©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.”