Tuesday, September 30, 2008

#45. Midnight Wisdom: Sophia as Provider

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This post is the last of four dealing with the four main groups of images of Wisdom/Sophia found in the Hebrew Bible's wisdom literature.

I find these images tremendously helpful for a renewed understanding of the western religious tradition in the context of cosmic, biological and cultural evolution. They seem especially appropriate for the major transitional period humanity is experiencing in our movement beyond the limitations of a static cosmology and the patriarchal attitudes of religious dualism.

As in the previous three posts, my efforts here are to relate this fourth group of wisdom images to the other four-fold perspectives about which I've shared my thoughts in earlier posts. This includes the Jungian consciousness functions, the imagery connected with the four directions found in pre-civilization traditions such as the Native American Medicine Wheel, the four traditional ways of being religious, Karl Rahner's existential aspects of human experience, and the Immense Transition itself.

I've called this post "Sophia as Provider" because this fourth group of images sees Sophia as the source of food, shelter and protection for the Earth's children. Alternative names might be "Sophia as Protector" or "Sophia as Caretaker." It's an image of Divine Wisdom taking care of us, Sophia providing for our life and existence.

I've also called it "Midnight Wisdom" because it relates to the North on the Medicine Wheel. "North" especially evokes the darkness of night and the cold of winter, threatening times when alert attention to potential danger is needed and there is little leeway for carelessness or error. If an emergency arises in the middle of the night or in the dead of winter, delay in immediate action can easily result in major injury or death.

The primal element associated with North is earth; in some traditions it's said to be metal. The basic idea is the rock-hard solidity of stone or a chunk of iron, which is in strong contrast to the fluidity of water (the element associated with the West) and the fleetingness of wind, air and breath (East's element).

The solidity of rock and metal represents the harsher aspects of reality, what's sometimes called the world's "obduracy." So "earth", as the North's element, is an especially good expression of our need to attend to the material aspects of our lives, particularly to the needs of our bodies and to the safety and survival of those too young, too old or too ill to take care of themselves.

The main idea is that life is fragile and we need to give our attention to the details of the rock-hard realities of our physical existence.


On the Medicine Wheel, the animal associated with North is the White Buffalo. For the Plains Indians, the buffalo was not only the main source of food but also of many other things needed for survival. The buffalo provided its skin for covering tepees, its fur for clothing, and its bones to make necessary tools such as scrapers, needles and knives; even the bull buffalo's scrotum was used to make rattles for religious ceremonies. The buffalo quite literally gives itself for the life of the people.

And as in the archaic hunting cultures, where hunting was considered a religious activity, the buffalo was understood to give itself willingly. It's not all that different from the understanding of creation by divine kenosis-- which I described in posts #33 (Talking About God) and #34 (Talking About Us)-- at the heart of the Judeo-Christian tradition. The buffalo is indeed sacred. Even today when an occasional white buffalo is born Native Americans hold it in high honor as an image of this divine self-giving.


It's important to keep in mind that, although the imagery is very different, contemporary scientists working in fields such as Systems Theory, Chaos Theory and Unified Field Theory are also saying something very much along these same lines. They see the world and ourselves in it as manifestations of an underlying order of reality for which they use terms like the "Cosmic Fullness," "Implicate Order" and "Quantum Sea." An Asian version of this same idea is the traditional Chinese description of the Tao as "the no-thing from which comes every thing."

As I mentioned in several previous posts, the Russian Orthodox theologian Sergius Bulgakov expresses a similar understanding when he describes the world and human persons as "actualizations of the divine potentialities." Jungian analyst Michael Conforti, a contemporary pioneer in matter-mind studies in the realm of psychotherapy, uses a more traditional religious term; he says "the patterns of reality are continually being incarnate in space and time." Karl Rahner says something similar, too-- that we experience ourselves as the "embodiment" of the "incomprehensible source." Perhaps the best name for this self-giving on the part of the Mystery behind the universe is cosmologist Brian Swimme's phrase, "the all-nourishing abyss."

Contemporary scientists, cosmologists, theoretical physicists, psychotherapists; Orthodox and Catholic theologians; followers of ancient traditions such as Taoism and of teachings going back to Paleolithic times-- all are attempting to express the same insight. Like the White Buffalo, the mystery behind the universe provides us with what's needed for the survival and fullness of our lives.


In the fourth group of the Bible's wisdom images, Wisdom/Sophia is pictured in way that sounds very similar to the White Buffalo's self-giving. The Hebrew writers don't use an animal image, since the Hebrews were farmers, not hunters. In the wisdom literature, Sophia is pictured as a tree, plant or vine-- a source of food and shelter for humanity.

Here are some comments from Hal Taussig's book, Wisdom's Feast, Sophia in Study and Celebration, which I've referred to in each of these four posts dealing with images of Sophia. This group of images is especially relevant to these midnight and caretaker aspects of Divine Wisdom.

Taussig notes that in many of humanity's cultures "a tree comes eventually to symbolize almost every major mythical figure," and he suggests that this may be the reason the "Hebrew scriptures include a number of different images of Sophia as a tree or plant." Some well-known examples are Buddha under the Bo tree, Jesus on the tree of the cross, Thor hanging on the World-Tree.

Taussig says that the "most striking of these" wisdom images is in Ecclesiasticus 24. Here, Sophia herself is speaking: "I have taken root in a privileged people, in the Lord's property, in his inheritance," she says.

And this is followed with a series of wonderful images: "I have grown tall as a cedar on Lebanon, as a cypress on Mount Hermon; I have grown tall as a palm in Engedi, as the rose bushes of Jericho; as a fine olive in the plain, as a plane tree I have grown tall. I have exhaled perfume like cinnamon and acacia, I have breathed out a scent like choice myrrh, like galbanum, onzcha and stacte, like the smoke of incense in the tabernacle."

Sophia compares herself to a glorious oak tree: "I have spread my branches like a terebinth, and my branches are glorious and graceful." And also to a delicate vine: "I am like a vine putting out graceful shoots, my blossoms bear the fruit of glory and wealth."

Sophia gives of herself no less than the sacred buffalo of the Plains Indians: "Approach me, you who desire me, and take your fill of my fruits."

Taussig notes that this is likewise the case in Ecclesiasticus 1, where Sophia is described as a tree providing out of her own abundance: "She intoxicates them with her fruits; she fills their whole house with their heart's desire, and their storerooms with her produce."

Sophia also provides shelter along with her fruits; in Ecclesiasticus 14 she becomes a sheltering presence. Taussig notes that here the writer "mixes metaphors to describe Sophia's sheltering presence" as both a tree and a house. In this text, the writer is speaking of "one who meditates on Sophia."

"He peeps in at her windows, and listens at her doors; he lodges close to her house and fixes his peg in her walls... he sets his children in her shade, and camps beneath her branches, he is sheltered by her from the heat, and in her glory he makes his home."

In all of these images, Sophia gives of herself for the life of the people. She provides the food, shelter and protection especially needed in the dark of night and the cold of winter which are associated with North on the Medicine Wheel.


It makes good sense that the Jungian consciousness-function associated with the darkness and cold of north on the Medicine Wheel is Sensation. With its attention to details, our Sensation function fits right in with the idea of care-taker and provider.

Sensation is a perception function (as is Intuition, which is associated with the west), and both Intuition and Sensation differ from the two judgment functions (Feeling and Thinking) because, rather than making a judgment about whatever environment we find ourselves in, the perception functions simply look at what's there. The difference is that while Intuition sees the forest, Sensation pays attention to the individual trees; it sees the details.

So the White Buffalo/Sensation function is in great contrast to our Black Bear/Intuition function. While Intuition is concerned with possibilities and potentialities, with the "what might be" of the future, Sensation is concerned with the immediate details of life in the here-and-now.

The mind's Sensation function is apparently based on the activity of the brain's Frontal lobe which allows us to focus our attention on particulars and is concerned with how we make use of things. It's a part of our evolutionary heritage from the ancient past when, as the Biogenetic Structuralists like to say, the main concern of our animal ancestors was to "get food without becoming food." People with a strong Sensation function focus more easily than the rest of us on the details of everyday life. We couldn't survive without them.


Medical people, nurses and doctors, for example, are often better than the rest of us at being able to handle the immediate details of life and death situations. So are many others who give of themselves for the safety and protection of the rest of us-- firefighters, police, crossing-guards, construction workers, those who care for patients who have highly contagious diseases-- any who have dangerous jobs and are especially good in emergencies.

Care-takers devoted to the more routine service to others are also examples of this White Buffalo ability. Those who run drug rehabs, day-care shelters and food banks, those who provide for the homeless on cold winter nights, those who maintain houses of hospitality and soup kitchens, those who keep our homes and streets clean, those who see better than the rest of us the details of climate change and help us see what we can do about it-- all are examples of our White Buffalo/Sensation function. And as I said, we couldn't survive without them.

The need for this White Buffalo quality in political leaders has recently emerged as a result of the media's references to "the 3 AM phone call." But it's just as much needed by any mother or father when responding to a child's cry in the middle of the night.

These are all examples of our White Buffalo/Sensation function in action, providing the care and protection needed, not only for our safety and survival, but for life in its fullness. They are all expressions of our providing for the shelter and protection for others just as Sophia does.


It's not surprising that the focus of the Sensation function and the Medicine Wheel's North finds expression in one of the traditional ways of being religious, the way of service. In scholarly circles, it's referred to as "the way of cosmic harmony."

Here, social action is seen as our contribution to keeping the world in balance; service to those in need is a way of being in harmony with the cosmic flow. We take care of one another simply because that's the way the world works; it's "the right thing to do." We provide for one another, as Divine Wisdom provides for us.

This White Buffalo way of being religious contrasts greatly with devotion to the Holy Presence, the way favored by the Green Mouse/Feeling function. In the Sensation function's "way of cosmic harmony," the Holy Presence is understood to be present wherever anyone is in need.

Many of us will remember the traditional works of mercy-- feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, visiting the sick, burying the dead. Martin Luther expressed this perspective well when he said, "Ever, ever goes the Christ in stranger's garb." Mother Theresa describes a leper dying in the streets as "Jesus in a distressing form." The Dali Lama says he can describe his religion in one word, "Compassion."

The native Maori people of New Zealand have an especially simple and powerful image that captures well this way of service and cosmic harmony. They see each individual who is born into the world as something like a fragile fern frond, to be taken care of until it grows up enough so that it can take care of other fragile fern fronds. The image of fern frond is found everywhere in New Zealand. It's even used as a logo for their "All Blacks" Rugby team and the "Black Caps" Cricket team.

What this way of being religious comes down to is offering a helping hand wherever it's needed. And as a "way of cosmic harmony" it fits right in, not only with these older insights of the world's religious traditions, but also with the vision of the New Cosmology we have from modern science.


In the perspectives of the New Cosmology the idea of service to those in need is simply extended to include our taking care of the Earth itself. The focus is still in terms of survival and protection, but now the care is extended to include endangered species of wildlife and the details of the dynamic environment. In the New Cosmology our sense of the Holy Presence is extended to everything.

It's easy to see that this inclusivity is a major aspect of the Sensation function's focus on details.

In posts #39 (on Hebrew Thought) and #40 (on Sophia/Wisdom), I mentioned the French philosopher and author of A Study of Hebrew Thought, Claude Tresmontant, teacher of medieval philosophy and the philosophy of science at the Sorbonne. Tresmontant observed that from a dynamic-evolutionary perspective, war and violence are distortions of the cosmic process. We can see better now, thanks to the New Cosmology, that patriarchy is too. I have in mind specifically those attitudes of the patriarchal mind which result in the exploitation of the Earth's resources or the exclusion of people from full participation in life because of their age, gender, educational level or ethnic background.

In the New Cosmology, we see that it's a distortion of the cosmic process to exclude anyone. In our care of the Earth and its peoples, nothing is to be overlooked, no one is to be left out.

And this is not just the concern of Peace Prize recipients such as Mother Theresa, Al Gore and Africa's Wangari Maathai. In the Immense Transition, we are coming to see that care for ourselves and for "all our relations" is one of the main practical ideas in the new view of ourselves and world that's offered us by modern science. Just as we are coming to see, too, in this time of Great Turning, that humanity's cultural history is a continuation of the embodiment-- the actualization, incarnation, manifestation-- of the cosmic fullness, the incomprehensible source and all-nourishing abyss we know as Divine Wisdom.


This understanding of ourselves as manifestation of the Mystery behind the universe is expressed especially well in Karl Rahner's existential analysis of our experience of being "a person in the world." He says that we not only experience ourselves at the deepest level as aware, open and free, but also that we experience ourselves as "blessed" or "graced."

The blessing we experience is nothing less than the fact that we belong to the universe. We know ourselves as blessed to be part of it all, graced to be not only participants in the cosmic process but also called to personally contribute to it.

In my experience, many who are interested in the New Cosmology find it surprising that the western religious tradition has a word for our participation in and contribution to the cosmic process. They find it even more surprising to know that the word is "liturgy."

Originally, "liturgy" just meant something like "public work." In the early days of the Roman Empire, when wealthy people donated funds for public works-- for what today we would call "civic improvements" which are of benefit to all-- that work was referred to as "liturgy." Basically, the word means work done "by the people and for the people."

Christians in the Roman Empire used the word "liturgy" to express their understanding of being called to act for the benefit of the whole human community. In theological texts liturgy is still defined as "the work of the people." And even today, in the liturgical services of the Eastern Christian churches, it's said explicitly that the service is being offered "on behalf of all and for all."

It's easy to miss that we still use the word "service" to refer to a religious ceremony. And it's fascinating to see that the term "liturgy" has become more widespread as a synonym for what used to be called "divine service." Jews have long referred to the "liturgy of the synagogue" and even Buddhists nowadays sometimes refer to their gatherings for meditation as their "zen liturgy."

But the connection between the existential experience of being graced or blessed and the subsequent sense of service to the world is found even in one of the oldest known religious "services," the sweat lodge ceremony of Native Americans. 

Sweat lodge rites go back many thousands of years, perhaps to the time of the Paleolithic hunting cultures. And even today the sweat lodge structure is covered (at least ideally) with buffalo skins. But even if it's covered with plastic tarps, the participants still proclaim, as they crawl naked through the small door that leads into it, that what they are doing is for the benefit of all. Each one says, "All my relations!"

I've never heard the sweat lodge ceremony referred to as a "liturgy," but Native Americans are as explicit as are Eastern Christians in their understanding that what they are doing in the sweat lodge is service on behalf of the world: "We do this so that all the peoples might live." And by "peoples" they mean the winged nations, the finned nations and the four-legged, as well as we two-legged peoples. It's not surprising that this ancient hunting culture ritual has become an important ceremony to many in the context of the New Cosmology.


From Paleolithic hunting cultures to theoretical physics and modern existentialist analysis of human experience, the same fundamental vision emerges. Although in very different words and expressions, they all seem to be saying something much like the perspective that's at the root of the western culture's religious tradition: Divine Wisdom gathers us, guides us and provides for us, and calls us to contribute our service on behalf of all and for all.

In Taussig's words: "Sophia calls out to us to participate in the world in which we live."

And once again the question is, in Karl Rahner's words: "Are we are willing to make the effort to be sensitive and responsive?"


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.