Old wisdom of proverbs can be key to creating a society with inclusive values
RITE & REASON:A RECURRING theme in the many thoughtful and thought-provoking speeches that President Michael D Higgins has delivered since his inauguration has to do with the need to rethink the value systems that have failed us in the past.
In his inaugural address, one idea stood out for me: his call for the rediscovery of an older wisdom. Yet more recently he has emphasised the need to look forward, creating an “emancipatory discourse” based on fresh values that would lead to a more just and inclusive society.
There is no contradiction between these two stances. A critical retrieval of the older wisdom can only take place when we are self-critical about our past and the values that dominated our individual and communal agendas, while asking the hard questions as to what kind of future we should be envisaging, and on what basis.
Neither is the President espousing cutting ourselves loose from our past, especially those values that continue to resonate with the deeper issues that confront us socially and globally.
One Gaelic expression for wisdom is ciall cheannaithe – bought wisdom or the wisdom of experience. In an oral culture the seanfhocal was the ideal form to encapsulate this kind of wisdom.
Its status as a guide for living depended on a long history of observation, experimentation and reflection on how the world works and how one copes with the everyday struggles of life.
One piece of older wisdom that has suffered greatly in the wake of the so-called European Enlightenment is encapsulated in the proverb “ní neart go cur le chéile” (our strength is in helping each other). The meitheal (collective effort) is a rare sight in rural Ireland of the tractor and the combine harvester.
Self-sufficiency is the name of the game in every walk of life, urban and rural. Rampant individualism has taken over, eating into the warp and woof of community life and allowing us to exploit the natural world for human greed.
The highly influential German social philosopher Jürgen Habermas, who previously claimed that religion had no place in public discourse, has of late been influenced through dialogue with theologians. He is now prepared to accept that religions can be storehouses of genuine wisdom if only they could shed their dogmatism.
In the current climate in Ireland it is not easy to make that case. So many people feel alienated and let down by organised religion, especially within Roman Catholicism. Nor do the noises coming from Rome give any confidence that a rethink is imminent as to how it might begin to address the modern world more adequately in the light of the gospel values of Jesus of Nazareth, as the Vatican Council of 50 years ago had proposed.
The proverb, the pithy saying and the parable were the characteristic forms of speech that Jesus employed, privileging the experience of the little people he encountered in the villages of Galilee over the learned scribes from Jerusalem. He represented the prophetic dimension of his own religious tradition over the institutional constraints of the priestly urban class and their Roman overlords.
Jesus’s values of revolution challenged those of the prevailing culture. He was rediscovering an older wisdom articulated by ancient prophets, a wisdom based on an understanding that the God of Israel favoured slaves rather than masters. Human community could only thrive when it was inclusive, and that meant women and men, poor and rich, weak and strong, little ones and powerful, all as equals together.
I trust neither our President nor Habermas would want such wisdom excluded from the debates we need if the dream of a participatory society is to emerge from the Celtic Tiger’s ashes.
Seán Freyne is former professor of theology at Trinity College Dublin whose latest book is Jesus, a Jewish Galilean: A New Reading of the Jesus Story. He will be speaking at the Percy French Summer School on Thursday