Mutuality: Recovering a Jewel for U.S. – Middle East Relations

PeacemakingIn January on this blog, beginning here, were four articles that detailed the seemingly intractable problem of overcoming the secular / religious chasm of U.S. – Middle East relations. In a follow-up article, we looked at many behind-the-scenes initiatives by the U.S. State Department and many NGOs that focus on overcoming this problem. Today, I want to close off this informal series by calling attention to vital role that the wisdom tradition is playing in these initiatives.

It’s quite a dilemma, the political tug of war between secularism and religion in U.S. – Mideast relations. After all, what fellowship does religious disbelief in God (in political decisions) have to do with religious belief in God (in political decisions)? I hold the view that trying to wrest one side into the other’s camp as the means of resolution is a futile exercise at best and at worst moves the two worlds closer to a clash of civilizations, for their core beliefs conflict.

So what is the alternative? As we saw in this article, both the U.S. State Department and many NGOs and foreign policy think tanks have found a worthy and respected alternative, by bringing the secularly oriented and the religiously oriented around the table to work together on their common ground interests toward common good.

It is just here the historic wisdom tradition, especially its norm of mutuality, comes front and center into the picture. Lady Wisdom, as she is known in the book of Proverbs, cries to be heard at the rough intersection of both worlds, the religious and the secular. And she cries there not of conflict and war but of the possibilities for cooperation. She stands alongside that intersection as a focal point that offers for both worlds a way to follow her lead into a new narrative together.

What is that new narrative? The wisdom norm of mutuality offers considerable potential for building and sustaining cooperative arrangements among peoples who are different, even as different as fundamentally different as religious and secular political outlooks. How is this possible?

The wisdom norm of mutuality stresses a fact of life that we often taken far too much for granted: the interests and concerns of daily life that are held in common by all peoples everywhere, regardless of race, religion, or ethnicity, or whether we consider ourselves secular or religious. To use a Christian expression, the wisdom norm of mutuality concentrates more on who people are, not on what by the grace of God they may become.

If this seems an alien notion to us today, it is partly attributable to an age, our age, in which rigid ideological divisiveness has divided us and conditioned us to accept sectarian solutions to relational problems as normative. This sectarian dynamic has especially pitted secularly oriented worlds and religiously oriented worlds against each other.

Since time immemorial, every person on the planet has participated in the same creation, held the same basic interests, shared the common bond of what it means to be human. We all want to be able to provide for our families, to see our children raised properly and safely, to see our social environments improve, to find ways to ease the suffering of others, to increase possibilities for well-being in the world, to live peaceably with neighbors.

People everywhere have fundamental desires for such outcomes regardless of their core beliefs (provided those beliefs are not organized around violence). Believers and atheists alike are, for example, moved at the sight of starving children or families left homeless by a tragedy, and both will want to do what they can to alleviate the suffering. In fact, this is precisely where many religious groups, in particular, throughout history have excelled, in caring for people as they are, wherever they are, regardless of their beliefs.

wisdom traditionAs I understand it, the wisdom norm of mutuality does not require people to give up their core beliefs before they can start to build more cooperative and sustainable arrangements with each other (again, provided those beliefs are not organized around violence). The wisdom norm of mutuality does not require a religious or a secular party to ditch its core beliefs before cooperation between them becomes doable. What Lady wisdom does require of them is to turn their eyes to their shared human interests and concerns as human beings made in the image of God.

Our post-9/11 changed world has presented Washington and the capitals of the Middle East with landscapes of international sharp curves, turning points, and cul de sacs that diplomats, foreign ministers, policy analysts, and NGOs are trying to negotiate without misfortune. Here, wisdom is being brought in from the margins and applied with slow but increasing success. When this approach gets circulating more normatively in the DNA of U.S. – Mideast relations, a secularly organized system of international politics and a religiously oriented one will have a responsibly moral way for searching out peaceable ways ahead with each other.

However imperfectly this would be realized where these two worlds meet, it would nevertheless place vital international relationships on more cooperative footing – for the good of our publics and for a more hopeful future down the generations than current seems likely.

©2016 by Charles Strohmer

Images by permission of Creative Commons.

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wisdom traditionI 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


©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.”


©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.)