The Problem with Wisdom, Part Two

The Problem with Wisdom, Part Two August 24, 2023

Last week I posted an essay called “The Problem with Wisdom, Part One,” inspired by a reading from the book of Proverbs that was part of the Sunday lectionary offerings that I read in church as lector recently.

The Problem with Wisdom, Part One

The focus of the reading that Sunday, and the focus of much of Proverbs is Wisdom, presented as a woman who stands at the gates and has a lot to say. Much of what she has to say in Proverbs is an ancient version of what we would call a meme, brief bits of advice or moral guidance of the sort that one might post on social media or print on a bumper sticker. But don’t expect Wisdom to be consistent in her insights—wisdom cannot be logically charted or summarized. It is always contextual. What needs to be done in the moment cannot be scripted beforehand. As I note in my essay,

Whatever wisdom is, whether I have any or not, I at least know that wisdom isn’t found in a rule book in which one looks up one’s problem in the index, turns to the appropriate page, then finds an answer that fits all situations and circumstances. Life isn’t like that. Wisdom isn’t like that.

(P.S.: It’s always fun to quote yourself)

Although much of what Wisdom says in Proverbs seems contradictory on the surface, it is clear that seeking wisdom is better than being foolish. One clear takeaway from Proverbs is that following the path of wisdom, although the path may be difficult, will eventually bring you to a good place. A slightly different take is that if you are looking for Wisdom, don’t expect it to be reducible to a PowerPoint or outline. Perhaps we should not look at the Bible as reducible in that way either.

This possibility becomes even more glaring when one turns the page to the next book in the Jewish scriptures, Ecclesiastes. As Peter Enns writes in The Sin of Certainty,

If faith in God makes zero sense to you and reasons for trusting God have fallen off a cliff of despair, you’ve got a friend in the Bible, the book of Ecclesiastes . . . Not only can God not be counted on, but life plays out as one cruel joke after another, and then you die. And God is to blame.

My goodness. No wonder Ecclesiastes only makes it into the lectionary once per year with the famous “To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven,” made famous by the Byrds in their 1963 classic “Turn, Turn, Turn.” This is not good news. What is this book even doing in the Bible? There are important lessons to be learned, none of them compatible with the neat-and-clean faith that many of us desire.

The first thing that Qohelet (the narrator of Ecclesiastes whose name is usually translated the “Preacher” or the “Teacher”) tells us is that wisdom—so honored and praised in Proverbs—is vastly overrated. Qohelet (whom some have suggested might be Solomon) has attained what amounts to wisdom by human standards and concludes that the effort was probably not worth it.

I set my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all that is done under heaven; this grievous task God has given to the sons of man . . . My heart has understood great wisdom and knowledge . . . In much wisdom is much grief, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.

Qohelet is not claiming that wisdom does not exist. He’s claiming that it doesn’t mean anything in the ultimate scheme of things. Whether one is wise or not, the world is what it is, human beings are mortal and will not be remembered after they are gone. Being human is a “grievous task,” and God set it up this way. As Quohelet writes frequently, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” Life’s a bitch and then you die.

There is no payoff for pursuing and gaining wisdom. Over and over, Qohelet undermines our natural expectations that the righteous or wise will prosper while the wicked or unwise will not, as well as our conviction that at least we are better than non-living things.

What happens to the sons of men also happens to beasts; one thing befalls them: as one dies, so dies the other. Surely, they all have one breath; man has no advantage over beasts, for all is vanity . . . The living know that they will die; but the dead know nothing. And they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten.

“Au contraire, Qohelet!” you might say. “Everything will work out in the afterlife!” But Qohelet isn’t in the mood for unsubstantiated hope.

All go to one place: all are from the dust and all return to dust. Who knows the spirit of the sons of men, which goes upward, and the spirit of the beast, which goes down to the earth?  . . .

Qohelet isn’t even attracted to the watered-down sense of immortality that consists of being remembered after one has died. Even the most famous people are forgotten within a generation or two—“the memory of them is forgotten.”

Qohelet is having what medieval mystics called a “dark night of the soul.” Anyone who seeks to follow the divine and live out faith in real time who also chooses to be honest knows what Qohelet is writing about and experiencing. As Rachel Held Evans used to say, “on the days that I believe” everything seems to be working out sort of well—but then there are the other days. Ecclesiastes is an honest expression of the times when God is silent, seems to be adversarial, and none of the rules, quick fixes, or platitudes in your arsenal or anyone else’s are the least bit effective. What to do? Qohelet suggests there’s nothing available but simply to put one foot in front of the other. “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep His commandments.”

For those who believe the Bible is intended as a coherent and consistent rulebook for how to live your life, Ecclesiastes is best ignored. But once you realize that the Bible was never intended to be a rulebook, it’s encouraging to know that Ecclesiastes, Job, and many of the Psalms that have a similarly dark message made the final cut into scripture. Someone realized that there’s no sense in lying about the ups and downs of walking with the divine. Sometimes this is exactly what faith is like.

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