Monday, 20 April 2015

Why I'm one of those annoying Christians...A Little Thought about Wisdom (But don't let that put you off)

I'm one of those really annoying Christians. I'd hesitate to speculate as to all the ways in which I'm an annoying Christian, but I know at least one: when I'm told, by an atheist on a roll (and yes, I've been there more than once) that the Bible is full of contradictions, I say, 'I know! Isn't it brilliant?' and then go on to tell my conversationalist about my favourite biblical contradictions, thus completely, but completely innocently and entirely without malice, breaking the poor person's train of thought.

Some of my favourite Biblical contradictions come from what is known as the Wisdom literature, those books like Proverbs and Job, which are neither history nor prophecy but something altogether more eclectic, observational, playful and heartrending by turns. One wisdom literature contradiction, which I love to quote given half a chance, comes from Proverbs 26, in which the editor has jauntily juxtaposed the following statements in a naughtily playful subversion of the very Hebrew literary device of 'parallelism' (saying the same thing two different ways): 'Answer a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him. Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit.' (Proverbs 26:4, 5, KJV). I'll come back to that one later!

But my absolute favourite Wisdom contradiction spans Proverbs and the almost certainly later composed Job (I believe there to be a long and complex story behind the story of Job, but let's not get into that). Proverbs 23:23 encourages its readers to 'buy wisdom' , whereas in a very beautiful poem exploring the elusive nature of wisdom, Job 28:15 states that 'wisdom cannot be bought.' Game, set and match to the atheist saying that the Bible is an untrustworthy load of 'Bronze Age' morally dubious nonsense?

Of course not. Not only do I not give in that easily, I do not believe, in all genuine honesty, that the Bible's value is determined by its absolute internal cohesion, any more than I believe that the Bible's value is determined by its agreement with modern scientific knowledge about the likely age of the universe. The Bible, like the people who wrote its writings, is complex and diverse. That's not to say that God's not made known through it, of course. The Christian faith makes known a God who chooses to show his love for his complex, diverse world by becoming part of it, becoming human in Jesus. Being both human and divine is at the heart of what we Christians believe about Jesus, and although it's not an exact parallelism (nods back to Hebrew poetry-writing there), I think it's valid ot see something similar going on in the pages of the Bible.

So...is the Wisdom writing just a mishmash of contradictory bits and bobs collected from here, there and everywhere and stuck together like some kind of ancient postmodern mash-up? Well, in places, maybe. But I think there's something else going on too. 'Buy wisdom', says the sage of Proverbs, and in saying it, hitting on something essential and profound about the nature of wisdom.  No-one become wise by accident, and few, if I'm honest, simply by virtue of their age; wisdom is the result of, usually, bitter experience; compassionate, observational honesty; maybe an about-turn here or there, and long reflection. In other words, wisdom doesn't come cheaply; wisdom costs. I am fortunate to know some deeply wise people, and I know some of them well enough to know some of the cost of their wisdom.

It's worth adding here that I became intrigued by the Biblical Wisdom writings while studying it for my Theology degree, which, too, was costly; it cost me hours and hours of sitting in my college library mainlining cups of tea whist memorising lines of Hebrew poetry and more hours and hours striding the streets of Oxford with my fellow-students, mainlining espresso and thrashing out this theologian or that's take on this week's essay question. No-one gets a degree by accident, and although the sage of Proverbs and his modern-day counterparts don't get any letters after their names, no-one becomes wise by accident, either. Yes, wisdom is costly, and if you want it, there will be a price. Reader, be warned, says the sage.

And yet...Job, having been utterly ravaged and plundered by cosmic forces beyond his comprehension (and which remain so), when staring into the deep, dark mine of hard human experience and finding the unexpected treasure of wisdom there, says 'wisdom cannot be bought.' This is no cry of despair, no throwing up of the hands in the face of the pointlessness of it all. It's a clear-sighted recognition that, like Sir Thomas more, wisdom does not have a price. It is costly, yes, but it cannot be bought, just like people of integrity cannot be bought. Being bought implies ownership, and one annoying thing about the Wisdom literature is that it whispers and sings and rhymes that wisdom is not, and cannot be, owned by any one particular person or any one group. Wisdom has too much integrity for that; it chooses to spring up playfully where she wills, delighting in, as another Proverb puts it, the whole human race. Buying wisdom does not mean that wisdom can be bought; it might be costly, but it cannot be owned.

So, going back to the fool and his folly, maybe one of the playful challenges of the wisdom tradition is to see that sometimes what the Bible offers is not clear advice about how to handle situations, but a variety of possibilities and a sense of what the pitfalls of each might be. Answer a fool according to his folly, or not, the Sage might be saying; but whatever you do, be aware of the consequences.

Maybe I am an annoying sort of Christian, and to be honest, I can see how the wisdom tradition is pretty infuriating, too. It subverts its own Hebrew writings, and what's more, it seems to be having a fine old time doing so, satirising and observing and juxtaposing and dislocating well-loved ideas. And God is much as in this as in the prophecies and in the patriarchs, which means that maybe God might be an annoying sort of deity if you're after a clean-cut debate (going back to my atheist encounters).

And what about us in the church? And the Church of England, my complex and diverse neck of the ecclesiastical woods, in particular? My instinct is that we need to listen to the sages of the Bible a little more in church. Maybe we wouldn't take ourselves quite so seriously if we did, although we would find, undoubtedly, that if we really want to hear what wisdom is saying, there will be a cost. No-one become wise by accident. We would find, too, that no-one can lay claim to ownership of wisdom; wisdom's too sassy to be owned, delighting, as she does, in the whole human race. We need to hear this, holding together as we do people of wildly contradictory opinions, backgrounds and preferences. As the church talks its way through conversations on the politically loaded issue of human sexuality over the next two years, one of my many prayers is that we will be truly guided by wisdom, and learn to 'buy wisdom' from each other, in the recognition that no one of us is wisdom's sole proprietor.

Yes, there are contradictions in the Bible, and yes, I love that because it opens up a space which is just big enough for me to crawl inside and to glimpse, in the in-betweenness of the dichotomies with which we live, something of the enormity of God and the smallness of me. I can see how that is a bit annoying if you're trying to win an argument.