Wisdom: Cosmic, Practical and Playful (Scholar’s Compass)

playing photo

[W]hen he assigned to the sea its limit,

so that the waters might not transgress his command,

when he marked out the foundations of the earth,

then I was beside him, like a master workman,

and I was daily his delight,

rejoicing before him always,

rejoicing in his inhabited world

and delighting in the children of man.

(Proverbs 8:29-31)

Reflection

In the first post in this series, I introduced the mysterious figure of Lady Wisdom, a key character in the nine chapters that introduce the book of Proverbs. This figure, gendered as female, stands in the streets and calls the passers-by to feast at her house, eating her bread, drinking her wine, and learning from her to “walk in the way of insight” (Proverbs 9:1-6). Lady Wisdom may simply be a vivid literary personification of the quality of wisdom possessed by God, which readers of Proverbs are encouraged to acquire (see, for instance, Proverbs 1:1-7, 3:13-18, and 4:3–9). However, many Christian interpreters through the centuries have seen her as in some way a representation of Christ, particularly because of the parallels between the descriptions of Wisdom’s role in creation in Proverbs 8 and the descriptions of the Word (Logos) who became incarnate in Jesus in the opening chapter of John’s Gospel.

Although the precise identity of Lady Wisdom is a complex and somewhat controversial question, I would like to focus in this post on three aspects of W/wisdom that emerge more clearly from the verses above. These verses from Proverbs 8 form part of a speech put in the mouth of Lady Wisdom, and suggest three aspects of wisdom which are applicable to our Christian discipleship in the academy.

Wisdom is cosmic. God’s divine wisdom was involved in laying “the foundations of the earth”, that is, in establishing the fundamental underlying structures of reality, from the dance of quarks in the atom to the loving communities that promote human flourishing. In turn, part of the vocation of scholarship is to uncover these deep cosmic norms, the foundational structures that give things shape and purpose, though, in a fallen world, our scholarship must also trace the many ways in which these deep structures of wisdom have been twisted and fractured.

Wisdom is practical. Lady Wisdom is “like a master workman” – she knows how to get stuff done. God’s wisdom extends down from the grandeur of galaxies to the concrete practicalities of human life. Much of the wisdom in the book of Proverbs is very down to earth, dealing with such matters as having a good work ethic (e.g. 6:6–11; 10:4, 12:11), staying away from the femme fatale (chapters 5 and 7), and not being a noisy neighbour (27:14) – “making life work”, as the title of Bill Hybels’ book on Proverbs reminds us. Likewise Christians in academia need not only to theologise the grand enterprise of scholarship, but to seek divine wisdom for the mundane goodness of making cups of tea for colleagues (or is that just a British thing?), giving truthful but kind feedback to students, and getting our footnotes right.

Wisdom is playful. Wisdom describes herself as both an object of God’s delight and as herself delighting in God’s creation. In a recent chapel sermon at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, Arabella Milbank (a graduate student in medieval literature) commented on this passage as follows:

Wisdom’s part in the work of creation is precisely to rejoice in it, or, as an alternative translation has it, to “play” before God, to “play” in the world. The divine labour is closer to play for it is never separate from delight. It is closer too because its end, like play, is not utility or profit but to freely explore, exploit and delight in the potentialities of the given.

Similarly, in his wonderfully interdisciplinary book Faith and Wisdom in Science, physicist Tom McLeish remarks that “one is tempted to think of Wisdom at the dawn of the world as a little girl playing in its nascent streams and fountains” (p. 57). While scholarly labour in a fallen world will not always be such fun, it is significant that many academics, whether believers or not, were motivated to enter the profession at first by an underlying delight in the acquisition and transmission of insight. If this delight is in danger of being suffocated by quotas, deadlines, and assessments, perhaps it is time to accept Lady Wisdom’s invitation to dinner, to listen to her advice, and to drink with her the wine of divine delight.

Questions

  • Do I let the big picture of God’s wisdom present in the underlying structures of reality infuse my work as a teacher and scholar?
  • Do I ask for God’s wisdom in the practical details of life with colleagues, students, friends and family?
  • Do I find delight in my work? Does God want me to play more?

Prayers

Do thou, everlasting wisdom, who dost play in this world and whose delight is with the sons of men, ensure that we in turn may now find delight in thee. Discover more fully unto us ways and means to better understanding of thy play with us and to more eager pursuance of it one with another, until we ourselves finally play in thy company more effectively to give increasing pleasure unto thee, who art our everlasting delight! Amen.

(Jan Amos Comenius [1582–1670], Pampaedia or Universal Education, trans. A.M.O. Dobbie (Buckland, 1986), p. 17.)

Further reading/listening

Bill Hybels, Making Life Work: Putting God’s Wisdom into Action (InterVarsity, 1998). A readable popular-level practical exposition of some of the themes of the book of Proverbs on such topics as character, work, money and relationships.

Tom McLeish, Faith and Wisdom in Science (Oxford University Press, 2014). A refreshingly different take on the science and faith discussion by a Christian physicist who engages the history and philosophy of science through the lens of biblical “wisdom” passages, especially the book of Job.

Two audio talks by Tom McLeish at the UK Faith in Scholarship (FiSch) 2015 Christian Postgraduate Leaders’ Conference are available online, along with blog post summaries:

“Science, Wisdom, and Interdisciplinarity”: http://faithinscholarship.org.uk/tom-mcleish-science-wisdom-interdiciplinarity/

“Biblical Wisdom for Academics”: http://faithinscholarship.org.uk/mcleish-biblical-wisdom-academics/

London Institute for Contemporary Christianity (LICC), “Get Wisdom!” – an introduction to the theme of wisdom in Scripture and its application to the workplace: http://www.licc.org.uk/prayerworks/prayer-journeys/get-wisdom/

Image courtesy of Counselling at Pixabay.com


Scholars-Compass-image-40x40Note: Part of both the Scholar’s Compass series and David’s Wisdom Literature series at the Emerging Scholars Network Blog. Find Part 1 of David’s series here

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David Parry

David Parry currently teaches early modern/Renaissance English literature and practical criticism for various colleges of the University of Cambridge, where he pursued his undergraduate and graduate studies. He greatly enjoyed a year’s postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Toronto before returning to Cambridge, and appreciates the ongoing friendships forged there. He is currently writing a book entitled Puritanism and Persuasion: The Rhetoric of Conversion and the Conversion of Rhetoric, and has published articles on various sixteenth- and seventeenth-century topics. He is an Associate Editor of The Glass, the journal of the Christian Literary Studies Group (UK). He is also involved in the Cambridge University Christian Graduate Society and in Christians in the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences (CHAS), an informal group of Christian graduate students and academics interested in relating their faith to their studies. Some of his academic work can be viewed at https://cambridge.academia.edu/DavidParry.

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