so that there is no place for judgment calls, no need to exercise personal discernment.  Anti-intellectualism thrives on the Us-Versus-Them mentality. It thrives on unquestioning devotion to all-knowing gurus.  (Logical sheep, check your brains at the door: the master does all the thinking for you!)

Anti-intellectualism also jettisons our Orthodox scholarly heritage under the pretense of preserving tradition. Here are some genuine examples of anti-intellectual rhetoric that I have encountered in the Church:

  • “No saint ever had a Ph.D.!”
  • “The devil speaks to your mind, but Christ speaks to your heart!”
  • “A saint of the Church once warned: Beware the diabasmenous!” (literally, “the well-read,” i.e. the scholars).

Alas, this is a betrayal of the Orthodox phronema, which tells us to be like a bee when it comes to worldly education: find the sweet nectar and leave behind any bitter dregs. Saint Gregory the Theologian wrote:

“I take it as admitted by men of sense that the first of our advantages is education … even that external culture which many Christians ill-judgingly abhor as treacherous and dangerous and keeping us far from God. We must not then dishonor education, because some men are pleased to do so, but rather suppose such men to be boorish and uneducated, desiring all men to be as they themselves are, in order to hide themselves and escape detection for their lack of culture.”

It bears mentioning that the Lord Jesus Christ, in battling the superstition of the Pharisees and Sadducees, used logic and learning to shut them down (see Matthew 22:23-32, 41-46).  The Lord Jesus Christ knew His Scriptures and handled them skillfully.  He was clearly a diabasmenos, as was Saint Paul, as were so many Church Fathers and champions of the ascetic life. We who bear the name of Christ are duty-bound to nourish our minds as well as our souls: “Like newborn babes, yearn for the pure logical milk, that by it you may grow up unto salvation” (1 Peter 2:2).

O, logical sheep of the reasoning flock of Christ: Don’t fear the reader! Become one yourself!  The scholar can be the scribe with a storehouse of intellectual treasures (see Matthew 13:52) that raises us up from our sheeplike gullibility, ignorance, paranoia, and superstition. He spares us the pretension of gurus and the tyranny of fearmongers.  When you hear the woolly-faced wolves howling against the evils of science and education, put on your thinking cap. Ask questions, search the Scriptures, test the spirits, and use the baptized brains God gave you.

In our day and age, book smarts are street smarts that make sheep smart for the logiké poímne, the logical flock of Christ.



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