A few things I’ve mulled over in my mind for a very long time. . .
Philosophy, Religion and Trails to Truth
In the book of Proverbs we read, “The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom” (4:7). Another verse says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (9:10) while another says, “Go to the ant, you lazybones, consider its ways, and be wise” (6:6). This is called “wisdom literature,” but it can seem like a hall of mirrors to figure out what wisdom really means.
Some tell us Proverbs was written by King Solomon, son of David. He had 1000 “wives” and built a temple for the Lord using thousands of slaves, then had the stupendous realization that there wasn’t enough room to contain the Creator of the Universe (First Kings 8:27). He ended up making God very angry and lost half his kingdom. What happened to his great wisdom?
Definitions are tricky things. We need to know what words mean and what they mean when we use them. If someone uses a term and we aren’t sure what it means, they may tell us their definition, but we should know what the word actually means.
The word “Philosophy” can be intimidating. That’s how I felt before taking an Introduction to Philosophy course in college. There I learned that it’s about the Big Ideas of history and that Philosophy isn’t just something to study, it’s a way of living. In fact, it literally means “loving wisdom”—a practice of being wise. I heard a bible teacher in my youth say we should go to college to “major in wisdom.” So, I did.
Religion often gets in tangles with Philosophy. Philosophers ask too many pesky questions and don’t think it’s particularly wise to simply repeat what a theologian says or accept an argument based on, “God says,” “The Bible says” or “My pastor says.”
Thinking about this round-robin between Philosophy and Religion, an analogy came to mind (a practice of wisdom often seems to circle back to analogies).
When a trail is rough and rocky, that’s Philosophy—an active pursuit of truth, wherever it leads, no matter how rough, twisted and uncomfortable the path.
When a trail is paved and permanent, that’s Religion—an intransigent defense and fence of “Truth,” as defined by one group.
Warning signs along the trail of Philosophy serve as invitations to be curious and explore. We are encouraged to take the risk to go off-trail. Wilderness is welcome.
Warning signs along the trail of Religion are posted threats. “Danger!” they cry. Wandering off-trail is discouraged and wilderness is feared.
This analogy overstates the dichotomy (a neat word I learned in Philosophy class meaning “cut in two”). But these things are never so neat, are they? And therein lies the rub: the search for wisdom leaves us wanting more, especially since most “answers” have lots of questions stuck on them like velcro.
The atheistic philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche—oddly enough, an inspiring voice for me in college alongside Martin Buber (Jewish) and Soren Kierkegaard (Christian)—wrote some wise words about the task of freethinkers: “It is not part of the nature of the free spirit that his views are more correct, but rather that he has released himself from tradition … . Usually, however, he has the truth, or at least the spirit of the search for truth, on his side: he demands reasons, while others demand faith” (“Human, All Too Human”).
This is what grabbed me and shook me as I stepped with hesitation onto the trail of Philosophy. I was still religious at the time, but I was beginning to see that there are many trails with endless viewpoints and directions to choose. What was I to do? How to choose? The beginning of wisdom is to get wisdom and the beginning of the search for truth is the search for truth. Start walking. Move your mind. Engage the process. Choose the adventure of learning, living and loving this wonderfully disturbing thing we call wisdom. If not Solomon, perchance the ants can teach us.
Defining our terms can mean refining our thinking, but when definitions become confining to our thinking, wisdom invites us to be freethinkers. Because meanings can change over time and there are countless perspectives. Maybe that’s one reason dictionaries give us a variety of definitions so we can consider the context and determine what usage is intended.
Some demand we accept faith as a final definition of truth and wisdom. Others demand reasons and Reason itself, not as a complete definition of truth or wisdom, but an invitation to the search.
I think we’ll always have the merry-go-round of religious and philosophical word-play. It’s not a game though and can be deadly serious with significant consequences.
The trails and signs are up to us to read and heed.