Wisdom Across Religious Traditions

Crop Solomon And The Queen Of Sheba

“Wisdom Across Religious Traditions” brings together scholars of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to consider the place of wisdom in the three traditions. We will explore the theological, philosophical, scientific, and literary expressions of wisdom and the relationship of wisdom to beauty, human flourishing, and truth.  This project will be organizing a colloquium series and will develop a blog with lightning talks.  Check back soon for more information, or contact the project leader, Gabriel Reynolds.

Project team members: Gabriel Said Reynolds (Theology, contact person), Hussein Abdulsater (Classics), Khaled Anatolios (Theology), Gary Anderson (Theology), Ann Astell (Theology), Jeremy Brown (Theology), John Cavadini (Theology), Thérèse Cory (Philosophy), Jennifer Grillo (Theology), Jennifer Martin (PLS/Theology), David Medvigy (Biology), Ebrahim Moosa (History), Darcia Narvaez (Psychology), Tzvi Novick (Theology), Paulinus Odozor (Theology), Stephen Ogden (Philosophy), Cyril O’Regan (Theology), Daniel Philpott (Political Science), Mun’im Sirry (Theology)

Description

1. Wisdom in the Bible

In the eighth chapter of Proverbs, wisdom (Hebrew hokhmah) declares “The Lord created me at the beginning his work, the first of his acts of old” (Prov 8:22). In this section of Proverbs wisdom is more than knowledge or intelligence, it (or she) is a principle created at the beginning that offers guidance to humanity. At the beginning of the same chapter wisdom (a female principle as hokhmah is feminine) is described as calling out to humanity: “Does not wisdom call, does not understanding raise her voice? On the heights beside the way, in the paths she takes her stand” (Pro 8:1–2).

Proverbs is one of the Biblical “wisdom books” (together with Job, Psalms, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs, Wisdom, and Sirach), some of which are closely associated with the figure of Solomon. These books in different ways represent the conviction of Jewish writers that lives are to be guided both by the law and by wisdom. They also show that knowledge of religious and mundane truths is not limited to prophets, or even to scholars of the law. All those who seek and follow counsel have access to truth. Thus wisdom offers the possibility of enlightenment to all, defying conventional categories. However, right counsel itself is infused with the principles of the law and divine teaching. In the book of Job God asks, “Who has put wisdom in the clouds, or given understanding to the mists?” (Job 38:36).

In the New Testament Jesus is closely associated with wisdom (Greek sophia). Luke writes about the boy Jesus “And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him” (Luk 2:40) When Jesus teaches in synagogue in Mark 6 those present as “Where did this man get all this? What is the wisdom given to him?” (Mar 6:1). In Matthew, speaking as Wisdom personified, Jesus declares, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Mat 11:28-29). And Paul states emphatically, “But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the Wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:24).

2. Jewish and Christian expressions of wisdom

Christians from an early age identified the unfolding of salvation history in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ as an expression of divine wisdom. In another verse from 1 Corinthians, Paul writes: “For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Co 1:25). In the next chapter he explains, “We impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glorification.” Early Christians (perhaps already the evangelist John, who identifies Jesus as the Word of God in his prologue) identified Christ himself with wisdom. For Origen, “Wisdom” is the highest of the titles of Christ (On First Principles 1.2), and Augustine (De Trinitate 6) describes Christ as the eternal wisdom of God. The great basilica (now a mosque) built by Justinian in Constantinople was named “Holy Wisdom” (Hagia Sophia) after Christ.

Jewish thinkers, reflecting in part on the Bible, saw wisdom as a principle at the center of the moral and physical order of the universe. Indeed Maimonides (Guide for the Perplexed, 27) saw the wisdom of God “displayed in the Universe” (this notion offers significant possibilities for involving scholars of the sciences in this project). Wisdom plays a central role in the theology of medieval kabbalah. One of the original terms for kabbalah as a domain of knowledge is hokhmat ha-nistar (“hidden wisdom”).

3. Wisdom in the Qur’an and Islamic tradition

In the Qur’an wisdom (Arabic hikmah) is used to describe the revelation that God shares with prophets and which guides humanity. It is closely associated with the Qur’anic term for law or judgment (al-hukm), by which humans are shaped ethically. The prophet Luqman is especially associated with wisdom in the Qur’an. In the Sura that bears his name Luqman reminds his child of ethics: “O my son! Maintain the prayer and bid what is right and forbid what is wrong, and be patient through whatever may befall you. That is indeed the steadiest of courses” (Q 31:17). The notion of wisdom flourishes in later Islamic religious thought, for example in The Seals of Wisdom (Fusus al-hikam) of the Andalusian Ibn al-ʿArabi, who sees all of the prophets offering distinct sorts of wisdom that lead towards saintliness and union with God. This notion, blending elements of mysticism, neoplatonism and peripatetic philosophy was developed into a new systematic expression in the School of Transcendent Wisdom (al-Hikmah al-Muta’aliya) in seventeenth-century Iran.

4. Wisdom in philosophy, literature, and science

Jewish, Christian, and Muslim thinkers developed the theme of wisdom well beyond exegetical or theological treatises. Indeed the term hikma (“wisdom”) among Muslim intellectuals becomes a distinct manner of speaking about philosophy. Al-Ghazali spoke of his philosophical system as hikma, signaling the manner in which it emphasized both metaphysics and spiritual experience. To many Muslim philosophers wisdom involves the whole scope of human inquiry from the perspective of the highest cause.   Meanwhile, Arabic, Persian, and other Islamic languages a rich tradition of literature focused on wisdom – some of which involved “Luqman the Wise” – developed to offer practical and even psychological advice to believers.

Philosophy (“love of wisdom”) was centered on wisdom (Latin sapientia) in Europe as well. In his Summa contra Gentiles (I, 2), Aquinas writes, “While humans are finite, among all the human pursuits, the pursuit of wisdom is the ultimate end, and it is the most noble, and the most useful, and that pursuit that can provide the greatest joy.” Simone Weil, centuries later, described wisdom as a love of truth that led one from thought to action. At the same time Weil’s reflections on wisdom were deeply theological, even mystical. She held that God is the ultimate source of wisdom. Franz Rosenzweig proposed that wisdom is not simply the fruit of philosophical constructions. Humans already possess wisdom, in part through divine revelation, and need above all to organize and present it (he also criticized Hegel’s conviction that his idealistic philosophical system encapsulated wisdom). One should not forget, either, the contributions of the Eastern Orthodox church to sophiology or reflections on wisdom. In Russia these reflections even led to an iconographic tradition in which wisdom is identified with Christ or Mary, or even represented independently, sometimes as an angelic figure. 

Other figures – such as the Swiss Muslim Frithjof Schuon – saw wisdom (and his idea of philosophia perennis) as a category that at once transcends and unifies different religious traditions. Still other thinkers saw wisdom in religious tolerance without abandoning religious belonging. John Paul II, in his encyclical Fides et Ratio, pointed to the “sapiential dimension” of philosophy as providing a framework for discussing ultimate values and meaning (sec. 81). Rooted in this spirit of tolerance we will explore how wisdom can nourish the intellectual and spiritual lives of seekers, while also allowing them to find beauty and holiness in the intellectual and spiritual lives of others. We are also eager to think with interested colleagues of ways in which the sciences involve wisdom in their analytic processes and ethical questions, and how the natural world can nourish theological and philosophical thinking about wisdom.