The Rapidian

Ethics and Religion Talk: What is Wisdom Literature?

Ted N. asks, “Are there similarities (and differences) in the wisdom literature of the world’s major religions? Can you please explain?”

What is Ethics and Religion Talk?

“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

The first five years of columns, published in the Grand Rapids Press and MLive, are archived at More recent columns can be found on by searching for the tag “ethics and religion talk.”

We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

The Reverend Colleen Squires, minister at All Souls Community Church of West Michigan, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, responds:

“This question is at the very heart of understanding Unitarian Universalism. We are a faith that draws from many of the world’s wisdom and spirituality sources. These sources are as diverse as science, poetry, scripture, and personal experience. These teachings are meant to inspire us in our ethical and spiritual life.

“Unitarian Universalists are asked to see where the sources overlap and where they have a unique message. For example, our core and First Principle is to affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person, which to us is the same as loving your neighbor or welcoming the stranger or saying Namaste. Basically we understand most of the world religions share some common grounds and we also honor that each has its own unique approach in their teachings.”

Linda Knieriemen, Senior Pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Holland, responds:

“I don’t know enough about the wisdom literature of other religions to be able to answer this. I’m assuming that, yes, there are both similarities and differences, but I’m unable to say much more other than to share a personal belief that wisdom touches a deeply spiritual and emotional place in my heart. At such depth, the divisions of unique narratives and doctrines of belief collapse leaving universal truth and love in its place.”

Fred Stella, the Pracharak (Outreach Minister) for the West Michigan Hindu Temple, responds:

“As one would expect, there are vast differences easily sited when studying the scriptures and supporting writings. What differs tends to be that which is written dealing with the transcendent aspects of the religions. This would include the nature of God, the soul, afterlife, etc. What these have in common is that they are all unprovable. This is why I find debating such matters absurd. To have a truly substantial argument, the participants must agree on a foundational truth.

“That said, when we read the wisdom of the world’s great traditions, we see significant similarities when it comes to moral codes and ethics. In the Judeo-Christian Decalogue, every Commandment resonates with me: Acknowledging one divine presence, speaking mindfully of that presence, respecting elders, avoiding murder, theft, envy and promiscuity. The devil is in the details, of course, as to how these vices and virtues are understood and measured. And there is great debate not only among religions, but within religions on these points.

“Another way in which our scriptures can resemble one another is within the realm of myth. Many religious adherents oppose the use of this word in referring to their holy books, but sometimes it is hard not to see the similarities in some of the most important stories of many faiths. I highly recommend the writings of Joseph Campbell on this subject.  His writings on the power of myth (or allegory, if one prefers) and how it sustains societies are compelling.”

Rev. Ray Lanning, a retired minister of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, responds:

“As a Presbyterian, my knowledge of wisdom literature is confined to the writings of the Old Testament, which appear our English Bibles as the Books of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, etc.  We call them “wisdom literature” because “wisdom seeks by observation, experience, and reflection to know things in their essence and reality as they stand related to God and man” (John D. Davis, Dictionary of the Bible), as these books certainly do.  

“Since we all live in one and the same world, and belong to one and the same human race, no doubt there are many similarities between the wisdom literature of the Bible and the sacred writings of other world religions. The problems of human life are ancient, persistent, and universal. I find the same similarities in the work of great poets such as Robert Frost. What is unique in the wisdom literature of the Bible is the call to begin the search for true wisdom with faith, and the fear of Jehovah as Maker of heaven and earth. “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: a good understanding have all they that do his commandments: His praise endureth forever” (Psalm 111:10).”

My response:

Judaism and Christianity share the classic Biblical wisdom literature of Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes. The Wisdom of Solomon and Ben Sirah are generally understood to represent Biblical wisdom literature, although they are outside of the canon of the Bible in Jewish and most Christian traditions. However, Jewish and Christian religious literature from medieval and later times which draw and expand upon themes of wisdom literature are more particular in their focus. In Judaism, this is represented by Musar, a tradition focusing on the development and refinement of personal moral qualities. I am not familiar with medieval Christian literature focusing on developing wisdom themes.


This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up in the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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