©2014 by Charles Strohmer
Truth be told, any single answer to “What is the wisdom tradition?” will probably be inadequate. The problem arises because the closer you look into the tradition, the more you see that what you thought you knew about it wasn’t enough. For instance, when our thoughts turn to the wisdom tradition, many of us immediately think of its literature, especially the book of Proverbs. Fair enough. But as important as Proverbs is to the tradition, the tradition cannot be reduced to that book. This is because the sages (wisdom teachers) who gave us the tradition seek to involve us in much more than memorizing clever adages and maxims. So “the book of Proverbs” is not a sufficient answer to “what is the wisdom tradition?”
Even when other historic wisdom books are added to the list, such as Job and Ecclesiastes (from the Jewish Bible), or (from the Catholic Bible) Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon, we still lack a sufficient answer. There is much more to the wisdom tradition than its books or even than knowing the content of those books.
The “much more” emerges by beginning to get under the skin, so to speak, of the tradition. This entails more than just comprehending that Proverbs is filled with clever adages and maxims or that the book of Job is about a guy who endured a long period of horrible suffering but still believed in God. In other words, this is not about just “figuring out” the plot of a text so that you can retell it to others. Instead, the task would, in large part, entail closely engaging with the wisdom writings over time.
This would mean trying to discover, for instance: why the actual proverbs in the book of Proverbs don’t begin until chapter ten; or why many of the proverbs are contrasts, and why some of those contrasts don’t seem to make sense; or why the author of Ecclesiastes is such a jaded sage; or what theologies informed the different councils of Job’s friends and why did those theologies miss the mark when it came to justifying Job’s suffering. Further, what kind of take-aways do such discoveries have for our lives and work today? This is just a glimpse at a vast range of discoveries awaiting close engagement with the texts (helped along by some good works of wisdom scholarship).
The “much more” that I am hinting at will also slowly reveal itself in conversations with others about the texts. These could be conversations such as you could begin on this blog (see “Leave a reply”), or like the study group I meet with regularly at a coffee shop. Or they could be those “conversations with an author” that can occur in the margins when reading a good book that challenges your thinking about wisdom.
I’m not trying to make your head hurt here! And I’m not asking you to do any of this. That’s not the point of this series of blog posts. (Although, heart on sleeve, I do hope that these posts inspire you to get with the program! But that will be up to you.) I merely wanted to point out that settling for far too thin a description of the wisdom tradition is like trying to play a song on only one note.
People who have been closely engaging with the tradition for a long time – and I am one of those oddities – are regularly amazed at how the tradition keeps opening itself up, both to the discovery of more of its basic notions and in their relevance for today. We are not claiming anything out of the ordinary. Like people dedicated to any field, it just comes from having explored the territory for so long. To return to the music metaphor, like a pianist, after awhile you get used to “just playing.” You’re not thinking about the basics. You don’t stop first before your concert to remind yourself what the scale is. You’re just up on stage jammin’. But a musician may get asked, “How did you play that?” And then teasing out an answer will take some explaining. Teasing out some insights about the wisdom tradition is where we’re headed in this series of posts.
The Sages. One of my keen interests has been in the sages, the ancient wisdom teachers who developed the tradition. Understanding the founders is key to understanding the tradition. In particular, I have been trying to gain insights into what the sages were on about, especially how they thought, how they looked at life, why they looked at life that way, and what that might beneficially mean for us today. The process has helped me immensely in seeing some often overlooked core features of the tradition and in concluding that wisdom means much more than I ever thought it did.
So I now hear the sages playing some inspiring old tunes and I’ve been trying to learn how to play them today. They are variations on the theme of building cooperation and peace amid diverse cultures – from family life to foreign policy – through what I call the diplomacy of wisdom. On this blog I want to us to try start hearing that music not only today but for today’s adversarial and broken world. The songs are peaceable, relational, and for everyone. We’ll begin this with the next post.
This is my second time reading this post and I have to say, it has changed the way I read Proverbs. I like when you mention the following: “This would mean trying to discover, for instance: why the actual proverbs in the book of Proverbs don’t begin until chapter ten…” Your thought here (which is an example of the questions that should come up when reading and reading the wisdom literature) has me asking my self questions like the following. “So, how big is the introduction to Proverbs? It can’t be the first 9 chapters when the entire book is 31 chapters (or can it?!?). It seems that some of those chapters before chapter 10 are trying to sell the reader on why they should memorize and understand the proverbs (the positive consequences of wisdom verse the negative consequences of foolishness among other vices)…
Anyway, I do not gather that the question that stood out to me is the point of your post, but it definitely stood out to me and I wanted to send you a quick note about what it brought up for me.
Thanks for putting together this blog.
Ahh, it does my heart good to read your generous words, Clint. Thank you for taking time to write. Your comment has inspired all sorts of ideas in my mind. But I’ll just reply with this one for now.
I think that a person’s personal life-context (his/her abiding interests, passion, schooling, ministry, career, family, life in general, etc.) is key to what questions will, as you say, stand out when one is engaging more closely with the wisdom literature. In other words, wisdom has spoken to me over the decades in ways that have followed the trajectory of my calling, so I think the engagement and questions others will have with wisdom, and the answers that emerge, will “fit” their trajectories. That is part of the genius of the tradition, in my view. As I say in another post somewhere, wisdom is for “all” of humankind. That being so, and because we are all different, we should each expect to “hear” wisdom speaking to us in our own life context.
Re the “preface” to Proverbs. I did have in mind the first nine chapters of the book when I wrote that line. And you’re right about what those nine cpts are trying to “sell” the reader. No doubt that was a primary purpose of the sages. And keep in mind the sages. We want to try to understand what I call the sages’ way of reasoning about life. I believe we can approximate this by close readings of the lit, with the help of good scholarship, which is what I hope this blog is achieving. And that kind of homework by us is key for helping us to understand why they gave us the kind of lit that they did. It’s very different from torah and the prophetic.
So keep going! It’s truly amazing, journeying with God’s favorite woman. : )