The Beginning of Wisdom
Sermon, 12th February 2012
Texts: Proverbs 8:1,22-31; Colossians 1:15-20; John 1:1-14
Here we go again. Yet another week has gone by in which there’s been a key meeting to solve the Greek debt crisis. If there’s no solution to this we are told there will be an economic catastrophe – not just a global recession but a depression with a run on the banks, failing businesses and mass unemployment. Yet again there were delays in getting a deal done, yet again there was a last minute agreement, yet again everyone heaved a sigh of relief that disaster had been averted and yet again it was equally quickly concluded that the deal had achieved nothing of the sort and we were back to square one. They say that history never repeats itself but I am beginning to wonder.
Of course it may be that this time we really do fall of a cliff but it also seems possible that we are just going to stumble on in this way indefinitely. Now that clearly would be preferable to catastrophe but let’s not fool ourselves that this is anything other than a bad outcome. The burden of debt that has been built up globally is such that it will take years to recover from it and that means millions of lives blighted in the meantime. Some of you will have already suffered as a result of the financial crisis but in other countries the situation is far worse. In Spain, for example, the unemployment rate amongst young people under the age of 25 is 50%. The mind boggles as to what problems that is storing up for the future.
So how did we get here? Quite simply we fooled ourselves, individually and collectively that debt was not just OK but actually the key to economic success. While I strongly believe that it is wrong to demonise bankers it is surely true that it is the banks that enabled and encouraged this to happen. If you want to a really gripping, highly readable account of how all this came to pass try reading Gillian Tett’s book “Fool’s Gold”. Gillian Tett works for the Financial Times and is one of the few journalists to actually have predicted the crash. She tells a great story that is accessible even to those like me with no knowledge of the financial markets. At its heart you find a group of very clever young people, the crème de la crème of many of the world’s top universities, who created new financial products that were based on extraordinarily sophisticated mathematical formulae. It’s been said that the formulae were so sophisticated that you’d need not just a PhD but a PhD in a particular branch of maths to understand what was going on.
For a time of course all this cleverness worked like a charm. For years we had a level of growth in what was described as a “goldilocks economy” because it was neither too fast nor too slow but just right. It even led our then Prime Minister to claim that we’d seen the end of “boom and bust”. I remember thinking at the time – and this really isn’t just hindsight – that this couldn’t possibly be right. My parents, who were the wartime generation and brought up in very tough times, always taught us that debt was, at best, a necessary evil and that mortgages were the only kind of debt that was acceptable. Despite this I just assumed that those cleverer, more expert and more powerful than me knew better. But they didn’t – my mum and dad had been right all along. While there is no doubting the technical brilliance of the financial whizz-kids they clearly lacked one thing: wisdom. Wisdom is a word that you seldom hear used these days but it is nothing less than vital if we are to find our way to a sustainable and just economic system.
Wisdom is a key concept in both the Old and New Testaments. We meet Wisdom in the Book of Proverbs today and there she is presented as a character who was with God from the very foundation of the world. By the way, this idea of Wisdom as a person separate from and yet dependent on God was one of the bases on which the early church developed the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. That’s why in our other readings today you find Jesus presented as our wisdom, and present with God from the very beginning.
Wisdom as understood in the bible is no airy-fairy concept but something intensely practical. Quite simply, it’s about how to live your life well. The whole Proverbs passage is a hymn to the created world in which Wisdom delights and rejoices. It’s not about living like a hermit on a mountain top but living well in the world and loving it lustily. And there is a grave warning for those who ignore wisdom. Without it we are lost. As Wisdom herself says elsewhere in Proverbs:
“……those who miss me injure themselves
Those who hate me love death.”
So what is wisdom? Wisdom amounts to a kind of personal roundedness. It is the skilful exercise of our intellectual, personal and social abilities and one of the best examples we find of it in the Old Testament is King Solomon in the Book of Kings. Solomon was judged wise not just because he showed such great discernment in matters concerning good and evil. His wisdom was in evidence in the political skill he demonstrated in both ruling over his own people and in his feats of international diplomacy. Most famously he showed remarkable wisdom in legal matters with the famous judgement of Solomon. There was no legalistic sophistry for him. He cut through the presenting problem of two mothers claiming a baby was theirs with his proposal that it be cut in half so that both could have equal shares knowing that the real mother could not possibly countenance such a thing. That required a deep knowledge of the human heart. Solomon also showed a great love for the natural world. His skills were such that today we’d most likely call him a zoologist or botanist and he applied what he observed to his poetry. A poet as well he is widely seen as the author of some of the Book of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes and there is a wonderful passage in Proverbs in which he applies his observations of the natural world to shed light on human behaviour.
Above all wisdom involves seeing things in the round, and seeing and making connections just as Solomon did. It is gained only in part by study. It is also gained by reflection on experience and observation and honouring the traditions and insights of our parents and elders. Although it involves the brain it is ultimately a matter of the heart and the fine judgements that it enables.
Sadly we seem to have lost the artistry that wisdom involves. We live in a world that seems to value hard, apparently incontrovertible facts that leave no room for judgement. In turn this means that we value specialists and experts over generalists like Solomon and we tend to get very angry when they prove fallible. We even have specialist politicians these days. It is quite common for those aspiring to high office to have experience of little or nothing other than politics. This didn’t used to be the case. Until quite recently politicians openly valued life beyond politics and the insight and perspective it afforded. Harold Macmillan who was our Prime Minister in the late 50s and early 60s made no secret of the fact that he would spend an hour of his day at No.10 reading either Jane Austen or Trollope. Now, I have no idea of David Cameron’s reading habits but I’m pretty sure that his spin doctor would have kittens at the thought of word getting out that his boss took time off during the day to read novels. He’d know that the press would have a field day saying that the PM was not up to the job.
The great problem with specialisation and the narrowness of focus it necessarily involves is that unless we are careful we lose perspective. We become so intoxicated by our own cleverness and mastery of a particular field of endeavour that we lose the ability to see where we are going and the likely wider impact of our actions. That’s why you end up with brilliant young people leading us into financial Armageddon and that’s why our fixation on economic growth at all costs is leading to ecological disaster.
But maybe, just maybe, the prospect of disaster will cause us to rediscover the importance of wisdom. On taking office the Prime Minister demanded that we try to measure happiness because he questioned the idea of taking measures of economic growth as the sole indicator of our national well-being. Well, that seems like a very wise question to ask.
If we are at the beginning of a reassessment – and let’s hope we are – faith has a key role to play in it. Why? Because faith demands humility above all else. Whatever wisdom we achieve in life we know that God alone is wholly wise, all-knowing and all-seeing. However wise we are we know we remain silly, vain and foolish, always prone to over-estimating ourselves. One of Jesus’ greatest and wisest stories if that of the rich man who hordes all his treasure in his barn eagerly anticipating a life of eating, drinking and merriment only to find his life taken from him that very night. Jesus is constantly urging us to get in touch with the reality of our total dependence on God and the awkward truth that – in truth – we exert very limited control over our own lives. It’s this understanding of our proper place in the world that we acknowledge every time we step into church for a service and every time we say the Lord’s prayer.
In the same way I know that many of us – me included – chafe and gib at some aspects of Christian doctrine. The kinds of things that we say in the creeds (which we are going to be studying in the Lent groups this year) and the worship of the Trinity present all kinds of challenges for us, both intellectual and emotional. However uncomfortable the tension we feel it can be good for us if we are willing to view it creatively. Why? Again, because it’s conducive to an attitude of humility. The whole point about faith is that it is an acknowledgement that there is a power external to us that is bigger than us and to which we are accountable. That is the best check there is on our innate tendency to overreach ourselves.
Or, as the prophet Isaiah put it:
“Woe to those that are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight.”
Woe indeed. And that surely must count as the beginning of wisdom. Amen