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Trinity + 14: Wisdom (part 2)

13 September 2009
Proverbs 1.20-33; Mark 8.27-end; Psalm 19.1-6 The heavens tell out
For wisdom is better than rubies; and all the things that may be desired are not to be compared to it. Proverbs 8.11

Some time ago a group of hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings decided to finally answer the great question of Life, The Universe and Everything. To this end they built an incredibly powerful computer, ' Deep Thought'. After the great computer program had run (a very quick seven and a half million years) the answer was announced. The Ultimate answer to Life, the Universe and Everything is... 42.
Douglas Adams, 'Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy'

The problem with this answer, of course, is that while it may be true, it is not very helpful. It illustrates perfectly the difference between knowledge and wisdom - knowing how many angels can fit on the head of a pin will help none of us lead better lives.

Tennyson understood the essence of wisdom:

Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies; -
Hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower - but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.

In her poem 'Life', Emily Dickinson wrote about the getting of wisdom:

We play at paste till qualified for pearl,
Then drop the paste, and deem ourself a fool.
The shapes, though, were similar, and our new hands
Learned gem tactics practising sands.

Talking of sand, do you know William Blake's prescient answer to Richard Dawkins and his not so merry men?

Mock on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau;
Mock on, mock on: 'tis all in vain!
You throw the sand against the wind,
And the wind blows it back again.
And every sand becomes a gem
Reflected in the beams divine;
Blown back they blind the mocking eye,
But still in Israel's path they shine.
The atoms of Democritus
And Newton's particles of light
Are sands upon the Red Sea shore,
Where Israel's tents do shine so bright.

Sometimes, as our understanding grows, our perception can change dramatically:

At the age of 5: 'Father knows everything'.
At the age of 10: 'Father knows a lot'.'
At the age of 15: 'Father really doesn't know very much'.
At the age of 20: 'Father knows nothing'.
At the age of 25: 'Father knows something after all'.
At the age of 30: 'Father knows a great deal'.
At the age of 35: 'Father knows everything'.
At the age of 40: 'Oh, if only we could still ask the advice of Father!

We have spoken thus far as if wisdom were an end in itself. And this is indeed the thrust of the Eastern religions - in Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism the follower's one aim is to become as wise as possible. But Christianity has a much more ambivalent attitude. When Jesus said 'suffer the little children to come unto me', Luke 18.16 he meant literally those aged under ten, but he also meant those innocent enough to be neither corrupted by the world nor impressed by worldly status and authority:

The Saint, the artist, the poet and the Fool are one. They are the eternal virginity of spirit which, in the dark winter of the world, continually proclaims the existence of new life, giving faithful promise of the spring of an invisible kingdom, and the coming of light. The Fool is innocent, spontaneous and joyful, even Christ-like. As a result he may be ridiculed by conventional society, although he actually has the sight which they have lost.
Cecil Collins
'The Vision of the Fool'

Or, as Paul McCartney puts it in 'The Fool on the Hill' :

Day after day, alone on a hill,
The man with the foolish grin
is keeping perfectly still
But nobody wants to know him,
They can see he's just a fool,
And he never gives an answer,
But the fool on the hill,
Sees the sun going down,
And the eyes in his head,
See the world spinning round.

It was in this sense that St Paul wrote enthusiastically to the Corinthians about holy foolishness:

For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God's sight. 1 Corinthians 3:19We are fools for Christ's sake. 1 Corinthians 4:10Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise. 1 Corinthians 3:26-27

On the other hand, in the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, Jesus had made it clear he did not want to be surrounded by unprepared idiots. Matthew 25:1-13

Simon Jenkins, editor of the Ship of Fools website, has a teaser of a poem on ships of fools:

what ship plays with icebergs
and plays soft music as it sinks into the ocean?
what ship on the throw of a dice
feeds a prophet to his fishy destination?
what ship breaks its spine on the rocks
and turns the waves black with lubrication?
a ship of fools
but there are fools and
those who seem to be

what ship is built on a dry highland
is launched by a downpour
and flies on watery wings to the peak of a mountain?
what ship has a crew
of taxmen thieves and fishermen
who decide in the howling storm
to make a small sleeping carpenter
their captain?

yes
a ship of fools
but there are fools and
those who only appear to be

And finally, if you are looking for a simple answer to the meaning of Life, the Universe and Everything, I offer you a simple choice between '42'or Jesus Christ the apple tree:

The tree of life my soul hath seen:
laden with fruit, and always green.
The trees of nature fruitless be
compared with Christ the apple tree.
His beauty doth all things excel:
by faith I know, but ne'er can tell
The glory which I now can see
in Jesus Christ the apple tree.
For happiness I long have sought,
and pleasure dearly I have bought.
I missed of all: but now I see
'tis found in Christ the apple tree.


Grateful thanks to Simon Jenkins for permission to quote his ship of fools poem here in its entirety.