The Wisdom of Finitude
By Paul Schutz
Tonight we gather under, shall we say, unusual circumstances to celebrate you—our students—as well as who we are together as the faculty, students, and staff of the Religious Studies Department at SCU. We’re here in a moment when we’re being beamed together by boxes of wires because we can’t be together in Adobe—and together we look forward to a future that seems, at least to me, more uncertain than the future ever has seemed before.
Now, while I don’t want to dwell on COVID too much (and by the way, if anyone has COVID’s phone number, maybe you could text it and tell it to go away), it’s hard to imagine any talk right now not having something to say about the impact the virus has had on our world, and especially on our ability to celebrate together one of the greatest moments in a college student’s life—and in the lives of the faculty who have the pleasure of working with said students. The absence of hugs and handshakes, not to mention for our seniors the chance to watch the California sun rise over the mountains on graduation day is a huge loss, and I think it’s important to acknowledge the challenges and disappointments this pandemic has caused for all of us. But like I said, I don’t want to dwell there.
When I started thinking about what to say tonight, the theme that came to mind—which I know is kind of the obvious theme for a time like this—was hope. We hope that this situation will end, and soon; we hope for an end to shelter in place; we hope to eat at restaurants again, to go to movies, throw ragers, and whatnot. We want to scream, “Give me back my life!” But after reflecting a bit, and in an effort to avoid a turf war with Akiba (hope is his thing!), I decided to go in another direction and to focus on what I want to call “the wisdom of finitude.”
These last few months of wrestling with a pandemic have put new limits on each of us and on our society. They have brought us face to face with the reality of mortality in new ways. Limits, and limits, and more limits—a slower, quieter existence: it’s against everything that our economic system stands for. It’s inhuman! Unamerican! Awful! But—does it have to be?
The starting point for my answer to that question is Psalm 90, one of my favorite texts from the Hebrew Bible. The Psalmist says, “Teach us to number our days rightly, that we may gain wisdom of heart.” As I read it, the idea of “numbering our days rightly” is about leaning into limits, embracing our finitude, recognizing that everything is impermanent—“here today, gone in a ksana,” as the old Buddhist saying goes. More importantly, leaning into limits is, the Psalmist says, the seedbed of wisdom, which as I understand it means something like discovering how we can apply our knowledge and skills—our unique brilliance—for a good that goes way beyond “little old me.” To put a different spin on it, wisdom is about recognizing that we don’t know what we don’t know, and that in fact we can’t know what we don’t know—not an easy lesson for an academic!
Yet the fruit of this recognition is, I think, an outward-looking humility, which compels us to seek out and attend to others in their finitude, with hearts full of compassion and love. In this sense, learning to number our days rightly—one of COVID’s starkest lessons—is not about limits at all: it’s about fostering a stance of life that seeks to maximize what can be done in each moment in relationship with others. Here, I think of a moment in my own academic formation, when my mentor Elizabeth Johnson gave me a signed copy of her book, Ask the Beasts, for my doctoral graduation. I opened it eagerly to see what she’d written; inscribed on the first page in perfect nun cursive (with a u, not an o) was this note: “To Paul, may you always hear many voices.” Not: “You’re amazing! Write good theology!” Not: “Go set the world on fire!” Not: “Stay cool! Never change!” But: “May you always hear many voices.” Turn to others, listen to others, heed others, trust others. That’s the wisdom of finitude, from a world-famous theologian who through a long career learned how to number her days rightly and asked me to do the same.
So, I wonder, what would happen if we came to see moments of limitation as chances to grow in wisdom? What if, rather than resisting limits, we could settle into those limits, slow down, and drift into new spaces of contemplation, creativity, imagination, reflection, and relationship. Here again, it’s important to emphasize that I’m not saying we should settle into ourselves or practice new kinds of individualism. Rather, I’m suggesting that wisdom leads us to turn more radically toward others, to reach out beyond the limits of the myth of individual existence (a myth in the sense that it creates reality and in the sense that it’s false) and seek new ways of being together, of seeing the world and ourselves as profoundly interconnected; to recognize that with every breath, we utter ourselves into reality, and that utterance has effects.
Concretely, I imagine this turn toward wisdom as having a couple of outcomes: first, it challenges one of the primary myths of American progress: that when we turn twenty-one and graduate from college, we’re emancipated from our families, free to live the lives we choose, called to make a name for ourselves, become wealthy (maybe share some with others—maybe share some with me?). But maybe numbering our days rightly, accepting the grace of finitude, can teach us to embrace and value the relationships we have with each other and with all creatures. Perhaps wisdom teaches us to see ourselves differently, to emancipate others and lift up unheard voices, especially those who—in suffering and struggle—are erased by the way we tell the story of COVID-19 and of our world. What if we worked to make the poor wealthy, and took only what we needed to get by, comfortably, but simply—focused on what really matters.
In this sense, our present challenges give us a choice: to live in frustration for everything we don’t, or can’t, have—or to discover new centers of value, new ways of settling into grace, new insights into how we can meet our own needs by meeting the needs of others: together, not apart. And I hope that by seeing the world in this way, through the lens of our common finitude, we may discover new paths to joy. Here, I think of another line from Psalm 90: “Make us glad as many days as you humbled us, for as many years as we have seen trouble.” Finding such joy in the midst of struggle can drive to see more clearly what matters and what really needs to be done for a greater good that—I believe—all our world’s religions hope for.
So, going forward in that spirit, I hope that you’ll take away three things: first, that while the only way to get things done is to do them (keep that in mind if you’re going to grad school!), you don’t have to do anything alone. Second, may you always hear and heed many voices and may those voices empower you to trouble the status quo—to confront systems and ideologies that oppress with a voice of well-reasoned hope that even when things get tough, they do not have to be that way. And whatever you do, may you find joy in doing it, recognizing that while no one is limitless, if we open ourselves to others, we might just come to see that limits aren’t limits at all: they’re tools for reflection, opportunities for collaboration and transformation, and gateways into deeper understanding that can teach us, collectively, what we can do—and what we must do—for justice and for the common good.
That’s the wisdom of finitude, and I invite you to settle into it, so that—as the Psalmist prays at the end of Psalm 90—the work of your hands may prosper, indeed.
Sophia, Divine Wisdom by the artist Mary Plaster