I have a love-hate relationship with theology. I understand its importance, but I’ve seen and experienced too many ways in which it has be used to injure rather than to heal. For instance, people may treat the Bible as if it were a book of theology. Or they may fold up life, and their own lives, and that of others too, to fit inside their theology. I’ve witnessed others, and I’ve been guilty of this too, hauling out theological views like Job’s counselors – as if they answered the mysteries of life’s irregularities, human suffering, theodicy, and the sovereignty of God.
More personally still, it’s probably due to being born a wisdom guy. Hey, I couldn’t help that. You’ll have to take that up with my Maker. Also, wisdom has a family resemblance closer to philosophy than to theology, and my interests and reading have always been strongly more inclined to the former. You may imagine, then, how much I felt confirmed in my existence the day I discovered that a prominent meaning of “philosophy” is “love of wisdom” (in Greek, philos refers to “love” and sophia to “wisdom”).
I don’t want to push wisdom and theology into a dichotomy, nor do I mean that the two disciplines don’t influence each other. But I do find some distinctions helpful, which I share here because this is, after all, a blog dedicated to wisdom and to what may be called the diplomacy of wisdom.
For one thing, whereas wisdom is an agency for motivating diverse peoples to build cooperative and peaceable relations, a theology, because it falls within the purview of a particular religious community, unites only those who believe its particular dogmas. And some theologies make enemies of believers of different religious traditions.
Also, when confronted by a problem, whereas theology tends to bring ready-made answers to the discussion, as did Job’s friends, wisdom tends to arrive with questions seeking insight, as we noted in recent posts. I like the way Abraham Joshua Heschel put the distinction: “Theology starts with dogmas, philosophy begins with problems. Philosophy sees the problem first, theology has the answer in advance” (God in Search of Man, 4).
Further, theological studies (like traditional apologetics) make wide the gulf of dissimilarities between different religions and the peoples who hold to them; wisdom seeks to bring even different religious people together on common ground for mutual good. Immediately we see a great problem that theology presents to the diplomatic corps. Theology in its dogmatic role and wisdom in its diplomatic role have contrasting starting points when approaching problems of international relations and foreign policy.
I have been known to joke with Christian friends that you won’t find the word “theology” in the Bible, but you will find “wisdom” hundreds of times. Scripture explains that God founded the world on wisdom, and it advises us not only to seek wisdom but that wisdom is more precious than gems, silver, and gold, and that nothing we desire can compare with her (Proverbs 3:14-15; 4:5-7). Further, according to the Bible, and as we are considering on this blog, it is in the historic wisdom tradition that we find tremendous resources for discovering how to ease adversarial tensions, prevent violence and wars, and build more cooperative peaceable foreign relations.
The differences between theology and wisdom that I am suggesting come into sharp relief if we consider how some Christians approach the problem of peace in the Middle East. Rather than taking their cues from the biblical emphasis on wisdom, they have relied on a theology called Christian Zionism. In the next post I want us to look at how serious a category mistake that is.
©2014 by Charles Strohmer