A sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on Sunday 7 February 2021 by Revd Dr Sam Wells.
Readings of address: Proverbs 8. 1, 22-31
I want you to imagine you’re setting up a radio station. The parameters are: it has to be largely spoken word, its listeners are looking for depth, and you have access to anyone in the world you want to contribute. I wonder how you’d go about it.
I’m guessing the first thing you’d look to offer would be information. Every day new things happen, discoveries are made, and adventures are had. In an age of social media, anyone can now contribute to the hubbub of ideas, attitudes and reactions. But it’s a minefield. If you focus on the flaws of a movement or individual, you’re told it’s fake news. If you portray issues from only one point of view, you’re accused of bias. Yet if you don’t find a way to organise information, the listener quickly gets information overload and can’t bear it anymore. So we need more than just information. We need knowledge. Knowledge is information that’s been digested and reflected upon. It’s hard to be a genius without knowledge, but knowledge can’t do much on its own. Right now we say we follow the science. But medical science is telling us everyone should stay home, social science is telling us we can’t function or flourish without interaction, and economic science is telling us we can’t live if we don’t work.
So we need something more than just knowledge. And here we run into the ways knowledge has been transformed in recent decades. The technological and digital revolutions have created a cult of expertise. Expertise names the combination of skill in accessing information and aptitude for applying knowledge that makes an individual or institution head and shoulders above everyone else. A good deal of the populist revolt of the last decade has been triggered by resentment and rejection of experts. When a person goes against something you know in your bones or is crucial to your identity, the fact that they’re regarded as an expert just makes you more furious and alienated.
You could call information, knowledge and expertise the noun of your radio station: its bread and butter. But to be a good radio station you need another level, that questions, plays with, and recalibrates what you’re taking for granted. We could call that level the adjective. One of these kinds of subversion is perspective. Why does all this knowledge assume Europe is in the middle of the map? What makes it exclude neurodiversity as a legitimate way of engaging reality? Why is American or Australian or South African history assumed to begin when the white settlers started to arrive? Who decides that the only personal pronouns are he and she? Have you noticed how often blind is used as a metaphor for wilful ignorance, and darkness is a metaphor for dangerous and backward, when sight impaired and black people are just as much a blessing to humankind as anyone else? Every time someone trips us up and exposes our prejudice for the language we use, we’re reminded that we need to pass through a new threshold of insight to deepen how we think.
But there are other, less confrontational ways to challenge perspective. One is humour. Irony and satire, slapstick and surreal – they’re all ways to change the temperature and context of discussion. You can produce all kinds of data, opinion and perspective on the prevalence of guns in America and the high rate of schoolyard massacres, but you can cut through it all in no time if, like Sid Singh, you just say, ‘President Trump wants to arm teachers, which is crazy, because if Donald Trump’s teachers had been armed, we probably wouldn’t ever have had to hear his opinions about teachers being armed.’ A further way to challenge perspective is to alter the medium. Poetry is like humour – it twists and exaggerates and turns upside-down, so you can no longer regard a fact as a given, or take a statement at face value. Music adds another dimension again – quickly the mundane is transcended by the beautiful, the dull by the inspiring, the conventional by the transcendent. Now we’ve added the adjective of perspective to the noun of knowledge, we’ve nearly got a radio station.
The last dimension, which we could call the verb, is relationship. People speak of emotional intelligence, when a person realises they need to pay attention, not just to knowledge and information, but just as much to a person’s past experience or their passionate investment in an issue. Others speak of cultural intelligence, when someone appreciates that a question can mean something very different as you move from one region or tribe to another. This is the journey from knowledge to understanding, and from understanding what something means for you, to appreciating what it means for someone else, which we call empathy. We’ve arrived at the holy grail of a radio station.
There’s a word we give to the noun of knowledge subverted by the adjective of perspective issuing in the verb of relationship. That word is wisdom. Wisdom is the highest pinnacle of human aspiration, because it brings together all the different sources and kinds of discovery, experience and reflection. It sounds a bit grand to think a radio station is seeking wisdom: but that’s what we’re all searching for. The Old Testament gives an honoured place to wisdom. I’m often asked why I seldom use the term Hebrew Bible. The reason is I believe it keys into the false notion that what Jews believe is less than what Christians believe, being shorter, and lacking Jesus. It also fails to recognise that the Old Testament and the Hebrew Bible aren’t simply the same thing with different names. The Hebrew Bible has three parts – the Torah, or Law, the Nevai’im, or Prophets, and the Ketuvim, or Writings. The characteristic of that third section, the Writings, is wisdom. A characteristic part of the wisdom literature of the Old Testament is the book of Proverbs.
Through aphorism and poetry, Proverbs immerses us in a quest to achieve what our radio station was seeking – to bring together all three dimensions of encounter – knowledge, perspective and relationship – and thus make wisdom. Wisdom is the way God’s character is imprinted on existence, and the way humanity comes close to comprehending the ways of God. Thus in today’s reading from Proverbs chapter 8, wisdom is present when God creates the world, and shapes the way God connects the different parts of creation to one another. Paul riffs on this passage when he writes the first chapter of Colossians. But Proverbs 8 isn’t simply an infusion of sober judgement, careful calculation and shrewd assessment. The last couple of verses speak of delight, playfulness and rejoicing. Wisdom isn’t restricted to long-bearded analysis, multi-volumed scholarship, or relentless dispassionate scrutiny. Wisdom and joy are ultimately inextricable. Joy is based not on denial or fantasy, but on true understanding, and wisdom is grounded not in forbidding intelligence, but in enchanted wonder.
We all know the familiar narrative of the Bible – route one we might call it – where Adam and Eve sin, God calls Abraham, Jacob goes down to Egypt, Moses brings Israel out of slavery, kings build the temple, Israel falls from grace, and Jesus comes along to restore God’s relationship with Israel and transform it into forgiveness and eternal life for the whole world. But Proverbs offers us an alternative perspective, what we might call route two. Here we see humanity’s quest for perfection, not as a hubristic Tower of Babel, but as a worthy search for knowledge, perspective, and relationship. Jesus comes into this story not as a rescuer from sin and death, but as the embodiment of wisdom. He is the place where the logic of God meets the highest aspiration of creation. He is the coming-together of our earthly existence and God’s eternal essence. He is the heavenly word made worldly flesh.
See how different this understanding of Jesus as wisdom is when we turn to the character of Christianity – to the kind of programmes our radio station makes. Route one Christianity risks always being suspicious, keen to expose the hollowness behind every human endeavour. ‘You built the Taj Mahal? But it’s not Christian, so it’s worthless.’ ‘You compiled the Grand Library of Baghdad in the eighth century, known as the House of Wisdom? Sorry, it was built on sand, because it’s not dedicated to Christ.’ Route two Christianity is rather different. It sees the Taj Mahal and the Grand Library as part of the great human quest for wisdom – a quest that Christians believe finds its consummation in Christ, the embodiment of wisdom.
Here’s a secret: quite a bit of Proverbs is found in ancient Mesopotamian literature dating back 1500 years before Proverbs was compiled. See how significant that discovery is. For route one Christianity it’s a serious threat, because it suggests some of what Christians cherish about Jesus began as an insight from another faith. But for route two Christianity it’s not a problem at all, because you’re glad for all wisdom and you appreciate that wisdom accumulates knowledge, perspective and relationship from diverse sources. Steps on the way to wisdom aren’t worthless, whoever makes them. They’re actions of the Holy Spirit – ways Christ is present beyond the immediate comprehension of the church.
Here’s the crucial point that transforms wisdom from accumulation to something much richer. The central line in the whole of Proverbs is, ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.’ In other words, all wisdom is, in the end, a form of worship. As we pursue knowledge, refine perspective and cultivate relationship, we’re seeking and recognising truth: and when we find truth, our celebration of that truth is what we call worship. Wisdom isn’t the end of all our searching: wisdom is what enables us truly to worship the one from whom all blessings flow.
We don’t have to choose between route one and route two. Remember, they’re both in the Bible, like different ways to get from here to eternity. But think about that radio station again. What kind of a message do we want to give to the world beyond the church? Maybe not, ‘You’re useless, you’re sinners – you’re doomed until you accept our perspective’? Maybe, ‘We appreciate your knowledge, perspective and relationship, and it’s enriching our notion of truth, of wisdom, and even of Jesus.’ That’s the wisdom to be found in the book of Proverbs. Jesus is the full embodiment of the wisdom of God that spans the ages and the fulfilment of the wisdom of the ages embodied in a human being. The only response to such wisdom is worship.