I’ve been encouraged over the last six weeks as I have preached six consecutive sermons rooted in the Letter of St. James, no doubt the most striking example in the New Testament of what is called “wisdom literature.”
As a junior in college at the University of Texas, I purchased a book, on the recommendation of a professor, entitled The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, edited by Robert Audi, and this book has been a invaluable resource over the years. And yet, this morning when I opened it up to the “w” section in search for the entry on “wisdom,” I was saddened to find only a gaping void, no entry for this term in between “_____” and “Wittgenstein.”
Saddened, but not surprised, for we live in a culture which values wisdom about as much as a rock star values humility. The causes of this cultural disdain are manifold, but I’m grateful for Fr. David’s recent emphasis, from the Christ Church pulpit, on the inverse relationship between wisdom and information, the latter of which our contemporary culture has a glut unparalleled in the history of civilization.
What is wisdom? On this perennial question the antique Greek tradition largely agrees with the ancient oracles of the Old Testament. For both traditions wisdom is concerned with how to live well. That is, there is a focus on the here and the now, on bodily, day to day existence, on the things in life which lead to happiness.
Happiness. The classical tradition of moral virtue calls it eudaimonia (a word which combines the senses of “good” and “spiritedness”). Happiness is what Jesus is getting at with his “beatitudes;” in fact, the beatudo is the Latin translation of the Greek eudaimonia. Happy is the man or woman who is humble and pure, happy are those who make peace in a destructive and divisive world (Matthew 5). This, Jesus is saying, is living well. This, James confirms, is true wisdom, true sofia.
Jesus’ perspective here is utterly Jewish: hochma (“wisdom”) is essentially knowing how to do things in the world in a “successful” (or “happy”) way. For example, a wise gardener or farmer understands principles of how the soil works, such as crop rotation. A wise parent knows how to bring about obedience without provoking or abusing. A wise communicator knows how to speak in such a way as to convince without condescending.
I tell my daughters that “God’s ways are the best ways.” They lead to life and health and peace. (Notice that I did not say “a lack of suffering.”) When we listen attentively, and “submit humbly to the Word implanted within us” (James 1:21), “it will go well with [us], and we will live long in the land” (see Eph 6:3).
This is true wisdom. This is living well in the world which, after all, God made. This is why it is so sad that “wisdom” does not even appear in a book which purports to be about philosophia (the love of wisdom).