WISDOM AND HUMAN MUTUALITY part 1 of 5

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

wisdom traditionThe previous two posts introduced the idea that paths of wisdom are paths of a special kind of peace called shalom. These paths have an (often overlooked) direction: social, political, and economic well-being, wholeness, flourishing. We also looked at shalom as what I call the wisdom norm of peaceableness, which should have particular appeal to those whose desires include working for the good of their communities amid its diversity. The next few posts will take this further by looking at the wisdom norm of human mutuality.

With the world today increasingly becoming pluralistically close-knit, it takes skill to be in each other’s space without getting in each other’s face. The agency of wisdom enables us to have that skill. But like all skills, it isn’t developed overnight. In my own personal formation in this area, far from complete, the wisdom tradition’s emphasis on shalom in the context of “human mutuality” has been a godsend in many ways, such as in helping me to shake off unpromising ways of thinking and replace them with a more wisdom-based worldview, and in discovering how to love my neighbor as myself.

What is human mutuality? I am grateful to John Peck, British philosopher and theologian, and a dear friend and mentor, who helped me to understand that the wisdom tradition directs our attention to the basic interests, concerns, and goals that are shared by the human family as a whole before distinctions are made about ethnicity, nationality, and religion or even about, as today we would put it, who is religious and who is “secular.” This points to what I call the wisdom norm of mutuality.

Since time immemorial every person on the planet has participated in the same creation, held in common that bond of being human, shared the same basic concerns and interests, and desired and worked toward their fulfilment. Even beyond the most essential needs – water, food, shelter – all peoples everywhere, in any time, have desired that their children are raised safely and educated, that their societies are ordered and lawful, that poverty and hunger should be overcome, that the suffering of others should be eased, that opportunities to increase their well-being should not be denied to them, that justice prevail, and so on. Such shared basic concerns and interests have inspired billions of us to agree that there is common good to work toward achieving. People everywhere and in any time are constituted that way, believers and atheists alike. That is human mutuality. And wisdom lives and moves and has its being in it.

Call it common ground or common good or, simply, the commons, as some do. The shared concerns of everyday life and the decisions people will make in and about them as they live and work together is a central interest of the wisdom tradition. Work and wealth, family and neighbors, relationships and communication, politics and government, diplomacy and negotiations, rulers and the administration of justice, business and finance, prosperity and suffering, sickness and health, happiness and grief, social life and the law, the rich and the poor, the single and the married, parents and children, earning a living – such are subjects the wisdom literature finds as its objects – the stuff of human mutuality.

The wisdom books of Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, and Job deal with it extensively, and a huge emphasis is placed on the kinds of decisions people make in and about such areas, across the spectrum of life, in their relationships with others, day in and day out. Today such interests are often bracketed as secular life – much to the distress of many Muslims and Christians. Nevertheless, according to the wisdom literature, people are known as being wise or foolish depending on the choices they make in these areas. (We’ll take this further in the next post.)

BLESSED ARE THE PEACEMAKERS part 2 of 2

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Wisdom TraditionThe previous post set the stage to say that when the wisdom literature talks about shalom (see Proverbs 3:17), it is saying more to us that just “peace” as it is commonly understood today. Shalom refers to collective well-being and wholeness, including in economic, social, and political life. “Flourishing” seems to be entering into the English lexicon as a synonym for this deeper meaning of shalom. Its force can be felt in the second half Psalm 34, which many scholars agree has an affinity to the wisdom tradition. In a Proverbs-like passage in the middle of the psalm (34:14), the people are exhorted (collectively) to seek shalom (well-being, wholeness, flourishing) and to pursue it (for the entire community).

Texts such as Proverbs 3:17 and Psalm 34:14, I believe, indicate the kind of peaceableness – shalom – that is normative to the wisdom tradition. It points to what I call the wisdom norm of peaceableness. (In the previous post we saw that the meaning of shalom is distinct from typical contemporary notions of peace.)

Identifying it as a “norm” is a significant, because norms, of course, can be broken. A norm is not like a physical law, which cannot be broken, and if you try to break it, immediate consequences result. Take, for instance, the law of gravity. Anyone jumping from the roof of a twenty-story building will suffer an immediate consequence. Break a norm, however, and the consequences may not be evident for quite some time.

The force of this can be felt in the prophetic literature when the scarcity of shalom is being lamented due to rampant injustice. For instance, in Jeremiah’s time both the prophets and priests do not seem to have taken seriously repairing what had become an utterly broken society, including economically and politically – a brokenness that the nation’s leadership bore a huge responsibility for, but was in denial about. These leaders superficially treated what the prophet calls “the [deep] wound” of society. Also, the nation’s leaders, apparently, had a history of collaborating among themselves in the royal court to enact policies designed to line their own pockets rather than to foster justice. Their goal was not the good of society but to increase their own comfort and affluence and to build more resilient shelters for themselves from life’s vicissitudes.

How’s that been working out for them? Quite well for a long time, evidently. Never mind that the larger society has fallen into conspicuously bad disrepair. Having fattened their portfolios and their standard of living, they are not going to stop now, just because a major city (Detroit?), is going down the tubes. So they (foolishly) reassure the nation. Shalom, shalom, they proclaim. All is well; all is well. The message from the royal court to its subjects couldn’t have been clearer: Don’t expect anything better for yourselves. But to this Jeremiah replies, There is no shalom. No well-being, no wholeness, no flourishing. Society is broken.

This narrative in Jeremiah chapters six and eight, in which the vital role of shalom plays a large role, is clear enough. It seeks to compel us to go beyond just saying “peace, peace” to the work of establishing shalom. (There may be a some subtext at play too: a tragic irony or a superficial blessing. That is, are the leaders saying of themselves “We are flourishing,” and to that the prophet is replying, “No, you’re not.” Or are the leaders saying to the people, “Be well; keep warm and well-fed,” to which the prophet is replying, “That’s no policy of shalom.”)

Working toward shalom should have been prominent in the wisdom of the Jerusalem leadership, but instead the leaders have a long history of breaking the norm of peaceableness. Perhaps it is because of this long history that they are chided for being worse off than animals. The force of this can be felt in Jeremiah 8:4-12, a section that would be at home in the wisdom literature. There, prophetic rebuke moves seamlessly into a wisdom-based way of reasoning with the leaders. This is done two ways. Once by invoking a lesson from creational order, which is typical of instruction found in Proverbs: Even though the stork, turtledove, swift, and crane know their own times and respond to them properly, these leaders do not (verse 7). And once by implicating “the wise” and their policies as hugely responsible for the society’s brokenness: Lacking even bird-sense, “their wisdom amounts to nothing” (verses 8-9; The Jewish Study Bible: Tanakh Translation).

Having a long history in which they broke the wisdom norm of peaceableness, seemingly without consequences for them, the consequences are now at the door. Not many years later, it must have been shocking for the leaders who were left alive after the destruction of Jerusalem and exiled in Babylon, to receive a letter from Jeremiah instructing them to “seek the shalom” of Babylon (Jeremiah 29:7). That would have been an especially hard pill for the exiled Jews to swallow: working for the well-being of a city filled with non-Jews.

An equivalent today might be the challenge to Christians, Muslims, and Jews to pull together to work for the good of the “secular” city. Yet if that is the reality, the wisdom norm of peaceableness would insist on nothing less. We will look at that the next post in this series.

BLESSED ARE THE PEACEMAKERS part 1 of 2

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

PeacemakingAmong non-Christians, “Blessed are the peacemakers” may be the most well-known of Jesus’ sayings. What is not so well-known, even among Christians, is that Jesus was a teacher of wisdom and that he would have been drawing on an understanding of “peace” known as shalom. This post and the next one will explore that idea.

I mentioned in the two previous posts that there’s much more to the wisdom tradition than books such as Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, and Job. One way that has helped me immensely to start seeing that “much more” has been a continual wonder about what was going on in the minds of the sages who gave us the views of life that we find in the wisdom writings. They were not thinking like priests or prophets. So what were you guys thinking about? And why were you thinking that way? And what’s the point of it for today?

It’s not possible to know such a subjective reality infallibly, of course. After all, what we have today are written texts, redacted ones at that, sourced in what was originally an oral tradition of the sages that goes way back. Nevertheless, we can at least approximate the mind of the sages by a close engagement with the texts over a period of time, as well as by standing on the shoulders of good wisdom scholarship. I’m not asking you spend years doing this yourself. That’s not the point of this series of blog posts. I’m just saying how I got here, and I’m sharing some of my homework with you in this series of posts.

From my own close engagements I’ve seen that the sages had a peaceable way of reasoning about human relationships, diversity, and activities across the spectrum of life. This seems to be a core, but an often missed, feature when it comes to understanding the wisdom tradition. This post and the next one will open up some ideas on this wisdom’s peaceable way of reasoning about life and suggest why it is vital for wisdom in today’s increasingly diverse relationships and communities.

We can begin simply by noting two wisdom texts, Proverbs 3:17 and James 3:17. The former states that all of the paths of wisdom are paths of peace (NIV translation); the latter states that the wisdom that comes from above is peaceable (AV translation). In short, the literature itself seems to indicate that wisdom is fundamentally about peace.

But this is where things get interesting. A close look reveals that this “peace” is not about ambitions such as the attainment of personal peace and affluence, or even shelter from life’s vicissitudes. Neither can the meaning be reduced to the absence of conflict or to balance of power arrangements (as “peace” is often understood in international relations). It does not even indicate the so-called Pax Americana of today’s world, any more than it would the Pax Romana of Jesus’ time.

The word for “peace” in Proverbs 3:17 in the Hebrew Bible is shalom (the paths of wisdom are paths of shalom). But even that Hebrew word today, like our English word “peace,” has lost its depth and richness with some of us, having been reduced to a greeting of good wishes, for instance. Nothing wrong with that greeting per se. Others, myself included, occasionally sign their emails with shalom as general blessing. Nothing wrong with that either. In fact, that kind of sentiment begins many of New Testament epistles, such as the apostle Paul’s formulaic greeting, “Grace and peace to you.” The word shalom, however, points beyond mere greetings to a depth and a richness, and to a challenge.

shalom salaam tatooFor one thing, shalom has something of an Arabic equivalent in the word salam (sometime spelled as salaam). Both Hebrew and Arabic trace back to a Semitic language in which slm is the root word for both shalom and salam (vowels are added to help with pronunciations and nuances of meaning). In the English Bible and the English Qur’an, shalom and salam, respectively, are typically translated “peace.” And both words are heard today in common greetings such as “Peace be upon you,” as in the Hebrew shalom aleichem and in the Arabic salamu alaykum. (For those who like interesting rabbit trails, slm appears in transliterations of the English Bible, as in “king of Salem,” to describe Melchizedek in Genesis 14:18, a priest mentioned in Hebrews 7:1-2 as “king of peace.” Slm is also found in “Salem” in Psalm 76:2, where it is an early word for Jerusalem, and in the names “Solomon” and “Absalom.”)

Still, this does not enter us into the depth and the richness shalom. To say it another way, the word on our lips only as good wishes, or greeting, or general blessing can act as a kind of religious conceit that gives us permission to escape grappling with ways in which shalom challenges what we may think of as wisdom today. For shalom denotes well-being, wholeness, and flourishing, including economically, socially, and politically. We’ll pick this up in the next post.

THE WISDOM TRADITION: WHAT IS IT? part 2 of 2

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

WisdomIn the previous post, the first in this series on opening up the wisdom tradition, I explained why we may have settled for far too thin an understanding of the wisdom tradition, like playing the song of wisdom on only one note. And I promised to share some of my homework with you, my discoveries about the “much more” of the tradition. That will begin here, where I thought it might be helpful just to list some significant but little known facts about the historic wisdom tradition.

To me, these are some of the songs the ancient sages played and want us to hear today. I’ll attempt to play these “songs” in the following posts. Do let me know if any of these surprise you, and why. Or just ponder them and try to hear how they might be speaking to you in fresh, practical ways today.

The wisdom tradition and its literature:

  • Is not partisan, sectarian, doctrinaire, or dictatorial; rather, it is for all people everywhere;
  • Is not nationalistic but intercultural and international;
  • Is fundamentally about peace; in particular, it shows reasonable and responsible ways for building cooperation and peace among diverse peoples;
  • Is not about religious instruction; instead, it focuses on practical, everyday issues and concerns, on what today is often called “secular” life and activity;
  • Does not present wisdom as an abstract entity, or as ideological, or as any sort of -ism but as personal and relational;
  • Reveals wisdom as a highly respected legal arbiter in places of authority in the old-world Middle East;
  • Was essential in the education that political advisers of ancient kings received;
  • Played a huge role in international relations, foreign policy, and diplomacy;
  • Accepts the order and regularity of life, its certainties and its predictability, while not denying disorder and irregularity – the dysfunction, brokenness, and sometimes hard cruelties, tragedies, and meaninglessness of life;
  • Shows that we learn wisdom from one another;
  • Presents wisdom as a way toward cooperative and peaceable relationships and activities;
  • Was central to the teaching of Jesus in Roman occupied Palestine.

This series of posts seeks to help us to hear such “songs” of wisdom. For the sages who gave us the tradition seek to involve us in much more than memorizing pithy adages and clever maxims or in simply knowing the content of the wisdom texts. As classic as those songs are, the sages played many others.

The heart of the matter, as I see it, is that the sages who gave us the tradition have a particular way of a way of reasoning about life in the world, about relationships and activities. And that way of reasoning is one of peace. But not just any peace. As the book of Proverbs puts it, the paths of wisdom are paths of shalom. That means something special, and we’ll pick this up in the next post.