July 28, 2022
“[A]nd if again I say that to talk every day about virtue and the other things about which you hear me talking and examining myself and others is the greatest good to man, and that the unexamined life is not worth living, you will believe me still less” (Plato, Apology, 38a)
Plato attributes this statement to Socrates at his trial. As many have noted, “Socrates believed that philosophy—the study of wisdom—was the most important pursuit above all. For some, he exemplifies more than anyone else in history the pursuit of wisdom through questioning and logical argument, by examining and by thinking” (Wikipedia article: “The unexamined life is not worth living”).
Many have taken this one phrase and brought it to bear on the study of “wisdom” in many contexts. As Christians, we are challenged to pursue wisdom above all. The word translated wisdom (Heb – חָכְמָה/hochmah; Greek – σοφία/sophia) is used 242 times in the biblical books we refer to as “wisdom writings”. The Greek word “philosophy” is a compound of philia (love) and sophia (wisdom) and thus simply means, the “love of wisdom.” Surely any person who claims in any way that the biblical texts were inspired by or even influenced by God, would be a lover of wisdom. According to Socrates and Plato (and others), the love of wisdom involves questioning and examining.
Yet, many Christians and many church leaders teach directly, and/or imply, that to question anything you’ve been taught is God’s truth is to have doubt and thus, at the very least, one who consistently questions and examines is in danger of losing their faith. For them, faith is unquestioning confidence in what you believe, but only if what you believe fits into their understanding of “orthodoxy” (i.e., right doctrine). If what you believe is “unorthodox” or “heretical” in their estimation, then you must question and examine.
I say again, “yet,” the biblical texts provide us with many examples of people questioning and examining what they’ve been told or what they believe or what was considered “orthodox” in their day and culture. Many are even bold enough to question God, and most of these people were not chastised or punished for doing so. At the very most some were mildly chastised to “stop doubting and believe.” It is my conviction that the biblical texts were written, edited, and compiled in such a way so as to encourage (and even force) questioning and examination through dialogue, discussion and even debate; which is a very Jewish thing to do.
The biblical texts are largely dialectical in nature. What does that mean? According to https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/dialectic, it describes “any systematic reasoning, exposition, or argument that juxtaposes opposed or contradictory ideas and usually seeks to resolve their conflict: a method of examining and discussing opposing ideas in order to find the truth.” What we see in the biblical texts are diverse and, at times, contradictory perspectives laid out before us that, I’m convinced, are designed to cause us to think, question, examine, and discuss.
A prime example of dialectical process is found in the book of Job. I believe Job is not the historical account of a real person, but a parable that juxtaposes contradictory perspectives regarding the theological explanation of why people suffer. The “orthodox” belief among most Second Temple Jews was what some call “the theory of retribution” (i.e., if one is unrighteous that person will suffer consequences in this life and if one is righteous that person will be blessed in this life). The protagonist, Job, is a righteous man (declared so by God before the divine counsel), yet he is forced to suffer intensely (see Job 1-2). His “friends” come to commiserate with him but also to ensure that he understands, based on the evidence of extreme suffering, what a wretched sinner he must therefore be. However, Job denies that he is a wretched sinner, and so he debates with his “friends” and even questions and challenges God. Isn’t Job chastised by God for doing so? No, he isn’t. In fact, he is held up by God before his friends of speaking righteously about/to God! (Job 42:7-8).
Yet, if one reads (among other texts) Deuteronomy 28–30, this book definitely teaches that God engages in retributive action in that God punishes sin with intense suffering in this life and honours obedience through immeasurable blessings. So, who or what is true? Even Qoheleth (i.e., Ecclesiastes) sees no benefit in this life for pursuing righteousness, as he’s seen both the righteous and the unrighteous suffer in this life.
The biblical texts are very Jewish. Surprised? I hope not. The dialectical nature of their contents is no accident of scribal error or even consciously purposeful addition. Walter Brueggemann, in his book Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy, has a lot to say about the Jewishness of the text. One key concept is that Jewish literature “is characterized by dialogical-dialectical modes of discourse” (83). He states, “For Israel and for Israel’s God, there is no deeper joy, no more serious requirement, no more inescapable burden, than to be reengaged in the process of exchange that never arrives but is always on the way” (84). “The Old Testament text,” Brueggemann insists, “is resiliently Jewish” (80). This is a reality that most Christian theologians and biblical scholars either minimize or ignore and of which most Christian are uninformed as to it impact on the dialectical nature of the text. Like rabbinic literature (200 CE and beyond), answers to theological issues are seldom clearly given.
The faith journey includes, and even necessitates, questioning. The love of wisdom is a process of seeking, asking, discussing, examining, so that the unexamined faith is not worth having!