|Prov 8:10-17: Choose my instruction instead
of silver, knowledge rather than choice gold, for wisdom is more precious than rubies, and
nothing you desire can compare with her. I, wisdom, dwell together with prudence; I
possess knowledge and discretion. To fear the LORD is to hate evil; I hate pride and
arrogance, evil behavior and perverse speech. Counsel and sound judgment are mine; I have
understanding and power. By me kings reign and rulers make laws that are just; by me
princes govern, and all nobles who rule on earth. I love those who love me, and
those who seek me find me.
Job 38:1-3: Then the LORD answered Job out
of the storm. He said: "Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without
knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me."
Ecc 1:13, 16-18: I devoted myself to study and to explore by wisdom
all that is done under heaven. What a heavy burden God has laid on men! [. . .] I thought
to myself, "Look, I have grown and increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled
over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge." Then I
applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I
learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind. For with much wisdom comes much
sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.
I Cor 1:18-25: For the message of the cross is foolishness to those
who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is
written: "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent
I will frustrate." Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the
philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in
the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through
the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand miraculous
signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to
Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks,
Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than
man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength.
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Wisdom, in all its variations, invites us to find a fit
between our behavior and the divine order of the world we live in. Christians
believe that God constructed the world with Wisdom at his side and, therefore, that there
is a continuum between our personal lives and that of creation. Certain behavior
leads to success, and other behavior leads to failure. However, it is not quite so
simple to say that we easily understand what success and failure add up to. Wisdom
also teaches us what our limits are--what we do not understand, how blind we may be to
God's true wisdom for our lives.
There is more than one kind of wisdom. The kind of
wisdom praised by Proverbs is practical. It amounts to a skill in living,
an insight into varying circumstances, and a certain shrewdness in dealing with a variety
of personalities. This method of wisdom at its best is discipleship. More than the
technical mastery of a few key insights, practical wisdom cultivates an internalized
habit, a way of living in the world. Wisdom grows into a cultivated good-sense that
sizes up situations. Job and Ecclesiastes, on the other hand,
teach us that wisdom has a limited potential. It cannot solve everything. God
may leave us with questions, or we may discover that what we thought was wisdom breaks
apart before the circumstances. These aspects of wisdom, then, are more
interrogative in nature.
Because of wisdom's practical side, some have suggested
that the wisdom tradition of Ancient Israel is essentially secular. There is some
truth to this suggestion because many of the proverbs of Israel share the same kinds of
concerns that other ancient wisdom traditions share. Proverbs' God-inspired
editor was quite willing to adapt several Egyptian proverbs (cf. Prov 22:17ff.) Like its
other Near eastern counterparts, the later chapters of Proverbs mainly teach
ethical maxims and day-to-day management of circumstances. Take, for example, the
biblical portrait of the foolish and the wise. The fool is one who refuses apt words, who
is lazy, and who is always undercuting others. The wise are those who speak fitting words,
who care for others in the community, and who know how to avoid misunderstandings. These
are observations that can be found in almost any culture. However, it would be a mistake
to understand this wisdom as finally secular. Israel's wisdom ultimately begins in the
fear of God and has its confirmation in the Torah. Even supposedly
"secular" insights are recontextualized within the worship and service of God.
This suggests a manner for us in approaching the limited wisdom of literature.
Practical wisdom is both inductive and deductive.
It works by observing specific cases in life and applying general maxims to those
circumstances, yet it also begins with a sense of divine revelation, for Yahweh has spoken
to what is good and evil. Literature, as a source of wisdom, can be evaluated from
two complementary directions: 1) we can take an inductive approach that seeks to gather
together principles for living from the stories and poems we read, and 2) we can take a
deductive approach that tests these examples by scripture. It isn't always true that
the world portrayed in poetry and fiction matches up to the real world, but even the time
we take to test a fictional setting against the actuals of life and relationships can help
strengthen our sense of what existence is like. Equally, literature can help fill
out our sense of the truths of scripture because we learn to compare, contrast, and
This practice can become rather reductive if we do not
keep in mind, however, that wisdom also has an interrogative side. It asks questions
to bring us to the end of our easy answers. We run the risk of a kind of
"wisdom" that treats literature as ethical material to evaluate but then dispose
of, as if literature were simply content to master. The impulse to wisdom, if it is
shorn from its foundation in God, can prize itself for technique, for the ability
to manipulate situations and manage persons. The author of Ecclesiastes
reminds us that such an approach is finally empty; it is but grasping wind. Our
attempts at achieving success are vain, for the end of the matter is to fear God.
There is much literature that brings this theme home to us in varying ways. No one
can read Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, for example, without seeing the
disturbing side of a relentless pursuit for success. And no one can ever quite
answer the mysteries that T.S. Eliot writes of in The Four Quartets. We end
only too aware of our limits. Literature is often wise when it raises questions without
attempting to answer them.
The New Testament also reminds us that human wisdom,
conceived of in yet another way, with all its pretensions, may end up seeing God's wisdom
as foolishness. Human wisdom has its noetic blindness, after all. Erasmus suggested
as much when he noted that those of the world and those of God each believe the other to
be insane. To pour out your life on something other than the brightest, richest, and
most powerful makes no sense to the person who does not believe in an eternal reward or
the one who does not think bliss is possible with God. In some sense, then, human
wisdom is also a matter of control beliefs, those essential assumptions that
shape the rest of the way we see and understand existence. This is one reason that a
Christian may evaluate a work of literature in very different fashion from a person of
another persuasion. The freedom that a poem by Allen Ginsberg claims may seem like
liberty to an atheist and bondage to a Christian. The wisdom each one derives about
life from Ginsberg will seem impenetrable to the other.
* * * * *
Central insight: Literature can help
the reader develop wisdom, both practically and interrogatively. It is also a place
where differing worldviews meet in disagreement over just what that wisdom is.
Suggestions for Application: Pull
together a particular theme that a text offers as an example of wisdom, show how a text
questions our preconceived understanding and perhaps challenges our self-assurance, or
show how a text serves as a site for contesting worldviews.