Christianity and the problem of common sense

January 20th, 2016

I will never forget that day as long as I live.

There I was, innocently standing in line at the grocery store, bill paid and preparing to make my exit when I looked down and beheld the unspeakable insanity that lay in front of me.

Unlike every other item I had purchased that day, there was my milk, bereft of a bag.

It was just sitting there, naked and exposed to the entire world as if it had committed some morally depraved crime for which the only suitable punishment was public humiliation.

Mind you, this was not a case of an overly entitled customer unjustly annoyed that the store employee had forgotten to bag the milk. No, my friend, this was a willful and intentional act, part of what I would later discover to be a New England-wide conspiracy to rob milk of its proper place in a grocery bag as if that tiny little handle on the jug is good for anything other than taking the milk out of the refrigerator and putting it back in its place.

As if.

Common sense should tell my New England neighbors that if God had wanted us to deprive milk of its own grocery bag, God would have created a handle on the milk jug big enough to accommodate carrying the milk jug along with several other bags of groceries into one’s house so that only a minimal amount of time need be diverted from prayer and reading the Bible. That tiny, almost nonexistent handle is a clear sign from God that milk deserves its own grocery bag. 

This is just common sense. 

Except in New England, where common sense appears to have died in some brutal winter long ago.

Of course, my New England neighbors would no doubt retort that common sense tells us we should use as few of those non-degradable plastic bags as possible or, preferably, none at all. And maybe they have a point. But either way, the very notion of common sense is something that deserves far more consideration than we give it these days. Not because our dairy products are suffering a grave systematic injustice, but because in the age of globalization, we are quickly learning that a common sense of the world and how we should or should not act in it, is not quite as common as we once assumed.

That’s not to say there aren’t some cross-cultural or globally shared ideas of what is right or wrong, what is dangerous or safe to do, how people should behave in society, or what show someone should binge watch on Netflix should they have idle time on their hands. Everyone knows it’s “Breaking Bad.” No one disagrees about that. 

It’s just common sense.

But the more the world shrinks, the more our assumptions about how things are or how they should be are being challenged by radically different cultures with new and different ideas about the world and the people living in it. In the past, common sense thrived because we were largely an isolated people. Free from the shackles of social media and a constantly connected world, we could go about our lives confident in our belief that what we understood as common sense in our corner of the world was common sense around the globe. Unless we intentionally made the effort to travel outside of our cultural bubble — whether physically or intellectually — we had little reason to doubt that what we held to be obviously true was, in fact, obviously true. If it wasn’t, why did everyone around us agree that it was?  

To a certain extent, a strong belief in common sense still thrives today in those corners of the world where people have walled themselves off from other cultures and ideas — whether physically or intellectually — in order to avoid the threat of divergent perspectives and maintain ideological purity. Which makes sense because common sense is often little more than cultural sense. It’s a sense of the world that is common because it is universally shared or nearly universally shared by a particular culture, so much so, and so confidently, that we in turn feel confident in assuming that everyone everywhere must think the same way our corner of the world does. 

Common sense needs this sort of incubator to thrive, a particular, walled-off tribe to shield it from outside influence and affirm that particular version of common sense as universal truth. This sort of epistemic insulation isn’t necessarily intentional — though sometimes it is — but whenever it does take root, it becomes a powerful force to reckon with become common sense, unquestionably affirmed by our fellow tribesmen, allows us to assert our beliefs with confidence, knowing we’re right without having to actually prove it because our beliefs are self-evident universal truths.

When those beliefs are placed in truly self-evident things like “don’t touch a hot stove or you’ll burn yourself,” our confidence is innocuous. But when the common sense of our culture begins to envelop and transform our faith, our confidence can turn into a dangerous arrogance that threatens to destroy everything that’s particular and peculiar about being a disciple of Christ.


Shielded for generations by the Atlantic on one side and the Pacific on the other, American Christianity has been allowed to develop its own particular sense of both the world and our faith. It’s a commonly shared sense of life that is increasingly more American than it is Christian. Not surprisingly, this common sense of the world and how to live in it has also become the hermeneutic through which we read and interpret the Bible. Though using common sense while reading the Bible is certainly not always problematic, too often the interjection of our particular version of common sense leads us to dismiss the rather clear teachings of Jesus because common sense tells us he couldn’t possibly have meant that.


In a nation torn apart by raging debates over immigration, the plight of refugees, the use of violence, the hoarding of wealth, the treatment of enemies and a whole host of other matters the Bible has a thing or two to say about, common sense is often invoked to explain and justify why Christians can or should act in a particular way even though that way appears explicitly contrary to the life and teaching of Christ.

Which is exactly why common sense can be so problematic for Christianity. 

Because Jesus’ sense of the world is anything but common.

Common sense says we should take up arms and prepare to defend ourselves, but Jesus says, “Put away your sword” and “Love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you.”

Common sense says we should be wary of strangers coming to our homeland, but Jesus says, “I was a stranger. Did you welcome me in?

Common sense says if someone hits you, you should hit them back, but Jesus says “Turn the other cheek.”

Common sense says we should make as much money as we can to take care of ourselves today and invest for tomorrow, but Jesus says “Sell everything you have and give it to the poor” and “Do not worry about tomorrow, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear.” 

Common sense says if you don’t earn it, you don’t deserve it. But Jesus says, “I was hungry. Did you feed me? I was thirsty. Did you give me something to drink? I was naked. Did you clothe me? I was sick and in prison. Did you come and care for me?”


In order to explain away these sorts of discrepancies, we often turn to a “hermeneutic of common sense.” It’s an incredibly seductive interpretive approach, for it requires no justification for ignoring or outright rejecting the teaching of Jesus because it is its own justification. “Jesus can’t possibly have meant what he said,” we tell ourselves, “because common sense says you should obviously do otherwise.” Thus we free ourselves to continue believing what we already believed and doing what we already wanted to do regardless of what Jesus himself actually said or did.

But as tempting as such an approach might be, as Christians a hermeneutic of common sense is simply not at our disposal, at least not as a primary tool for reading and interpreting scripture. Because as Christians, Jesus is our hermeneutic. Jesus is the lens through which we must read and interpret scripture and there is nothing common about his sense of the world. This doesn't mean we should approach scripture uncritically. We should absolutely have an eye open for things that seem "obviously" wrong, but in doing so we must always stop and ask why it seems this or that thing must be wrong and why it can’t be us who is in the wrong.

Such an approach to scripture in general and discipleship in particular takes a profound sense of humility, a virtue increasingly rare in a world in which there are few greater sins than admitting we are wrong. But humility is what we have been called to and it is with humility that we must read and interpret the Bible. 

Now, it may very well be the case that our interpretation and understanding of scripture is already spot on, but until find the humility necessary to admit our common sense may not be particularly Christian, we’ll never know.

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