USING THE BIBLE TO THINK part 1 of 4

Bible studyThe ability to form and use theories is a gift from God to us. It often is ignored or misused, but it is still as much a gift as human affection or natural beauty, and to be used for God’s glory. It doesn’t matter whether we realize it, or even whether we like it, we are using theories all the time, as a humorous story in the previous post made clear.

If we do not use godly theories, and if we do not develop a means of finding out which are godly and which are not, we will be using whatever comes along. Since we have no right to presume on God for the things that he has left it our responsibility to do, and since sin influences the intellect often quite unknowingly, the likelihood is that any theory uncritically adopted will be ungodly.

Here’s a simple illustration from law-making. Good laws, in part, liberate people to be loving.  So what are we to think of a law that makes medical professionals, who happen to be first on the scene of an car wreck, afraid to help the injured parties because they could get sued? This is not a law that liberates doctors and nurses (who could be quite loving in such a situation) to be loving. There is a bad theory behind such a law, which Christians working in the area of jurisprudence could seek to correct.

In the previous post I called attention to the relationship between our wisdom and the theories we use that help us cope with life, and I said that the way to better theories is through acquiring a wisdom that is becoming increasingly biblical. Here are a few tips along the way.

Begin with humility of mind. You are entering a process of change. Yes, on becoming a Christian a radical change is introduced into one’s outlook. Yet it would be unscriptural, besides being extraordinarily naive, to think that your entire wisdom on life changes completely straightaway and with it any wrongheaded theories. The Bible, after all, would not speak of the need for our mind’s ongoing renewal if that were so (Romans 12:1-2). And we ought to keep in mind the apostle Paul’s complaint that Christians may fail to let the process keep working itself out (1 Corinthians 3:1-3; Galatians 3:1-3; Colossians 2:20-3:2).

Prepare to hit resistance but press on. People, including even our ministers, may raise bewildered, even disapproving, eyebrows at our questions. Christian friends may struggle to understand what we are talking about and asking of them. Group discussions, even among those who do understand, may feel like a pooling of ignorance. Temptations may arise to become impatient, to fall for simplistic or dogmatic answers, or to wallow in self-pity (“nobody understands me”). But whoever said Christian discipleship was going to be easy? So press on but proceed humbly – that’s where the grace is.

Learn to read and study the Bible as a “secular” book. There is a lot of biblical wisdom for daily life to be gained through such an approach. Traditionally for many of us, the Bible slides past our eyes with a “stained glass window effect.” That is, we read the Bible as a “religious” book only – for instructions about prayer, worship, doctrine, church activities, moral behavior, evangelization, and so on. Certainly religious instruction must not be downplayed. Yet that alone leaves us ill-equipped to study and apply Scripture with reference to the many “nonreligious” issues and aspects of daily life.

Sure, many Christians can quote from the Book of Proverbs, say for business principles, relationship taboos, or parent–child environments. But I’m talking about a much wider horizon. When it comes to immigration laws and health insurance, for instance, or to medical debates and  economic development, or to government subsidies of the arts and US foreign policy, it usually does not occur to us to check out the Book, for we assume that it has little or no distinctive wisdom for such “secular” matters.

But that is not how Jesus, or the apostles, or God’s Old Testament people saw Scripture. They had a God who was involved in the whole of life and they had a Scripture to match. The knew that Bible was not relegated to “religious” affairs only; it held instruction for what today we often call secular life.

In the next post I want us to look at that way learning wisdom from Scripture.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

The above article was adapted from Uncommon Sense: God’s Wisdom for Our Complex and Changing World, by John Peck and Charles Strohmer (SPCK, 2001).

Image by Steel Wool (permission via Creative Commons)

CANNONBALL RACES

bowlsDuring one of my countless conversations with John Peck about “wisdom,” he told me a funny story about the leisurely British game of “bowls.” Since most Americans will find that game unfamiliar, I should first describe it so that John’s story, below, will make sense.

Bowls is usually played outdoors on a long rectangular patch of short-cut lawn called a green. A player – a bowler – starts the game by standing at one end of the green and rolling a small but fairly heavy and solid white ball, the jack, down the green to the other end. The jack is not rolled again during that game. A lot of sportsmanship ensues as bowlers take turns rolling their much larger and heavier black balls down the green to see who can get closest to the jack.

Sounds easy enough, but the larger balls are biased (with interior weights) and so do not travel in a straight line – they follow various degrees of arcs when bowled toward the jack, not unlike American fingertip bowling balls en route to the pocket. Once all the balls are bowled, the direction of play is reversed. To get points, bowlers must to get as close to the jack as possible by the end of the game, and to do that they employ various strategies, such as trying to knock an opponent’s ball out of the way.

Okay. Got it? Here’s John with the story:

Once as our family was driving through a park, one of the younger kids amused us by looking out of the back of the car and shouting, “Look, Dad, cannonball races!” Everyone looked around and saw a green with a leisurely game of bowls in play.

As my young son did, we all interpret any new phenomenon in terms of what we already know. So let’s pull the car into a parking space, watch the game closely, and imagine a discussion between me and my son.

I remark on the skill of a player who has rolled his ball just short of his opponent’s ball and so got nearer the jack. My son is puzzled by my statement, but that doesn’t stop him! He naturally responds, “What sort of a race is it where people only try to get even and not ahead?”

So I explain the concept of “getting close rather than getting ahead.” Rather dubiously he accepts the notion but suggests that the players start aiming better. “After all, Dad, the cannonballs are going all over the place. One almost went round in a semi-circle.”

So I try again. But by the time I get through explaining the concept that these balls have a bias in them, he’s now impatient with me and explodes, “Well, no self-respecting gunner would use ammunition that wouldn’t go straight!”

So I reply (fully assured and ever the expert!) that the bias is deliberately put into the balls during their manufacture. At this point my son gives up and mutters, “I can understand them using unbalanced ammunition if they have no choice, but actually making cannonballs like that…. They must be mad!”

You can find this story in our book Uncommon Sense: God’s Wisdom for Our Complex and Changing World (Chapter 7), and John’s point was to call my attention to the importance of the relationship of wisdom to theories.

People, however, can be terrified by the word “theory,” or they can’t be bothered with it because it doesn’t seem practical. It’s about ivory tower intellectuals, who never have to deal with Pampers, flat tires, or flu shots. But even diapers, radials, and injections have theories behind them. In other words, theories can be quite practical indeed. And if you bring a faulty theory to an experience or an issue, something is going to go wrong. Here’s how John put it in the book:

You could hardly blame my young son. I failed to address his basic assumption that these were cannonballs, and that this mistake resulted in a different theory about the game of bowls and its rules. Because I had a different theory about the game and failed to acknowledge that, he could not understand the game or my explanations of it.

What is more, in his attempt to make sense of what he was seeing in this new experience, his faulty theory meant that he asked the wrong questions. My answers, therefore, even though they were from the correct theory, were not helping him in the least, for they were not answering the questions that formed in his mind using the faulty theory.

It is, of course, a parable. In Uncommon Sense, John and I went on to discuss this at some length, such as to show how dad’s neglect of, or possibly ignorance of, the son’s faulty theory made communication and progress on the issue impossible. Of course, the problem in that situation was a trivial one and easily resolved in terms of the father and son’s common culture.

blastertheoryYet the form of the problem is similar for all of us with respect to bigger and crucial issues, such as come up in science, education, religion, politics, and elsewhere. In such areas, a new problem will not be easily defined or practically resolved when people bring different theories to it. And when contradictory theories are brought to it, you have a huge mess.

The form of the problem also exists in varying degrees between an ethnic minority and the dominant culture, or liberal and conservative Christians, or labor and management, or left wing and right wing politicians, or American Christians and Muslims in the Middle East – the list goes on.

As a culture increasingly fragments, as its structural problems present themselves more  intractably and its conflicts become more wide-ranging and more common, if they are not corrected, a culture ends like the Tower of Babel, if not in a civil war. And the principle holds true also for the international scene.

What we need, then, is a wisdom – a way of seeing life and living in it – a way of making sense of the creation and living in it effectively – that makes sound theories possible for coping with and communicating about life’s problems. What we are talking about is having theories that correspond, as much as it is humanly possible, to rightly understanding and stewarding the many and varied aspects of God’s world.

Lacking that, life goes terribly wrong. Therefore, seek wisdom. In the next post I want to share some clues from the Bible about that kind of seeking.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Images by Peter Labourne & Neural respectively (permission via Creative Commons)

WHAT IS WISDOM? part 2 of 2

creation artWhat is wisdom? Is it reserved for old age? Is it about pithy sayings, such as proverbs? Or perhaps it is that touch of cunning which gives certain people a clever understanding of situations that others would not have in a million years – Solomon’s ruling about a prostitute’s baby comes to mind (1 Kings 3). Certainly, the Bible’s view of “wisdom” would include such ideas. And as we saw in the previous post, wisdom, like love, faith, and truth, has been one of the great objects of human search throughout history.

So wisdom seems to be something other than merely the one or two ideas that we typically like to nail it down as. Which brings us back to this. In the posts that began this blog – a blog dedicated to wisdom – I offered examples of a key fact: The more territory you explore in the biblical wisdom literature, the more you see that what you thought you knew about wisdom expanding considerably.

In other words, wisdom is not so easily defined as we may think. Instead, wisdom is rather like a person. I mean, you can, for instance, define a human being as one thing, say chemically; but if that’s it, most people know that’s a pretty unsatisfactory answer. It leaves many questions unanswered.

Look at it this way, a person cannot be reduced to one or two roles. An adult can be a mother, a daughter, a granddaughter, a grandmother, a wife, an attorney, a musician, and so on. In other words, there is more to any one person than meets the eye. You’ve just got to look for it. The agency of wisdom is like that. To try to pin it down to any one or two things is reductionistic. The question “What is wisdom?”, then, like “What is truth?” or “What is love?”, is one of those big questions that defies an easy way of nailing down.

The seeking of wisdom is a lifelong process. You get it as you go along and you keep getting more of it as you keep seeking it. Because there is an increasing knowledge of wisdom as we go along, we must be cautious about trying to nail down to reductionistic definitions. I want us to keep that in mind, here, because now I’m going to break the rule and  offer a definition!

“Wisdom is a way of seeing life and living in it according to how you see it.” Or you could put it this way: “Wisdom is a way of making sense of the creation in order to life in it effectively (and it will affect what you think is effective living too).”

This helpful understanding of wisdom comes from British theologian and philosopher John Peck, a leading specialist in the wisdom literature, and you can find more about it in chapter five of our book Uncommon Sense: God’s Wisdom for Our Complex and Changing World.

I’m sharing this exception to the rule for at least two reasons. One, it seems to me that it is big enough to avoid being reductionsitic. Two, I’ve found it a handy tool for discerning different kinds of wisdom, which is a prominent theme in the New Testament – the wisdom of God and the wisdom of this world. In fact, I am so keen on this understanding of wisdom that when I teach about wisdom, I encourage people to take time to memorize it because I have seen the good fruit it can produce over time.

This Christian understanding of wisdom comes from a prominent way in which the Bible sees wisdom: as the way the world works. For example: “In wisdom,” says the Psalmist when speaking about the works of creation, “you [God] made them all” (Psalm 104:24). From the prophet Jeremiah: “God … founded the world by his wisdom” (10:12; 51:15). And in the wisdom literature itself: “By wisdom the Lord laid the earth’s foundations” (Proverbs 3:19).

building blocks (Artful Magpie)In other words, the whole universe functions by the wisdom of God. We see this emphasized in a peculiar passage in Proverbs 8:22-36, where “wisdom” is personified as if it where the very secret of the universe, as the craftsman at God’s side during the process of creation. (I wrote more about this here.) Therefore, says wisdom, “listen to me; blessed are those who keep my ways. Listen to my instruction and be wise.”

This text in Proverbs seems to be indicating, in part, that when God created the universe – with all its multifarious facets, with all the complex intricacies of its workings and its human beings – first of all there was a concept, or vision, that dominated and controlled, or made effective, that creative process. (This may be somewhat analogous to the vision that an artist has first, before putting paint to canvass.)

And the result is that the creation “stands up” as it were. It doesn’t exist like a cat and a dog fighting, which you can barely keep apart. It doesn’t exist like nitroglycerin, which, if you gave it a jar, might suddenly blow up, and you would never know when. Rather, the creation has stability, and this stability is orderly. There are rules on which it works. There’s a reliability and consistency to it, so that the same rules govern this earth which govern the farthest reaches of the galaxy.

That was in God’s mind as His wisdom, and it played a vital role in God bringing the world into being. “This means that when you look out on the world and touch it and use it, you are touching God’s own heart and mind. All the way through it you are touching a product of God’s character” (Uncommon Sense). Yes. It’s a gorgeous mystery. And the more we get into it, the wiser we become.

The problem is that there are other wisdoms, other ways, ways that are not God’s way of seeing the world and living in it. In the next post I want to share a funny story about the difference.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Images by Helene Villenueve & Artful Magpie respectively (permission via Creative Commons)

WHAT IS WISDOM? part 1 of 2

exploringOnce a dutiful and thrifty peasant’s wife wrapped her shawl about her shoulders, took up her basket, and told her husband, “Otto, I’m leaving now to go over the hill to nurse my sister Anna. She’s down with the fever and her children need lookin’ after. I won’t be returnin’ for several days. Look after yourself. And remember, when the cattle dealer comes to buy our three cows, make sure you don’t strike a bargain with him unless you can get at least two hundred thalers for them.  Nothing less. Do you hear?”
    “For ‘eaven’s sake, woman, just go. Go ‘n peace. I will manage that!”
    “You, ‘ndeed,” said the woman. “You who are wont to do the most foolish things. I’m tellin’ you now, we ourselves will be very lean cows this winter without that money.” And having said that, she went on her way.  
    Two mornings later the cattle dealer came. When he had seen the cows, he said, “I’m  willing to pay two hundred thalers. They’re worth that. I will take the beasts away with me at once.”
    He unfastened their ropes and drove them out of the cowhouse, but just as the cattle dealer was leaving the husband said, “Wait. You must give me the two hundred thalers now, or I cannot let the cows go.”
    “True,” answered the cattle dealer, “but I have forgotten to buckle on my money belt this morning. Have no fear, however, you shall have security for my paying.”
    “And what shall that be,” Otto asked, “as you have nothing with you?”
    “But I have these three cows with me,” said the cattle dealer. “I will take two cows with me and leave one, and then you will have a good pledge.”
    The man saw the force of this and let the cattle dealer go away with two cows, thinking, “How pleased my wife will be when she finds how cleverly I have managed it!”

That parable from early 19th century European folklore makes us smile. How easily old Otto got rooked, we tell ourselves. A fool and his money are soon parted. We know better. We are wiser than that guy. But why? Why do we think that? Well, we recognize which one of the parable’s three main characters is the fool, which is the con artist, and which is wise. And we’re pretty sure we’re like her.

At heart, the parable is about wisdom and folly. But what is wisdom? It’s such an important question, because when we act with wisdom we are kept from being foolish. For such an easily asked question, however, it’s not so easily answered. Take a stab at it yourself and I think you’ll see what I mean.

Yet we need an answer because wisdom is a big deal, both according to the Bible, which tells us to seek wisdom, and from the witness of history, where we see that wisdom has been one of the chief objects of human search as far back Eden. Wisdom is more precious than rubies and yields more profits than silver and gold, the book of Proverbs explains. Nothing you desire can compare with her, we are told in its pages. Therefore seek wisdom.

Like our longings for love, faith, truth, happiness, and freedom, wisdom is a deeply constituted human desire. Nearly a third of the Jewish Bible, the Writings, contains wisdom literature, and it is there that we find the well known first principle: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (e.g., Proverbs 9:10; Job 28:28). As David Ford, Britain’s leading wisdom theologian, writes: “In the Bible itself, apart from the desire for God there is no desire that is more passionately and loudly encouraged than the desire for wisdom” (Christian Wisdom: Desiring God and Learning in Love).

discoveryIn the Christian tradition, the New Testament indicates that from childhood Jesus grew in wisdom, and a close reading of much of Matthew’s and John’s Gospels will disclose Jesus’ wisdom-based way teaching about life and relationships (see: Ben Witherington, Jesus the Sage: The Pilgrimage of Wisdom). First Corinthians chapters one through four includes a sophisticated argument from St. Paul – a rabbi trained in the wisdom tradition – about the wisdom of the Cross. And much of the epistle of James is committed to a wisdom agenda.

Other traditions have also seen wisdom as a hallmark human concern. In conversations with his disciples, Buddha was known for his wisdom, as was Confucius, who, five hundred years before Christ, emphasized a practical moral and ethical wisdom that helped to change Chinese society.

The philosophers of ancient Greece were known as lovers of wisdom (philo = love; sophia = wisdom), and for at least one of them, Aristotle, practical wisdom (phronesis) entailed taking virtuous decisions that led to living well, including in political life. And in Islam, the Qur’an explains that God grants wisdom, and its readers are exhorted to pray for wisdom, as their Bibles exhort Jews and Christians to do.

The human race has a long history with wisdom, and it’s a history which discloses that wisdom is not confined to any one culture or people; instead, wisdom cries to be heard in every time and place. As Emerson wrote: “Wisdom has been poured into us as blood.”

Still, none of this answers the important question: What is wisdom? I offered some answers, beginning here, as this blog was launched. But as i said in those posts, that did not exhaust the possible answers, because the closer you explore the historic wisdom tradition, the more you discover more about wisdom than you thought you knew. At least, that has been my experience.

So in the next post I want to offer some further possibilities to: What is wisdom? For it is in knowing and practicing wisdom more fully and consistently that we become less foolish actors on this great stage God has created for us.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Tartarin2009 & Seattle Municipal Archives respectively (permission via Creative Commons)

THE DIPLOMACY OF WISDOM: AGENCY OF PEACEFUL CHANGE

Swords into plowshares“Wisdom is better than weapons of war.” Ecclesiastes 9:18

The Diplomacy of Wisdom: Agency of Peaceful Change
by Charles Strohmer

In recent decades, the strong, religious-like faith that we have placed in the state to solve all of our social problems has given political ideologies an unprecedented authority to control how these problems are defined and solved. The same is true when it comes to ideological analyses of international problems. This ideological control over foreign policy thinking painfully limits what political imaginations consider wise or foolish analysis and policy, and greatly strains the foreign relations between states with conflicting ideological checklists.

In this second of two articles on wisdom and foreign policy, I want to introduce some ideas about the non-ideological nature of the agency of wisdom by considering three norms of wisdom – personalness, peaceableness, and mutuality – as understood from the biblical wisdom literature. These norms were vital to the diplomatic skills of royal court officials who had been educated in the wisdom tradition, and they offer us insight into a historically sound, realistic, and non-ideological way of reasoning for analyzing and potentially resolving IR conflicts.

The personal. The most frequent image of wisdom in the literature is feminine, particularly in the book of Proverbs. There, a woman of nearly divine stature is portrayed as attractive, prudent, virtuous, competent, and speaking in the first person, offering sage advice in public squares, in noisy streets, and at city gates. Lady Wisdom explains that she has been with God since the beginning of creation, and we see her engaging with people, crying out to them, insisting on a hearing. She is a “me,” writes Alan Lenzi, “a personal presence” in the world. Here, wisdom is portrayed not as a platonic Form (see part 1), or as any kind of an abstract body of thought, but as a personal-relational agency in human affairs.

The peaceable. Wisdom’s nature as “peaceable” appears in James 3:17, in a New Testament book that Ben Witherington, in Jesus the Sage, argues is “heavily indebted” to the wisdom material found in the Hebrew Bible. And in Proverbs 3:17, the Hebrew Bible indicates that the paths of wisdom are paths of shalom, that is, of the kind of peace committed to producing social, economic, and political well-being, or flourishing. Importantly, as Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff once explained to me, the opposite of shalom is not violence or war but disorder and brokenness. “There is no shalom,” he said, “even if bullets are not flying, if hearts, minds, and souls, are still broken.” The paths of shalom, then, take us beyond cease fires and peace treaties to repairing social, economic, and political brokenness.

The mutual. Simply stated, since time immemorial everyone on the planet has participated in the same creation, shared the bond of what it means to be human, and held the same basic interests, such as to provide for their families, to see their children raised safely and educated, to be healthy, to enjoy economic well-being, to ease sufferings, and to live peacefully with others. People everywhere are so constituted, and the agency of wisdom draws our attention to this human mutuality, that is, to the deep interests, concerns, and goals shared by the human family as a whole before distinctions are made about ethnicity, nationality, or core belief.

global commomsThe wisdom tradition, then, has a vital interest in seeing relationships (domestic and international) established on mutual ground for mutual good amid their diversity (often discussed today using the adjective “common”). The agency of wisdom is normatively committed to the development of peaceable attitudes, forms of communication, and individual and institutional behaviors, arrangements, and agreements that are essential to human flourishing amid its diversity.

Nearly ten years ago, in With or Against the World?, James Skillen wrote 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.” He then reminded us: “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.”

It will be evident to those who work to ease adversarial international relations and build more cooperative ones that nothing completely new is being introduced in this article. Seeking wisdom, however, might help us to imagine and obtain peaceable arrangements and agreements that we might not intuitively perceive as possible from within ideological frames that have become second nature to us. Even against great odds, that might at least help governance of the global commons to become a little less difficult along the paths toward shalom.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

This article was first published in Capital Commentary, here.

WISDOM: THE MISSING AGENCY OF FOREIGN POLICY

“Problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.” Albert Einstein

waiting to changeWisdom: The Missing Agency of Foreign Policy
by Charles Strohmer

In The Mighty and the Almighty, Madeleine Albright writes that in university she was taught that religion had no part in shaping the world of foreign policy. Hans Morgenthau, George Kennan, and Dean Acheson, she writes, theorized in almost exclusively secular terms. Religion wasn’t rational. To talk about it invited trouble and diplomats were taught not to invite trouble. “This was the understanding that guided me while I was serving as President Clinton’s ambassador to the United Nations and secretary of state.” Because of the events of September 11, 2001, however, “I have had to adjust the lens through which I view the world.”

Wisdom has suffered a fate similar to that of religion, and an adjustment is needed. The seeking of wisdom for foreign policy decision making often gets been trumped by rigid a priori reliance on forms of ideological thinking, such as American exceptionalism or political realism, idealism, or neoconservatism. Wisdom is often the first casualty when an ideological frame becomes the only grid through which leaders and their advisers analyze events and take decisions.

Part of the reason why wisdom gets such short shrift can be found in the universities. The philosophical starting point for studies in international relations and foreign policy can be traced historically to the roughly one-hundred-and-fifty-year period of classical Greek philosophy and its highly abstract thinking during the fifth and fourth centuries before the time of Christ. From this period, IR scholarship relies heavily on Thucydides, Plato, and Aristotle, especially Plato. As Alfred North Whitehead once quipped, “All Western philosophical thinking consists of footnotes to Plato.”

This starting point is understandable given the foundational indebtedness that Western intellectual life owes to Plato’s theory of Forms, or Ideas, as archetypal ideals, including the array of Western political ideologies for shaping the state, for instance, or for what justice should be. Political ideologies affect analyses and decisions in many areas, such as the way leaders make sense of international relations and forge relationships with one another; the way one nation perceives another; the way states act toward one another; the momentum, or lack of it, in negotiations; and much more besides, including decisions about peace and war.

But IR studies do not go back far enough. There is much insight to be gained by going back to the wisdom tradition of the Ancient Near East, to a time when royal court officials were educated in the wisdom tradition and the agency of wisdom played a vital diplomatic role in creating and sustaining peaceable international periods. This area of research has been sorely neglected by IR scholarship. Even impressive works such as Amarna Diplomacy and Brotherhood of Kings do not consider the vital role of wisdom in ANE diplomacy. That role, however, is seen in many of the political narratives of the Bible and in its wisdom literature, as well as in the wisdom literature of other ANE cultures.

Granted, the Bible frequently shows ancient Israel and her neighbors at war with one another, and the prophets often criticize Israel and its kings for their failures to do justice. Also, the nations of the ANE were no less religiously ideological, for instance, than those of today’s Middle East. Nevertheless, in the wisdom literature, and in some of the Psalms, and in numerous political narratives elsewhere in the Bible, there is preserved for us evidence of the peaceable counsel of wisdom that rulers, their advisers, and the peoples should heed.

This has been the focus of my research on The Wisdom Project, part of which has included trying to approximate the sages’ wisdom-based way of reasoning about life, which is not the same as ancient Israel’s priestly or prophetic actors. One of the most remarkable discoveries has been to find that wisdom is not abstract, ideological, or theoretical, nor is it sectarian. Instead, the agency of wisdom is personal (relational), peaceable, and committed to the mutual good of all humankind within its diversity.

In the second article of this 2-part series, I want to consider three norms of the wisdom tradition: personalness, peaceableness, and mutuality. These norms were vital to the diplomatic skills of royal court officials who had been educated in the wisdom tradition, and they offer insight into an historically sound, realistic, and non-ideological way of reasoning for analyzing and potentially resolving our thorny IR conflicts.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

This article was first published in Capital Commentary, here.

SYMPHONIC JUSTICE

sparrow symphony“If we shall not have two states we shall have one conflict. And neither them or us should condemn our children to fight all their lives.” Recent words from Israel’s outgoing president Shimon Peres, who is leaving office at the end of this month. He was speaking to television journalist Charlie Rose at a synagogue in New York City, during an emotion-packed trip last week to the United States.

Peres is 90. His service to Israel spans the entire 66 years of the state’s history. He has worked with 10 U.S. presidents, labored for 40 years for a peace deal with the Palestinians, and seen Israel sign peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. “I am leaving office,” he said in Jerusalem before he left for the U.S. “But I am not leaving the battle for peace.” Nor should we.

We have been looking into the distant past of the old-world Middle East (the story of Moses and Jethro), to consider the wisdom of impartial justice as vital to peacemaking. Peres’s remarks gives us a moment to pause and reflect on the current Middle East, specifically on peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

A gut-wrenching sense of impartial justice has for decades gripped the majority of both domestic populations. Both have recognized that neither side is going to attain perfect justice in a peace deal. Both have been willing, against great odds, to compromise and to show an inordinate amount of collective patience to reach an equitable solution. Both have absorbed acute pain and suffering, hope deferred, and tragedies of death as a witness to their strong, common commitment to a negotiated settlement. There may be a more poignant present-day illustration of two peoples seeking peace with each other, but perhaps not.

“A two state solution is not an empty desire,” Peres told Rose, as he then immediately reminded the synagogue audience about Moses. Moses, Peres noted, said that all people are equal and that nobody is superior or inferior because all are made in the image of God.

soul symphonyThe perennial drive for a negotiated peace in the Middle East is truly remarkable. I believe we can find a lot of wisdom about it in what James Skillen calls “symphonic justice.” Skillen, president emeritus of the Center for Public Justice, has been a public theologian and a policy adviser for more than thirty years, working with elected officials, advisers, and others on both sides of the aisle in Washington DC to create and implement just policies and agreements for the common good. Some years ago, during some conversations we had about justice in this world, Skillen explained that he had been thinking about justice as symphonic.

“I was trying to find an image,” Skillen said, “to capture the sense of a larger communal whole. When a maestro conducts a symphony, which of course the composer ‘heard’ in his or her head first, the symphony depends on each instrument doing its own work in keeping with its own distinctive character, and as close to a perfected art as possible. There can be no reduction of all instruments to some homogeneous totality. The very nature of musical meaning is that it is precisely many distinctive sounds (on the scale) and many distinctive kinds of instruments (playing with each other), blending, doing counterpoint, and all the rest to produce something greater than the sum of the parts.”

Picking up on Skillen’s analogy, Gideon Strauss, executive director of the DePree Center for Leadership at Fuller Seminary, wrote that before we vote for political candidates we ought to ask whether they are committed to helping our communities and institutions toward a more symphonic justice. “In a symphony orchestra, there are a multitude of instruments, each with its own tone and timbre. The conductor, working off a common score, makes room for and sets limits to the unique contribution of each section of instruments so that the variety of voices and melodies, rhythms and tones do not result in either an anarchic cacophony or a monotonous conformity, but instead produce a rich and beautiful harmony.”

Strauss, an adviser to portions of the 1996 South African constitution, goes on to argue that a “government has a responsibility to make room for and set limits to the great variety of persons, communities and institutions subject to its authority, so that each can flourish according to its inherent and unique potential, while interacting in peaceful and mutually beneficial harmony.”

Symphonic justice is what Jethro, a non-Israelite, counseled Moses to teach the diverse, exodus orchestra to play in the desert of the Sinai Peninsula. And play it they did. Symphonic justice is what the majorities of Palestinians and Israelis desire and work hard at to play today, despite the region’s political cacophony.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Images by stevehdc & Temari 09, respectively (permissions via Creative Commons)

WISDOM AND INSIGHT part 3 of 3

wisdom and insightAbraham Joshua Heschel was a seminal rabbinic figure in twentieth century religious studies and also a serious civil rights activist who worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Like King, Heschel personally encountered many outrageous events and experiences as a civil rights activist in the America south during the 1950s and 1960s. As well, Heschel had also faced tragic experiences in Nazi Germany until he escaped.

I call attention to this part of the good rabbi’s personal narrative because in these current posts we are talking about insight, especially the insight that comes from asking questions about events and experiences that are new to us or exceptional. We ask the questions, especially why, because we want to know in a special way. “What’s that all about?” we wonder. In other words, we want insight.

Over many decades Heschel encountered the kinds of events and experiences that no doubt deeply challenged and at times changed his thinking and doing, as they would anyone seeking insight. I have wondered if the deeply challenging personal experiences of his life were not in the back of his mind when he wrote in The Prophets:

“Insight first requires much intellectual dismantling and dislocation.” For he then adds that the process “begins with a mental interim, with the cultivation of a feeling for the unfamiliar, unparalleled, incredible. It is in being involved with a phenomenon, being intimately engaged to it, courting it, as it were, that after much perplexity and embarrassment we come upon insight – upon a way of seeing the phenomenon from within. Insight is accompanied by a sense of surprise. What has been closed is suddenly disclosed. It entails genuine perception, seeing anew” (xxv).

For his part, the theologian Walter Brueggemann, in The Creative Word, speaks of a “great brooding” process (71-73). It is a process of discovery, of seeing anew. In this process we are

“in touch with a mystery that cannot be too closely shepherded, as in the Torah, or protested against, as in the prophets. There is here a not-knowing, a waiting to know, a patience about what is yet to be discerned, and a respect for not knowing that must be honored and not crowded. This way does not seek conclusions for immediate resolutions. It works at a different pace because it understands that its secrets cannot be forced” (71).

Wisdom and insight, he continues, are found in the kind of engagement with events and experiences in the world that entail

“fascination, imagination, patience, attentiveness to detail, and finally, observation of the regularities which seem to govern. Wisdom is found in the experience of the specific, concrete experiences which individuals discern for themselves. . . . That is where wisdom shall be found – in the stuff of life, the world, our experience. . . . It holds for the patient, diligent observer what needs to be known” (72-73).

Intellectual dismantling and dislocation. Great brooding. Discerning what is not evident. A sense of surprise at seeing anew. Such is both the cost and the yield to the people seeking what the wisdom literature calls “understanding words of insight” (Proverbs 1:2).

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Sadiq Alam (permission via Creative Commons)