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Why Our Post-Truth Society Needs a Dose of Proverbs

I didn’t know that by studying the book of Proverbs closely I was an aspiring “paremiologist.” But apparently so.

The Wisdom tradition in the Old Testament is fascinating in its diversity, and intriguing in the way those writings get to the point. By which is meant, the point of life.

Take Ecclesiastes, a book in which cynicism and sarcasm, pessimism and realism, resignation to life’s outcomes and resistance to life’s constraints, all weave together in a long inner discussion about what life is all about, whether it matter, and why it does if so.

Or that granite rock of a book, Job, in which tragedy and every imaginable form of loss and suffering put a human mind and soul under such pressure that the reader, who knows the why and the how, is drawn into a drama that has no guaranteed resolution.

These two books are complex, profound and tightly woven, with literary themes hanging on theological structures that raise as many questions as they answer.

Not so the book of Proverbs. Forget the existential angst and theological argumentation and speculative theories of how to balance the good and evil in life.

In Proverbs, there is a practical, no-nonsense, straightforward pragmatism about how you live your life, get on with people, do business, mature in experience, grow in understanding and yes, “get wisdom.”

And the literary genre of Proverbs is very different. It is not a developed argument or rhetorical persuasion through narrative; it’s not theological and philosophical expositions about God, the world and the troubled relations between heaven and earth.

Proverbs is about the power of wisdom distilled to the daily, the ordinary, the pragmatic, the practical common sense of the good life. And the scholarly study of those proverbs is called “paremiology.”

Thus, the student of biblical Proverbs is an aspiring paremiologist, one who seeks to become expert in interpreting the ground rules of wise living by careful study of the proverbs themselves.

In his book, “Post Truth,” Matthew D’Ancona observes, “The clinching factor in the rise of Post-Truth has been our behavior as citizens. By rewarding those who lie with political success, exempting them from the traditional expectations of integrity, we have seceded from the duties of citizenship. To the bellowed charge of Jack Nicholson’s character in A Few Good Men – “You can’t handle the truth” – we have no ready answer. … We tweet, give in to clickbait, share without due diligence. … Fool’s license is meaningless when we are all fools.”

The relationship between the fool and lies, and between integrity and the wise, is charted with determined persistence throughout the book of Proverbs.

We now live in a social-media world where we are all experts, Google virtuosi, information addicts, never without an audience and never without the stimulus of other users.

Such pervasive, unthinking immersion in communicative presence, we have learned to call connectivity, and it is that very connectedness that provides easy and ever-available conduits for information, without any quality control as to the trustworthiness of the source, the factual accuracy or the evidential credibility of what comes our way.

Add to that the background selection and data monitoring of algorithms, we end up being fed more of what we like and less of what might challenge those predilections of thought, ethics or political perspective.

To use the language of Proverbs, we would be fools not to recognize this and seek to guard ourselves from being so easily duped, set up and manipulated.

It is a profoundly enlightening exercise to read the book of Proverbs while staying aware and alert to our current cultural realities.

Just consider this list of constantly urged actions and attitudes: truthfulness and justice, care for the poor, the dangers of wealth, stewardship of words, trust and trustworthiness in relationships, integrity of character, use and abuse of power.

The way of wisdom is the way of righteousness, but the way of the fool is in an altogether different direction.

Some of the most acute, critical problems facing Western democratic societies are now so embedded in a social-media worldview that it is more and more difficult to have rational discussions in which both protagonists are appealing to a shared view of truth.

And it is that erosion of truth and, indeed, loss of faith in truth as anything other than the view I already hold, that makes some of the most dangerous cultural shifts so intractable.

The book of Proverbs is a very handy collection of diagnostic wisdom for a society such as 21st century Western democracies.

Truth decay, low-grade anger and discontent, suspicion of the other who is not “us,” politics gradually losing its moral compass, hardened ideologies and polarized communities, fear eclipsing hope, hate displacing love, rejection and not welcome as default to the stranger; these and other social patterns are seen in the book of Proverbs as the way of the fool that leads to conflict, alienation and ultimately death.

The two ways is one of the great moral images in the Bible, and, indeed, elsewhere in other religious and philosophical traditions. Jesus spoke of the narrow and broad ways, and the foolish and wise builders.

An important feature of the book of Proverbs, which also speaks of the two ways and the choices that determine which way we travel, is that it offers guiding wisdom not only to individuals, but to communities.

Its warnings and guidance, and its diagnostic applications, reverberate with contemporary relevance to our own times.

Perhaps nowhere more crucially today than in its insistence that truth and trust, integrity and compassion, wisdom and understanding are not only the ways of life, but the ways for a society to save the life it is in danger of wasting and ultimately losing.

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared on Gordon’s website, Living Wittily, and is used with permission.

James Gordon

James Gordon is part-time minister of Montrose Baptist Church in Angus, Scotland, and the former principal of the Scottish Baptist College. He is on the advisory board of the Centre for Ministry Studies, University of Aberdeen, and is honorary lecturer in the School of Divinity, History and Philosophy.