Monday, June 30, 2008

#40. Wisdom/Sophia

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This post is the third in the series introduced with #37 where I described plans for "What's Next." My probably overly-ambitious aim is to look at the Judeo-Christian tradition in the context of cosmic, biological and cultural evolution.

Post #38 (Exodus) deals with the origin of the evolutionary worldview. The main idea is that the Exodus event occasioned a breakthrough in human consciousness: a major step in humanity's movement out of the cyclic mind-set of the Neolithic period. In the agricultural age of the Great Mother, the plant cycle of life-death-life-- where nothing new ever happens-- dominated the human mind. With the Exodus, the Hebrew people realized that something new had happened. As odd as it may seem, the Great Escape from Egypt was the beginning of the evolutionary-scientific view of the world.

Post #39 (Hebrew Thought) deals with this dynamic understanding of nature which grew out of the Exodus experience and which stands in the greatest contrast to the negative and static views about the natural world then current in Mediterranean culture. The biblical mind sees the world as good rather than as something from which we need to escape; and as the French philosopher Claude Tresmontant says, it sees "being" itself, the central concept of Greek metaphysics, as dynamic rather than static. Tresmontant notes that the idea that it is the nature of whatever exists to be continually evolving is as significant as the discovery of fire.


While the reflections of the Jewish people on the Great Escape from Egypt opened the mind of humanity to the dynamic-evolutionary view of the world, it hasn't been an easy transition. It has taken the western world more than three thousand years to catch on to the fact that "it's the nature of whatever exists to be continually evolving." As Teilhard says, "We're just coming out of the Neolithic Age."

But the central concepts in Hebrew thought-- newness and creativity-- don't sound to us like biblical ideas, even though they are expressed clearly in the Bible's wisdom literature and were continued into early Christian times by the New Testament authors and the early Fathers of the Church. Why aren't they an obvious part of the Judeo-Christian tradition?

Those evolutionary perspectives were lost after the Dark Ages and replaced by the static worldview of Greek thought promoted by Scholastic philosophy. That static view has dominated western culture since the 14th century. It wasn't until the late 19th and early 20th centuries that the evolutionary perspectives of the Judeo-Christian tradition began to be recovered once again.

As I noted in post #38, "Scholars in areas such as biblical, liturgical and patristic studies began to recover it on the religious side, while researchers in astronomy, physics, evolutionary biology and cultural anthropology-- and most recently in the area of neuroscience-- did the same on the science side."

In our day, science and religion are converging in humanity's efforts at self-understanding. That's the main idea of my blog efforts. And at the heart of that convergence is the idea of creative newness, the dynamic rather than static worldview of Hebrew thought which is enshrined in the Bible's Wisdom literature. So the Wisdom literature is the focus of this post.


The Bible's wisdom books are much less known than the historical and the prophetic books.

The Bible's historical stories "are in our blood," as C. G. Jung says. Almost everybody in western culture knows the story of Noah and the ark, for example; Moslems even have an annual feast remembering the ark's safe landing after the flood. And most of us have at least heard of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, of Joshua and the battle of Jericho, and the story of David and Goliath.

We're less familiar with the Bible's prophetic literature. Some references in Christmas carols to the messianic prophecies-- the lineage of Jesse, the little town of Bethlehem, and the ox and ass at the crib, for example-- are familiar, and most of us know the names of the prophets "Isaiah" and "Jeremiah," but that's about it. We hardly know anything at all about the Bible's wisdom literature.

The one explicit reference to Divine Wisdom which may be familiar to many of us is found in the often sung Advent hymn, Come, O Come, Immanuel. It not only names Divine Wisdom, it also describes wisdom's cosmic function: "Come, O Come, thou Wisdom from on high, who orders all things mightily." It's saying that Wisdom's "job," if you will, is to take care of everything.

It's an unfamiliar idea, to be sure. Even the names of some of the wisdom books sound strange: Ecclesiastes, Quoleth, and Sirach, for example. Some wisdom books are not counted as authentic scripture in Protestant Bibles, and even in the churches with strong liturgical traditions (such as the Anglican, Lutheran, Catholic and Eastern Orthodox) very little of the wisdom literature is included in their liturgical readings. In the 1990s, one Methodist group even passed a law prohibiting the reading of wisdom books at their Sunday services.


Why the hostility? How come the Bible's wisdom literature is treated so poorly?

We need to keep in mind two things. One is that while the focus of Hebrew thought is dynamic creativity-- "the universe branching out into ever newer things," as Tresmontant expresses it-- patriarchy is about just the opposite: stasis, not dynamis, control, not creativity. The other thing to keep in mind is that the wisdom literature also has a strong feminine aspect. It's easy to see why the patriarchal churches ignore it.

A major problem in western culture is that we hardly know what the word "wisdom" means. As I mentioned in post #34, we live in what has been called in Susan Jacoby's recent book, The Age of American Unreason, a "culture of distraction." The superficiality of so much in contemporary society prevents us from focusing on the deeper aspects of our lives. In our trivia-based culture we readily can name celebrities in politics and in the sports and entertainment industries, but who among us can name even one person we would want to call an "elder" or a "sage"?

"Wise people" are in short supply. Most of what might be called wisdom in American culture seems to be found on the Comedy Channel. No wonder we haven't a clue what the biblical literature is referring to!


Wisdom is, of course, a human quality: it's something in us, neither theoretical nor legalistic but practical: a sense of how to live intelligently and decently. And of course the Bible's wisdom literature also recognizes that wisdom is a divine quality. Wisdom-- hochma in Hebrew, sophia in Greek-- is something we share with God. It's both divine and human.

In the New Testament, Divine Wisdom is usually referred to as logos, the Word of God. The gospel authors apparently shied away from using sophia because it was also being used by other religious movements such as Gnosticism current at that time and they did not want to identify with those movements. (Saint Paul, however, writing several decades earlier than those who wrote the gospels, didn't hesitate to use sophia. In 1 Corinthians 1:30, for example, he says explicitly, "Jesus has become the wisdom of God for us.")

So we may be familiar with Divine Wisdom when it's called the "Word of God," but unfortunately the word "Word" makes wisdom sound like something rational. The Greek word logos (and the Hebrew word for "word," davar or dabar) means far more, however, than "reason" or "thought" or "concept."

Probably the best way to say it is that logos means something like "the divine self-expression," which is of course why the New Testament authors wanted to identify it with Jesus.


The Hebrew literature talks about wisdom not only as an aspect of God and also as a companion of God-- just the way John's gospel says that in the beginning "the logos was with God and was God."

The Hebrew literature also talks about Wisdom as a feminine aspect of God. It's a recovery of the best aspects of the Neolithic perspectives, but with a practical emphasis on an everyday life of creativity and newness. So Divine Sophia is also the last of the Great Mother images.

But there are many other aspects of hochma-sophia, as well. With my long-time interest in our mind's four-fold nature-- which I've described and made use of in many previous posts-- I've found that exploring Divine Wisdom from the quaternary perspective offers us a wonderfully rich and non-patriarchal understanding of that creativity which is at the heart of all things. I hope to share some of those thoughts in the near future.

The main thought I want to share in this post is the biblical literature's understanding of Wisdom's place in the evolution of the universe.


The wisdom literature emphasizes that Sophia was with God from the start; she was there at the foundation of the world when humans first appeared. It also emphasizes that she delights in the Earth and its people which God is creating. Here's one description from the Book of Proverbs. Sophia is speaking.

When God set the heavens in place, I was present,
when God drew a ring (the horizon) on the surface of the deep,
when God fixed the clouds above,
when God fixed fast the wells of the deep,
when God assigned the sea its limits--
so the waters will not invade the land--
when God established the foundations of the earth,
I was by God's side, a master craftsperson,
Delighting God day after day,
ever at play by God's side,
at play everywhere in God's domain,
delighting to be with the humanity's children.

Notice the emphasis on creativity and delight. What a new slant on the meaning of divine logos this brief quote offers!

Notice, too, that the translation says Sophia is a "master craftsperson." I've also seen it translated as "master craftswoman." You may be unfamiliar with the Bible Gateway website; it offers about a dozen and a half different English translations of Bible. If you look up a number of the translations of this text from Proverbs you can get an even fuller sense of what Sophia's task is with regard to the world.

If you're not used to looking up Bible passages, it's easy: just open Bible Gateway and plug in "Proverbs 8: 27-31" where it says "enter passage to be looked up."

I find it especially interesting to see how the various translations express what Sophia's part is in the creation of the world. They all emphasize that she works along with God. "I was at God's side," she says. "I was a skilled worker... right there with him," the "master and director of the work." "I was the architect at his side... helping him plan and build... making sure everything fit right."

Although we can easily miss it, Sophia's "job," if you will, as it's described here is precisely what the Advent hymn refers to when it addresses the "Wisdom from on high who orders all things mightily." The original Latin words are Veni, O Sapientia, quae hic disponis omnia. "Disponis" might be translated "disposes" or "carefully arranges." Sophia "methodically orders" everything; she "puts every thing in its proper place," she "sees to it that everything is taken care of."

It's even more interesting to see how the various translations describe what it is that Sophia delights in. Some translations are obviously patriarchal: "I delighted in mankind," "I delighted in the children of man," "in the sons of men." But others are not: "I was delighting in the human race," "in the human family," "in all human beings." "How I rejoiced with the human family!" says Sophia.

Another thing that's easy to miss is that it's not only human beings that Sophia delights in, she delights in the Earth itself: "I was pleased with God's world," "I rejoiced in God's earth," "the whole world filled me with joy." "How happy I was with the world God created!" says Sophia. "I delighted in the world of things and creatures."


Needless to say, this is not the "world of dead things" which was once thought to be the height of western culture's scientific perspective. Nor is it the "suppression of everything new for the sake of power and control" which patriarchal religions continue to perpetuate today.

As we work our way out of the Neolithic Age-- out of the oppressive values of patriarchy as well as out of the rationalism of the Enlightenment period-- we can see that the human task isn't to escape from "a world of dead things"-- as religious dualism insists-- but to delight in the world of "things and creatures."

As creative participants in Divine Wisdom's on-going creation of the Earth, it's now our job to "order all things well." At the human level of the cosmic process, it's up to us Earthlings to take care of things, to see that everything "fits right."


1 comment:

Sam said...

While trying to eliminate numerous spam comments, I inadvertently deleted all comments at the END of the posts up until #90. BUT... they are still preserved in the collections of comments found in posts #32, #67 and #83.

One set of comments, however-- for posts #84 to #89-- has been completely lost. If you happen to have copied any of them, I'd much appreciate your sending a copy to me so I can restore them. Thanks.