Who has the wisdom?

I adapted the following from a sermon I gave on Sunday 18th October during the Sidmouth Science Festival.


The Book of Job is part of the wisdom literature in the Old Testament, which also includes the Psalms and Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs.

It describes the troubles visited by Satan upon Job to test his faith, Job’s lament, and speeches from three friends that are supposed to bring him comfort, but could be summarised as: “You must have sinned, and so brought all this upon yourself.”

Job stoutly defends himself, and asks God to vindicate him, after which a fourth friend, Elihu, gives a long speech criticising the other three for failing to answer Job, and Job for his complaints. And then in Chapter 38, God finally arrives in a whirlwind and delivers an amazing bravura rebuke, at which point Job relents and is restored.

Let’s take two verses:

Who has put wisdom in the inward parts,
   or given understanding to the mind?
Who has the wisdom to number the clouds?
   Or who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens,
(Job 38:36-37, NRSV)

God’s speech does not come out of the blue; it all references earlier speeches. So when God asks “Who has the wisdom to number the clouds?” Elihu has already five times referred to clouds, for example asking Job: “Do you know the balancings of the clouds, the wondrous works of the one whose knowledge is perfect?”

The answer to these rhetorical questions is of course that only God has the wisdom. But what is wisdom? I am a bit of a nerd and like to look up the origin of words.

Wisdom is Old English, an elision of wise and doom. Wise is related to wisse, used by Chaucer to mean show or teach. The Ancrene Wisse was an anonymous 13th century monastic rule or guidance. And then doom is about judgement – as in the Doom paintings you see in some churches with God above and saints going to heaven on one side and sinners to hell on the other.

So wisdom goes beyond knowledge, to the weighing up of knowledge, and the application of knowledge, experience, intuition.

Now science means knowledge, from the Latin scire to know, probably from the Greek σχίζειν/skhizein to split – think schizophrenia. That’s how science works; it divides big questions up into smaller, manageable and hopefully answerable questions. So we have lots of scientific disciplines, and very focused research projects. It’s not a bad thing, and science has been incredibly successful on its own terms.

But there comes a time when necessary to put it all back together again, to gain an understanding of the whole system, to realise that life is not just about knowledge, and to be humble about not having all the answers – to have wisdom.

Earlier I wrote that God is the one with the wisdom, so I appear to have contradicted myself and the Book of Job. But maybe we start to have some inklings of wisdom gifted to us when we recognise that we are not actually God.

The word scientist was coined relatively recently, in 1834. Before then a person who did science, a 14th century word, was known as a natural philosopher – from the Greek φιλία/philia love and σοφία/sophia wisdom, so a scientist used to be a lover of the wisdom of natural things. Wouldn’t it be great to rediscover that meaning – “a lover of the wisdom of natural things”?

Most of my discussion so far has been about what happens up in the head. But for me “the wisdom of natural things” encompasses not just the head, but the wholeness of a person. Our mind is not separate from our soul, emotions and feelings, or our body. We experience natural things most through our body, after all, and we are in the season of Seasonal Affective Disorder, when I for one feel lower and like hibernating.

I quoted earlier “Who has put wisdom in the inward parts, or given understanding to the mind?” This verse is difficult Hebrew, and has been translated in wildly divergent ways. The New International Version has it: “Who gives the ibis wisdom or gives the rooster understanding?”

The words translated “in the inward parts” could literally mean “into the kidneys”. “Who has put wisdom into our kidneys?” Maybe we would say “heart” in our culture, but in any case, it is very physical language.

And God’s speech in Job is about physical phenomena, natural things: “Can you lift up your voice to the clouds, so that a flood of waters may cover you?” or “Who provides for the raven its prey?”

Our inklings of human wisdom, gifted by God, are not just in our heads, but come from a combination of knowledge, intuition, and physical gut, and ultimately by listening deeply to and waiting intently upon God the source of all wisdom.

In my art practice “Particulart: The art of knitting, chemistry, and gentle protest”, I am trying to help people to approach science and environmental issues in a variety of ways: through data and head knowledge, numbers and words; but also through the visual aspects; through the tactility of the physical representation; through play; and through reflection and contemplation.

I can’t hide that I intensely dislike most of our current government’s policies. They are not listening to scientists and other concerned citizens over many issues. The overwhelming scientific consensus is that climate change is happening, human activity is causing it, and it is the greatest threat to our continued existence. But the Chancellor views the environment as ‘red tape’ holding back economic activity, and consciously or unconsciously chooses not to understand that all economic activity and indeed life is entirely dependent on having an environment.

We are playing at being God, pretending we have wisdom while we just have knowledge, and sometimes we ignore even that. To repeat what I wrote earlier: wisdom goes beyond knowledge, to the weighing up and application of knowledge, experience, and intuition. And maybe we start to have some inklings of wisdom gifted to us when we recognise that we are not actually God.

So let us pray that the negotiators at COP21 in Paris – even those from the UK – have the humility to listen deeply and the willingness to seek wisdom through knowledge, intuition and physical gut feeling, and become lovers of the wisdom of natural things.

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