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October 28, 2020

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Happiness through the lens of Wisdom Literature

Aug. 25 univeristy forum theme

“What does it mean to be happy? Do we have a right to be happy? Do I deserve to be happy?”

Dr. Jackie Wyse-Rhodes, assistant professor of religion and campus pastor at Bluffton University, posed these questions during her Aug. 25 Forum presentation, “Deserving Happiness: A Wisdom Conversation.”

Acknowledging that statisticians, as evidenced by the annual Gallup survey of happiness, and sociologists, including Dr. Ruut Veenhoven, a professor of happiness studies from the Netherlands, have found ways to “measure” happiness, Wyse-Rhodes recommended a different source to students seeking guidance on questions of happiness.

As a scholar of ancient biblical texts, Wyse Rhodes focused on three books from the Old Testament: Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes.

“I’d like to introduce you to some ancient Jewish thinkers who lived more than 2,000 years ago and produced a body of work that grappled with what it might mean to live a good and meaningful life, a life that leads to happiness,” said Wyse Rhodes. “We don’t know their names, but we can read their books. They wrote Wisdom Literature.”

Three types of literature run through the wisdom books including: folk sayings, instructions for navigating a king’s court/palace politics, and reflections on life’s deepest questions.

“Wisdom Literature looks to ordinary life—what we eat, what we buy, how we get along with our neighbors and what we can learn from observing nature,” said Wyse-Rhodes. “Wisdom books are constantly debating with one another, offering different points of view on life’s biggest questions.”

Proverbs provides short sayings that might have been passed down from parents to children or teachers to students and provides practical and immediate (while sometimes complicated) advice for leading a “righteous” life. 

Job dives right into the complications of the quest to lead a happy life. At the beginning of the book, Job is blessed, righteous, religious and prosperous. However, Job is tested to see if his faith is sincere, and he and his friends question what Job did to deserve such intense suffering. Eventually, God appears to Job, but refuses to give him a concrete explanation.

“At the end of the book, Job gets everything back, and even has 10 more children. But one thing Job doesn’t get is an answer,” Wyse Rhodes explained. “Did he deserve his unhappiness? Does he deserve his happiness? Or is life more random than that, and happiness is a gift that must be received gratefully rather than a reward for good behavior?”

While Job asks hard questions, Wyse-Rhodes said Ecclesiastes might ask harder ones.

“The writer of this wisdom book has it all—wealth, fame power. He lacks for no material thing, and for all intents and purposes, he should be happy,” said Wyse Rhodes. “Yet, this wisdom writer struggles to find meaning in the midst of plenty.”

The three Wisdom books, like the statisticians and sociologists of today, don’t definitively answer the questions of happiness. However, Wyse Rhodes explained her approach is to imagine the three books as having passionate conversations about how to make sense of what it means be human and whether it’s a wise plan for happiness.

“I imagine the scribes who wrote these books to be inviting us into this conversation with them,” said Wyse Rhodes. “In that spirit, I would like you to imagine: where do you find yourself on this map of conversational possibility?”

Wyse-Rhodes shared the presentation as the 2019-20 Civic Engagement lecturer. The presentation was originally scheduled for the spring 2020 semester but was shared this fall due to COVID-19 restrictions.

The Forum focused on last year’s Civic Engagement theme, “Living Our Best Lives,” in which the campus community explored Ohio’s low-ranking on the 2018 State of American Well-Being Study published by Gallup.