Misguided Math

Michael Metzger

Not in the numbers
What’s the right number of kids for a family? How often should you kiss your spouse? Some questions require a mystical answer, not a mathematical one. This is why the proposal by college presidents to lower the drinking age is misguided. In fact, if finding the best drinking age is a matter of numbers and not the numinous, they ought to raise it to 25. Why 25? And what the heck is the numinous?

More than 100 presidents and chancellors from such top universities as Duke and Johns Hopkins have suggested lowering the drinking age to 18 to counter the culture of binge drinking. Make no mistake, drunkenness is a problem. Each year, some 1,700 college students die from causes related to alcohol abuse, more than Harvard’s entire freshman class. But if Einstein was right, we can’t solve this problem using the same mind that created it. The solution is not in the numerical, but in the numinous. The numinous?

Numinous is from the Latin numen, referring to faith, or the mystical and spiritual. Jews and Christians have long looked to their faith to determine good drinking. In the beginning, God placed a man and woman in the garden and told them to “have at it” – to mix and match and create (Genesis 1:26-30). It wasn’t long before fermented grapes produced wine – exactly what God anticipated. “He causes the grass to grow for the cattle, and vegetation for the labor of man, so that he may bring forth food from the earth, and wine which makes man’s heart glad” (Psalm 104:14-15). Doesn’t it sound like God’s a Brit, since the scriptures say that wine “cheers God and men” (Judges 9:13)?

Since everyone is made in the image of God, everyone got in on the act. As Iain Gately points out in Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol, the pyramid builders got a daily ration of one and one-third gallons of beer. In medieval Europe, every child, parent, and grandparent “drank every day, and usually several times each day.” Even monks were allowed up to eight pints. Elizabethan England had a pub for every 187 people. The first group of settlers who came over to join the Pilgrims brought 20,000 gallons of beer and wine but only 3,000 gallons of water. Sure, the water stank. But alcohol wasn’t merely a proxy; it was for pleasure. Even Ray Oldenburg, the patron saint of Starbucks, noticed that Milwaukee German immigrants established the “Dutch treat” as a way of ordering the pace of drinking.1 Alcohol was for enjoyment, not inebriation. This is why, since 1839, the Trappist Monks at St. Sixtus monastery have been brewing Westvleteren beer. It sells for more than $15 for an 11-ounce bottle and is considered one of the finest in the world. But you can only purchase two 24-bottle cases a month – by appointment – through the monk’s front gate.2

Of course, we can’t overlook the fact that people do get appallingly drunk – beginning with Noah (Gen. 9:21). But if we leave faith out of the equation, the problem is unsolvable since we miss the second reason for strong drink – it was to give us a taste of the transcendent. From the beginning, the single most important rite for Christians was the Eucharist, at which they ate bread and drank a fair amount of wine. A mild buzz wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. We called it “room zooms” in college; a tipsy testimony to the fact that alcohol can take us beyond the daily humdrum of life. The helpful hand of Christianity, however, was to pour alcohol into a moral framework.

When to drink is like figuring out the right number of kids or how often to kiss – you call on the numinous rather than crunch numbers. But universities no longer look to the numinous. They’re part of a new “anti-culture that would never address sacred order” to determine social conventions, wrote the late Philip Rieff.3 With no transcendent Creator, we’re left with mathematical calculations. It’s really social Darwinism – where virtue is reduced to survival of the fittest and whatever benefits the most people. Okay, if Darwin was right and if this is so, the drinking age ought to be raised to 25, not lowered to 18.

A National Institutes of Health study suggests that the region of the brain that inhibits risky behavior is not fully formed until age 25.4 “We’d thought the highest levels of physical and brain maturity were reached by age 18, maybe earlier – so this threw us,” said Jay Giedd, a pediatric psychiatrist leading the study, which released its first results in 2004. That makes adolescence “a dangerous time” he reports. If it’s so dangerous and survival of the fittest is what matters most, wouldn’t it be better to move up the drinking age to 25? Duh?

The first move, however, is not pounding on the door of a college president. Instead, pose John Stott’s question to your pastor. Stott says that the quest for transcendence constitutes a challenge to the quality of our public worship. He asked, “Does it offer what people are seeking – the element of mystery, the sense of the numinous, in biblical language “the fear of God,” in modern language “transcendence,” so that we bow down before the Infinite Great in the mixture of awe, wonder, and joy called worship?”5 Stott’s answer was “not often.” This might be why an increasing numbers of believers report being bored in church and prefer staying home on Sunday.6 When worship lacks a sense of transcendence, we begin to measure success by what Dallas Willard calls the ABC’s: attendance, buildings, and cash. How ironic. Without the numinous, we’re stuck with numbers – just like university presidents.

1 Ray Oldenburg, The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Community Centers, Beauty Parlors, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts and How They Get You Through the Day (New York, NY: Marlowe & Co., 1999), p. 90.
2 “Trappist Monks Available At Beer Phones, Resellers of Prized Beer”, www.elitechoice.org
3 Philip Rieff, My Life Among the Deathworks: Illustrations of the Aesthetics of Authority, Kenneth S. Piver, General Editor, Volume I, Sacred Order/Social Order (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2006), pp. 129-130.
4 Elizabeth Williamson, “Brain Immaturity Could Explain Teen Crash Rate: Risky Behavior Diminishes At Age 25, NIH Study Finds,”
Washington Post, February 1, 2005; Page A01.
5 John R. W. Stott, “The World’s Challenge to the Church,” Bibliotheca Sacra Vol. 145 (April-June 1988): 123-32.
6 Terry Eastland, “Sunday Morning, Staying Home,” Wall Street Journal, September 2, 2008; p. A21.


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  1. I’ll drink to that! Maybe.

    I work in outreach and spiritual mentoring among fraternity men at Georgia Tech. Unfortunately for the men in the nearly 30 fraternities at Tech, there are only 6 sororities. So, they get pretty creative and pretty overboard in their drinking. Some people blame the drinking problem on campus to misplaced expectations on their football team. To those people we say,to “H%#@) with Georgia!” In love of course.

    As I counsel Christian men about how they should handle drinking I suggest that morally they are wrong to drink under age. To that they often reply, “Speeding is wrong, but everyone does it.” To students 21 or older I recommend that drinking in moderation may be ok, depending on a number of things. Can they drink in a way that they could sincerely thank God or honor God? Can they drink in a way that is not stumbling block for others? Can they drink in a way that is not causing them to ignore God or others by way of self-focus? This type of reflection usually leads to abstaining from drinking during college or at least very infrequent drinking. Certainly not the 8 pints a day that the Monks were allowed. Maybe the Monks were to share? It could have been part of their outreach strategy?

  2. Thoughtful presentation, Metz. And I guess that it really IS an ‘either/or’ proposition insofar as the “good news” that there is hope comes with the further news that that hope comes in only one way. . . . [I’m thinking out loud here, as you can probably tell]

    So: must the message be either within a framework of faith or else you’re stuck with the numbers? How does a person of faith gently demonstrate the path of faith to one who holds no truck with that kind of thought?

    By the way, I’ve come to find that the interaction of law and ethics pretty much comes down to the same dichotomy you present, which I have termed the ‘enforceable’ vs. the ‘unenforceable’, and which drives so many lawyers and judges to economic utilitarianism to help decide what we should do.

    Einstein was reported to have once said, though, that “everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.”

  3. I enjoy how marble thinks out loud for the benefit of us all. And yes, marble, unless I’m missing something, if you don’t have the numinous – and yet have a problem (and we do when it comes to drinking) – then we are stuck with the numbers. Numbing, I say.

    But the way, if you read George Will, he echoes the same sentiment in today’s paper. Will says that we do, unfortunately, live, as Edmund Burke lamented, in an age of “economists and calculators” who are eager to reduce all things to the dust of numeracy, neglecting what Burke called “the decent drapery of life.” In this supposedly rational and scientific age, the thirst for simple metrics seduces people into a preoccupation with things that lend themselves to quantification.

    Self-consciously “modern” people have an urge to reduce assessments of their lives to things that can be presented in tables, charts and graphs – personal and national economic statistics. This sharpens their minds by narrowing them. Such people might as well measure out their lives in coffee spoons.

  4. I’ve never considered that drinking gives us a taste of heaven, like C.S. Lewis’s scent of a flower never seen. It’s a beautiful theory that puts this drinking dilemma in healthy tension with God’s intentions compared to the distorted manner man abuses the very blessings HE bestows on us.

    With regard to the “stumbling block” theory, if observing another take a modest drink is a stumbling block to the alcoholic, is observing a car on the highway a stumbling block to a habitual speeder?…. maybe we should walk.

    Here’s a little more irony – many of those “strategic corporals” leading autonomous combat patrols in the implementation of U.S. Nat’l strategy are not allowed to drink a beer; must not be able to handle the responsibility.

  5. Christians are too often viewed as life-denying killjoys rather than joyous life-affirming saints. Many have trouble acknowledging the straightforward reading of passages such as Deuteronomy 14:26, which authorizes alcoholic beverages as a part of one’s family worship (“Use the silver to buy whatever you like: cattle, sheep, wine or other fermented drink, or anything you wish. Then you and your household shall eat there in the presence of the Lord your God and rejoice.”) or Jesus’ example of providing an additional 32 gallons (75-115 liters) of vintage wine for a wedding party after they had already been drinking (John 2:1-11). Certainly Christianity prohibits drunkenness, but a sweeping condemnation of drinking is rooted in a life-denying pietism and not a life-affirming holiness. The issue is not drinking per se, but the attitude toward life that it has come to symbolize. Calvin states clearly that the good things of this life are to be enjoyed as gifts of God. “Let this be our principle: that the use of God’s gifts is not wrongly directed when it is referred to that end to which the Author himself created and destined them for us, since he created them for our good, and not for our ruin…. Now if we ponder to what end God created food, we shall find that he meant not only to provide for the necessity but also for delight and good cheer.”

    C.S. Lewis has Screwtape warn Wormwood about such matters. “Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s ground. I know we have won many a soul through pleasure. All the same, it is His invention, not ours.” We are called to joyful thankfulness for all of God’s good creation (1 Timothy 4:4). Until we can truly enjoy — and teach our children to appreciate — fresh-brewed coffee, fresh flowers, good food, quality wine, beautiful music, radiant sunsets, meaningful conversations, vibrant marriages, and deep friendships, we are belying our calling as salt and light. Moreover, our children will find little that is attractive in a lifestyle of cosmic sourpusses, which fortunately is not the life to which we are called. “To some parents I would give this advice,” writes John Angell James in The Christian Father’s Present to His Children in 1853, “Say less about religion to your children, or else manifest more of its influence.” The mere possession of finer things is not what matters most but the attitudes one takes toward all that fosters an appreciation for and celebration of the good, true, and beautiful. For many, possession is an ersatz substitute for really living. A biblical worldview is learning to see life as iconic — as a window to God’s real presence and inseparable love. Perhaps the greatest gift we can give our children is an example of Christian living that in the words of Denis Haack “proves not all Christians live narrow, judgmental, negative, withdrawn, uncreative lives.”

    To be preoccupied by the “when” question is to omit the “why” question.

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