A Sermon on “The Search for Wisdom for Today” Job 28 and Colossians 1:15-23

I know that a few readers of the book and this blog put regular effort into both giving, and listening to talks/sermons in churches.  That forum is one of the key places where the strand of a new confidence in science urged on the church in Faith and Wisdom in Science can begin.  I had the good fortune last week to be invited to preach at the annual Commemoration of Benefactors Service at Durham Cathedral.  The occasion brings town, region, cathedral, schools and university together. Durham and its environs is well known both as an ancient seat of medieval scholarship and wisdom.  It is also known for coal-mining (active until a generation ago). So Job 28 seemed a good starting point.  Here it is in full:

The north view of the massive norman nave of Durham Cathedral seen from Palace Green.

The north view of the massive norman nave of Durham Cathedral seen from Palace Green.

It’s a wonderful privilege to be here, literally at the transept of our two intersecting and neighbouring communities of Cathedral and University. How humbling to meet in this shared space of study, contemplation and worship of unutterable beauty that we have jointly inherited from centuries of generous forbears.

I have in the past week taken two visitors from overseas around this place (I never let them leave Durham without a Cathedral tour, naturally), one from Greece, one from Mexico, and again it was they not I who voiced the impression of learning and wisdom seeming to permeate the stones and hang in the air from the centuries of scholarly and holy strata laid down by our predecessors. We have much wisdom to be thankful for.

It’s a good thing, because wisdom, or the urgent need for it, seems to have become a repeated theme in our time.  Oxford theologian Paul Fiddes has called it, ‘the cry for wisdom in late modern culture’. Less academically, I’ll admit to a fondness, before his passing, of Alastair Cook’s weekly radio broadcast ‘Letter from America’. One I recall vividly followed a vigorous debate in Senate and Congress over a possible military intervention in the Middle East. Cook recalled the reflections of an elderly Senator who confessed that it wasn’t so much the dominance of either hawks or doves that troubled him, but the lamentable shortage of owls.

From the perspective of the arts, TS Eliot cries out in the chorus of his play ‘The Rock’

Where is the Life we have lost in living?

Where is the Wisdom we have lost in Knowledge?

Where is the Knowledge we have lost in Information?

Even our friends at University College London have launched a university-wide research theme called ‘From Knowledge to Wisdom’ (I hope that at Durham, this drive lies within all our research themes!).

Well we stand between our two of oldest and wisest benefactors, Cuthbert – of whom a fellow monk records that they ‘drank from heavenly wisdom together’, and Bede – one of whose famous prayers addresses Christ as the ‘Fountain of all Wisdom’.

The tomb of the Venerable Bede in the west end Gallilee Chapel of Durham Cathedral

The tomb of the Venerable Bede in the west end Gallilee Chapel of Durham Cathedral

So let us, in their company, take a look at perhaps the deepest, most foundational, surprising – even humorous – passage on Wisdom in the whole of the Bible.

The 28th chapter of Job sings with a new voice into the spiralling and tense arguments and accusations of this extraordinary book. Job, a rich and righteous man has lost family, wealth, heards, house and even his health. He sits, scraping his sores and tormented by his so-called friends. For their brittle religious world views can only explain his suffering by supposing it to be divine retribution for sins – and they choose to let him know it. He feels the injustice keenly and demands vindication, yet they become increasingly personal in their accusations. A terrible climax is reached in the previous chapter (27) – then comes this unexpected theme …

Surely there is a mine for silver, and a place where gold is refined.

Iron is taken from the soil, rock that will be poured out as copper.

An end is put to darkness, and to the furthest bound they seek the ore in gloom and deep darkness.

A foreign race cuts the shafts; forgotten by travellers, far away from humans they dangle and sway.

That earth from which food comes forth is underneath changed as if by fire.

What on earth is going on? Indeed, what under the earth is going on? The text takes us down a mine shaft! (This has to be a favourite Durham Bible passage). It muses on the special human ability to dig down and so see the Earth from beneath – the precious stones glinting in the miners’ lamplight, the seams of gold and silver. Not even the falcon’s sharp eye can perceive all this – the hidden sources of rivers.

The passage actually condenses a theme that runs right through the book alongside that of unjust suffering – it’s about the way we fashion our relationship with the physical world around us. It concerns where we go – ‘there is a path…’, what we see – ‘unseen be eye of falcon’, what we understand – ‘bringing to light what is hidden’ and what we do – ‘they split open channels in the rocks’.

Some translators have found this language so powerful that they have turned the subject of this deep seeing from humans to God. But as a scientist I see in this a fitting metaphor for what we do – there really is an astonishing human ability to explore nature from beneath its surface and to understand its workings.

It is only at this point that the hymn admits its true subject

But where is wisdom to be found? And where is the place of understanding?

Humans do not know the way to it; it is not found in the land of the living.

In a comical game of hide and seek we look for wisdom in all the land – no, not there – at the bottom of the sea – no, not here either. Perhaps significantly we follow the wisdom trail to the opulent markets of Cush and Ophir. Old Testament scholar Carol Newsome notes the measure of their wealth – five different words are used for gold in as many verses! But wisdom is not to be found in the marketplace.

Finally the writer ‘draws back the curtain’ and reveals why God knows the way to wisdom.

Divine wisdom begins with a new deep way of seeing – ‘He looked to the ends of the earth

Divine wisdom is numerate – ‘to assign a weight to the wind, the waters by measure

Divine wisdom finds ways of channelling nature’s forces, not suppressing them – ‘he made a decree for the rain and a path for the thunderbolt

Divine wisdom participates in what Paul Fiddes has called ‘Seeing the World and knowing God’ – it becomes an invitation to us to follow in Wisdom’s way of living. Wisdom is not an object we could possess, nor an accumulation of precepts and aphorisms. It is a way of seeing into the world, a way of serving creation, a way of partnering with each other and with our Creator.

It is a bright vision, and one that sacred or secular communities badly need. But in the light of the shrill voices of intolerance growing once again, the contradiction between our almost limitless technology yet inability to manage its consequences, our media-fuelled world as empty of wisdom as this vision is full of it – in the light of all that is it not a hopeless one?

Our New Testament reading tells us why this is not so, how, when all around is dark, it is not hopeless – any more than, as it turned out, Job’s state was hopeless even at his own lowest point.

Here St. Paul writes to the early church in Collossae – using the same subject matter as in the Hymn to Wisdom, but transformed. Here are again all created things, here the visible and the hidden things both, here also the aching need to reconcile all that is broken in the world. But now, in the same transept that draws all these together, in the place that the Book of Job assigned to Wisdom, Paul sees Jesus.

And the reason that this gives him hope is not that the darkness and death that threaten never come, not that the task of living as part of a complex and troubled world is not painful, but that because of Christ’s entering all this, going through death but into the new life of the resurrection, hope turns from wistfulness into solid reality.

That is why Bede, who knows his astronomy in the eighth century so much better than most of us do today (he knew all about the wisdom of seeing deeply into creation by measure..), called Christ not only the fountain of wisdom but also the Morning Star. It isn’t because the planet Venus shines with an attractive and pure light, although it does. It is because it orbits the sun at a closer distance than the earth, so is never more than 45 degrees or so from it in the sky. So when Venus rises as a morning star, although at that point the sky is still as dark as at midnight, and there is no other sign in heaven or earth to show that day is coming, yet the one who gazes upon this one light, and through wisdom grasps its significance, knows that, against all other evidence, yet day is nonetheless almost at hand – they can hope for it, and act upon it, as solid reality

We finish with a prayer composed of Bede’s words:

O Christ our Morning Star, Splendour of Light Eternal

Fount of all wisdom and shining with the glory of the rainbow

Come and waken us from the greyness of our apathy

And renew in us your gift of hope. Amen

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