The Wisdom of Uncertainty
One reason I’m convinced that the wisdom tradition is central to the understanding of the bible and biblical religion is that this tradition thereby legitimizes a condition of inner struggle and ambiguity of understanding that is very familiar in my life, and I think is familiar to many others today as well, among Friends and elsewhere.
The message this legitimation delivers is that these struggles, the accompanying uncertainty, and the sharp divergence of views they encompass, are all included within the realm of meaning and revelation the biblical Wisdom tradition represents.
Let me try to put this another way. From the biblical perspective:
If you have miracles and signs to make sense of your world for you, fine;
Or if you are able, even without such signs and wonders, to maintain confidence in the understanding of life which the proverbial Wisdom of your tradition presents you with, that’s fine too.
But then, even if you haven’t seen any wonders, and learn most about life from living it day by day; and even if you are beset by doubt and uncertainty and ambiguity and struggle as you attempt to make sense of life–
Yes, even this condition is not beyond the reach of biblical faith and experience.
We might call these three approaches the Way of Wonders, the Way of Faith, and the Way of Wisdom.
One of premier Quaker theologians of our time, Jim Corbett of Pima Meeting in Tucson, Arizona, summed up this third way in a memorable declaration, during the time a few years back when he was on trial for his part in creating the Sanctuary movement. Most of the defendants in that trial were religious people, some Catholics, a Presbyterian, and this grizzled, weatherbeaten Quaker, a desert goatherd who also had a Harvard degree in philosophy.
When he and the other defendants were all asked during a sanctuary gathering about their religious views, the others had much to share.
Corbett, though, didn’t say much, except to describe himself as an Unbeliever.
This response caused no little consternation. After all, how could a member of a Quaker meeting, who had so vividly put his faith, his witness, even his life on the line, be without belief?
But when he was questioned more closely about this, he only smiled slyly and added that he was indeed an Unbeliever, but an Unbeliever in the Biblical tradition.
Not many of his listeners understood that declaration, and there’s much more to it than what I’ve tried to lay out here. But after asking him about this cryptic comment, I believe Jim Corbett was describing something real: the Biblical tradition, the biblical revelation, includes a place, an important place for it. In fact, it is perhaps even a central place, for the way of Wisdom is a way toward understanding, summing up and illuminating our human experience that does not depend on miracle, or faith, or even “belief.”
In sum, the Wisdom books of the Hebrew Bible suggest that reflection on our human experience, and the compression and illumination of this experience in vivid poetic language, is connected somehow to the mysterious and awesome process of divine self-disclosure. Even Proverbs with all its glib self-confidence is not totally oblivious to this: Pr. 2:6 puts it well: “It is the Lord who gives Wisdom.” Or this familiar verse: Prov. 9:10 “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom….”
Some people don’t like that word fear, and the Hebrew root word for “fear” could also and perhaps better be rendered as meaning “reverence for the awesomeness” of unfathomable reality, or more, simply, humility. Still, to be honest, Job reminds us that unbounded power is indeed something to be fearful of.
The Wisdom thus discovered — even the discovery of how little ultimate understanding we really have — is in my judgment a key part of our efforts to interpret scripture. It is also gives meaning to the Quaker idea of Continuing Revelation. It is a central part of the teaching, the shaping of our understanding of life, the “establishing” that we must do for our children, or for others in our care, and ultimately for ourselves.