Bluffton students explore happiness through lens of Wisdom Literature

Statisticians can measure hap­pi­ness in the annual Gallup survey of happiness. Sociologists like Ruut Veenhoven, a professor of happiness studies from the Netherlands, have established such measurements.
Bluffton University assistant professor of religion Jackie Wyse-Rhodes recommended a different source to students seeking guidance on questions of happiness during her Aug. 25 Forum presentation.


As a scholar of ancient biblical texts, Wyse-Rhodes focused on Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes in “Deserving Happiness: A Wisdom Conversation.”

“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, who is also campus pastor. “We don’t know their names, but we can read their books. They wrote Wisdom Literature.”

Three types of literature run through these books of Hebrew Scripture: folk sayings, instructions for navigating a king’s 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,” Wyse-Rhodes said. “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. It offers practical and immediate advice for leading a righteous life.

Job dives into complications of the quest to lead a happy life. Early on, Job is blessed, righteous, religious and prosperous, but he is tested to see if his faith is sincere. Eventually, God appears to Job but refuses to give a concrete explanation for Job’s suffering.

“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 said. “Did he deserve his unhappiness? Does he deserve his happiness? Or is life more random than that? Is happiness a gift that must be received gratefully rather than a reward for good behavior?”
while job asks hard questions, ­Ecclesiastes might ask harder ones.

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

The three Wisdom books, like today’s statisticians and sociologists, don’t definitively answer the questions of happiness.
Wyse-Rhodes imagines the writers of the three books as having passionate conversations about what it means to be human and how to formulate a wise plan for happiness.

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

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