©2014 by Charles Strohmer

tikun olamOne of the ways we learn wisdom is from other people. I’m a big believer in that. It happens to me so often I could write a book about it! Sometimes the received wisdom is so pertinent to something am doing that it is utterly amazing. Fills in a huge blank in my thinking.

So here’s one story about that. I have conversations about the wisdom tradition with a friend, Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff, who also happens to be a gifted negotiator and mediator. One such conversation took place over dinner at a kosher deli in Washington DC. We were discussing shalom as human flourishing and conversation came around to Rabbi Jesus as a teacher of wisdom who emphasized shalom. Later, back home, I was writing a magazine article about Jesus and politics and wanted to include something about tikkun olam (the Hebrew phrase for “repairing the world”). But I was stuck. It is never fun being stuck when you are under a deadline!

Long story short, something was missing in my understanding of tikkun olam. So I shot off an email to Arnie. This led to a fascinating email conversation over a couple of days. The gist of it was when he explained that the opposite of shalom is not violence or war but brokenness. “There is no shalom,” he said, “even if bullets are not flying, if hearts, minds, souls, or even dreams, are still broken. We, as God’s partners (according to Jewish theology) must help mend and repair the brokenness in the world.” That piece of wisdom from Arnie helped me finish the article. But that is not my point here.

His use of the word “repair” was a deliberate nod to tikkun olam, repairing the world. The phrase appears in many contexts in rabbinic literature and Judaism for building Jewish societies of love, peace, justice, kindness, and generosity and also for influencing the greater welfare of the world at large. (Some rabbis see practicing the Sabbath as a kind of rehearsal for the coming for the messianic age of shalom, with the practice of tikkun olam during the other six days of the week anticipating that future.)

I do not know if Jesus used the phrase tikkun olam, but its meaning sure seems to me to be what he was on about as a teacher of wisdom during his itinerant ministry in the towns and on the hillsides of Galilee and Judea. You cannot read the gospels without seeing Jesus continually urging his mixed audiences to get their act together and work more willingly and steadily to heal their relationships. That might not repair the entire world, but it would repair the world around them. And that is be a pretty big deal.

Jesus was not being idealistic or utopian about the possibilities, however. Like the sages of old, he was realistic about human nature. Yet it is clear that Jesus’ gospel-shaped wisdom, even amid the highly-charged throes of the religious and political alchemy of Palestine under Roman rule, always meant putting away the sword. If there is any one first step toward the practice of shalom today, surely it is this.

Those who drew the sword, Jesus said, would die by the sword. As distinguished
international relations theorist Jonathan Schell reminds us, the sword described in the Gospels of Matthew and John was no symbolic weapon (Matthew 26:52; John18:11). “It was the sword of Simon Peter, and he had just cut off the ear of one Malchus, a servant of the high priest, who had been in the act of arresting Jesus in Jerusalem. It was in the heat and fury of this bloody altercation, not in the quiet of a philosopher’s study, that Jesus gave his advice” (The Unconquerable World, p. 2).

That admonition by Jesus during the end-times of his life carries with perfect pitch back to the beginning of his public ministry to what – oh, the irony! – may be the most oft-quoted of Jesus’ words by the world today. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus said to what may well have been the largest mixed multitude ever assembled to hear him (Matthew 5:9). The peace he spoke of on that mountainside was not that of the Pax Romana. Neither would it square with the Pax Americana of our time or with the imperialist desires of a militant Islam. It is the peace of shalom. (“Shalom” is often translated with “eirene” in the Greek Bible. In turn, “eirene” is often “peace” in the English New Testament, as in “peacemakers” in Matthew 5:9.)

My takeaway from this is that the agency of wisdom urges us in the here and now, amid our own diversity, to seek to repair, to make whole, adversarial or broken relationships and situations. It seems to me that if there is any first step toward that in our time, it is to put away our swords, figuratively and literally.


©2014 by Charles Strohmer

community projectThis is the third of three posts of personal stories that illustrate internal obstacles to following wisdom’s peaceable paths amid diverse cultures. The previous two posts focused on Christian – Muslim – Jewish relations in the larger context of U.S. – Middle East relations. But obstacles also exist, of course, outside of that context. So I thought we would look at one story about that here.

Personal struggles with the implications of actually following wisdom’s peaceable (shalomic?) paths amid human diversity is in fact everyone’s perennial challenge. We all know this. It is just sometimes hard to admit the truth of it. It is easy for the like-minded to be cool, calm, and collected among themselves. But what about when all different kinds of people are engaged in a community project to improve their neighborhood? Any hope there? In the context of community diversity, cooperation in proximity with others who do not look or sound or live as will be challenging.

When there is a community project that we are all trying to accomplish together, the challenge to be wise, productive agents of shalom in proximity of diversity may at times mean abandoning as unpromising some social or ideological, or even some religious, ways of thinking about other people that have become second nature to us. Especially when the implications of changing hit us. We may balk at that.

Some years ago an old friend of mine, Pastor Mike Osminski, and some of his friends, planted a church in an impoverished, mixed-race neighborhood on the border of Detroit. They had been part of a White, middle class suburban church, and they had a strong desire to “bring their resources” to help heal that broken neighborhood. They found a building near Eight Mile Road and things seemed to be going pretty well for the church’s mission until its embedded, White middle class religious views got in the way of furthering the reach of shalom. The church then faced the difficult choice of either holding to its existing theologically-driven values and practices and risk closing its doors or ditching the limiting bits of its religious views and do mission a different way.

It took them several painful years to sort this out, while the leaders chose to go with furthering shalom instead of hanging on to some question-begging theology – a situation further complicated when key people left the congregation. Making the changes was one thing; living out the implications of the changes for the church’s mission was quite another thing. It was only after the changes were made and their implications felt that some people balked and left.

Since then, however, the church’s mission has been having considerable, multi-dimensional impact on improving the neighborhood, including getting City Hall to pitch in. Further, in 2013, the church made the pages of Christianity Today as a key actor in a large and powerful network of urban and suburban Christians, called EACH (Everyone A Chance to Hear), which is working to bring shalom into many of Detroit’s impoverished neighborhoods through an impressive array of very practical initiatives.

Today, diversity in community has become more normative than ever, making the challenges to healing human brokeneness more demanding than ever. Like it or not, the world today holds all of us, each in our own way, inescapably in fulcrum of struggle through which, by our actions, we will be known either as wise or foolish.

Patience, humility, and prudence will be required when we are seeking to be empowered by wisdom to explore and develop ways of seeing and doing that are more pluralistically cooperative and peaceable. Efforts will be demanding and results often experimental. And it may take a long time, shepherded by carefully orchestrated effort, even to realize modest progress, especially amidst storms.

“BUT WHAT ABOUT?”: MOODS & TUDES part 2 of 3

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

playing chessThis is the second of three posts of personal stories about internal obstacles that may inhibit following wisdom’s peaceable paths amid diverse cultures. The previous post contrasted two guest preachers in the context of Christian – Muslim – Jewish relations. This post sticks with that context to discuss what I call the “But what about?” objection.

I run across this dynamic frequently, and there are two kinds of it. One is the genuine kind. It is a response raised from someone who is seeking a good answer to the concern he or she has raised. It is often the next question in a chain of reasoning that a person is working through in hopes of breaking through to a wiser understanding of a situation, to gain a more informed opinion.

The other kind is, shall we say, disingenuous? This kind of “But what about?” objection is more of an interjection whose real purpose is simply to stop a conversation on a topic from going further. It’s a great ploy if it works. They party assumes that their “objection” carries the gravitas of a definitive case against your position, and that when you hear it you will understand this to be true – so what more need be said on the matter?

I run across both kinds in my work on improving Christian – Muslim and U.S. – Mideast relations. Here’s just one brief example, a typical one. But first this caveat. A “But what about?” objection is relative to the questioner’s intention. That is, is the “objector” seeking further enlightenment or merely intending to shut down further progress on the issue?

I once had a very long conversation with a financial counselor about how the wisdom norms of peaceableness and human mutuality could enable Christians and Muslims to dispel bad feelings and work together. It wasn’t an easy conversation. He was smart and pretty well-informed on  Christian – Muslim tensions. He knew what the problems were, and he wasn’t sure if there were answers to them. I have had to work through these issues myself over the years, so as he posed the problems I answered them as best I could, by sharing how breakthroughs had occurred in my own thinking.

Toward the end of the conversation he seemed to be getting a bit uncomfortable and said, “But what about the Qur’an? It commands all Muslims to fight non-Muslims.” Well, as I said, we had been talking for a long time, and he tossed in that bombshell “objection” as we were winding it down. So I mumbled something like, “That’s huge issue. Let’s pick is up next time. I think I can answer it, but it would take too long to do properly that now.”

A few days a latter, I received an email from him, asking me to listen to certain a Web video because “it represents the view I hold.” So I listened. The video summarized, in a fairly scholarly way, actually, the notion, widespread in America, that the Qur’an commands all Muslims everywhere to practice violent jihad (war) against all non-Muslims, until Islam rules the world.

Videos like that one are not uncommon on the Internet. Now I am fully aware of the history of violent jihad and have written a major, journal article on it. I am not “soft” on this matter, and perhaps in some future posts we could discuss this. Here, I just want to say that the view promoted by that video omits talking about the countless Muslims around the world who do not turn to violence and war from their reading of the Qur’an, any more than Christians do from their reading of the Bible.

Further, many respected Muslim intellectuals, imams, and leading muftis are working very hard in their fields – in mosques, think tanks, universities, books, conferences, community projects, and international relations – and with Christian and Jewish leaders and organizations – to promote practices and projects for mutual good. Whether through ignorance of this or vested interests, however, the video I watched did not include anything about that either. It hardly needs to be said that these Muslims leaders are not relying on a violent understanding of Islam, the Qur’an, or shariah. And they have the ear of ordinary Muslims everywhere.

I mentioned all of this in my email reply to the financial counselor, and I said that these videos have contributed to a such a great fear of Muslims among many Christians that they have become afraid even to think about having a relationship with a Muslim. I concluded by saying that, as a Christian myself, I did not think that that was a gospel-shaped response. For at the logical end of that fear, even peace-loving people are left hanging on the horns of a dilemma: to choose between being conquered or to engage in violence or war to try to prevent being conquered. This is a classic example of the fallacy of a false choice – either one or the other unacceptable option.

If, then, a “But what about?” interjection remains unanswered, it may easily limit what can be peaceably imagined between people who are different, even by people who hate conflict and war and who want peace – even by people seeking wisdom.


©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Up until this point in this series of posts we have mainly discussed ideas. These ideas about wisdom as a vital agency of cooperation and peace (shalom) amid human diversity have been raising urgent questions about why we tend to limit the reach of wisdom to some people but not to others. For wisdom, according to Scripture, delights in “all humanity.”

Twin TowersWell, it’s one thing to agree mentally to an idea, but it can be quite another thing to put it into practice. So I thought it might be good to take a few posts and just share some personal stories that reveal internal challenges that may try to prevent following wisdom’s peaceable paths. As you read this first story, ask yourself: Which of the two guest speakers was obeying and which one was breaking the wisdom norms of peaceableness and mutuality? The answer may surprise you.

Let me take you inside a small, brick church in the American south. It’s a Sunday morning and I’m sitting quietly in a pew in the middle of the small congregation. I’ve been invited there to hear a guest preacher, just being introduced by the church’s pastor. And before I go on, you need to know that it is August 2010, the summer when that firestorm of controversy is raging across the country over the proposal to build “a mosque at ground zero,” in lower Manhattan.

The guest preacher begins his sermon with a moving personal story to introduce his topic, which had nothing whatsoever to do with Muslims or the mosque controversy. This could be a good message, I thought. Just minutes later, however, and without any sort of segue, he suddenly starts ranting about “the mosque at ground zero.” Then this bombshell: “I say, let them build it. Then when they’re done, let’s blow it up! That’s what they did to us on 9/11.”

I can’t believe my ears. And I don’t know what shocked me more, his statement or the “Amens!” that arouse around me when he said it. Livid, I come close to shouting out a rebuke. But then just as suddenly he stops ranting and returns to his sermon topic. I didn’t know what to do. Should I walk out? As I was pondering that, I had my mind made up for me. Suddenly he’s back ranting about the mosque and repeating his bombshell remark, which again drew some “Amens!” My heart pounding, I rise, step into the aisle, and walk quickly out, many people eying me.

I couldn’t just sit there and by doing nothing tacitly agree to what amounted to sponsoring a policy of violence. My knees were so wobbly I had a time walking to my car. I sat there in the heat for a long time, unable to drive.

After I cooled off, I wondered whether the guest preacher would change his mind if, for instance,  he got to know Dr. Muqtedar Khan, an academic at the University of Delaware and a self-described liberal Muslim, whose editorial “Mr. Bin Laden: Go To Hell!” ran in dozens of newspapers around the world after 9/11. I also wondered what he would think about imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, a peace-loving sufi Muslim who is well-respected for his decades of interfaith work in New York City and in the U.S. State Department, which occasionally sends him to the Middle East on public diplomacy jaunts.

Now let me take you to another religious meeting, a memorial service for Daniel Pearl at B’nai Jeshurun, a prominent Manhattan synagogue. Daniel is the Wall Street Journal writer who was kidnaped and beheaded in Pakistan by his al Qaeda-connected captors in February 2002, and it’s now a year later. Rays of sunlight are slipping through the arched, blue-toned stained-glassed windows of the sanctuary. Judea Pearl, Daniel’s father, is sitting attentively in the front row of the packed sanctuary, his eyes on the speaker, imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who has been invited to the memorial service by Judea.

During his eulogy for Daniel, the imam turns to Judea and asks his forgiveness for what has been done to Daniel in the name of Islam. Rauf then adds: “If to be a Jew means to say with all one’s heart, mind, and soul Shma ? Yisreal, Adonai Elohenu Adonai Aha – Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One – not only today I am a Jew, I have always been one, Mr. Pearl.” And to the Christians present, Rauf says: “If to be a Christian is to love the Lord our God with all of my heart, mind, and soul, and to love for my fellow human being what I love for myself, then not only am I a Christian, but I have always been one.”

This is the person that the guest preacher at the Sunday church service wanted to blow up. For imam Rauf, until 2011, was the lead visionary for the development of the multi-faceted, interfaith project in lower Manhattan that was manufactured into the ground zero mosque controversy. (For an in-depth account of the controversy and Rauf’s interfaith vision for the project, see Truth About the Mosque at Ground Zero. He hoped to model it somewhat after the multi-use, Jewish-run, 92nd Street Y.)

Attitudes toward others can oppose or encourage wise actions. Most Christian leaders, of course, would hate what the guest preacher said and agree with Jesus’s comment that “Wisdom is proved right by her actions” (Matthew 11:19). Some attitudes, of course, are on the surface, easily expressed. Others lay buried, and it may be a bit of a shock to discover that they are there. I want to share a story about that in the next post.


©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Carter Begin Sadat handshakeThese posts on wisdom and human mutuality have been raising urgent questions about why we tend to limit the reach of wisdom to some people but not to others. For we have been seeing what it means that wisdom, according to Scripture, delights in “all humanity.” As further evidence, the previous post looked at Lady Wisdom’s vital role for sustaining the unity-in-diversity of human life. She is, we concluded, a huge fan of human mutuality, not of uniformity or sameness. And she is an  agency of shalom amid that diversity.

That wisdom is for all humankind is affirmed centuries later by Jesus, in Roman-occupied Palestine, where diverse cultures abounded. Today, it is usually Jesus’ roles as a healer, miracle worker, and savior that are emphasized. Of course he is also known as a teacher but, to our loss, little emphasis has been placed on Jesus’ rather significant role as a teacher of wisdom. If you are a Christian reading this, stop and think about this for a minute. When was the last time, or the only time, that you heard a sermon on Jesus as a wisdom teacher? I sometimes ask this question to congregations and classes; it is  rare to see a hand go up. (Perhaps in some later posts we can spend some time looking at “Jesus the wisdom teacher.”)

Here, I just want to draw attention to a kind of riddle that Jesus makes about himself and John the Baptist. Jesus has been having a rather difficult time talking to a mixed audience that just doesn’t get John, and you can feel Jesus’ frustration building. He’s tried various ways to help them “get’ John, but to no avail.

To what shall I liken you, then? Jesus finally replies. You’re like silly children. We played dance music but you did not dance, so we played a funeral dirge but you did not mourn. John came fasting both wine and bread, like a holy, saintly man. But you say John has a demon. On the other hand, I’m eating and drinking and you say I’m a glutton, a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.

His frustration then boils over in a cryptic comment, which he leaves with the crowd to solve: “But wisdom is proved right [vindicated; justified] by all her children” (Luke 7:35).

If you want to know who can be seen responding wisely to wisdom, “Wisdom is proved right by her actions,” which is the way Matthew’s Gospel ends the riddle (11:19). Simply put, Jesus seems to be saying, look at what people do. This echoes a prominent teaching of Proverbs, that by their actions people will be known as being wise or foolish. One wonders if that crowd ever figured out that wisdom is available to all sorts of people, including sinners, apparently. As David Ford writes Christian Wisdom, an exceptionable book, wisdom has many children. To explain further, Ford notes that the little word “all” in Luke 7:35 stresses “the diversity of the children and how hard it can be to see the family likeness” (p. 15).

There is also this affirmation of wisdom in relation to human mutuality in the epistle of James, a letter attributed to a brother of Jesus: “If any of you is deficient in wisdom, let him ask God for it, who gives with open hand to all men” (1:5; Weymouth New Testament). This epistle carries so many features of the Hebrew wisdom tradition that its author, says wisdom scholar Ben Witherington, “has a commitment to a typical Wisdom agenda” (Jesus the Sage; p. 237.)

I think I’ve said enough for now, to get some conversation started, about the wisdom norms of peaceableness and human mutuality. See “Leave a reply,” below.

So far in this series of posts on the wisdom tradition, we have seen that its literature reveals wisdom as an agency of shalom (well-being, wholeness, flourishing) and of human unity-in-diversity. This has helped me immensely to understand why reliance on wisdom is a vital means to enable Christians, Muslims, Jews, and others to work cooperatively and peaceably together in their communities, nations, and international relations.

In the next few posts, I would like to move this discussion from the realm of ancient ideas to the contemporary street in order to illustrate some of the challenges that will be faced in our day when trying to actually implement wisdom’s peaceable (shalomic?) way.


©2014 by Charles Strohmer

wisdom traditionIn the previous post, we looked at one of two instances in Proverbs 8 that are noteworthy for understanding the wisdom norm of human mutuality and that raise urgent questions about why we limit the reach of wisdom to some people but not to others. Here we will look at the second instance. The passage is remarkable in its implications.

Wisdom, again speaking in the first person, reveals: 1) her presence with God before the process of creation, (2) her presence during the process of creation, and 3) her presence in the inhabitable world among human beings.

I was appointed from eternity, from the beginning, before the world began. . . . I was there when he [God] set the heavens in place . . . when he gave the sea its boundaries . . . when he marked out the foundations of the earth. . . . I was the craftsman at his side. I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence, rejoicing in his whole world, rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in [all] mankind [bene ‘adam] (8:25-31).

Among scholars, this may be the most debated passage in all of the wisdom literature. We’re not going into that debate here, but it does seem safe to conclude that the creative task wasn’t any sort of drudgery! The image is one of the great joy that Lady Wisdom had in God and in creation, and in the great delight she took in human beings. How contrary this is to some words from Hamlet on the subject. Having just brilliantly praised man as “the quintessence of dust” – How noble in reason! How infinite in faculties! How like an angel! How like a god! – he suddenly turns and declares with disgust, “Man delights me not.” Apparently he was in a bit of a blue funk in that scene. But whatever else the passage in Proverbs conveys, it is not Hamlet’s view.

But what we really need to see is that, in the text, wisdom is being depicted as both personal and relational: to God; to creation; to human beings. In other words, wisdom is not being presented here as any sort of abstract idea, or abstract entity, or as ideological, or as any sort of -ism but, rather, as personal and relational. Again, there is no scholarly consensus on just what this means, and this short post is not the place to start down that road. Ontological difficulties aside, the fact remains that wisdom is portrayed with an otherness that is somehow both personal and relational to God, to all of creation, and to all humankind.

I like the way Hebrew scholar Alan Lenzi puts it. When discussing Proverbs 8, Lenzi writes that wisdom is a personality; she is a “me” (Proverbs 8:22) who speaks at length in her own name, about having been created by God before the beginning of the world, about her primacy in nature, and about her delight in all human life. Lenzi concludes that wisdom is no “intellectual tool or abstract instrument.” She is, instead, a “personal presence” in the world. (Lenzi, “Proverbs 8:22-31: Three Perspectives on Its Composition,” Journal of Biblical Literature 125, no. 4, 2006: 687-714; his emphasis.)

diversityIt is both assumed and repeatedly indicted throughout the biblical wisdom literature, in a wealth of images and contexts, that wisdom has a personal relational presence with all human beings, with all of creation, and with God. Because of this strong emphasis, I have summarized this in my writings, elsewhere, as the “wisdom norm of relations.”

It is also important to grasp the kind of mutuality that is being implied in the text. It is not, for instance, uniformity. Neither are human distinctions considered illusory. Nor is the text indicating that human diversity is in a process of being eliminated, such as by being subsumed into a universal sameness. Rather, paradoxically, one might even say miraculously, the text indicates a oneness of humanity in its diversity, and that she, Lady Wisdom, is God’s agency (means) for handling that. Human difference and diversity is a good and praiseworthy thing.

In other words, because wisdom is a vital agency in the holding together and sustaining of a multifarious, variform earth, she is also a vital agency supporting the good, creational unity-in-diversity of human life. As a huge fan of human mutuality, not of uniformity or sameness, wisdom delights in “all humanity” (Proverbs 8:4, 16, 31; 9:4).

As an aside, and although I’m not a expert on the Qur’an, it seems somewhat to correspond in at least two places to the good unity-in-diversity being depicted in the Proverbs 8 text. Surah 5:48, for instance, reads: “Had Allah willed He could have made you one community. But that He may try you by that which He hath given you (He hath made you as ye are). So vie one with another in good works.” And Surah 49:13: “We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that ye may know one another” (Pickthall’s translation). (If I’m amiss in recognizing this correspondence, someone say why.)

In the next post we will look at ways in which Jesus and the New Testament affirm the wisdom tradition’s norm of human mutuality.


©2014 by Charles Strohmer

wisdom traditionWhen it is thinking of humanity as a whole or human beings in general, the Hebrew Bible uses words such as bene ‘adam and banim ‘adam or sometimes just ‘adam. Traditionally, those words have been translated into English Bibles as “children of men,” “sons of men,” “all mankind,” or just “mankind.” More recent translations have been trending toward “humankind” or “humanity.” But back to the Hebrew, and their meaning as “humanity as a whole” in the wisdom literature. Two instances in Proverbs 8 are particularly noteworthy for understanding the wisdom norm of mutuality, and they raise urgent questions about why we may limit the reach of wisdom to some people but not to others.

In Proverbs 8:4, wisdom, speaking in the first person, says, “I raise my voice to all mankind.” The context is significant. In the two preceding verses, prominent multicultural public meeting places in the old-world Middle East are singled out: “the heights along the way,” “where the paths meet” [the crossroads], and “the gates leading into the city.” In the first two, wisdom “takes her stand.” In the third, “she cries aloud.”

Her appearance in these multicultural meeting places is significant, and “the gates” provide clues as to why. In the old-world Middle East, various city gates were established and respected places of authority where people of all sorts, including from different cultures, met to discuss or debate issues and situations or hammer out agreements amidst their competing interests. Somewhat analogous to today’s public squares and civil courts, the gates were where merchants could conduct commerce, elders could hear and settle disputes, and judges could administer justice (see, e.g., the book of Joshua 20:4-6 and Ruth chapter 4). Kings might even meet with their subjects there.

At these places of authority amid mixed multitudes, wisdom says, “To you, gentle ones, I call; my voice is for all humankind [bene ‘adam].” This is the compressed, literal way Kravitz and Olitzky translate Proverbs 8:4 in Misheli, their modern commentary on the book of Proverbs (p. 80). On other words, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you came from, I, wisdom, am speaking to you. This is at one and the same time wisdom’s affirmation of and participation in human mutuality as well as her protest against factionalism and sectarianism.

The text was certainly meant to communicate to ancient Israel that, even at the gates of a thoroughly monotheistic city such as Jerusalem, a wisdom-based way of reasoning provided a morally responsible means for peoples of different faiths not only to meet and greet but to hammer out cooperative and peaceable agreements across all sorts of otherwise perhaps unnegotiable boundaries.

All of this, of course, assumes that it would take persons (elders, counselors, judges, et al.) known for their wisdom to justly oversee such areas. Those who met to negotiate agreements would take that for granted. Apparently, the premium that was placed on this gave rise to the proverb: “Wisdom is too high for a fool; in the assembly at the gate he has nothing to say” (24:7).

Notice, too, that this is not about converting someone to your own faith before cooperative agreements can be reached. (The tragic histories of Christianity in seventeenth century Europe and Islam in the Middle East today disprove that principle anyway.) Instead, just as commercial and legal transactions take place today among all sorts of different people, the text indicates what we could call the internationality of wisdom – she is available to all humankind as they are, rather than, to use a Christian expression, what by the grace of God they may become.

I promised you that we would look at two instances in Proverbs 8 that are noteworthy for understanding the wisdom norm of mutuality, and that raise urgent questions about why we limit the reach of wisdom to some people but not to others. We’ll look at the second instance in the next post.


©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Common GroundThis post picks up the conversation about human mutuality, which, like shalom, looms large in answering the leading question in this series of posts: What is the wisdom tradition? Previously, I mentioned that the “wisdom norm of mutuality” is the language I tend to use to refer to what is typically called common ground or common good or, as some say, the commons. Simply put, it indicates the sages’ emphasis on the basic concerns and responsibilities of life that are shared by all peoples everywhere and in any time in this world. For what other world is there? (I sometimes say that if theology is thinking about God, wisdom is thinking about our life in the world.)

James Skillen, president emeritus of the Center for Public Justice, has done a lot of thinking about this in the context of America’s international role. In With or Against the World? Skillen writes that

the American people “need to gain a deeper understanding of what it means that the world’s people and states share a single global commons, the governance of which is becoming more and more difficult with each passing year. . . . American failure to think and act cooperatively over the long term for the international common good is part of what threatens even America’s future.”

Of all of life’s certainties, Skillen concludes, “one in particular has proven very durable over the centuries, namely, that there is but one world” (pp. 128, 129, 146).

Whether one works in the field of international relations or locally, reliance on the wisdom norm of mutuality realistically enables cooperative and peaceable relations amid human diversity. It aids in building on common ground for common good, and in sustaining and increasing the effects of the good wherever they are already found to be repairing broken situations.

But why not just use standard language? Why not just say the “wisdom norm of commonality” (or commonness)? It’s a fair question, and my answer is tentative, but I favor the word “mutual” because “common” can carry the suggestion that some areas of life are belief-neutral. So, for instance, a Muslim, a Jew, a Christian, and an atheist get together and say: Let’s find some neutral ground where we can work together on a community project.

This common assumption – that there are patches of neutral ground – is also a common misunderstanding. For everyone stands ultimately somewhere. And that “ultimate somewhere” is religious ground, the ground of faith, even for those who do not consider themselves religious. There is no neutral ground. For instance, a theist believes that behind the material world an unseen God exists; an atheist believes that the material world is all that exists. These are irreconcilable differences of faith.

There are also irreconcilable differences between Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. Of core religious differences, wisdom theologian David Ford writes in The Shape of Living that

the “best engagements are between those who can say where they are coming from and then patiently try to communicate and discuss matters of importance” (p. 30).

The way I see it, “mutual” – as in human mutuality, or mutual good, or mutual ground, or the wisdom norm of mutuality – can draw attention (in a way that “common” cannot) to who we fully are as human beings, which includes our ultimate beliefs.

Maybe it’s just silly hair splitting – you decide – but the more I get under the skin of the wisdom tradition, the more I see the agency of wisdom underlining what is mutual and not just what is common. If I say to you: “I hear that you still write your books on paper and with a pen. So do I,” then we have books and paper and pens in common. But if you and I and several others are around the negotiating table and reach and sign an agreement, then our primary focus and aim has not been on what is common to us in the room (e.g., the table, paper, and pen) but on what is mutual (the signed agreement).

In short, according to the wisdom literature, wisdom is for all humanity, whichever word, common or mutual, you choose to use to communicate this. In the next post, I want to look at the significance of that little word “all.”