A recently posted comment in response to a news interview with Ellin Jimmerson – who is featured in “GospelWithoutBorders” and who is suing in an effort to block Alabama’s new immigration law – suggested that a more apt title for the documentary would be “Gospel Without Common Sense.”
This led to some reflection and conversation about the nature of “common sense” and its relation to the call of the Gospel.
As I thought about it, most of what I have heard under that label refers to what most people seem to think about something at a given time.
For example, it once was “common sense” that if you sailed too far toward the horizon, you would fall off the edge, or that certain races or genders or nationalities were inherently superior or inferior.
We equate “common sense” with conditioned patterns of ideas that often are corrected by later discovery or maturing of thought.
The most obvious use of this kind of “common sense” seems to be to support a perspective or way of thinking that one wants to maintain (as in, “It’s just common sense to protect our borders”).
Then there is the “common sense” that we would associate with what Immanuel Kant called “practical reason” – it’s common sense not to stand under a falling tree, or to stick your finger into an electrical socket, or to do harmful things to your neighbor with whom you want to have community – what we learn by experience to do to avoid danger, to protect ourselves and to live together.
We can easily see a distinction between this kind of “common sense” and the use of it to justify various ideological perspectives that may be under question.
Now – enter the Gospel. There is little question that Jesus (as well as the prophets before him and since) challenged the “common sense” (conventional wisdom?) that prevailed at his time.
Common sense said to stay away from lepers, tax collectors and Samaritans, and not to rile the religious authorities.
But Jesus modeled and taught an embrace of those in dire need and those who had been rejected and were powerless.
He was criticized and ridiculed for going against the common sense of his day. Even his family and his disciples tried to rein him in when he ventured too far into territory that was considered dangerous.
On the other hand, many of his parables appeal to a kind of “common sense” that recognizes how the world works (seeds grow according to where and how they are sown, wise people don’t build houses on the sand, a father doesn’t give his child a stone when he asks for bread) – so Jesus seems not to be counseling some kind of abandonment of “common sense” but rather its prudent use in the service of the values of the Kingdom.
So, I guess this leaves me wondering just exactly what “faithful common sense” would be.
Somewhere in between the idolatrous enshrinement of our own thoughts and prejudices as “universal truth” and a careless and irresponsible abandonment of prudent judgment, there must be a place where the marvelous gift of discernment and decision making can be a tool for the partnership that God’s call to each of us is.
I suppose it would have been “common sense” for Moses to continue tending Jethro’s flocks rather than going back to Egypt and exposing himself to the risks of identifying with those in bondage there.
It would have been “common sense” for two brothers to keep on helping their father’s fishing business rather than pursuing the esoteric call of this carpenter rabbi who was leaving his “real work” to build something else that he called a new and different kind of kingdom.
Maybe, rather than a “Gospel without common sense” we could frame a “Gospel of faithful common sense” – and emphasize keeping one eye on what we know as a basis of security that can be a keel for our boat, and the other eye on what God has given us as a vision of what might become when we partner with a God of ongoing creation and redemption.
Just think of the possibilities.
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).