“You see, we are pilgrims in this world, and pilgrims travel lightly but with great purpose”
In 1953, a philosopher named Isaiah Berlin published an essay called “The Fox and the Hedgehog.” It was inspired by the Greek lyric poet Archilochus, who lived in the 7th century B.C. Archilochus wrote, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Building on those words, Berlin’s essay describes two different types of people. Hedgehogs subscribe to a single idea upon which they base all their life decisions. They embrace simplicity. They see the world in black and white, right and wrong. Things either align with their single idea, or they don’t. Foxes subscribe to many ideas, embrace many thoughts, accept many theories. They reject the idea that anyone can base their choices on a single idea. They embrace complexity. They see all the world as gray.
According to Berlin, foxes “lead lives, perform acts and entertain ideas that are centrifugal rather than centripetal; their thought is scattered or diffused, moving on many levels.” Foxes tend to be smart, intellectual, worldly, open-minded. Collecting wisdom from many sources, listening to the latest research, following the most reputable advice, those are the specialties of foxes. Our culture likes foxes and never fails to supply them with more wisdom, more research, and more advice.
The risk of being a fox is that, because her “thought is scattered or diffused,” her efforts in life can be scattered and diffused, as well. Therefore, a fox can get mired, considering and trying too many things—reversing course, wasting time, trying other things, reverse course again. Another risk of being a fox is that she can be vulnerable to believing everything she hears and everything she reads—even things that are potentially harmful. Because she does not see things in black and white, as right and wrong, a fox can struggle to choose beneficial things and avoid harmful things. Without having a framework to decide what wisdom to embrace, what advice to follow, foxes can get overwhelmed, tired, and jaded.
Have you ever been paralyzed when faced with many decisions? To what authority do you turn?
Hedgehogs, by contrast, are single-minded. They can move with purpose and they can maintain focus over long periods of time. They can make decisions quickly—because their single, defining idea gives them a simple framework for making those decisions. In all cases, they can decide what is right, what is wrong. Of course, the risk for hedgehogs is that their single, defining idea could turn out to be unsound. The risk is that their “one big thing” is just plain wrong.
To what “big idea” do you subscribe?
Fortunately, as followers of the worthy King, Jesus Christ, we know that our “one big thing” isn’t wrong. For those of us who have tested it, who have experienced darkness, who have found that in the darkness there is only one way to turn when everything else has failed us or abandoned us, we know that our single, defining idea isn’t wrong. Therefore, as followers of the worthy King, we must all try to be hedgehogs, just like the Apostle Paul:
And I, when I came to you, brothers, I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Corinthians 2: 1-5).
Paul based his life, all his decisions, his everything, on a single truth: Jesus Christ was crucified that we might live. No extra wisdom. No fancy words. Jesus came and He is here and He is enough. The wisdom of this world, the wisdom of men, that is for the fox. The simple truth of Jesus Christ, that is for the hedgehog.
Is it that simple? Can we, as Christ followers, travel lightly, with great purpose, undeterred, heeding to the straight path Jesus marks for us, ahead?
Now, it’s possible, Berlin notes in his essay, to have the instincts of a fox but the desires of the hedgehog. (We admit, this sometimes describes the two of us.) As humans, without God’s grace, we’re broken, messed up, and imperfect. Even as devoted followers of Christ, we can get distracted and enticed by the influences of our culture: this school or that school will determine whether our children are successful in life or not; this house or that house will determine whether our family is good enough or not; this thing or that thing will determine whether we are happy or not; these clothes or those clothes will determine whether I am beautiful or not; this job or that job will determine whether I am valuable or not.
So, we, with the instinct of foxes, but the desire of the hedgehog, must rigorously, with intention, surrender our fox instincts. We must try to make the decisions of our lives, of our marriages, of our families, of our careers, according to the simple, single idea that truth comes only from Jesus Christ. We must try to make every decision according to his truth, which is brought to us in Scripture. And, we must reject the wisdom of this world, the wisdom of men, that’s intended to confuse and diffuse and distract. We must remain hedgehogs.
You here, the holy entangled, which are you, a fox or a hedgehog? How does the fact that you are one or the other (or one with the tendencies of the other) affect your marriage?
The two of us have to ask ourselves these same questions.