The image is very tempting these days – the remote, hidden, lone figure who can provide the essential wisdom and, possibly, courage that we need for these times.
Yoda, found in the first-presented episodes of Star Wars hidden in a cave. Knowledgeable about what’s going on, and in later episodes, actively present at councils and eventually returning to combat.
The Old Bookstore Keeper, found in The Never-Ending Story, very similar to the keeper of the wands in the Harry Potter series and in others. Wisdom kept remote from the world, requiring search and perhaps a Quest, frequently expressing the wisdom in generalities or prophecies, the meaning of which must be searched out.
I myself instinctively respond to these figures by wanting to make some hot chocolate, rather than a good coffee, sit over by the fire, listen to stories/wisdom/instruction/commands, perhaps enter a trance/see a vision, and so forth.
Wise, reclusive women there are, too — they tend to be a bit more involved and active, if only by continuing to prepare herbs and salves which can help the searcher.
The classic religions, felt by many to be foundational, by contrast, thrust their proponents very much out into the everyday world of their time, either fighting, or speaking dark prophecies (I may in the future write a layperson’s guide to the different kinds of Hebrew Scripture prophets, but I want first to get a firmer understanding of Islamic prophets and the Hindu Guru) of judgement, or speaking forth their wisdom and teachings with just enough every-day language to catch the ear, spark the imagination, increase understanding, and set up foundations upon which to build. These tend to go out into the world to tell us what should be done (not necessarily the same thing as telling us what to do – sometimes the teaching is to preserve or live out certain values, e.g., “What does the Lord require of you? To seek justice, and love kindness, and humbly with your God.” Micah 6:8; “Love your neighbour as yourself” Matthew 22: 34-40 and parallel Gospel passages, as well as Leviticus 19:18, and so forth). I know this is true of other classic religions, but I am not familiar enough with them to find citations.
On the other hand are two more recent examples of resource people who seem to be above the fray: Reinhold Niebuhr (seek out almost anything of his you can find still in print) the famous religious scholar and senior minister at Riverside Presbyterian Church in New York City, author of many books on faith in its own day, particularly regarding the pre-WWII arguments about pacifism, discussions of liberalism, and post-war concerns; and New York Times columnist David Brooks, not only in some of his columns but particularly his two latest books The Road to Character and The Second Mountain: the Quest for a Moral Life. Niebuhr draws upon his religion’s scripture, but also upon nearly two thousand years of teachings and traditions. He offers a wherewithal to stand back from today and see the broader context, the earlier events which got us here, and the abstract principles and ethics which stand outside us to guide. Ours still is the responsibility to take all that perspective and use it to analyze our own situation and try to find a solution. But the time away from the fray is spiritually and intellectually refreshing and nourishing. For an audience not intuitively aware of all that context, however, his writings may not be so helpful. They would not be the audience of his time, who swam in the same river and were accustomed to the currents. They would be the outsiders standing on the banks of the river wondering whether they liked the path of it and the strength of the current, and, indeed, wondering whether they want to get so wet.
Brooks is of our own time, and his books and some articles describe what people are doing now. This, too, is context that gives us some time away from ourselves. We can compare ourselves and our own contexts with others and others’. I have to say that I don’t see how he draws some of his conclusions from examples he chooses, but the examples are inspiring, no doubt about it.
Some of us seek knowledge, a resetting of our course, comfort, clarity, or assurance by going back to First Principles, such as foundational documents, like scriptures and a constitution. After thirty-seven years a minister of religion, I have to say that it has become difficult to appreciate the simple words on the page of Scriptures, because there are before my eyes so many years of learning, interpretation, and experiences of practical application that the freshness of the words is difficult to recapture. That is to say, I risk being unable to see freshly see the simple, original meaning of the words. As for constitutions and earlier documents which contributed to their composition, reading American Dialogue: the Founders and Us, by Joseph J. Ellis and Zephyr Teachout’s Corruption in America: from Benjamin Franklin’s Snuff Box to Citizens United, will show that we need more nuanced understandings of the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, as we seek assurance in them. Their provenance, impartiality, and meaning are not as obvious and solid as we may presume.
My own choice is to favour not the recluses, but those which are more involved in the world as we have it. Those who believe that religion should be a private, personal matter, rather than a community matter, will have difficulty with my choice. But the proponents in my own religious heritages have always been in the middle of things, summoning up teachings from of old and holding them as a mirror to our own time. The recluse image makes for wonderful, imaginative stories, but the involved wise people are the ones I seek. Perhaps the clergy are the best examples: employed full-time to study the foundational documents and traditions on our behalf and to our betterment, but drawn into the day’s fray to give voice and action to those values and principles as they either lead the charge or stand alongside others who have chosen what to do and where to go.
Let the recluses in the caves, on the mountain tops, and in the old bookshops, think what they will of that.