A Desperate Need for Wisdom: Reflections on Proverbs 8

A Desperate Need for Wisdom: Reflections on Proverbs 8 May 16, 2016


I can hardly remember a time when the insights of Lady Wisdom are more needed than 2016 in the USA. Whenever a controversy of any sort arises — the environment, political statements from every side, child rearing, economic policy — the Facebook and Twitter universes light up with full-throated, apoplectic fury. I try never to read, much less contribute to, the fray, but at times I cannot help myself. I gaze with mounting horror at the ill-mannered, rude, crude ad hominem nonsense that exudes at great lengths from the keyboards of literally thousands of phones and pads and computers. Hundreds of comments ensue, many building on the foolishness of previous “authors” (I debase the term to name such drivel so) until any hope of enlightenment is drowned, buried, exploded in a maelstrom of vitriol and a spasm of words vomited from a very dark chasm of some verbal hell. I pile on the multiple metaphors for the reason that the social media frenzy does the same, cascading a waterfall of gibberish onto the floors of unsuspecting platforms, swamping gigabytes and terabytes with hogwash by the ton.

Have we really come to this as a people? Can we no longer engage in reasoned and factual discussion, conversations where we admit we do not know all we need to know, and at the same time admit that someone else may know something we need to know? I recently watched a documentary set in 1968, during both the Republican and Democratic national conventions, when ABC news, in a near desperate attempt to increase its anemic ratings, pitted two of the world’s most noted intellectuals opposite one another for what they (ABC) hoped would be a rational, albeit spirited, discussion of the many issues that both political parties claimed to be concerned with. The two participants were William F Buckley, Jr., founder and editor of the noted conservative journal, National Review, and Gore Vidal, noted author and social pundit who was a proven spokesperson for all things liberal. He also was an out homosexual, which in 1968 was a very difficult and dangerous thing to be.

I note this documentary as a metaphor of our problem in 2016. The film itself in my judgment poorly portrays both Buckley and Vidal, making them mere caricatures of themselves and not offering much in the way of genuine insight about the hoped-for importance of their confrontation. What arose from the multiple brief “debates,” confined to fifteen minutes at the close of a 90-minute summary of the two conventions, was an infamous hurling of slurs at one another, Vidal calling Buckley a “crypto-Nazi” and Buckley responding by labeling Vidal a “queer.” And there you have it: invective replacing thought, bile instead of reasoned argument. Buckley and Vidal clearly disliked one another intensely, and no manner of intellectual prowess could disguise the fact. Nearly fifty years on we have become the mirror image of this unfortunate set-to.

We need the image of Lady Wisdom from the book of Proverbs. I know all too well that only Buckley, a committed Roman Catholic, would find any germ of value in a Bible reference, while Vidal, a boisterous atheist, would poo-poo the reference out of hand. But for those of us who have long thought that allusion to the Bible does not in reality preclude the pursuit of reasoned discussion, despite myriad atheists and Bible- thumping “fundamentalists” (most of those claiming strict Bible adherence do not in fact adhere to the whole Bible with much strictness, hence my quotation marks, while most proclaimed atheists know only what the fundamentalists tell them about the Bible, namely not much). Lady Wisdom would be most welcome to put in an appearance in 2016. And this for two quite different, yet complementary, reasons.

First, in Proverb 8:1-21, the poet offers to us a celebration of the powers of Lady Wisdom. Though the language used in this section is quite formulaic—it is to be found in any number of other passages from the book—it still is valuable to remember for any one who is seeking to move beyond the twaddle that infects our lives at the moment. Lady Wisdom tenders those who would follow her a gift of plain and accessible speech. Ask yourself when was the last time that the writing on your face book page was both plain and accessible? Then she focuses on the preciousness of words, the literal joy of speech. When words are precious, they are necessarily doled out carefully, minimally. She also reminds all who would govern that she is precisely an indispensable guide for them, leading them away from foolish address to reasoned and careful formulations of thought and policy. All of these gifts lead directly to material benefits like cooperation, a working together, a refusal to speak before thinking, a willingness to listen before speaking. In short, humility is the great offering of Lady Wisdom. I trust I do not need to spell out for you the incalculable need we all have for these presents in our own time of babble and prattle and twaddle.

Second, another poet, perhaps a more imaginative and visionary one, adds a mythic story to the lineage of Lady Wisdom at Prov 8:22-31. I have long found this passage among the most exciting and prescient ones in the entire Bible. Its addition to the book of Proverbs has occasioned much commentary over the years, from its possible use as a generative clue about the prose-poem of the Logos (the “word”) in the first chapter of John’s Gospel, to the rabbinic notion that Lady Wisdom’s creation was the origin of the idea that God made the world following the blueprint of the Torah, which was made before the creation of the material world, to the masters of the Kabbalah who elaborated the idea of Torah as blueprint with flights of theosophic poetry of their own. However, what counts for us in this essay is the conception that Lady Wisdom is far more than simply another gift of God. She is nothing less than the co-creator with God of all that is, and hence her gifts, enumerated above, are the central and eternal gifts that every generation of people must prize and accept and employ if they are to be fully the people God has created them to be.

“YHWH created me the first of God’s way, the very first of God’s ancient works.
From remote times I was shaped,
from the start of the first things of earth.
When there were no deeps, I was birthed, before springs, before water sources,
Before mountains were fixed,
before the hills I was birthed (Prov 8:22-25).”

And on the poet waxes lyrical about the fact that Wisdom was created long before YHWH made the earth, that she was given birth by YHWH (!), the very first of the things that YHWH made. And the birthing image, used twice in these verses, suggests a most intimate connection between YHWH and YHWH’s child, Wisdom, quite literally birthed out of YHWH’s great womb of creation. This poet wants all of us to know well that Wisdom is woven into the warp and woof of all that is, and those of us who would follow the ways of this YHWH must also follow the ways of Wisdom. Yet, there is one more delightful insight to be found in this glorious poem.

“I was (or “is” ongoing) an intimate;
I was God’s delight day after day, playing before God always,
playing in the world, God’s earth,
delighting in humankind” (Prov 8:30-31).”

Wisdom is not only a useful attribute to strive for and possess; it is just downright fun to boot! Any scholar knows the joy of research; any scientist knows the joy of discovery; any preacher knows the joy of the preparation and delivery of a sermon. Wisdom works and it is a pleasure to participate in that work with her.

How we need Lady Wisdom now! Just as fervently as a devout Christian calls: “Come quickly, Lord Jesus,” so may we all cry out, “Come quickly, Lady Wisdom,” and clear our minds of foolishness, cleanse our mouths from stupidity, make our words and work with one another worthy of the high calling of God to love and care for all of God’s vast and rich creation.

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