Wisdom calls | 29 May 2016


Texts: Proverbs 8:1-4; 22-31, John 1:1-5


About four years ago the University of Chicago received a large grant from the John Templeton Foundation.  It was for the creation the Wisdom Research Project.  The project is pretty much what it sounds like, and describes its mission this way: “ We want to understand how an individual develops wisdom and the circumstances and situations in which people are most likely to make wise decisions.  We hope that, by deepening our scientific understanding of wisdom, we will also begin to understand how to gain, reinforce, and apply wisdom and, in turn, become wiser as a society.”

Dr. Howard Nusbaum is the Director of this project and was recently interviewed in a publication I receive, which is how I found out about it (Bearing: for the Life of Faith, A publication of the Collegeville Institute, Spring 2016, pp. 16-17).  The interview notes that Wisdom researchers “use everything from brain scans to personal narratives to help them test their hypotheses about wisdom.”  Some are researching the effects of meditation on awareness and humility, both keys for wisdom.  Others are looking at the relationship between wisdom and the body.  For example, one research team has found that “years of ballet practice are related to increased wisdom.”  It’s never too late to start… Other researchers are finding significant connections between wisdom and sleep!  While sleeping our brains help us to generalize “from experiences, allowing us to use knowledge from one experience to help with a novel situation.”

So the next time you take a nap or lay down at night to sleep, consider it an exercise in gaining wisdom.

Nusbaum is especially interested in asking, “What is the relationship between wisdom and human flourishing?”  He cites Aristotle who believed these two were closely connected.  Nussbaum says that flourishing “does not necessarily mean health, prosperity, and pleasure.  Rather,” he says, “it seems to refer to a broader sense of social connection.”

I love that something like the Wisdom Research Project exists, and wonder how much we would learn if we spent half as much researching wisdom as we spend researching weapons and warfare.

The search for Wisdom is ancient.  If you are a member of the homo sapiens, a safe assumption, your very taxonomic classification, names you as “sapient human,” “wise human.”  Although when I looked up “sapient” it was defined as “wise, or attempting to appear wise,” which sounds about right.

In Proverbs 8, Wisdom is not merely something to be sought, but something, someone, doing the seeking.  Wisdom is personified as a female sage.  The bulletin cover artwork is one artist’s imaginative portrayal of Wisdom.  Proverbs 8 begins: “Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice?”  Here, Wisdom is not hiding in foggy mists.  She is not trying to be elusive.  Wisdom has things to say.  Wisdom is calling.  Wisdom wants to be heard and she is raising her voice.

But where?  Where do you have to go to hear Wisdom?  The text goes on: “On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrances she calls out.”  Where is Wisdom to be found?  Up, down, out on the traveling road, everywhere roads intersect, in the city, at the gate where people gather and judicial cases are decided and economic exchanges take place.  Wisdom is everywhere.  You can’t get away her.  You almost can’t miss her.

Back to the text: “To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live.”  If you are alive, you are on the list of those to whom Wisdom is calling.

You don’t need a holy book to find Wisdom.  You don’t need to be literate.  You don’t need a degree, a credential, you don’t need a certain income level, you don’t need permission to listen to what Wisdom is saying.  You don’t need a multi-million dollar grant, although I wouldn’t suggest turning it down if someone offered it.  Wisdom, Proverbs suggests, is utterly accessible to woman, man, child – anyone with ears to hear, as Jesus was fond of saying.

In the age of the internet, this description of Wisdom sounds pretty close to the way we are now experiencing information.  Does not information call?  Do not audio and visual media raise their voice?  On the heights, beside the way, in the home, at the office, in the car, in the coffee shop, anywhere a wi-fi connection can be had, as far as LTE can reach?  To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all who have a device to receive me.

If you ask me just about any fact-seeking question, I could have you an answer as fast as I could enter it into my phone.  For most of us it has become totally normal to have 24 hour access to the all-knowing, all-present global brain, as close as your pocket.

I am in no way complaining about this state of affairs.  I’m rather fond of living in the digital age.  But let’s be honest with ourselves and acknowledge that having access to information does not mean that we are wise.  Information and wisdom, being smart and being wise are two different things.  Our President’s visit to Hiroshima this past week calls to mind the time when our nation got the smartest people together all in one room to come up with a solution to a problem, and they created the atomic bomb – which was used, twice, against our enemies, the civilians of Japan.  Information and wisdom, being smart and being wise are two different things.  One could argue that the smarter and more powerful we become as homo sapiens, the more urgent the need to become wise.

Proverbs 8 has more to say about Wisdom.  Wisdom and God, it appears, go way back.  Like, way back.  Proverbs 8:22 speaks in the voice of Wisdom: “Yahweh created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago.  Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth.”

Before the bang banged, wisdom was.  Before the drifting remains of a supernova star began aggregating together, forming the space ball we now know as planet earth, Wisdom was there.

Proverbs: “When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with waters.  Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth – when he had not yet made earth and fields, or the world’s first bits of soil…when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker.”

Following the entire arc of this passage is like taking a trip back to Genesis itself, such that all that is, has come about under the watchful eye, through the power of, Wisdom.

So not only does Wisdom call out to all that lives, but Wisdom is embedded within all that lives.

Consider the lilies, Jesus said.  Consider the birds of the air.

Consider the cyanobacteria 2.7 billion years ago that learned how to receive the energy of sun in such a way so as to part the waters, to part water itself, the first to set oxygen free from its bondage to those two hydrogens, through photosynthesis, creating the kind of oxygenated atmosphere that enables creatures like us to breath.

Consider the strands of fungi under the soil, under this building, connecting tree to tree, root to root, an underground shipping and receiving network of water and nutrients.

Consider the world wide web of life, of wind currents, the unhurried tectonic shifts that thrust up mountains and push continents drifting toward and away from one another.

This is the world that Wisdom built.

John begins his gospel by speaking of the Logos, the Word, in a way similar to Wisdom.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  All things came into being through it, and without it not one thing came into being…  And the Word, the Logos, became flesh, and dwelt among us.”  Jesus is an embodiment of Wisdom.  His frequent talk of coming to bring abundant life finds echoes in Dr. Nusbaum’s question about wisdom research:  “What is the relationship between wisdom and human flourishing?”

So here’s my question: If Wisdom is calling out, everywhere, to everyone; if Wisdom is woven into the very fabric of creation; if the Christian tradition was founded on and celebrates embodied wisdom – then why is it so hard to become wise?  Why is it so hard to listen to whatever it is that Wisdom is saying?

Wisdom is a creator, and yet so much of what we are undertaking these days is uncreating the world that Wisdom has built.

We need elders to teach us how to listen to Wisdom.  We need our children to remind us of Wisdom.

There’s one more thing Proverbs 8 says about Wisdom, right where we left off.  “When he marked off the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in the inhabited world, and delighting in the human race.”  That word for “rejoicing,” which shows up twice, is translated by the Jewish Publication Society as “playing.”  Wisdom is not only a work horse, a mad scientist and visionary artist, but Wisdom is playful, Wisdom rejoices, Wisdom delights in the human race.

This past Thursday, after the group had met at Wendy’s headquarters in Dublin to demand fair wages and working conditions, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and their allies from around the Midwest came to CMC to have a lunch.  There was good reason to be discouraged.  Wendy’s continues to be the last holdout of the major fast food chains not to join the CIW Fair Food Program.  The folks who pick our tomatoes, predominantly Spanish speaking, have been working for over two decades to create the kinds of conditions for themselves in which they and their children can at least have the chance to flourish.  It’s hard work, and I can barely imagine being in their place and doing what they do.

But on Thursday, here in our fellowship hall, there was delight.  There was cheering, there was laughter, there was a good meal and conversation shared by all, there was an impromptu birthday song for one of the long time allies of CIW.

Wisdom plays.  Wisdom delights in the human race.  Wisdom calls us to put down our labors from time to time, and throw a fiesta, and rejoice in the goodness of life that the Creator has brought about through Wisdom.

“To you, O people, I call, and my invitation to the Great Fiesta is to all that live.”