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Politics of Scripture

Wisdom’s Judgment

Wisdom’s words of judgement are not for others; they are for us. Wisdom has called and we have refused. She has stretched out her hand, and we have not heeded.

20 Wisdom cries out in the street;
    in the squares she raises her voice.
21 At the busiest corner she cries out;
    at the entrance of the city gates she speaks:
22 “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?
How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing
    and fools hate knowledge?
23 Give heed to my reproof;
I will pour out my thoughts to you;
    I will make my words known to you.
24 Because I have called and you refused,
    have stretched out my hand and no one heeded,
25 and because you have ignored all my counsel
    and would have none of my reproof,
26 I also will laugh at your calamity;
    I will mock when panic strikes you,
27 when panic strikes you like a storm,
    and your calamity comes like a whirlwind,
    when distress and anguish come upon you.
28 Then they will call upon me, but I will not answer;
    they will seek me diligently, but will not find me.
29 Because they hated knowledge
    and did not choose the fear of the Lord,
30 would have none of my counsel,
    and despised all my reproof,
31 therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way
    and be sated with their own devices.
32 For waywardness kills the simple,
    and the complacency of fools destroys them;
33 but those who listen to me will be secure
    and will live at ease, without dread of disaster.”

Proverbs 1: 20-33

On August 7th, the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published the first of a series of reports on the status of our planetary emergency. Part of the Sixth Assessment Report, the document collects, distills, and distributes the latest scientific research on the physical science basis of our current understanding of climate change. The work of the IPCC represents the best synthesis of the scientific consensus to date, and the authors are very careful to delineate their findings so that they are both well calibrated to scientific understandings and more or less publicly accessible. Here is one of the topline findings of the report: “It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land. Widespread and rapid changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and biosphere have occurred.” Note the tense of these worrying words. This is not a future prediction. This is a statement about what we are living in now: a warming planet that is rapidly changing. 

The effects of this rapid and widespread change are likely familiar: weather shifts, glacial decline, ocean acidification, sea level rise, heat waves and more. Greenhouse Gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels for energy and transportation are fundamentally remaking the stability of our planetary systems. Whether the wildfires blazing across Australia or California, the floods inundating Germany or Tennessee, the hurricanes battering islands and coasts across the Gulf of Mexico: we need merely to look at the evening news to know that our Earth home is changing, and that we humans are driving those changes. We are living within a planetary emergency, caused by the massive chemical experiment that we humans have undertaken over the last two centuries. 

This passage from Proverbs, though written in a planetary context and social world quite different from our own, thus seems apt:

Wisdom cries out in the street;
    in the squares she raises her voice.
At the busiest corner she cries out;
    at the entrance of the city gates she speaks.

Many voices, within and beyond the IPCC, have raised the alarm at the increasing damage wrought by human activity, especially the burning of fossil fuels.

Such anthropogenic, in less jargony language “human-caused,” changes to the atmosphere have had significant costs for the animals that inhabit the Earth, both human and non-human. We are living within what Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Kolbert has called the sixth great extinction. Those of us who pay attention to the birds can already see the impact. 

What the scientific facts can obscure, however, is the way that environmental degradation maps onto existing structures of violence. Local struggles highlight the disproportionate impact that our economic systems of exploitative extraction and the concomitant production of toxic waste have on those among us already dispossessed. Whether the imposition of oil pipelines across Native American lands, or the prevalence of asthma in communities of color that are more likely to be in proximity to oil and gas facilities: it is the poor and people of color that suffer most under this terrible climate regime.

I suspect that many readers will not find this news as a shock. In fact, there is little in Working Group I’s contribution to the AR6 report that is genuinely new. We’ve known for a generation that human activities have been warming the planet and amplifying extreme weather.

It is our long knowing and concomitant inaction that makes Wisdom’s response to calamity at once just and terrible:

Because I have called and you refused,
    have stretched out my hand and no one heeded,
and because you have ignored all my counsel
    and would have none of my reproof,
I also will laugh at your calamity;
    I will mock when panic strikes you,
when panic strikes you like a storm,
    and your calamity comes like a whirlwind,
    when distress and anguish come upon you.

A forecast from millennia past, Proverbs pronounces judgment on our present crisis. As hurricanes batter, as smoke and drought chokes, as calamity strikes, Wisdom mockingly wonders why we have rejected her guidance.

But who is this Wisdom? Where might we find her? Proverbs can read like a long list of practical, if antiquated advice. As Will Willimon has quipped, reading it is “like being trapped on a long road trip with your mother, or at least with William Bennett.” Is there more to Proverbs than simply a long recitation of pithy (and sometimes problematic) sayings?

In this first speech from the book of Proverbs from chapter 1, we see Woman Wisdom portrayed as a street prophet, a town crier, announcing judgement and calling for repentance. She is pictured here raising her voice and inviting those who hear to come and find her.

But what is it we seek when we seek Wisdom? 

In the book of Proverbs, Wisdom (Hebrew: chokmah) is first and foremost fear of the Lord. In verse 7: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” This resonates with Job 28:28: “The fear of the Lord—that is wisdom, and to shun evil is understanding.” We moderns (and postmoderns) aren’t much interested in fear. We want to cast out all fear, bucking the bounds of tradition, questioning the foundations of knowledge, transcending our creaturely limits.

This bucking the bounds of our creaturely limits is exactly what Wisdom critiques. The voice of Woman Wisdom serves as a contrast to Woman Folly. Whereas Woman Wisdom calls for fear of the Lord, Woman Folly invites her hearers to take the easy road, to make a quick buck by deceit, to circumvent limits and thereby satiate their greed. The authors and editors of Proverbs invite us to make a choice. Will we do what is easy, or will we do what is right? Will we continue to acquire without concern, or will we live within our means? Will we exalt ourselves as gods, or will we humble ourselves as creatures?

Fear of the Lord, this persistent call of the wisdom tradition across scripture, means fundamentally humbling ourselves before our creator God. Trusting in God, fearing and respecting God, means putting away our false and idolatrous attempts to secure our own immortality. Fear of the Lord means remembering that we are creatures, we are dirt with breath. Fear of the Lord means standing in humility before our creator.

And, therefore, Wisdom directs the readers of Proverbs to attend to creation as creatures:

Go to the ant, you lazybones!
Observe its way and be wise!
Without having any chief
or officer or ruler,
it prepares its food in summer,
and gathers its sustenance in harvest. (Prov 6:6–8)

The ant, of all things, can reveal a way of industrious preparation, of life lived in dependence on the good rhythms of the seasons, a way of caring for our needs in anticipation of changes. And later in chapter 30:

Four things on Earth are small

yet they are exceedingly wise;

the ants are a people without strength

yet they provide their food in the summer;

the badgers are a people without power

yet they make their homes in the rocks;

the locusts have no king,

yet all of them march in rank;

the lizard can be grasped in the hand

yet it is found in king’s palaces.

(Prov 30:24–28)

These riddles, though obscure, tell us something about the posture of Wisdom toward creation. There is a gift to be had in observing and attending. Not in the Baconian sense of observation for the purpose of domination and control, but attending carefully to the gift of creation as a creature, and through such attention to directing our longing toward the Creator God.

In Proverbs 8, the authors describe Woman Wisdom as present at the creation of the Earth, delighting in God’s creative work. 

The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,
    the first of his acts of long ago.
Ages ago I was set up,
    at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
When there were no depths I was brought forth,
    when there were no springs abounding with water.
Before the mountains had been shaped,
    before the hills, I was brought forth—
when he had not yet made earth and fields,
    or the world’s first bits of soil.

So, this is the Wisdom we find crying in the street: there at the beginning of all things, Wisdom calls us back to creation as a source of knowledge and understanding. But such knowledge is appropriate to creatures, orienting us first and foremost to the fear of the Lord.

So, where does this pursuit of Wisdom leave us? Where is Wisdom’s voice today and what is she saying to us? 

The word of Wisdom vividly imaged here in Proverbs is not one of comfort but of judgment. Wisdom is crying, and the people are not listening. She has called, but they have refused; she has stretched out her hand, but we have not heeded. This is a word of judgement, a word of calamity.

We cannot read the voice of Wisdom directly from a governmental report, much less from our perception of nature, whether anecdotal or empirical. But the theological orientation of Proverbs presents a choice: Fear the Lord, pursue wisdom, acknowledge ourselves as creatures before a creating God, or reject God, pursue our own wealth and comfort, imagine ourselves as creators. 

And this, my friends, is exactly the predicament in which we find ourselves. Taking note of these radical climatic changes, some scholars (Eugene Stoermer and Paul Crutzen) have argued we ought to rename our age as the Anthropocene, the age of the human, as geologically distinct from previous eras. Naming our geological era the Anthropocene emphasizes humans as creators of this world in which we live, move, and have our being. No longer can we blame the hurricanes, floods, and fires on acts of God. It is only us. 

Of course, we should be careful about using such a universal us. And, some critics of the term Anthropocene raise just this point. The Anthropocene as the age of the human, might be better understood as the age of the white, male, property owning, settler. It is this figure, maybe it describes you as it does me, who has seen fit to possess, exploit, and enrich himself at the expense of others ignored and unseen. Yet, much that purports to respond to our planetary crisis runs along these same rails. We are told that we merely need to invest in more and greater technological fixes to the problems that our technologies have produced. The proposal, it seems, is to double down on our dominance of the world by asserting yet more forcefully our human power. 

Here in the Anthropocene, this world that some of us humans by our own lights have created, we face a choice. Will we humble ourselves, acknowledging that we are but dirt with breath, and seek God’s Wisdom? Or, will we continue to pursue our own wealth and comfort, taking quick gains at the expense of the Earth and the Earth’s many peoples?

It would be easy for many of us—Prius driving, organic eating, EPA supporting, PTN reading progressives—to think that Wisdom’s cries fall on the deaf ears of those we deem simple: of climate change deniers and wanton corporate polluters. Yes, we may fold our arms and say, we will join Wisdom in her schadenfreude at the misfortune of these. Here we take the posture of a god: “I will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when panic strikes you.”

But, this posture of smug satisfaction lets us off too easy. Wisdom’s words of judgement are not for others; they are for us. Wisdom has called and we have refused. She has stretched out her hand, and we have not heeded. 

You may, at this point, expect for me to engage in some moral exhortation: recycle your plastic bags, take public transportation, eat less meat. To be clear, such personal practices of care of creation are good. Yet, Wisdom offers a deeper invitation. Fear the Lord, renounce your aspirations to world making, sustain no longer your relationships of exploitation and domination, embrace your creatureliness. We are clever, dangerously clever, but we are not gods.

Wisdom is crying in the streets. Will you renounce this age of the human and turn toward a creaturely fear of the Lord? 

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