Responsibility and Transcendence

Brueggemann suggests (In Man We Trust) that the wisdom tradition in Israel was developed partly by those theologians who worked to make sense of the new phenomenon – a king. What was required was a shift in focus for cultural meaning away from cultic practices and toward society and government – away from the leadership of priests and judges and toward the king (and eventually) the prophets.

He goes further by suggesting that “Our task in the church today is to fashion a theology fit for kings – kings of affluence, power, technology, and urbanization.” Is this simply an attempt to legitimize power? By no means! Two threads provide a balance (or perhaps hold some contradictory ideas in tension):

1. Responsibility. Power is never to be absolutized. Government does not exist for the sake of the governors, but for the sake of the governed. Even the ideal king, David, could not get away with his shameful use of power to acquire Bathsheba. 2 Samuel 12 relates how the prophet Nathan confronted David face-to-face.

Wisdom understands that human destiny is determined by human choice informed by responsibility. Such responsibility means going beyond personal comfort and gain. It means seeking the good for all in society and caring for nature.

People charged with leadership (in government, business, education, church, family, etc.) are responsible to and for those whom they lead. Republican and Democratic politicians need training in this area; as do pastors and elders in the church. And responsibility is not only the charge of leaders, it is the calling of participants, as well.

2. Transcendence. Traditionally, transcendence is the term used to gather together the various attributes of the “otherness” of God, especially as that otherness invades and interrupts the normalcy of human life. Brueggemann, reflecting on the development of the wisdom tradition in Israel, offers a different perspective:

Transcendence is the recognition that there is a mystery in life that is not confined to our ignorance, incompetence, or abdication. There is mystery in our best knowledge, in our greatest skill, and in our most passionate concern. The wisdom teachers and their followers did not care form a ‘God who acts,’ but they did know and affirm that life has an order and direction which is larger than human effort and which is not knowable to us. Faith means coming to terms with that direction and order for the sake of those entrusted to us.

I wish Brueggemann had said more about transcendence, but maybe that is the key to understanding the wisdom tradition – there is always enough information to make a decision, even when the data is conflicting. The data most often overlooked or neglected is “the sake of those entrusted to us.”

Responsibility and transcendence are not opposites; instead they complement each other. Together they provide a definition of radical trust, which is the essence of wisdom.

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