Sunday, 7 January 2018

‘The way of wisdom’

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
7th January 2018

Matthew 2.1-12   
1 Corinthians 1.17-31; 3.18-23  

Who is the wisest person you can think of?
            Maybe someone famous for being a great thinker?
            Or maybe someone who has had a profound influence on you personally?
            Maybe a family member? A grandparent, or a parent?
            Or maybe a wise friend, or a trusted counsellor?

Who, I wonder, is the wisest person you can think of?
            Are they educated, or uneducated?
            Do they have a lot of letters after, or even before, their name?

And here’s the thing:
            On the basis of who your wise person is,
                        would you say that wisdom and knowledge are the same thing?

You see, I think we have a bit of a crisis of wisdom in our world:
            I think we are knowledge-rich, but wisdom-poor;
            and that wisdom and knowledge have become confused and conflated.

Sometimes it can seem as though everyone
            with access to Wikipedia or Google on their phone
thinks that just because they have pretty-much the entire sum of human knowledge
            available to them at the press of a button,
this somehow imparts enough wisdom
            for them to take decisions that will stand the test of time.

Whereas I think it is perfectly possible to be wise with relatively little knowledge,
            just as someone can have a lot of knowledge, but little wisdom.

Knowing how to make a car go,
            is, after all, not the same thing as having the wisdom to drive safely;
and knowing how to find the answer to everything,
            is not the same thing as having the wisdom to use that knowledge well.

We are often told that we live in a culture of cynicism towards experts,
            where those who have immersed themselves in a topic or discipline
                        are disparaged for having a supposed vested interest in it,
            while anyone who has acquired some superficial knowledge,
                        but not necessarily any great depth,
            can now consider themselves the equal of those
                        who have spent many years studying.

Oscar Wilde famously defined a cynic as someone
            who ‘knows the price of everything but the value of nothing’,
and I think that in many ways,
            as the availability of knowledge has grown over the past decades,
            so has our cynicism about those who would use that knowledge.

The expert is hiding something, or up to something,
            and so we take nothing at face value
            and make our own judgments about what is wise.

Which is why, in the face of all the evidence as to its benefits,
            some parents refuse to vaccinate their children,
and it is why, in the face of all the evidence of its reality,
            some people deny climate change,
and it’s why, in the face of… well, just, all the evidence,
            some people think the world is only a few thousand years old.

And I’m just going to put this here for a moment and leave it,
            ‘Not all views are equally valid,
            and not everyone is equipped to take all decisions.’

A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing,
            and a lot of knowledge can be even more dangerous
            if it is not also accompanied by wisdom.

Sometimes, when someone comes into my study here at Bloomsbury,
            they’ll look at the bookshelves bursting with books,
            and ask me, ‘have you read all of them?’

And the answer, of course, is ‘no’. Not yet. Possibly not ever….
            I’ve read a lot of them,
                        and I’ve skimmed most of the others
                        to have an idea of what’s in them should I ever need it,
            but there are still a lot still to read.

Sometimes, I’ll then get a statement along the lines of,
            ‘Well, if you’ve read so much, you must know a lot.’
And my reply is, again, ‘no’.
            I know quite a bit about a few things,
                        but actually what I know best
                        is how little I know about most things.

The great author and philosopher Umberto Eco
            calls this the effect of the ‘anti-library’,
and he claims that the value of the unread books in a library
            is greater than that of those already read,
because the unread books remind you constantly
            of how much there is still to discover.

And Marilynne Robinson, another wonderful author, says that
‘we are part of a mystery, a splendid mystery
            within which we must attempt to orient ourselves
            if we are to have a sense of our own nature…’

I would have both Umberto Eco and Marilynne Robinson
            on my personal list of ‘very wise people’,
and I’m struck by the fact that they both value ignorance, mystery, and ‘not-knowing’,
            as a crucial part of their own journey into wisdom.

Wisdom and knowledge, it seems, do not fully equate,
            and I think that those of us who hope to live wisely need to hear this very clearly.

When I worked at the Baptist College in Cardiff,
            prospective students would come to us for three or four years,
            with a view to being accredited as ordained church ministers.

And I’m in touch online with quite a lot of my former students,
            which is wonderful, and it’s always a delight to see how they’re doing,
            especially when they’re not doing too badly.

But one of the comments that appears with great regularity in their posts,
            goes something like:

‘Today, I had to do this, followed by that,
            and then unexpectedly had to spend the afternoon doing the other.
They certainly didn’t train me for this in College!’

And I find myself thinking, ‘well no, of course we didn’t!’
            because no ministerial course can ever impart the level of knowledge
            required to cover every single possible thing
                        that a minister might have to do
                        in every conceivable ministry situation.

I still discover new things in ministry on a daily basis myself,
            and I’ve been doing it for nearly twenty years now.

And of course the truth of the matter
            is that you don’t become a minister by being taught how to do it,
            although clearly there are some skills that it’s useful to acquire along the way.
Rather, a person becomes a minister
            by discovering within themselves a God-given capacity
to love, and serve, and exemplify wisdom in the face of an often foolish world.

And I don’t think this is just true for ordained ministry;
            I think the same thing could be said about each of us,
            in our own vocation to Christian discipleship.

There are few things I find more distressing
            than a Christian who believes they have only knowledge left to learn.
You know the kind of person I’m talking about,
            someone who assiduously attends Bible studies,
                        but only to learn more of how the Bible can reinforce
                        their already unshakeable worldview.

Give me the honest doubter, and the questioning believer,
            any day of the week.

True growth in discipleship occurs not through the acquisition of yet more knowledge,
            but by discovering, and coming-to-terms with, our lack of knowledge.

Growth in wisdom does not come easily,
            and it cannot be bought or downloaded,
            to be ingested in bite sized daily chunks.

Rather, wisdom comes to us from beyond ourselves,
            it is a gift of grace that we cannot earn
            and can only discover as we learn more of who we are, and who God is.

Maybe it comes with age?
            That can certainly help, and we do well to listen to and respect our elders,
                        We are wise to pay attention to those
                                    who have discovered that the certainties of youth
                                    tend to founder on the rocks of reality.

But also, looking at some of our more elderly global leaders,
            I’m minded to think that wisdom doesn’t necessarily come with advancing years,
                        any more than it automatically comes with advancing knowledge.
And anyway, I can think of young people
            who have what we might call, ‘wisdom beyond their years’,
and we ignore the rising generation’s voice at our loss and peril.

Wisdom, it seems, is elusive,
            both within and beyond the Christian faith;
but it is also essential,
            if we are to navigate our way through the confusing waters of our world.

Interestingly, the Bible has quite a lot to say about wisdom;
            what it is, where it comes from, and how we might acquire it.

Famously, King Solomon asked God for wisdom,
            rather than strength in battle or great wealth;
and the story of how he resolved the dispute between two women
            who both claimed the same child as their own,
has, along with other folklore versions of the same story from other cultures,
            contributed to the philosophy of wise law-making for millennia.

But of course it’s the book of Proverbs in the Old Testament
            that gives us the most complete exploration of the Jewish wisdom tradition,
reading like a kind of wisdom-manual designed to provoke thought
            and stimulate reflection.

Interestingly, Thabo Mbeki, the second post-apartheid president of South Africa,
            and the successor to Nelson Mandela,
famously turned time and again to the book of Proverbs in his public speeches,
            as he sought to find a way forwards for a country with such inherited division,
            whose recent history included the foolishness of apartheid.

Mbeki said that Proverbs captured the spirit of Ubuntu,
            the South African philosophy, promoted by Desmond Tutu,
                        that all life is interconnected,
            and that no-one exists in a moral or spiritual vacuum.

The wisdom of Ubuntu tells us
            that none of us is complete in and of ourselves,
            and that we need others to find our true humanity.

In other words, we need to discover the wisdom that lies
            in looking beyond our own worldview,
                        beyond our own finite set of knowledge,
            into the mystery of the other.

And so we’re back to the humility of recognising our own limitations,
            as the beginning of the path to wisdom.

But the Jewish tradition doesn’t end with the book of Proverbs,
            rather, it goes beyond the short saying you can remember
            to a belief that true wisdom is encountered as an extension of God.

There are places within the Hebrew scriptures
            where wisdom appears as a kind of personified entity,
active in the creation of the cosmos,
            and continuously active in holding all things together.

One of the great mysteries of science
            is the question of why we live in an ordered universe,
            why it is that we have laws of nature that we can comprehend
                        and which appear to be stable and repeatable.
And it is this sense that there is something ordered about creation
            that the wisdom tradition is trying to explore.

I think that here we encounter the fusion of science and spirituality,
            as the search for knowledge meets the desire for wisdom,
            and the two find fulfilment in each other.
Far from incompatible,
            science and faith both shine their respective light into the darkness of chaos,
            discovering order within the mystery.

In the New Testament, the idea of wisdom personified
            is used to speak of Jesus,
who becomes, for the early Christians,
            the one in whose life and teaching
            wisdom is made most fully real.

And so we come to the story of the wise men from the east
            who come to visit the infant Christ.

Probably Zoroastrian astrologers,
            these wise scientists of ancient Persia
                        have come to seek something that takes them beyond the boundary
                        of their hard-won knowledge.

They have heard the call of their anti-library,
            and recognised that there is more to the mystery of life
            than they have yet understood.

And so they follow the strange star in the sky
            to worship a child,
and what they encounter in that child
            is the fulfilment of the Jewish wisdom tradition.

You see, it all comes together in the story Matthew gives us
            of the visit of the magi,
as wisdom meets knowledge,
            and knowledge worships wisdom.

And the irony of this is that the one in whom wisdom is personified,
            is an inarticulate child, too young even for language,
            let alone learning.

The sum of divine wisdom is communicated with the cosmos
            through the cry of a baby,
drawing the brightest and best minds of the known world
            to experience the mystery of God
            in the innocence of new life.

And this is wisdom.

Beyond all our knowledge, beyond all our study,
            beyond all our theologising and philosophising,
beyond all our castles of intellectual analysis
            and our bastions of ideology,
beyond all this, we meet God in mystery,
            and this is wisdom.

Paul knows this, and has learned it the hard way.

Paul the great debater, the great thinker,
            the great intellectual,
Paul the Pharisee, who advanced beyond any of his own time
            in the knowledge and practice of the law,
Paul has to discover that he was sent to proclaim the gospel
            not with eloquent wisdom, but through the foolishness of wisdom.

He says very clearly that God has made foolish the wisdom of the world,
            because the true wisdom of God is found in Christ,
            the baby in the manger and the man upon the cross.

Wisdom is found not in strength but in weakness,
            not in life but in death.

But, and here’s the but…
            The foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom.

The wisdom of the world is no wisdom at all, it turns out,
            because it is built on the acquisition of knowledge.

The foolishness of God is true wisdom,
            because it is built on that which remains when knowledge runs out,
            which is the love of God shown in the life of Jesus Christ.

So, do you want to be wise?
            I do.

And if we want to be wise, says Paul,
            we should become fools so that we may become wise.

We have to learn to let go of our certainties,
            and replace them with humble and honest questions.
We have to take the path of the wise magi from the east,
            and follow our questions to new places,
            to discover wisdom in unexpected places,
            and to find that God is beyond all our imagining and all our comprehension.

What do you think you know?
            What do you think you don’t know?

What is wisdom in the face of your knowledge,
            and your lack of knowledge?

What does it mean for us to discover
            the Ubuntu wisdom of interconnectedness
            in our community?

Who do we need to hear more clearly?
            Who are we not listening to?
            What are they saying to us?

And do we have the courage to learn from our mistakes,
            to release our certainties,
            and to trust ourselves

                        to the mysterious wisdom of the unknown.

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