©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Carter Begin Sadat handshakeThese posts on wisdom and human mutuality have been raising urgent questions about why we tend to limit the reach of wisdom to some people but not to others. For we have been seeing what it means that wisdom, according to Scripture, delights in “all humanity.” As further evidence, the previous post looked at Lady Wisdom’s vital role for sustaining the unity-in-diversity of human life. She is, we concluded, a huge fan of human mutuality, not of uniformity or sameness. And she is an  agency of shalom amid that diversity.

That wisdom is for all humankind is affirmed centuries later by Jesus, in Roman-occupied Palestine, where diverse cultures abounded. Today, it is usually Jesus’ roles as a healer, miracle worker, and savior that are emphasized. Of course he is also known as a teacher but, to our loss, little emphasis has been placed on Jesus’ rather significant role as a teacher of wisdom. If you are a Christian reading this, stop and think about this for a minute. When was the last time, or the only time, that you heard a sermon on Jesus as a wisdom teacher? I sometimes ask this question to congregations and classes; it is  rare to see a hand go up. (Perhaps in some later posts we can spend some time looking at “Jesus the wisdom teacher.”)

Here, I just want to draw attention to a kind of riddle that Jesus makes about himself and John the Baptist. Jesus has been having a rather difficult time talking to a mixed audience that just doesn’t get John, and you can feel Jesus’ frustration building. He’s tried various ways to help them “get’ John, but to no avail.

To what shall I liken you, then? Jesus finally replies. You’re like silly children. We played dance music but you did not dance, so we played a funeral dirge but you did not mourn. John came fasting both wine and bread, like a holy, saintly man. But you say John has a demon. On the other hand, I’m eating and drinking and you say I’m a glutton, a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.

His frustration then boils over in a cryptic comment, which he leaves with the crowd to solve: “But wisdom is proved right [vindicated; justified] by all her children” (Luke 7:35).

If you want to know who can be seen responding wisely to wisdom, “Wisdom is proved right by her actions,” which is the way Matthew’s Gospel ends the riddle (11:19). Simply put, Jesus seems to be saying, look at what people do. This echoes a prominent teaching of Proverbs, that by their actions people will be known as being wise or foolish. One wonders if that crowd ever figured out that wisdom is available to all sorts of people, including sinners, apparently. As David Ford writes Christian Wisdom, an exceptionable book, wisdom has many children. To explain further, Ford notes that the little word “all” in Luke 7:35 stresses “the diversity of the children and how hard it can be to see the family likeness” (p. 15).

There is also this affirmation of wisdom in relation to human mutuality in the epistle of James, a letter attributed to a brother of Jesus: “If any of you is deficient in wisdom, let him ask God for it, who gives with open hand to all men” (1:5; Weymouth New Testament). This epistle carries so many features of the Hebrew wisdom tradition that its author, says wisdom scholar Ben Witherington, “has a commitment to a typical Wisdom agenda” (Jesus the Sage; p. 237.)

I think I’ve said enough for now, to get some conversation started, about the wisdom norms of peaceableness and human mutuality. See “Leave a reply,” below.

So far in this series of posts on the wisdom tradition, we have seen that its literature reveals wisdom as an agency of shalom (well-being, wholeness, flourishing) and of human unity-in-diversity. This has helped me immensely to understand why reliance on wisdom is a vital means to enable Christians, Muslims, Jews, and others to work cooperatively and peaceably together in their communities, nations, and international relations.

In the next few posts, I would like to move this discussion from the realm of ancient ideas to the contemporary street in order to illustrate some of the challenges that will be faced in our day when trying to actually implement wisdom’s peaceable (shalomic?) way.


©2014 by Charles Strohmer

wisdom traditionIn the previous post, we looked at one of two instances in Proverbs 8 that are noteworthy for understanding the wisdom norm of human mutuality and that raise urgent questions about why we limit the reach of wisdom to some people but not to others. Here we will look at the second instance. The passage is remarkable in its implications.

Wisdom, again speaking in the first person, reveals: 1) her presence with God before the process of creation, (2) her presence during the process of creation, and 3) her presence in the inhabitable world among human beings.

I was appointed from eternity, from the beginning, before the world began. . . . I was there when he [God] set the heavens in place . . . when he gave the sea its boundaries . . . when he marked out the foundations of the earth. . . . I was the craftsman at his side. I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence, rejoicing in his whole world, rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in [all] mankind [bene ‘adam] (8:25-31).

Among scholars, this may be the most debated passage in all of the wisdom literature. We’re not going into that debate here, but it does seem safe to conclude that the creative task wasn’t any sort of drudgery! The image is one of the great joy that Lady Wisdom had in God and in creation, and in the great delight she took in human beings. How contrary this is to some words from Hamlet on the subject. Having just brilliantly praised man as “the quintessence of dust” – How noble in reason! How infinite in faculties! How like an angel! How like a god! – he suddenly turns and declares with disgust, “Man delights me not.” Apparently he was in a bit of a blue funk in that scene. But whatever else the passage in Proverbs conveys, it is not Hamlet’s view.

But what we really need to see is that, in the text, wisdom is being depicted as both personal and relational: to God; to creation; to human beings. In other words, wisdom is not being presented here as any sort of abstract idea, or abstract entity, or as ideological, or as any sort of -ism but, rather, as personal and relational. Again, there is no scholarly consensus on just what this means, and this short post is not the place to start down that road. Ontological difficulties aside, the fact remains that wisdom is portrayed with an otherness that is somehow both personal and relational to God, to all of creation, and to all humankind.

I like the way Hebrew scholar Alan Lenzi puts it. When discussing Proverbs 8, Lenzi writes that wisdom is a personality; she is a “me” (Proverbs 8:22) who speaks at length in her own name, about having been created by God before the beginning of the world, about her primacy in nature, and about her delight in all human life. Lenzi concludes that wisdom is no “intellectual tool or abstract instrument.” She is, instead, a “personal presence” in the world. (Lenzi, “Proverbs 8:22-31: Three Perspectives on Its Composition,” Journal of Biblical Literature 125, no. 4, 2006: 687-714; his emphasis.)

diversityIt is both assumed and repeatedly indicted throughout the biblical wisdom literature, in a wealth of images and contexts, that wisdom has a personal relational presence with all human beings, with all of creation, and with God. Because of this strong emphasis, I have summarized this in my writings, elsewhere, as the “wisdom norm of relations.”

It is also important to grasp the kind of mutuality that is being implied in the text. It is not, for instance, uniformity. Neither are human distinctions considered illusory. Nor is the text indicating that human diversity is in a process of being eliminated, such as by being subsumed into a universal sameness. Rather, paradoxically, one might even say miraculously, the text indicates a oneness of humanity in its diversity, and that she, Lady Wisdom, is God’s agency (means) for handling that. Human difference and diversity is a good and praiseworthy thing.

In other words, because wisdom is a vital agency in the holding together and sustaining of a multifarious, variform earth, she is also a vital agency supporting the good, creational unity-in-diversity of human life. As a huge fan of human mutuality, not of uniformity or sameness, wisdom delights in “all humanity” (Proverbs 8:4, 16, 31; 9:4).

As an aside, and although I’m not a expert on the Qur’an, it seems somewhat to correspond in at least two places to the good unity-in-diversity being depicted in the Proverbs 8 text. Surah 5:48, for instance, reads: “Had Allah willed He could have made you one community. But that He may try you by that which He hath given you (He hath made you as ye are). So vie one with another in good works.” And Surah 49:13: “We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that ye may know one another” (Pickthall’s translation). (If I’m amiss in recognizing this correspondence, someone say why.)

In the next post we will look at ways in which Jesus and the New Testament affirm the wisdom tradition’s norm of human mutuality.


©2014 by Charles Strohmer

WisdomIn the previous post, the first in this series on opening up the wisdom tradition, I explained why we may have settled for far too thin an understanding of the wisdom tradition, like playing the song of wisdom on only one note. And I promised to share some of my homework with you, my discoveries about the “much more” of the tradition. That will begin here, where I thought it might be helpful just to list some significant but little known facts about the historic wisdom tradition.

To me, these are some of the songs the ancient sages played and want us to hear today. I’ll attempt to play these “songs” in the following posts. Do let me know if any of these surprise you, and why. Or just ponder them and try to hear how they might be speaking to you in fresh, practical ways today.

The wisdom tradition and its literature:

  • Is not partisan, sectarian, doctrinaire, or dictatorial; rather, it is for all people everywhere;
  • Is not nationalistic but intercultural and international;
  • Is fundamentally about peace; in particular, it shows reasonable and responsible ways for building cooperation and peace among diverse peoples;
  • Is not about religious instruction; instead, it focuses on practical, everyday issues and concerns, on what today is often called “secular” life and activity;
  • Does not present wisdom as an abstract entity, or as ideological, or as any sort of -ism but as personal and relational;
  • Reveals wisdom as a highly respected legal arbiter in places of authority in the old-world Middle East;
  • Was essential in the education that political advisers of ancient kings received;
  • Played a huge role in international relations, foreign policy, and diplomacy;
  • Accepts the order and regularity of life, its certainties and its predictability, while not denying disorder and irregularity – the dysfunction, brokenness, and sometimes hard cruelties, tragedies, and meaninglessness of life;
  • Shows that we learn wisdom from one another;
  • Presents wisdom as a way toward cooperative and peaceable relationships and activities;
  • Was central to the teaching of Jesus in Roman occupied Palestine.

This series of posts seeks to help us to hear such “songs” of wisdom. For the sages who gave us the tradition seek to involve us in much more than memorizing pithy adages and clever maxims or in simply knowing the content of the wisdom texts. As classic as those songs are, the sages played many others.

The heart of the matter, as I see it, is that the sages who gave us the tradition have a particular way of a way of reasoning about life in the world, about relationships and activities. And that way of reasoning is one of peace. But not just any peace. As the book of Proverbs puts it, the paths of wisdom are paths of shalom. That means something special, and we’ll pick this up in the next post.


©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Wisdom TraditionTruth be told, any single answer to “What is the wisdom tradition?” will probably be inadequate. The problem arises because the closer you look into the tradition, the more you see that what you thought you knew about it wasn’t enough. For instance, when our thoughts turn to the wisdom tradition, many of us immediately think of its literature, especially the book of Proverbs. Fair enough. But as important as Proverbs is to the tradition, the tradition cannot be reduced to that book. This is because the sages (wisdom teachers) who gave us the tradition seek to involve us in much more than memorizing clever adages and maxims. So “the book of Proverbs” is not a sufficient answer to “what is the wisdom tradition?”

Even when other historic wisdom books are added to the list, such as Job and Ecclesiastes (from the Jewish Bible), or (from the Catholic Bible) Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon, we still lack a sufficient answer. There is much more to the wisdom tradition than its books or even than knowing the content of those books.

The “much more” emerges by beginning to get under the skin, so to speak, of the tradition. This entails more than just comprehending that Proverbs is filled with clever adages and maxims or that the book of Job is about a guy who endured a long period of horrible suffering but still believed in God. In other words, this is not about just “figuring out” the plot of a text so that you can retell it to others. Instead, the task would, in large part, entail closely engaging with the wisdom writings over time.

This would mean trying to discover, for instance: why the actual proverbs in the book of Proverbs don’t begin until chapter ten; or why many of the proverbs are contrasts, and why some of those contrasts don’t seem to make sense; or why the author of Ecclesiastes is such a jaded sage; or what theologies informed the different councils of Job’s friends and why did those theologies miss the mark when it came to justifying Job’s suffering. Further, what kind of take-aways do such discoveries have for our lives and work today? This is just a glimpse at a vast range of discoveries awaiting close engagement with the texts (helped along by some good works of wisdom scholarship).

The “much more” that I am hinting at will also slowly reveal itself in conversations with others about the texts. These could be conversations such as you could begin on this blog (see “Leave a reply”), or like the study group I meet with regularly at a coffee shop. Or they could be those “conversations with an author” that can occur in the margins when reading a good book that challenges your thinking about wisdom.

I’m not trying to make your head hurt here! And I’m not asking you to do any of this. That’s not the point of this series of blog posts. (Although, heart on sleeve, I do hope that these posts inspire you to get with the program! But that will be up to you.) I merely wanted to point out that settling for far too thin a description of the wisdom tradition is like trying to play a song on only one note.

People who have been closely engaging with the tradition for a long time – and I am one of those oddities – are regularly amazed at how the tradition keeps opening itself up, both to the discovery of more of its basic notions and in their relevance for today. We are not claiming anything out of the ordinary. Like people dedicated to any field, it just comes from having explored the territory for so long. To return to the music metaphor, like a pianist, after awhile you get used to “just playing.” You’re not thinking about the basics. You don’t stop first before your concert to remind yourself what the scale is. You’re just up on stage jammin’. But a musician may get asked, “How did you play that?” And then teasing out an answer will take some explaining. Teasing out some insights about the wisdom tradition is where we’re headed in this series of posts.

The Sages. One of my keen interests has been in the sages, the ancient wisdom teachers who developed the tradition. Understanding the founders is key to understanding the tradition. In particular, I have been trying to gain insights into what the sages were on about, especially how they thought, how they looked at life, why they looked at life that way, and what that might beneficially mean for us today. The process has helped me immensely in seeing some often overlooked core features of the tradition and in concluding that wisdom means much more than I ever thought it did.

So I now hear the sages playing some inspiring old tunes and I’ve been trying to learn how to play them today. They are variations on the theme of building cooperation and peace amid diverse cultures – from family life to foreign policy – through what I call the diplomacy of wisdom. On this blog I want to us to try start hearing that music not only today but for today’s adversarial and broken world. The songs are peaceable, relational, and for everyone. We’ll begin this with the next post.