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In Pursuit of Wisdom

Susan Hylen

Proverbs 8:22–36
John 15:9–17


Susan Hylen, assistant professor of New Testament

Vanderbilt Divinity School

May 10, 2012


My sister is the world’s best fifth grade teacher. I know they don’t give an actual prize for that, but if they did, she would be the reigning champion. When she visited me recently, she was talking about the problem of teaching fifth graders to multiply and divide fractions. It’s actually pretty easy to learn how to do it, she said. It’s not like adding fractions, where you have to find a common denominator. You just multiply across (or to divide, as you may remember, you flip the second fraction over and multiply). But she wants her 10- and 11-year-old students to understand what it means to multiply fractions. As she talked, she explained it to me, and I realized in that moment that no one ever taught me what it means to multiply fractions, or why it works to flip one of the fractions when you divide. I know how to do it, but I have never understood it.

There is a difference between knowledge and understanding. I’ve been talking with students about this in my Teaching the Bible class at the end of the semester. Knowledge, for our purposes, consists of “the facts”—a body of information, something that you can claim to be true. Understanding, by contrast, is the meaning behind the facts—the theory that explains why something is true. When teaching and learning are at their best, the result is understanding. Knowledge is a necessary part of understanding, but education cannot stop at knowledge.

Let me translate to more familiar, theological terms. You graduates might show knowledge by telling me about the stages of grief. You would show understanding by applying that knowledge to offer a prayer with someone whose mother has died, or by having empathy with someone who has lost a job. You might show knowledge by telling me that Q is one of two sources (along with the Gospel of Mark) used in the composition of Matthew and Luke. You would show understanding by explaining what Q consists of, or by interpreting passage in, say, Matthew, taking source theories into account.

But what you may be needing and longing for most at this point is not knowledge or understanding, but wisdom. Wisdom is knowing what to do when you are faced with two choices, both with serious advantages and disadvantages, and you can only choose to do one. Wisdom is figuring out what to do next when you have no choices, and have to create an option that you did not know existed. Wisdom is knowing how to cope when you are dealt a bad hand. And wisdom is knowing when you should stop coping, shake the dust off your feet, and move on. Wisdom is precisely what I have most longed for at moments of transition like the one you are all experiencing now.

Here’s the problem: Graduating from Divinity School doesn’t make you wise. Some of you are wise, but it is likely not because you learned it here. At universities, we trade in knowledge, and, on our better days, we trade in understanding. And while that may not feel like enough to you now that you are standing here, on the brink of something new and possibly unknown, do not forget the accomplishments of knowledge and understanding that you have achieved. You may know, for example, how many different views there were in the early church of Jesus and his work, and be able to explain how thinkers like Theodore, Cyril of Alexandria or Augustine differed from later medieval views of salvation. You may know what a “theological anthropology” is, and you may understand how speaking theologically about who we are as created beings can help (or hinder) your case for welcoming folks with disabilities, or LGBT folks, or others into the faith community. You may well have achieved a greater level of self-understanding than you have had before, brought on by close proximity to people who in many ways are not like you, who ask questions you would never have thought of, who have challenged you to reflect upon your own most deeply held values.

All of this understanding is important. These are tools for you to use as you go forward from here, to make meaning where none exists, to help people put their lives back together, to do the work of God in the world. The understanding that you have achieved is commendable, and it has required real work on all of our parts. Think again of those fifth graders and the feat accomplished in their understanding what it means to divide fractions. Something similar has happened here: In the process of teaching and learning, real understanding has emerged.

 But it is not wisdom. This may sound like bad news to you, hoping perhaps, as you are, for insight into your near future, for a clue about God’s calling for your life in this transition. But I think perhaps this is some of the best news I have to offer you tonight—that the wisdom of God does not reside within these walls. She calls to us from out there, as Proverbs says: “on the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries out” (8:2–3). You will find her under the underpasses where homeless people are sleeping; in a church of 40 members where the average age is 70; in the harsh white light of a hospital where a family weeps; in a courtroom where a young black man’s life hangs in the balance. She is there, calling out to us, and not often heeded. The author of Proverbs imagines God’s wisdom at the busiest and neediest places of life. She pursues not the wise, but the foolish, the simple, offering life.

 And God’s wisdom is a powerful force, expressing the will of God. In Proverbs, wisdom speaks with her own voice of her role in creation: “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” (8:22–23). The author is not simply marking wisdom’s presence at creation. As God’s rational principle, wisdom orders all creation. It inheres in the fabric of reality. In Genesis 1, each act of creation is preceded by God’s speech: “God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light” (1:3), and so forth. The author of Proverbs personifies wisdom in that moment of creation. She is an embodiment of the mind of God. As intimately as speech is connected to the speaker, so the wisdom of God is God and comes from God.

This poetic description has a point: “And now, my children, listen to me: Happy are those who keep my ways” (8:32). The pursuit of wisdom leads to happiness because it aligns the seeker with God’s will, an intention that orders and inheres in all creation. Happiness results when we seek to orient our own lives according to the principles that have ordered human life “from the first, before the beginning of the earth.”

I hope you will not hear me saying that your years of education here were for naught. That, like Dorothy, you had the power of the ruby slippers all along, but did not know it. There are lots of fables about holy fools, those who do not have knowledge or understanding but somehow have wisdom. But I think that these are mostly told to make a point, a good one, that those of us who stand only on our knowledge or understanding have less than even the most foolish of people.

Instead, my hope is that the knowledge and understanding you have gained here will prepare you to hear the voice of wisdom. The foolish and the scoffers do not know enough to listen. She says, “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.”

So pick up your knowledge and your understanding and go out from here to pursue wisdom. Follow her down alleyways, in courtrooms and corridors. She will not lead you astray. Knowledge and understanding will change over time and will even fall away, but the wisdom of God remains forever. Thanks be to God. Amen.