Friday, December 30, 2011

Wisdom


Existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre once wrote, “Everything has been figured out, except how to live.”

Sadly, when I survey Christian teaching and preaching, I find a deficit of attention to answering Sartre’s question, how to live? I suspect that part of the popularity of the new evangelical megachurches is that they tend toward practical advice on how to live more fully and abundantly (i.e., wisdom), unlike many mainline churches. In the latter, an emphasis on social justice and struggle to understand the nature of God and God's relationship with creation tend to push aside what many view as the more mundane issues involved in learning how to live.

Too often, Christian efforts to teach wisdom fall short. Many times, the problem occurs because the Christian preacher or teacher pretends to derive ideas from the Bible when in fact the wisdom comes from elsewhere. The Bible is not the source of all wisdom (e.g., the Bible is not a science textbook). This problem is especially serious when the preacher or teacher substitutes pop-psychology for solid social science and theology. For example, I reject claims that Moses taught leadership principles (one may see leadership principles illustrated in the Moses’ narrative but that is very different than claiming that Moses taught leadership or discovering the principle by studying the scriptural text).

Yet wisdom – knowing how to live – has been an integral element of the Christian tradition, rooted firmly in the Old Testament wisdom literature (widely identified as the books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job, and the Wisdom of Solomon). Some of Jesus’ teachings incorporate wisdom (give to Caesar what is Caesar’s) as do many of the New Testament epistles. The Christian tradition has identified prudential wisdom as one of the four cardinal virtues (the other three of these vital habits/characteristics are justice, courage, and temperance).

Wisdom is also foundational for ethics, as even a casual reader of this blog’s masthead can see.

Thus, this post is the first in an ongoing series of occasional posts that will focus on wisdom, specific suggestions for how we humans can live more fully and abundantly. These posts will draw upon a wide variety of sources, using an avowedly multi-disciplinary, multi-religious perspective to identity wisdom that may help one to live more fully and abundantly. At a minimum, the posts will seek to cohere to a Christian perspective on life. These posts on wisdom will complement continuing posts on social justice and theological questions. Religion at its best addresses the whole person in the context of community, creation, and creator.

My reading of Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture (with Jeffrey Zaslow (New York: Hyperion, 2008)) was the catalyst that prompted me to begin reflecting on wisdom. Pausch taught computer science at Carnegie Mellon University until shortly before his premature death from liver cancer. He intended the book, an expanded version of his lecture in an ongoing Carnegie Mellon series, primarily as a legacy for his three young children (ages 1, 4, and 5 at the time). The book is a quick, delightful, and thought provoking read.

For example, Pausch recounts a football coach giving him a hard time as a teen. Pausch had failed to participate in the practice session as enthusiastically and energetically as the coach wanted. After the session, Pausch felt miserable and contemplated quitting. One of the coaching assistants took him aside and told him that chewing out, while unpleasant, meant that coach had not given up on him. He should not give up on himself.

Setting demanding goals and consistently striving with one’s whole self to reach those goals is a recurring theme in Pausch’s book.

In 2011, what were your goals? Did you achieve them easily, too easily? (I’m reminded of this anecdote: Matt: Mommy, I learned how to count! Listen--One, two, three! Mom: Good! Go on! Matt: You mean there's more?) Or, did you set your goals too high? Alternatively, did you too often waste your time on less important or even unproductive/unhealthy activities? Did you give less than your best effort, your best self?

What are your goals for 2012? New Year’s resolutions are an excellent time for some honest self-examination. Who is the person God created you to be? What will you do in 2012 to life more fully, more abundantly, into that identity?

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