18 June 2012

When Wisdom Speaks

Proverbs 8 (particularly verses 22-36)

Third Sunday after Pentecost/ 17th June 2012

We’ve been spending a lot of time reflecting upon creation around the church.  On the Sunday morning several weeks ago, before we made all the images on the worship panels, which we dedicated this morning in worship, we started off with a reading of the first creation account in Genesis.  On Wednesday evening this past week we had our inter-generational, mini-Vacation Bible School.   It was a huge success and a lot of fun. The theme, again, was God’s creation. We read the first creation account again – some acted it out, others sang it, and Bob Cooper turned part of it into a rap!  We celebrated God’s good creation.

When we broke up into groups on Wednesday many of the adults gathered with me in the France Room to talk further about creation and creativity.  But we didn’t read from Genesis 1, or from Genesis 2. 

            We’re all familiar with the creation accounts in Genesis, but we’re probably less familiar with the one found in Proverbs 8 – yes, Proverbs.  In Proverbs 8 we discover that God had a helper in the act of creation – and her name was Sophia, Wisdom.  We read:  “The LORD created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts long ago” (Prov. 8:22).  So according to this tradition, Yahweh’s first act of creation was not breathing over the void of the chaos, but creating Wisdom.  Wisdom was there before there was an “in the beginning” of the heavens and earth.   Wisdom speaking here tells us, “Ages ago I was set up at the first, before the earth.  When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water” (Prov. 8: 23-24). Before there was anything, Wisdom was there. 

            So what do we make of a text such as this?  It sounds so foreign, so strange.   This isn’t the text Creationists turn to when arguing how God created everything.  I’ve never heard a Creationist quote Proverbs 8.  It’s often ignored by a lot of people, including many Christians. References to wisdom, celebrating wisdom sounds so Eastern, so Buddhist, not Western, not Christian, making it sound alien and odd.  While it might appear alien or odd to Western Christians, it was not and is not for Eastern Christians, to Orthodox Christians.  We’re so used to thinking of the Church moving west from Jerusalem to Europe and then to North America.  But there’s a tradition within Christianity that remained in the Middle East and then moved east toward Iraq, Iran, and India.  One of the holiest sites in the Eastern Church was in Constantinople (Istanbul); it was the East’s version of St. Peter’s in the Vatican.  The church, one of the great architectural wonders of the world, is today known as Hagia Sophia, meaning the Church of Holy Wisdom.   In the West, the Christian faith came to be associated with beliefs and creeds; in the East, however, as Cynthia Bourgeault has suggested, “Christianity was supremely a wisdom path.”[1]  And one of the reasons why wisdom was so central in the Eastern Church was because of its central place within Judaism.

            So what are we really talking about here?  What is this wisdom?  There are some things we need to remember about Proverbs.  Although most of it, especially chapters 1-9, is attributed to Solomon – the fellow with legendary wisdom (1 Kings 4: 29-34) – it’s difficult to date.  It was probably edited after the Babylonian exile. There are strong Egyptian influences in the text, as well as Hellenist or Greek influences.  It has parallels with wisdom literature that emerged throughout Mesopotamia at the time.  Actually, in the Old Testament, there are five books that are often referred to as wisdom literature:  Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon.

            Sophia or Wisdom is an essential element in Greek philosophy, but what we find here in the Bible is different.  It’s as if ancient Israel wanted to differentiate itself from the Greek world.  To the Hebrew mind, wisdom entails more than knowing right from wrong. Wisdom is more than knowing whether one should act or not.  Wisdom is more than that kind of knowledge.  That’s why, as we shall see, here in Proverbs and elsewhere, wisdom is personified.[2]  In Hebrew, the word for spirit, ruach, is very close to the Hebrew word for wisdom, hokmā.  They’re so close that they’re interchangeable.  And in Hebrew they’re both feminine.  This is most evident in the Wisdom of Solomon, a wisdom text from the Apocrypha, a collection books not included in the Protestant Bible.  Written under the influence of Greek thought and close to the time of Jesus, we find these words:  “Therefore I prayed, and understanding was given to me; I called on God, and the spirit of wisdom came to me” (Wisdom, 7:1).  Did you hear this, the spirit of wisdom

            Now, you might be saying what does all of this really have to do with Jesus?  A lot.  Because there is a direct correlation between the Jewish understanding of wisdom, the wisdom teaching of Jesus Christ, and the unfolding, ongoing creative work of wisdom in creation through the Holy Spirit. 

            Listen to this longer description of Wisdom from the Wisdom of Solomon.  Just about everything you’re going to hear here could easily refer to the work of the Holy Spirit:  “I learned both what is secret and what is manifest, for wisdom, the fashioner of all things, taught me.  There is in her a spirit that is intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, subtle, mobile, clear, unpolluted, distinct, invulnerable, loving the good, keen, irresistible, beneficent, humane, steadfast, sure, free from anxiety, all-powerful, overseeing all, and penetrating through all spirits that are intelligent, pure and altogether subtle.  For wisdom is more mobile than any motion; because of her pureness she pervades and penetrates all things.  For she is a breath of the power of God, a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty…. For she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness.  Although she is but one, she can do all things, and while remaining in herself, she renews all things and makes them friends of God and prophets; for God loves nothing so much as the person who lives with wisdom” (Wisdom 7: 21-27).

            Can you hear the relational language in this text?  Wisdom is not something one has, like a skill or a gift; it’s not a tool to help one behave in a certain way.  Wisdom is personified.  As shocking as this might sound (for some), this is an expression of the Divine Feminine, right here buried in the Old Testament.  The fact that this aspect or image of God has been overlooked, ignored, rejected, and denounced throughout the history of the Church is thanks, in part, to the power of patriarchy, which is still just as evident in our day.  The current fight in the public square over women’s reproductive rights, as well as the Roman Catholic Church’s attempt to reign in the women religious, the nuns, are two contemporary expressions of the fear of the feminine in both society and the Church (but that’s a whole other sermon or two!).

            Wisdom is considered Divine, the playmate, the helpmate of God.  And we are called to love her as much as God loves her.  The more we love her the more we discover her love for us.  Listen again to what we hear in Proverbs 8:  “I [Wisdom] was God’s daily delight, rejoicing before God always, rejoicing in God’s inhabited world and delighting in the human race” (Prov. 8: 30b-31).  As odd as this sounds to us, Wisdom or the Spirit is a kind of a feminine “counterpart in God himself, and is at the same time the divine presence in creation and history.”[3]
            We are invited to have a relationship with her.  We are called to seek after her, to court her.  As one theologian has said, “To court her is to touch a quality of Yahweh the creator, and to enter into a relationship with her is to receive every divine blessing.”[4]   For the Hebrew people, this was and is wisdom –yes, it includes “enjoyment of health, good name, family happiness,” but also something far more profound than all of these:  “life with” Yahweh through Wisdom.  It’s not surprising, therefore, that the early followers heard Jesus’ own message as calling for the same things and providing the way toward God.  It’s not surprising that Jesus was understood as a teacher of wisdom – not in the Greek way, but the Hebrew way, teaching us the way that leads to life with God.  Living with God, making with God, playing with God.  That’s wisdom.

            How do we court wisdom?  We find a related question in Job when he asks,  “Where does wisdom come from” (Job 28:20)?  Both Psalms and Proverbs tell us, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom”  (Psalm 111:10 & Prov. 9:10).  Why are fear (or awe) and wisdom related?  Because in the Jewish mind wisdom is sometimes called fear or awe. [5] Why? “Because [wisdom] has no measure of boundary and therefore the mind doesn’t not have the power to grasp it.”[6]  And this is fearful to the ego because the ego loves to grasp after things, to control and define things.  But wisdom is beyond its grasp and that’s why wisdom can be experienced as fear.   The Wisdom of God is beyond our understanding, it’s inaccessible, and yet we are called into relationship with her, primarily out of love.  As we read in Job, “Truly, the fear (awe) of the Lord, that is wisdom” (Job 28:28).  Embedded in the Hebrew here is the sense that we come before Wisdom with a kind of nothingness, that is, we step back and create a space, we set ourselves aside, we get out of the way and open ourselves up to God, we attempt to divest ourselves of all of our concerns and presuppositions and viewpoints and confront Someone who cannot be completely known or understood.[7]

            We need to acknowledge that we still have something to learn and to discover.
So how do we deepen this relationship?  How do we court Wisdom?  How do we become open to what Wisdom wants to teach us?  We stand, or better, kneel in awe. Perhaps then we will become more teachable. For we see in a mirror dimly and our knowledge is imperfect (1 Corinthians 13).  Then we might have the humility to say in our conversations and in our thinking, words like, “I do not know…” or “It seems to me, that…” or  “I could be wrong, but…,” before we complete a sentence or thought.  Christians mystics call this having “a beginner’s mind.”[8]  It means to be open. 

            Watching Wisdom’s relationship to God we learn something important to take away this morning.   When we, like Wisdom, are in that kind of relationship with God, new worlds come into being, new possibilities unfold before our eyes, we come to life and we grant life to the world. When we, like Wisdom, are in this kind of relationship with God – a playful, close relationship, “friends with God,” – there’s no telling what will emerge, and grow, and develop in us and in the world.  Every relationship with God is generative – for it’s the genesis, the beginning of all things.  It cannot be otherwise because God is the one who creates and makes, and the Spirit, the ruach, the breath, the hokmā, the wisdom of God is still creating and recreating us, still making us and forming and reforming us. Thanks be to God!

[1] Cynthia Bourgeault, The Wisdom Jesus:  Transforming Heart and Mind – a New Perspective on Christ and His Message (Boston:  Shambhala, 2008), 21.
[2] Raymond C. Van Leeuwen on Proverbs in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 5 (Nashville:  Abingdon, 1997), 8-14.
[3] Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life:  A Universal Affirmation (Minneapolis:  Fortress, 1993), 47.
[4] Moltmann, 47.
[5] This is particularly true in Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition.
[6] Aryeh Kaplan, Meditation and Kabbalah (Weiser Book, 1989), 136.
[7] Van Leeuwen, 10.
[8] Michael Fishbane, Sacred Attunement:  A Jewish Theology (Chicago:  University Press of Chicago, 2008), 154-155. I’m grateful for this brilliant reflection on Job 28:20, 28.

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