New Life for Old Words

David F. Ford | Posted on 09/01/09

I remember, in the course of ten years during which my main project was writing a book on wisdom, sitting in a meeting of what Cambridge University calls its Press Syndicate. This is the body of academics and Cambridge University Press editors and executives who meet every two weeks with an agenda that is usually more than a thousand pages long, consisting mainly of the books being proposed for publication by the CUP editors around the world. Each proposal includes a summary of the book, readers’ reports, and the case for publication (for the twelve years I served on the syndicate this was a wonderfully educative form of confidential access to the state of research and informed opinion across the sciences, arts, and humanities). On this occasion one of the books proposed was what was later published in 2005 as A Handbook of Wisdom: Psychological Perspectives, edited by Robert Sternberg and Jennifer Jordan. As I read through the papers on it I remember thinking, “At last! Wisdom really is going mainstream ... again.”

It is always easy to exaggerate the significance of your own current concern; you are constantly scanning and surfing for references to it, and so naturally it seems to be everywhere. My most recent Google search showed about 66 million references to wisdom, headed by a mediocre Wikipedia entry — though its first reference is to an article by Robert Sternberg. Yet I do not think it was just my wisdom-tinted spectacles that convinced me, during and after the years spent researching and thinking about the subject, that wisdom really is making a comeback. I certainly found the concept being used in all sorts of unexpected contexts — political, economic, environmental, educational, legal, business, social scientific — as well as expected ones, such as philosophical, religious, moral, cultural, and lifestyle. But more than that was a growing sense that our civilization’s mood was favorable to it, that for all sorts of convergent reasons this was an idea whose time had come ... again.

If I were choosing one leading reason for this, it would be the growing sense of the complexity and interconnectedness of the main spheres of reality and the need in dealing with them to combine knowledge, understanding, imagination, experience, good judgment, and decision-making with a long-term perspective.

Take, for example, the rise to prominence of ecology and environmental concerns during the twentieth century. This was a recognition that, for all the progress in specific sciences and technologies, and for all the effectiveness of certain economic and political approaches, it had been nothing short of disastrous to have allowed them free rein without accountability to the common good of the planet as a whole and to the future generations who have to inhabit it. So ecology developed as an attempt to understand the natural world in its complex interconnectedness by researching the long-term effects of natural processes and human behavior. But it soon became apparent that if we are to create a habitable and sustainable environment, ecology is not enough. What economic, monetary, and political policies are needed? What business values and practices? What moral and religious understanding and practices? What changes in daily life? To such questions there can be no formulaic or packaged answers, especially when their interrelation is realized. They stretch all our capacities — spiritual, intellectual, moral, imaginative, social, and practical — and one term for the desired answers is wisdom.

Most of us recognize the need for wisdom in our personal and family lives, all those discernments, judgments, and decisions that have to be made in our careers, commitments, friendships, marriages, and the bringing up of children. Increasingly, as I have come to realize, the need for wisdom in all spheres of life is being recognized, and the astonishing thing perhaps is how it ever went into eclipse.

I studied classics (Greek and Latin) for my first degree, and it was clear that the Greek and Roman civilizations had little doubt about the primacy of wisdom in human affairs. Moving on to Christian theology confirmed the importance of wisdom from another angle. Part of the fascination of how Christian wisdom has been shaped over the centuries lies in its constant wrestle with both the Greco-Roman and the Hebraic aspects of its inheritance. Classical Christian theology of the early Church and of the Middle Ages and Reformation is unthinkable without its interaction with many aspects of Greco-Roman culture, especially its philosophy; think of Origen, Augustine, Bonaventure, and Thomas Aquinas. Likewise, Christian ethics and approaches to church organization were strongly influenced by the civilization they were part of, and Christians made much use of the literature, rhetoric, and teaching methods of the civilization in which they were formed. Today around the world these sorts of interactions are multiplied as the 2 billion or so Christians engage with many different cultures that have their own traditions of wisdom and much else.

One of the areas in which I have found the category of wisdom most useful and most needed in the twenty-first century is in dialogue between faiths. As I have become more involved in inter-faith activity over the past fifteen years, especially with Jews and Muslims, wisdom again and again proved its value as something we were all seeking and which went very deep in each of our traditions.

It is not that we mean exactly the same thing by wisdom or that there are not deep differences (within each tradition as well as between them) about how it should shape life today. Just to take one major difference between Christianity and both Judaism and Islam: each of the latter two has long and complex traditions of interpreting their scriptures as law in ways that differ from anything in Christianity (which in itself is full of differences regarding law; Roman canon lawyers have little in common with Quakers on the subject), and they often associate wisdom closely with authoritative jurists. But there are also strong analogies between what the three mean by wisdom and how we seek it. I became convinced that finding ways of seeking wisdom together as Jews, Christians, and Muslims is one of the most important items on the twenty-first-century agenda.

But how can this actually happen? So much inter-faith engagement is superficial and short-term, failing to combine the core concerns of each faith with the realities of contemporary living. The breakthrough for me came when I sat on the fringe of meetings of a group of Jewish scholars of Tanakh and Talmud, philosophers and theologians who in the early 1990s developed a practice called textual reasoning. The meetings were extraordinarily lively, with much passionate argument, laughter, and a remarkable range of learning, both ancient and modern. The great model from the past was the achievement of the sages who were responsible for the Talmud. These wise teachers virtually refounded Judaism in the aftermath of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by the Romans in 70 AD. But textual reasoning was not concerned merely with repeating what the sages said; the scholars recognized that the heart of the Talmud’s wisdom was in doing justice not only to the religion they had inherited but also to the new situation of a traumatized people. This was a tradition responding creatively, intelligently, and practically — in a word, wisely — to the radical challenges it faced. For Jews after the Holocaust there was a comparable challenge, and textual reasoning offered a wisdom with three main elements, each of which I as a Christian found attractive.

The first element is deeper study of scripture and tradition with a view to wise interpretation for today. The second is critical engagement with modernity. This is about discerning as wisely as possible what in modernity should be affirmed, what should be rejected, and what should be creatively transformed. Obviously, one thing to be rejected in much modern thought is its dismissal of wisdom as a central concern. To some, wisdom came to represent the traditional when tradition was often seen as the enemy of new approaches and scientific methods. The orientation was more to the future than the past, and the tendency existed to reject the past and start again with a rational, systematic approach — or at least to demand that the past demonstrate its wisdom afresh. So wisdom’s deep roots in tradition became a reason to sideline it, a neglect that failed to appreciate either the value of tradition or the many other dimensions of wisdom. As so often occurs, it has taken bitter experience of the folly of modernity’s bias against the wisdom of the past, and of its need to gather wisdom from wherever it can be found, before wisdom has begun to be rediscovered as something positive. One thinks of adolescent rejection of parents until the complex challenges of life show that maybe even they have something to teach.

The third element of textual reasoning that resonated with me is wisdom-seeking engagement with other faiths, especially Christianity and Islam, Judaism’s Abrahamic siblings. In this vein, some of the Jews joined with some of the Christians on the fringe, and soon afterward with some Muslims, to establish scriptural reasoning. Scriptural reasoning is now practiced in both universities and seminaries, as well as in schools, local community settings, and among members of synagogues, churches, and mosques and at regional, national, and international gatherings. For me, the past fifteen years of reading Tanakh, Bible, and Qur’an with Jews, fellow Christians, and Muslims has been a rich experience in many ways, but one way of summarizing it is as the building up of an inter-faith wisdom-seeking community. It is early days yet for this, but it is encouraging to see so many older and younger academics and ordinary members of synagogues, churches, and mosques taking part.

Earlier this year I was surprised by an invitation from the government of Oman to lecture in the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque and in the Institute of Shariah Sciences in Muscat. For the Grand Mosque lecture I was asked to speak on what I as a Christian theologian had learnt about engaging with other faiths (especially Islam and Judaism) and with Western modernity. It was a chance to attempt to distill into short maxims what I and others had learnt through the years of involvement in scriptural reasoning and in the Cambridge Inter-Faith Programme, during most of which I had also been trying to write on wisdom. The lecture ended with a nine-point Muscat Manifesto, which reads as follows (with brief comments added):

1. Love God and each other, and have compassion for all God’s creation. This is essential to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and therefore to their relations with each other.

2. Go deeper into our own faith, into each other’s, and into commitment to the common good. This is perhaps the central generative principle of inter-faith engagement. If any of the three is neglected, the encounter is endangered.

3. Seek wisdom through our own scripture, history, and theology; through each other’s; and through engagement with the arts, sciences, philosophy, and other sources of wisdom. This affirms scripture-centered wisdom-seeking and extends it into other spheres.

4. Beware of assimilating to modernity and beware of rejecting it; seek to heal and transform it. The religions may need each other most in discerning how to cope with the developments of Western modernity. Each has in different ways been challenged, compromised, and traumatized by the experience.

5. Form personal relationships, groups, networks, and organizations dedicated to inter-faith conversation, collaboration, and education at all levels, from international to local. The building of forms of collegiality able to cope with massive differences, fears, and enmities is one of the great challenges of the twenty-first century. Often the secret of such collegiality is the blessing of friendship.

6. Encourage the best communicators, artists, writers, and teachers to spread the message of love of God and neighbor, drawing on the richest sources. It may be that some of the most fruitful inter-faith thought and action will flow from the efforts of gifted communicators and artists from different faiths to respond creatively to their problems and to each other.

7. Cultivate a long-term vision of a habitable world, created and sustained by God for the good of all. Communities of faith have the resources to take a long-term, transgenerational view of human life. The ecological crisis is only the most immediate of the problems that call for this perspective.

8. Create signs of hope within and among our faiths, inspired by the letter A Common Word between Us and You (a letter on love of God and neighbor, sent in 2007 by Muslim leaders to Christian leaders) and the responses to it. The responsibility of Jews, Christians, and Muslims is not to play God and try to take control of the future, but modestly to offer signs that point to the future God promises. Central to these should be signs of love of God and neighbor.

9. Do all this for the sake of God and God’s good purposes. Inter-faith engagement suffers when it is only instrumental, even in the service of laudable aims such as understanding, collaboration, peace, or justice. In scriptural reasoning, for example, understanding and collegiality spring best from reading scriptures together for God’s sake, “for the sake of the Name.” This by no means excludes more practical aims, but the intention to please God above all is distinct and primary.

Civilizational Wisdom

Inter-faith wisdom is not enough, as it can easily become preoccupied with religions and their internal problems. The nine maxims encourage each of the religions to be responsible in its own way for the wider common good. The God who created all is concerned for the future of all, and therefore for all creation (1), for the common good (2), for philosophy, the arts, and the sciences (3), for modernity in its secular as well as its religious aspects (4), for institutions and relationships (5), for communication in many modes (6), for the whole ecosystem across generations (7), and for all signs of hope, whether explicitly religious or not (8). The engagement of faiths with each other should not just be about mutual blessing but also about blessing all humanity and creation, and above all about blessing the name of God (9), however that may be worded. This is the contribution of the Abrahamic faiths to what might be called a civilizational wisdom, whose purpose is to serve the common good by bringing the various religious and secular wisdoms of our world into critical and constructive engagement with each other.

There have been many surprising insights for me in thinking about wisdom. One of the most striking was the importance of cries. This dawned on me through reading the book of Proverbs: wisdom cries out, we are meant to cry out for wisdom, and wisdom is most crucial in matters of deepest and most passionate concern: our loves, our core desires, our sufferings, our vocations. This is as true in the public as in the private realm: one might see departments of government as responding to cries for peace and security, for prosperity, for education, for health, for justice, for housing, and so on.

The centrality of cries was massively reinforced by the book of Job, which fascinated me more and more, and by noticing how the Bible is pervaded by cries, with the Psalms being almost pure cry. Wisdom-seeking that hopes to be true to God and to the realities of our world is drawn into the discernment of cries. Above all, there are the cries of love: God’s love for us and all creation; our love for God, each other, and creation; and the anguished cries of those longing for love. This suggests the last word about wisdom: that it is the wisdom of love. If the love of wisdom is recognized as essential to the wisdom of love, then the case for the comeback is complete.

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