What wise thing is life teaching you right now?
“Religious experience is inevitably human experience.” Thich Nhat Hanh, an inclusive Buddhist writer, penned these wise, real life centric words in his compelling book, "Living Buddha, Living Christ" (Riverhead Books 1995).
Hanh draws insightful and compelling parallels between Buddhism and Christianity. His thoughts are rooted in his diverse experiences and consistent daily practice of mindfully paying attention. Hanh’s perspective and suggestions are helpful to anyone seeking a grounded, compassionate and peaceful life, whether faith-based or otherwise.
Religion and daily life are not separate parts of life. Rather, they are an intertwined whole. From a faith-based perspective, worship, tradition, liturgical seasons, sacred texts, study, prayer and meditation are examples of our religious experience. However, there is more to our faith-based lives than such traditional aspects.
Learning from life experiences is arguably one of the most under-rated aspects of any authentic faith tradition, as well as simply pursuing a meaningful life apart from such tradition. Life experiences include parts of our own lives, observations of others and what we learn from respected mentors and teachers. From a Biblical studies perspective, we often collectively term the whole of this “wisdom.”
How do we learn from life experiences? We pay attention to them, periodically and intentionally reflect upon them, and then determine and implement changes to improve our life quality.
In our reflection, we can carefully consider our thoughts and especially our actions toward others and ourselves along with how others have treated us. What is helpful and harmful to us? What in our lives do we need to alter? Inevitably, we should be drawn to compassionate, empathetic, inclusive, kind and caring lifestyles.
Although the concept is simple, practicing it is hard work.
In my Judeo-Christian tradition, we identify certain books of the Bible as wisdom literature. One of the best-known books in this genre is Proverbs.
From its inception, Proverbs highlights “learning about wisdom and instruction” and “gaining instruction on wise dealing, righteousness, justice, and equity” (Proverbs 1:2-3). The writer’s personification of wisdom notes that God created wisdom “at the beginning of his work … before the beginning of the Earth” (Proverbs 8:22-23). Further, wisdom “was beside [God] like a master worker … rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race” (Proverbs 8:30-31).
The Gospel of John begins with a prologue that is among the most developed New Testament deification passages. Among other things, John’s signposting starts by announcing: “In the beginning was the Word [which Christians identify as Jesus], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1).
Further, everything “came into being through him,” “in him was life,” “the life was the light of all people,” and “the Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:3-4 and 14).
John is the latest of the Gospels. Its start is very different from Mark, the earliest Gospel. In contrast to John, Mark notes at the outset that the “beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ” was at the time of “John the baptizer,” including John’s baptism of an adult Jesus and the start of Jesus’ ministry as a Jewish rabbi (Mark 1:1, 4, 9, and 14-15).
Regarding John’s lofty assertions, Christians often focus interpretive attention on the Greek term for “word,” which is “logos,” meaning “speech” or “reason.” In contrast, I think “word” keys into Christianity’s Jewish roots and the concept of wisdom.
The Apocryphal books (included in Catholic but not Protestant scripture) of the Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach offer significant parallels. Both books were written within 200 years of Jesus’ birth and augment Proverbs in describing wisdom. For example: wisdom “is a breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation of [God] … She is a reflection of eternal light … and an image of his goodness … She renews all things…[and] God loves nothing so much as the person who lives with wisdom” (Wisdom of Solomon 7:25-28). Further: Wisdom “came forth from the mouth of [God]….Before the ages, in the beginning, [God] created me, and for all the ages, I shall not cease to be” (Sirach 24:3 and 9).
True wisdom results in meaningful living derived from tangible, day-to-day experiences. It is available to everyone. As Hanh advises: “Looking deeply at our own mind and our own life, we will begin to see what to do and what not to do to bring about a real change … Our faith must be alive. It cannot be just a set of rigid beliefs and notions … Faith implies practice, living our daily life in mindfulness.”
Walt Shelton is a part-time professor at Baylor Law School and an environmental attorney in Austin. He leads discussion groups in association with The Church @ Highland Park. His book, 'The Daily Practice of Life: Practical Reflections Toward Meaningful Living' is available through most bookstores or via his website, waltshelton.com.