“From Whence Wisdom?

~ 1 Kings 3:3-14/Psalm 111/Ephesians 5:12-20 ~


You know the preacher is on thin ice if he should disagree with a hymn we’ve already sung. Our opening hymn says, “O Grant us light, O God, that we may know the wisdom that you alone can give,” we sang in our opening hymn today. It goes on to warn of errors lurking in human lore. Does wisdom only come from God, God alone?

Of course, the hymn is merely reflecting what we find in scripture; indeed, in texts like we’ve encountered this morning. “The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding,” says our psalm for today – Psalm 111. Or as our reading from Ephesians implies, understanding the will of God is what wise living is all about. Be filled with the Holy Spirit, it says, which is, of course, the antidote to debaucherously unwise living. Oh, and no wine. The point is: wisdom comes from above, from God. But is wisdom from above the only source of wisdom?

And then we encounter this very involved story about Solomon from First Kings. Solomon is now king of Israel. His father, David, is dead and buried. It’s important to remember that Solomon is but a boy. As the story goes, Solomon, even at this young age, loves God and follows God’s law. While he is visiting Gibeon where he is making sacrifices to God, God appears to him in a dream. “Ask what I should give you,” says God. What follows is a rather sophisticated and lengthy response by this young child but concludes with this ask: give me “an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?” And God gives it to him: the gift of discernment; the gift of wisdom. On top of that God gives Solomon all the other things he could have asked for but didn’t – riches and honor and a long life. Hence, begins Solomon’s reputation as a wise ruler. But the bottom line? Wisdom comes from God.

My question for us today: From whence wisdom? Does wisdom only come from God, from above? I suppose in the abstract that is true. If God is truly the sovereign creator of the universe than all knowledge, all wisdom, can be said to find its source in God. However, that is not usually how people of particular theological agendas think of it. When they say wisdom only comes from God they are really saying that everything we need to know about God and about the world is in the Bible. The Bible is our only source of wisdom, they would say. Wisdom and knowledge found elsewhere, out there in the world, be it the natural world or the world of men, the world of culture, is empty, devoid of real truth, not trustworthy, dangerous, even. In other words it’s “fake” knowledge, “fake” wisdom. True wisdom only comes from God. Or, in other words, only from the Bible.

Hence, an anti-science bias pervades this approach to faith, to theology. The natural sciences? Creation vs evolution? 6-day creation is what the bible says. Evolution? The product of secular humanists out to prove God doesn’t exist. Biological science? The bible defines sexuality – male and female only. Everything else, they say, is simply the wish to through off the shackles of the God-ordained belief system that gets in the way of one’s individual sexual proclivities. Social sciences? Psychology  and sociology are merely man-made attempts to undermine God’s purposes for humankind. The Bible tells us how we are to relate to each other; everything else is a sham. “The Bible says, I believe it” is the mantra. No need to look elsewhere.

Conservative Christianity, conservative theology, thus asserts that their theology comes “from above,” liberal/progressive Christianity, liberal/progressive theology, they say, comes “from below.” By “from below” they mean, like, science, culture, and the individual’s own experience. Hence, it is necessarily compromised, shallow, thin – merely secular humanism dressed up in religious garb. Selling out to modernist culture. In other words, not really Christian.

Needless to say, I think they are wrong, seriously wrong. Not only is this Bible-only view of the world wrong, but it is also quite dangerous, resulting in serious harm. Let me illustrate. Linda and I have been watching a PBS series made about 10 years ago, The Indian Doctor. Set in the early 1950’s, it’s about an Indian medical doctor who gets assigned to a small Welsh village. Of course, racial/ethnic prejudices pervade the story. The village finds itself in the throes of the small pox epidemic that hit Great Britain. The doctor tries to convince everyone to get vaccinated, as that is the only treatment that works. But many are hesitant to get the vaccine, one, because it is a foreigner trying to foist it on them, but, two, because the local minister is actively preaching against getting the vaccine. God, and God alone, will protect them. The disease is the consequence of sin, he asserts. If people would only repent and trust God, they will be saved and safe. Even the death of a small child doesn’t deter him. Needless to say, he eventually does change his mind when his own daughter comes down with the dreaded disease.

“Don’t you trust God to protect you?” Sadly, I’ve heard it way too much during this current epidemic, even from my own family. Yes, I know that much of the anti-vax sentiment out there is as much political as anything else. But there is also a strong undercurrent of conservative religious antipathy against science in the resistance to vaccines. Instead, they mouth empty platitudes of religious jargon: “I’m trusting God to keep me safe.” Where is the wisdom in that?

As an alternative, the other day I came across this idea from RevDaniel (of course, on the internet!):

For over 45 years God has protected me from diphtheria, TB, mumps, measles, polio, tetanus, rubella, and deadly strains of influenza. God did this by giving me parents who trusted science and got me vaccinated.

Now, that strikes me as very wise!

From whence wisdom? Two different, quite different, perspectives within Christianity: Conservative and Progressive. The conservative perspective asserts that their source of wisdom is “from above.” And they get that from the Bible, alone, they claim. They claim that this is unadulterated religion, pure and holy. Conservative theology seeks to stand apart from the world. Separation from the world and worldly perspectives is paramount.

The progressive perspective actually embraces “from below” as a source of wisdom. Not in opposition to “from above” but as a both/and – “From above” and “from below.” In other words, progressives don’t pretend they can separate themselves from the world, nor should they. Rather, progressives look to have their faith informed by the world around them even as they look to God. So, science and culture and individual experience are valid locations out of which theology and practice of faith are formed, even as they look to the Bible for a “from above” perspective. That’s were progressives find wisdom.

Our Noe Valley Ministry website on the “What We Are Like” page says, “We are a proudly liberal/progressive church seeking to live out God’s grace and justice.” A “proudly liberal/progressive church.” You might say we embrace the idea that wisdom, the wisdom we live by, the wisdom that informs our Christian belief and walk, comes from both above and below. We look to both scripture and the world around us to inform our faith.

Oh, that can be a very messy enterprise. It doesn’t make for clear cut instructions and simplistic formulas. Unlike a cut-and-dried Bible-alone perspective that appears to be a simple, straightforward way of life but is fraught with all kinds of foibles and misapprehensions, our progressive perspective willingly wades into the messy world of sorting out revelation and science, bible and history, and ancient culture and modern culture. Unlike the conservative approach that pretends to be separate from the world but is yet integrally intertwined with the world, we progressives embrace the world knowing that we are inalterably part of it. Indeed, that all theology is an expression of who we are, where we are and when we are. Hence, the wisdom by which we live, the skills of discernment we employ, help us find a way to be as faithful followers of Jesus as we may. We are on this path together. Given all that, I have some suggestions as to how we do this.

We should honor the journey we’ve been on so far. Paying attention, new insights and awakenings, being open to new ideas and perspectives, even spiritual ones.

It is a life-long journey. We won’t get it sorted out on one Sunday or by reading one book. We don’t know yet what we don’t know.

It means showing up, here, in this community. We are in this together. So get involved, “join” things, follow each other. Yes, there will be disappoints but there will also be joy. It’s good to know that from the outset and expect it. We are just people, after all.

We are a progressive church. We’re way over on the left. Contrary to what the dominant culture Christianity has tried to say about the shrinking numbers of liberals and progressives, indeed, of mainline churches, we do actually exist. Indeed, there is some significant research that despite what you may have heard, mainline church attendance is actually out numbering evangelical church attendance.

Know that we aren’t so much about doctrine or paternalistic structure as we are about going to the margins as Jesus did to live in solidarity with others in his way.

I’m on this journey of discovery also. I am Presbyterian but I sometimes chaff at that label. I love the Bible and preach it. I take it seriously, just not literally. I do believe the Bible is a holy book that is also a big and fascinating library of stories and history. Sometimes I’ll confess that there are parts of the Bible I think are mythic and even hyperbolic. But I don’t reject the Bible. I tend to love it all the more and read it generously precisely because it is such a mess.

Yes, we are still in the midst of a pandemic which makes all this somewhat hard. We are trying to be careful, follow the health department protocols. Someday we might get back to normal, whatever that is. But this is happening because we do follow the science. I think it’s what Jesus would want us to do.

As you can see, none of this makes for good bumper sticker theology. No simplistic stuff here. This journey is a huge, lifetime engagement. But we slog it out together. Think of it as walking into the Grand Canyon. It’s gorgeous, and huge, and you should bring lots of water. And we just might gain some wisdom along the way. Amen.

The hymn we are about to sing, Praise the Source of Faith and Learning, speaks to this dual venture of “from above” and “from below.”

Praise the Source of faith and learning that has sparked and stoked the mind with a passion for discerning how the world has been designed.

Let the sense of wonder flowing from the wonders we survey keep our faith forever growing…

Blend, O God, our faith and learning till they carve a single course, till they join as one, returning praise and thanks to you, their Source.         


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