Twin Towers smokingWisdom and insight go together like soup and water. Here’s what I mean. Everyone remembers those terrible images on television of the Twin Towers smoldering and collapsing in clouds of dust. We gaped not just because of the shock but because we did not know why that extraordinary thing had happened. We all wanted to know why. Of course we gape at all sorts of dramatic events, as, for instance, when seeing a bad car wreck or a capsized ferry or special police units surrounding a high school campus. We gape. But we also ask why.

When I was working in Massachusetts many years ago near an old warehouse district, I stood transfixed watching a massive four-story warehouse – it covered nearly an entire square block – become engulfed in flames and burn to the ground. I had never seen such a huge, out-of-control fire, and neither had the dozens of other gawkers who were watching it burn. But we we not just gaping at the sight. We were also trying to find out why it was burning. We even asked the cops and some fire personnel. We wanted to know.

It was many years before I understood what is really going on in us at such times. We ask questions about the experience because we want to know about it in a special way. That is, we want insight. And insight comes from asking questions about an experience, especially one that is new to us or exceptional. Insight is what we want when we hear that a friend has divorced or that the stock market has plunged or that our CEO is under federal investigation. We want insight, so we ask why.

Insight is what everyone one in America wanted on September 11, 2001, everyone from the president on down. No one knew why two passenger jets full of human beings and plenty of fuel had disappeared with a metallic burr into the Twin Towers and never came out. Why?

The president, his staff, and his political and military advisers, of course, were asking questions, questions, and still more questions, because they needed to arrive at clear judgments in order to make decisions – official decisions that would have far-reaching ramifications for the country.

Further, clear judgments, especially for responding to complex exceptional events or experiences, are not possible without gaining insights into insight, so to speak. And to get those you must ask questions about the initial insights. As David Ford once explained to me, you’re checking out your initial insight with more questions leading to additional insight in order to arrive at a wise judgment for making a decision. And wisdom is precisely the point. You need wisdom, and wisdom emerges with insight.

All of this is by way of introducing what I want us to consider next. In the Hebrew Bible insight is as inseparable from wisdom as a river is from water. In the next post, then, we will begin looking at this fifth norm of wisdom, the norm of insight. So far on this blog many posts have discussed and illustrated four other wisdom norms, what I call the norms of peaceableness, relations, mutuality, and skill. The wisdom norm of insight is the final one we will consider. All five norms are vital to the foundation I am attempting to lay about (1) the ancient sages wisdom-based way of reasoning and (2) its relevance for international relations and foreign policy decision making today. I hope to finish (1) soon because I am psyched to post about (2).

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Globovision (Permission via Creative Commons)


transitionsI ended the previous post by saying that if a nation is not run on a gospel-directed and -shaped wisdom, it is by default run on some other wisdom, on some other way of seeing national life and expressing it, on some other way of trying to analyze and solve its problems. What I am ultimately pleading for on this blog is the developing of a gospel-shaped wisdom that informs the analyses and policy making of international relations, and of relations between the United States and Middle East states in particular.

If you have recently begun to get into this blog, thank you for that, and welcome to the neighborhood. What you need to know, however, is that, except for some brief examples, I have not yet begun posting in any developed way about what a gospel-shaped wisdom for U.S. – Mideast relations might entail. This is because of the limitations of publishing an existing book manuscript post by post on a blog. That is what I am doing on this blog (see here), but in a somewhat revised way so that the material makes sense post by post. Tricky, that.

Unfortunately, however, this means that readers have not been able to start with the entire book in their hands or on their Kindles, so they cannot jump ahead a few chapters, so to speak, if the nudge strikes, to see what I say about U.S. – Mideast relations. I wish it were not so, but you can blame the technology! It has forced me choose what material from the manuscript to put before your eyes first and then keep going from there. This was a hard choice, believe me.

I thought I might start posting by jumping straight into U.S. – Mideast narratives and policies, but I eventually concluded that that approach would leave far too many crucial questions unnecessarily unanswered because I had not said much about the wisdom tradition. So I decided that, first, I better give readers insight into key ideas from the wisdom tradition that inform my thinking about international relations and foreign policy and related matters. Since a wisdom-based way of thinking about these areas is a different than how we hear about them from the media and our politicians, I thought that this starting point would be best. Then once that foundation was laid, I felt that what I wanted to say about U.S. – Mideast and related matters would make more sense.

This approach has stretched my thinking, but it seemed like a win-win approach for all of us. For instance, when I begin writing in later posts on international events, narratives, and policies, I can link one of those posts to one of the earlier ones where I discuss a related matter in the wisdom tradition. If I think that will help spare us all the time of dealing with unnecessary questions, I will do that. But necessary questions – bring ’em on!

Believe me when I say that it has been very hard for me to forebear jumping into the contemporary international scene. But that should begin soon. You can also believe me when I say that it won’t be what you are used to hearing. This is why I hinted in the recent posts about the significance of religion and the faith of nations. But now we will turn again to explore some further, often overlooked, ideas in the historic wisdom tradition.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by ecstaticist (permission via Creative Commons)


problems solvingPolitics, science, education, economics, society, and every other basic aspect of a nation’s life – in the long run these are not neutral subjects. The way in which these areas develop in the minds of individuals or communities is determined by the kind of god that governs the thinking of those individuals or communities. And that determines how collective problems are analyzed and solutions enacted.

This is vitally important to get into our heads, at least for anyone who wants to see a nation directed by a gospel-shaped wisdom: because the way the gospel thinks is different from other ways of thinking about sociology and politics and economics and foreign policy and so forth. A gospel-shaped wisdom is going to have different ways of analyzing such problems and offering solutions for them.

The difficulty is that a gospel-directed and -shaped wisdom for a nation’s problems may seem terribly odd to both individuals and communities. The reason for this is because the gospel doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere; it is different than the ways people are used to thinking about problems and solving them. (For an introduction to this phenomenon, refer to the series on Jesus as a Teacher of Wisdom in Ancient Palestine.)

Here I want to note some apt examples from theologian and philosopher John Peck, whom, I should add, was also my tutor. From a lecture many years ago, Peck’s observations about the oddity of gospel answers to the collective problems of a nation remains pertinent today:

“We are in a society which, since Freud, has been pleading increasingly diminished responsibility. Well, that makes the gospel assumption of human guilt seem pretty silly. And our politics is torn between individualism and collectivism and a lot of uneasy compromises in between. That makes the concept of the Trinity – a God of individuality in community – one God – an unbelievable God. puzzledIt makes the God-man Jesus an impossibility, logically anyway. And our economics is obsessed by the two alternatives of breakneck progress or stagnation. So that the idea of slowing up for the sake of the helpless seems an unrealistic idealism. It hasn’t got any space. And our education is so devoted to scientific measurables, that faith and hope and love sound a bit daft – because you can’t mark them on a dial.”

This is equally true in areas of interest to this blog, such as diplomacy, international relations, and foreign policy. In the U.S., foreign policy analysis and decision making, for instance, is deeply rooted in ideological thinking. This makes the idea of constructing international relations based on what the gospel would have to say about peace and human mutuality seem ridiculous.

If a nation is not run on a gospel-directed and -shaped wisdom, it is by default run on some other wisdom, on some other way of seeing national life and expressing it, on some other way of trying to analyze and solve its problems.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Boy image by Daniel (Permission via Creative Commons)


search for Chr AmerA nation’s conception of itself and of the way it should be run is derived from its faith. In other words, there is a direct link between a nation’s ultimate conception if itself and the utterly practical ways in which it get things done. Consider a common slogan: “America is a Christian nation.” Many people deploy it to mean: “America has to get back to being a Christian nation.” That is, America’s founding faith was Christian, the country has let that slip, and so the answer to its ills is to recover Christianity as the nation’s guiding light.

Reputable, patient, historical scholarship, however, has shown that it is a misleading reading of the history of the United States to conclude that it was founded as a Christian nation. See, for example, The Search for Christian America (Noll, Hatch, and Marsden) or the more recent Founding Faith (Steven Waldman). No one, of course, can honestly deny the Christian influences, which were many, widespread, and deep, in the early American narrative. Puritan, Quaker, Baptist, Anglican, and Roman Catholic settlements, for instance, all confessed Christianity and exemplified variants of it. However, these were settlements and colonies. They were not about the founding of a nation, of the United States. The distinction is significant.

The founding document of a nation is its constitution. If, for instance, you read the constitutions of Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan you will immediately see that they are “Islamic republics.” This can leave no question in anyone’s mind about the ultimate religious faith of those nations – their conception of themselves – which then directly influences the practical ways in which they go about their business. As Pakistan’s constitution puts it: “the principles of democracy, freedom, equality, tolerance and social justice, as enunciated by Islam, shall be fully observed” (my emphasis).

Now there is no such overt faith or religious statement in the constitution of the United States of America, or even in the Declaration of Independence, about Christianity. It is true the Declaration gives a nod to “God” and to “divine Providence,” each once. But the Declaration is not the Constitution. It did not found the nation. It declared the thirteen colonies to be independent from the British empire. Twelve years later the Constitution was written and signed, and there is no mention of Christianity in it, nor any God-language either. The closest the Constitution gets to God-language is the Preamble’s ambiguous phrase “to secure the blessing of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”

So is American a Christian nation? Not according to its founding, legal document. This is not to suggest that there were no Christian ethical, social, economic, political, and other insights contributing to the founding. But it is much closer to the actual reality, I believe, to sum up the founding faith of the United States of America as an admixture of Puritan Calvinism, Enlightenment rationalism, and Virginia deism.

These sources play huge roles in America’s ultimate conception of itself, that is, its faith. They informed the thinking that went in to U.S. Constitution. They account for the way the nation goes about its business today, such as its social, political, economic problems, as well as its analyses of and responses to its foreign relations headaches.

In the next post I will conclude these thoughts on “religion” by considering why a gospel-directed and -shaped wisdom seems an odd way to address America’s collective problems.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer


steel structure“You would love our church. It’s not religious.” In the previous post I said that we ought to ditch that widespread Christian slogan. Here I want to say explain why, by thinking about another common Christian slogan: “If Jesus is not Lord of all, he is not Lord at all.” This, of course, a way of stating from the negative that Jesus is Lord – has the final say – over all of life – not only over what we do on Sunday but throughout Monday to Saturday as well. Either he is Lord of those days too, or he is not Lord at all.

But what does it mean that Jesus is Lord of our lives outside the church walls? Simply said, it means that you are not just a student, or just a journalist, or just a math teacher, or just a single mom, or just a singer in a rock ‘n’ roll band. You are much more than “just” anything everyday.

To help Christ’s daily lordship seem more understandable and manageable, some Christian philosophers and theologians see life in terms of specific aspects, such as the physical, the biological, the aesthetic, the linguistic, the social, the economic, the ethical, the political, and so forth. This makes sense when you think about it, because we all function in these basic areas of life. I mean we have bodies (the physical), we eat to stay alive (the biological), we pay our bills (the economic), we vote (the political – to note vote is a political statement), and so on. So to claim that “Jesus is Lord” is to claim that he has the ultimate say over these and every other aspect.

Now here’s the thing. There is also the “religious” aspect of life. It is about one’s ultimate faith or confession. As we saw in the previous post, it denotes, for instance, how people express the commitment they have to God symbolically, such as during a church service or in the mosque or in the temple. Further, the religious aspect tops the list of all the aspects. This is because one’s ultimate faith commitment gives direction and shape to how the person will think and act in all the other aspects. So there is no “just anything” about our lives.

If we claim to be Christian, then our ethics, and our economics, and our communications, and our art, and how we treat your bodies, and how we treat others, and the way we are singers in rock ‘n’ roll bands are  directed and shaped (at least they should be!) by what we confess as our ultimate religious commitment – Jesus as Lord. No one does this perfectly, of course, but we ought to be doing it prayerfully, deliberately, and more consistently as disciples, that is to say, as a learners.

As well, if our religious commitment is to what the Old Testament person would call an idol, or a god, then our ethics, and our economics, and our communications, and our art, and the way we treat others and even our bodies, and all the rest of life too, will be directed and shaped by whatever that ultimate faith commitment is.

In the West today, of course, most people do not have shrines in their homes to Baal, or Dagon, or Mars, or Venus, or Whatever. Well, maybe to Steve Jobs. But the Western gods are mostly invisible. Nevertheless ultimate faith commitments exist to them under names such as Reason, Materialism, Scientism, Empiricism, Individualism, Collectivism, Secularism, Self, The Almighty Dollar. The list goes on.

If this stuff is making your head hurt, sorry about that. But try to stick this out. Just as our ultimate beliefs give direction and shape to our lives as individuals, nations are also shaped by their ultimate beliefs. We need to wise up about this. I’ll suggest why by wrapping up this theme of “religion” in the next two posts.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Harry Cjr (Permission via Creative Commons)


belief“You would love our church. It’s not religious.” Like the Energizer Bunny, that slogan just can’t be stopped among huge swaths of American Christianity. I used to tout it myself about a church I attended years ago. I eventually stopped saying it, but not because that church became religious. I became disabused of the notion that some churches were not religious. The truth is that all churches are religious, because they function in what is legitimately called the religious aspect of life.

Yet Christians may bristle at the mere thought of their churches being religious. For them “religion” is an offensive term because it smacks of dead ritualism on Sunday mornings, and they want no part of it. Look, I get it. That view took root in me during my childhood from an enforced church attendance and regimented liturgy every Sunday and during the week, not to mention the religious instruction in the Christian school until I was in my early teens. None of it spoke to me. Well, that’s not quite true. What spoke was: I can’t wait until I’m old enough to have a car and I’m outta here! Millions of Christians in America have their own versions of this story.

Nevertheless, there is a problem with treating the word “religion” as if it were always referring to a bad disease. Maybe in some ways and places it is. And that certainly would need to be addressed. But “religion” it is not fundamentally a bad thing.

Let me put it like this. The word “religion” simply refers to the way in which people express the commitment they have to God symbolically. It is about that aspect of life in which people explicitly express what God, or gods, they believe in, and how they approach that God, or gods, and the moral claims that God, or gods, makes on them.

So it is about rituals, sacred books, theology, explicit witness, devotional activities, such as prayer and worship, and the community that revolves around such things. Theologians, philosophers, sociologists, anthropologists, and in fact most people, use the word “religion” to describe such activities. And this is both an appropriate and legitimate use of the word. So it is about what Muslims do in their mosques or what Buddhists do in their temples or what Christians do in their churches. And so on.

The words “religion” and “church,” then, are in fact so hinged on mutual interests that to detest the former brings disservice to the latter. We really must get over our objections to the words religion and religious. This is hugely important. I’ll say why in the next post. And if you wonder what this has to do with blogging about wisdom, stick around. Sometimes you have to say a lot to say a little.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Neil Girling (Permission via Creative Commons)


wisdom traditionEzra, a priest-scribe with a pedigree in the line of Aaron, was a prominent Jewish religious figure in Babylon, but he also functioned as a shuttle diplomat for king Artaxerxes of Persia. Previously, we discussed the ongoing religious and political crisis in Jerusalem that arose over the rebuilding of the Jewish temple. This necessitated many and varied diplomatic missions and letters between Jerusalem and the Persian capital.

We are introduced to Ezra the shuttle diplomat in chapter seven of the book of Ezra, in which a detailed letter that Ezra has carried from the Persian capital to Jerusalem explains his royal commission. The letter is from king Artexerses himself. And, apparently, this was one of the last, if not the last, of the diplomatic missions necessary for resolving the crisis surrounding the temple’s reconstruction.

Just as a U.S. president will appoint special envoys to foreign nations to try to resolve troubled situations, this seems to have been the case with Artexerses’s appointment of Ezra. Ezra appears to have been serving in Artaxerxes’s Persian government (in conquered Babylonia). It is not clear what his duties were, but he seems to have held a distinguished position under the rather cumbersome title: “scribe of the law of the God of heaven” (Ezra 7:12, 21; King James translation). Ezra may have received his title from Artaxerxes himself.

In his diplomatic role, Ezra may have been something like Artaxerxes’s “Secretary of State for Jewish affairs,” given his religious pedigree, scholarship, and distinguished reputation. This would have been a crucial and sensitive political post at the time, for Artaxerxes and his cabinet (the seven counselors of the realm in 7:14-15) had inherited an imperial Persia that, having conquered and ruled many lands over many generations, was now experiencing political and social destabilization in various parts of the realm, including in Jerusalem. So it seems likely that Ezra had high-level connections with the cabinet, who looked upon him favorably and trusted him.

By the time of Artaxerxes’s reign, the temple had finally been reconstructed and Ezra, commissioned by the king, is dispatched from the Persian capital to Jerusalem with extensive political powers and a royal decree explaining his commission and detailing further Persian policy concerning the returned Jewish exiles. Although the text states that it was “the Lord God” who put it into the mind of the king to do this, we may assume that it was also a good foreign policy decision by Artexerses that would help strengthen Persian national interests in the region.

ancient JerusalemFor instance, Ezra’s commission as a diplomat to that highly religious city was aptly suited to his role as a distinguished Jewish priest-scribe, and the Jewish population in Jerusalem would have been glad to have been sent such a figure. Ezra arrived in Jerusalem with economic aid (a shipment of silver and gold) from the king in support of further work to be done, which would have further strengthened those international ties. Ezra also had been given carte blanche by the king to raise whatever further funds he needed and to solicit whatever help he needed to fulfill his commission.

It was also a fact-finding mission. Ezra is to make a detailed inquiry into life of the Jews in and around Jerusalem, including their religious health, and to take whatever steps he deems necessary to ensure the peaceableness of that community under Persian rule. Having concluded that inquiry, he is to “appoint magistrates and judges to administer justice to all the people of Trans-Euphrates” (Ezra 7:25). And the policy is backed by force. Those who fight against it can be legally prosecuted within the bounds of various penalties.

Much remains unknown about this tumultuous, decades’-long crisis in Jerusalem. Ezra’s diplomatic history is but a thin slice of imperial Persia’s complicated international politics. There may have been long periods when this diplomatic channel was not a priority or went silent.

My focus on Ezra the shuttle diplomat is meant to suggest that Artaxerxes could have imposed a military solution in Jerusalem. Instead, he followed in the footsteps of his Persian predecessors, beginning with Cyrus, and relied on diplomacy. Through diplomatic initiatives, the Jews in Palestine reestablished their religious identity and thereby regained a sense of cohesion as a people in Jerusalem, even though they remained under Persia’s rule.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer


rebuilding the templeThe person known to Jews and Christians as “Ezra the priest” or “Ezra the scribe” was also a political actor. He served as a shuttle diplomat for King Artaxerxes of Persia toward the end a long period of Israelite change and reorganization under Persian rule. Although Ezra’s role as a diplomat is often ignored, it is a fairly prominent role in the book of Ezra.

The book is complicated, controversial at points, and cannot be separated from the book of Nehemiah. Reasons such as these may help to explain why Ezra’s diplomatic narrative has not stood out to theologians and historians. Nevertheless, as with Daniel, what has interested me about Ezra is his diplomatic role and trying to puzzle out questions related to that role. Because much remains unknown about the regional political history that bears upon Ezra’s diplomatic mission, insights into that role run far short of the insights that were available to us about Daniel’s role as a diplomat. Yet let’s begin with what seems pretty certain about the regional history of the time.

The Israelites were living in exile in Babylonia, which was now largely ruled by the Medes and the Persians. Just before Ezra’s time, the Persian king Cyrus the Great had favored the Jews by issuing a royal decree authorizing the rebuilding of their Jerusalem temple and freeing any Jews who wished to return to Jerusalem to help in that rebuilding project. For the Jews of the shattered nation of Israel it was a turning-point foreign policy.

A foreign policy, however, can be resisted by powerful domestic constituencies and lobbies, and this occurred in Jerusalem when the returning exiles began settling in and implementing Cyrus’s policy to rebuild the temple. Strong, sometimes violent, opposition groups from Persian nationals and others arose against the exiles’ reconstruction efforts. Those efforts would then grind to a halt until Cyrus’s Persian administration, or subsequent ones, would intervene.

The book of Ezra makes clear Cyrus’s religious motivation for setting up the Jews back in Jerusalem (Ezra 1:1-4), but it does not indicate how that cohered with the king’s foreign policy interests. It may have been something as pragmatic as strengthening Persia’s presence in Palestine as a buffer against Egypt, which Cyrus’s eldest son, Cambyses II, later invaded and partly conquered for Persia.

At any rate it is clear that, following Cyrus’s death, political, religious, and racial turmoil arose in Jerusalem over rebuilding the temple. The reconstruction project entered a long period of halts and resumptions, during which many missions of shuttle diplomacy took place between Jerusalem and the Persian capital to resolve the crisis. Those missions spanned the reign of several Persian kings and involved three key groups of actors: the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, the opposition groups, and various Persian kings and their administrations in Babylon.

The preservation of a number of detailed diplomatic letters in chapters 4-7 of Ezra, which were exchanged between Jerusalem and the Persian capital, offer rare insight into the shuttle diplomacy that was instrumental in resolving the long crisis. These diplomatic initiatives:

  • voice the concerns of the opposition groups and of the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem;
  • reveal what the opposition groups wanted clarified as to the original policy or subsequent amendments;
  • include royal edicts from Persian kings to the opposition groups and to the Jewish leadership;
  • detail the precise policies, explain the desires of a current Persian ruler, and charge the opposition groups not to obstruct the reconstruction project;
  • show that the diplomatic initiatives had varying effects in Jerusalem, including temporary reversals of policy.

In the next post we will see how Ezra fits into this regional religious-political situation as a skilled diplomatic figure.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Irish Dominican Foundation (permission via Creative Commons)