Wisdom Tradition – See with New Eyes

Part One

Moving Beyond a Minimalist View

Wisdom has been poured into us like blood,
but we did not guess its essence, until after a long time.
Emerson

From the beginning

Like love, faith, truth, and other rooted human concerns, the search for wisdom has been an exceptional feature of human endeavor throughout history. As far back as the Eden narrative, as described in the Hebrew Scriptures, wisdom is a vital interest of human purpose and activity in daily life, although the primary human family didn’t fair too well in the test over competing wisdoms. Both the Hebrew and Christian Bibles carry several books called wisdom literature, which focus chiefly on the concerns, issues, and interests of everyday life and work in the world. “Wisdom,” we are told, “is supreme, therefore get wisdom…. Wisdom is more precious than rubies, and nothing you desire can compare with her ” (Proverbs 4:7; 8:11). This is the literature in which the figure of a wise King Solomon looms large, and where we have the famous dictum: the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

Other traditions also place a handsome emphasis on the agency of wisdom. To briefly note a few, in conversations with his disciples Buddha taught about wisdom in his story of the Ten Perfections. Confucius stressed that some are born wise and that others grow wise through learning, and he spoke of wisdom as fostering right among people. The Qur’an, like the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, explains that God grants wisdom, and its Muslim readers are exhorted to pray for wisdom, as are Christians and Jews in their Scriptures.

Also, the more or less “secular” thinkers of the classical Greek period show us their passion for wisdom through philosophy (philo = love; sophia = wisdom), although marked dissimilarities between the two traditions exist. Whereas the Greek philosophers, for instance, and to be simplistically brief about it, were more preoccupied with the relationships of ideas, the sages of the old-world Middle East focused on relationships between people.Wisdom has deeply essential roots in our race and seems to be the purview of no one time or culture

A good deal of the Christian New Testament recognizes wisdom as a central divine and human concern, and it explains that Jesus himself grew in wisdom (Gospel of Luke: 2:52). Also, the New Testament engages its readers from a wisdom-based way of reasoning much more than is commonly thought. To cite some examples, the four Gospels include narratives which reflect that much of Jesus’ teaching was steeped in how the Hebraic wisdom tradition reasons about God, nature, daily human relationships, and our world in the world. Jesus’ parables immediately come to mind, but more is going on than that. Jesus was living the tradition. So much so that New Testament scholar Ben Witherington, in Jesus the Sage, calls Matthew and John “The Gospels of Wisdom,” – narratives suggesting that Jesus’ “own story [is] the story of Wisdom in person …, like and yet even greater than Solomon” (p. 335). The Epistles, too, emphasize the centrality of wisdom, such as in the contrast between divine wisdom and the world’s wisdom in 1 Corinthians 1-4. Much of the Epistle of James is steeped in the wisdom tradition, and Jesus in the First Epistle to the Corinthians is portrayed as becoming the wisdom of God for believers in him (1 Cor. 1:24, 30).

So, wisdom has deeply essential roots in our race and seems to be the purview of no one time or culture. But what, then, is wisdom?

Defining wisdom

It is one thing to recognize wisdom as essential to our race, but quite another thing to know what wisdom is, where it is found, how it might be applied. Typical understandings abound. “Is not wisdom found among the aged?” the suffering Job asks his friend Zophar, in a book of wisdom literature (Job 12:12). Perhaps. But age itself is no guarantor. Many of us with gray hair still can act pretty foolishly! Wisdom, very generally, is also understood as common sense or good judgment about the issues and interests of daily life or, more narrowly, as a special kind of discernment for judging what is a true or right decision to make, or action to take, in a given situation.

Wisdom, then, includes a heightened sense of insight to denote someone who is especially clever at sorting out complicated situations that the rest of us would make a complete hash of. Solomon’s cliffhanger encounter with the two prostitutes who claim to be the mother of the same vulnerable baby comes to mind. The two women presented Solomon with quite a conundrum, but after hearing how he unraveled it to make his ruling, people “held the king in awe, because they saw that he had wisdom from God to administer justice” (1 Kings 3:28). 1

Beyond these usual understandings, an impressive scholarly literature has arisen in recent decades to explore the question, what is wisdom? For this task, the historical roots and social expressions of wisdom in ancient cultures have been researched, such as in the literature of Egypt, Assyria, Israel, Babylon, and Persia. Christian scholarship, for one, has produced a wealth of commentary on the Hebrew-Israelite wisdom tradition, including its influence on the New Testament. Despite all the good scholarship, however, you’re not going find a universal definition of wisdom to hang round your neck or stick up on the fridge.always there seems to be something more going with wisdom than any one or two meanings can denote

David Ford, for example, shies away from providing definitions in his Christian Wisdom: Desiring God and Learning in Love, which may be the most significant recent major work on a theology of wisdom for contemporary life. As John Peck and I suggested in Uncommon Sense: God’s Wisdom for Our Complex and Changing World, Ford, who is Britain’s leading wisdom theologian, also notes that a Christian wisdom for life in this world must be continually learned. Thus the task before us is something quite different than relying on a sound bite, or even reading a book on the subject – or this article! Over the years, I have come to believe that wisdom cannot be neatly pinned down. To be quite honest with you, I don’t think we should expect that of wisdom, and I’ll suggest a couple of reasons why.

Like love, faith, and other ultimate human concerns, always there seems to be something more going with wisdom than any one or two meanings can denote. This seems clear from the literature, where words for “wisdom” are in many passages intertwine with the words for “insight,” “knowledge,” “understanding,” and “skill.” Evidently, it takes a family. As anyone who has played around with the meanings and uses of those words in the Hebrew knows, there is a many-sidedness to wisdom, a multi-dimensionality, the precludes arriving at a neat definition.

The other reason is the “personalness” of wisdom, which is especially prominent in the Book of Proverbs, where wisdom is presented as a morally upright woman who invites the young disciple into a godly relationship with her, using, no less, “the language of love and courtship that is found also in the Song of Songs (seeking and finding amid danger, waiting for the beloved).” 2 I would go so far as to call it the relational moral intimacy that is normatively possible with wisdom. (Interestingly, in Proverbs wisdom is contrasted to another woman, who tempts men to sin.) The personal agency of wisdom also comes through verses 22-31 of Proverbs 8, which reveals both the playful childlike revelry and sophisticated adult artistry of wisdom in the founding of the world. It’s paradoxical, I know, and you will have to do more than give these verses a once-over to get your mind round what’s really going on. (The bibliography may be useful.)

I may be wrong, but wisdom seems to have a lithe and active nature which she is not going to let be patly defined by anyone. In other words, for all of her form that is revealed in the literature, the irony is that access is veiled to anyone seeking an ultimate “Aha!” moment with her. By personifying wisdom as someone I like to call “God’s favorite woman,” Proverbs, for instance, employs a literary device that is about as far as one dare go toward a comprehensive meaning. 3 Well, any man who has ever, ahem, tried to define a woman too closely has certainly met with surprise.

The island approach

If wisdom has been in the world and with our race since the beginning yet remains beyond human grasp, what then? Are we lost? If we cannot rely on a formula, we will have to find what we are looking for another way. That is, as the literature makes clear, wisdom must be sought. Still, where is it to be found, and just what is it we are hoping to find?

I can’t search or make your discoveries for you, but I can suggest a way of seeking I find valuable. I call it “the island approach.” It’s a method I find helpful for understanding large, complex phenomena that make simplistic explanations look foolish. Perhaps you will find it helpful for seeking wisdom, as I have.

If we think of a large island as having many and varied areas – e.g., a beach in the south, a city in the north, a desert in the east, and a jungle in the west – we could embark on a long-term commitment to approach the island from each of those directions and then explore the varied features of each area, as well as others we might find on the journey, such in the border areas or far inland. As we went, we would be continually experiencing the island, gaining insight, knowledge, and understanding.

And let us add this. If we had been sent there on assignment, let us say by an institution seeking to further its educational initiatives, we would be continually adding up what we saw and learned as we went, in order to provide the institution back home with a comprehensive answer about the island. You may imagine with me the opportunities missed afterward if the report had been filed by a person who said that the island was “only a beach” or “only a city.” But that, in large part, has been our contemporary view of wisdom as “only proverbs.”

What follows, then, in this article, are some of the main compass headings that should help in getting more acquainted with wisdom. Try exploring these headings further and add up what you find along the way toward a fuller understanding. I’ve already noted some: wisdom’s universality, its connections with insight, knowledge, understanding, skill, etc., and the personalness of wisdom.

Notes:

  1. The incident (described in 1 Kings 3:16-28) unfolds, as someone has said, like a detective story. The reader is invited to match wits with Solomon’s judicial wisdom in the search for justice for the wronged mother. Identifying the two women as prostitutes in the story is not meant as derogatory, for neither prostitution nor hostelry were uncommon, and Solomon does not seem fussed with their profession or living arrangements. Both women remain free after the verdict, though we don’t know if they returned to the same house! The term “prostitute” merely signals that the issue before Solomon is one of lineage and patrimony, hence the contention over whose child the baby really is. Had the mother of the child been married, or had the father been known, lineage and patrimony would have been established, the argument would not have arisen, and there would have been no reason to seek the king for justice.
  2. Richard J. Clifford, S.J., “Introduction to Wisdom Literature,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 5 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997), p. 13.
  3. Scholars remain without a consensus on the best understanding of wisdom in Proverbs 8. “Is it a hypostatization of a divine attribute or of the divinely implanted order in the world, or is it straightforward literary personification?” Clifford, “Introduction to Wisdom Literature,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, p. 13.

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