Making sense of wisdom?


At different stages of my spiritual journey, different parts of the Bible that had seemed dull or irrlevant before suddenly started making sense to me. Still, for most of my Christian life, I have struggled with Old Testament wisdom. To be fair, books like proverbs, ecclesiastes and Solomon's Song contain great poetry, stunning metaphors and disarming humour.

But in my charismatic days it seemed so un-spiritual. Not so much because Ecclesiastes pours out chilling and sobering realism (that would be his definition, mine is more like frustration) on my slightly overheated triumphalism faith, which always hoped that success revival was just around the corner. But rather because the proverbs were about ordinary things and everyday life and not so much about great breakthroughs and making history. In my experience, systematic theologians do not quote them a lot, nor indeed would most fiery evangelists.

Later, when eventually various influences helped me to discover that the Gospel is actually not a formula for spiritual bliss but the story of God and our world and that revelation is unfolding within history, I was troubled by the observation that wisdom literature was almost completely silent about God acting and intervening in history. And I still struggle with the apparent lack of hope in the face of death and thr frutilty of life that Ecclesiastes seems to breathe.

Over recent weeks I took a fresh look at these old sayings that belong to a culture so radically different from ours, and discovered - much to my surprise - that there is a lot to learn (perhaps this is the reason why I scored 67% Jewish and only 18% Christian in an online "test" of Germany's biggest weekly newspaper about which religion suits me best this week?). Actually, wisdom is all about learning from life. And the fear of God is what keeps us humble and open enough to remain learners for the rest of our lives:

The almost complete absence of abstract concepts started to be refreshing rather than troubling. These people were not sitting in ivory towers of theological correctness - the were actually living their lives before God. Modernity has been obesessed with systems and terrified by disorder and chaos. Here we meet a sense of order that does not develop into abstract theory and foundationalism. These Hebrews did not even have a single term for the multi-layered experience we have come to call “the world” - a single cosmos governed by unchanging laws. But they discovered islands of order in a troubled world. They saw similarities in human relationships and the events of nature. And they knew God as the inexplicable mystery in everything they saw and touched. When our theological, political and personal systems disintegrate, and many of our “principles” turn out to be mere projections, this is where we can start again: Life. The little things. The ordinary and, as philosophers would say, the contingent.

So we can be secure in God's world even if we cannot explain everything that goes on in our lives and in history as a whole. We do not have to have all the answers, but we keep learning from our experience. Israel was inhabiting (to borrow Lesslie Newbigin's terminology) God's story of liberation and reconciliation so deeply that it did not feel the need to refer to the obvious at every opportunity by mentioning God's name. Now, some might misinterpret this as “secular” because we are suffering from a heavy dose of spiritualism and the enlightenment split between God on one hand and the world of everday life on the other (that had its own rules and had to be understood rationally). The Hebrews were quite pragmatic in their approach. In our days, a possible parallel would be alternative medicine: For example, some doctors I know use acupucture to treat their patients. It works quite well even though they cannot explain the cure with scientific models of modern medicine. They have learned from other people's experience. But I can remember some Christians who thought, just because science cannot “prove” how it works and the Bible does not mention it, it has to be dangerous. But there is nothing religious about it, no spells, no magic or invocations of some sort of powers and you do not subscribe to a certain worldview (as some fundamentalist suspect). You just have to know where to put the needle in.

Finally, Proverbs gives us a lesson about learning from other cultures. In chapters 22 & 23 it includes some sayings of Amenemope, who was an Egyptian. Truth and genuine human experience are not limited to the people of God. So there is a lot to discover and to learn and God has given us liberty to do just that. We do not have to read only christian books, send our children to Christian schools, watch Christian television, buy from Christian companies and avoid everything else. Reading proverbs can make you laugh at strange humour (like the graphic description of drunkenness in ch. 23), you may frown and disagree emphatically with other verses (like the view of women and the physical discipline of children), sometimes they even seem to contradict each other - like so many of our experiences in life. These Proverbs are not a call to obedience in the first place but an opportunity to learn how to judge ourselves, other people and situations both critically and wisely.

Old Testament wisdom provides not much in the way of material for lofty theories. But if we learn to keep an open mind, to listen to our experiences even if they do not fit our doctrine prejudice, to see what connects us to people of other faiths and cultures because we dare to believe that God could teach us important things through them, ithen the books have served a purpose. And it might even help us create opportunities to include others in conversations about this God who is so deeply involved with our world.