A Week of Wisdom: an Epiphany Post

Last Sunday was Epiphany in the western Christian Church Calendar, and this the ‘First Sunday of Epiphany’. It’s the time when congregations are reminded about St. Matthew’s account of the ‘Magi’ from the east (not three, not kings, no camels mentioned …). From the start of chapter 2 of the gospel:

“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

Here is the non-christmas-cardy 6th century Ravenna mosaic portrayal of the Magi (alright, there are three) from the church of Apollinare:


The Ravenna Mosaic of the Magi

‘Magi’ is perhaps, as in the translation above, left untranslated. ‘Wise men’ is in the right direction, but the term is not necessarily gendered, and it comes from another time and place to ours, where astrology was a serious proto-science and Zoroastrianism the cohesive framework of thought. Matthew 2 is therefore one of the places in Christian scripture and tradition where attention is drawn to the high value placed on wisdom from traditions, that ‘God is bigger that Israel’, that Wisdom overspills Judeo-Christian tradition (Another strand came a little later with the recognition that much in Ancient Greek learning was a gift of ‘common grace’).

An Ancient Wisdom Text

The lectionary readings from the week have drawn both from the central place that Wisdom has in the Bible, and hinted at the way that it (or ‘she’ – when Wisdom is personified she is Sophia) can be found in foreign, as well as familiar places, be visiting the apocryphal book of Baruch. Ostensibly the work of the prophet Jeremiah’s servant at the time of the Babylonian exile of Israel, it was most probably written later, toward the end of the 2nd century BC.

But what concerns me is not so much its date, but its context and content. In a time of trouble, worry, fear for the future, concern that irreparable damage has been done though foolish national decisions – “there is open shame on us today, …, because we have sinned against the Lord” (Baruch 1:15 – are you with me so far?), Baruch sings a different song:

9 Hear the commandments of life, O Israel;
give ear, and learn wisdom! 

15 Who has found her place?
And who has entered her storehouses? 
16 Where are the rulers of the nations,
and those who lorded it over the animals on earth; 
17 those who made sport of the birds of the air,
and who hoarded up silver and gold
in which people trust,
and there is no end to their getting; 
18 those who schemed to get silver, and were anxious,
but there is no trace of their works? 
19 They have vanished and gone down to Hades,
and others have arisen in their place.

20 Later generations have seen the light of day,
and have lived upon the earth;
but they have not learned the way to knowledge, nor understood her paths,
nor laid hold of her.   …

29 Who has gone up into heaven, and taken her,
and brought her down from the clouds? 
30 Who has gone over the sea, and found her,
and will buy her for pure gold? 
31 No one knows the way to her,
or is concerned about the path to her. 
32 But the one who knows all things knows her,
he found her by his understanding.
The one who prepared the earth for all time
filled it with four-footed creatures; 
33 the one who sends forth the light, and it goes;
he called it, and it obeyed him, trembling; 
34 the stars shone in their watches, and were glad;
he called them, and they said, ‘Here we are!’
They shone with gladness for him who made them. 
35 This is our God;
no other can be compared to him. 
36 He found the whole way to knowledge,
and gave her to his servant Jacob
and to Israel, whom he loved. 
37 Afterwards she appeared on earth
and lived with humankind. 


The Lord Answering job out of the Whirlwind by William Blake

These excerpts from chapter 3 are remarkable, for the echo both in structure and content another song to someone in trouble, from the Book of Job, and one that I comment on at some length in Faith and Wisdom in Science. It’s Job’s ‘Hymn to Wisdom’ of chapter 28. There, too, is a search for wisdom as a lost treasure. there too its absence from the caves of the deep, or from the marketplace of gold and silver. But both Baruch and Job agree that true Wisdom can be found by human beings astonishingly in the same way that the Creator found it –  ‘by understanding’, and in particular understanding the natural world. Here are the closing verses (24-28) of Job 28:

God understands the way to [Wisdom], and he alone knows where it dwells, for he views the ends of the earth, and sees everything under the heavens.
When he established the force of the wind and measured out the waters,
when he made a decree for the rain and a path for the thunderstorm,
then he looked at wisdom and appraised it; he confirmed it and tested it.
And he said to the human race,
“The fear of the Lord—that is wisdom, and to shun evil is understanding.

Science as Therapy

The contemplation of, and growing understanding into nature was wise and therapeutic of Job, a lesson learned by whoever Baruch was in later years. The thread of the healing power of reconnecting the human with the material world in perceiving its structures and workings is one that drove natural philosophy for centuries if not millennia. It inspired one of the great philosophical texts to appear from anywhere in the first millennium AD, Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy. This wonderful tour of natural wisdom, written when its author was in prison under a death sentence, was one of the primary sources for the scientific imperative of the early universities in the 12th century. It is quoted everywhere.

61yukLw-ljL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_A modern descendent of Boethius in our own times can be found in former science correspondent of the Guardian, Tim Radford. As the preface to his new book tells us, so distressed was this worthy gentleman by the political events of 2016, and their significance, that he decided to illuminate his personal darkness by thinking, and. writing, about physics. What Baruch, Job and Boethius tell us is that this is not ‘escapism’, it’s what you do with science. It’s what it’s there for. Radford’s The Consolations of Physics, is a marvellous testimony to the gift of peace, that the love of wisdom of natural things (that is what ‘natural philosophy’, the old words for ‘science’ mean after all) can give us.

We need to get science out of a box that says ‘shiny hard things for experts only’ and into the open basket of familiar and friendly things that we pick up to comfort, as well as to. challenge and enrich us, all of us.

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