Unfold Chapter 6: Cosmic Wisdom

In Chapter 6 of our Unfold Series, we turn to Wisdom, but not just any wisdom… Cosmic Wisdom?

What is cosmic wisdom, you ask?

By Rev. Phil Dieke

Often people struggle to articulate the difference between knowledge and wisdom, much less cosmic wisdom. You’ve probably heard the age-old saying, “Knowledge is knowing what to say. Wisdom knows when to say it,” or “knowledge is what you learn, wisdom is how to apply it.” I’ve often associated knowledge with intellectual learning and wisdom with experiential learning and application. So then, what do we make of cosmic wisdom?

Scripturally speaking, the Hebrew Scriptures (our Old Testament) contain a whole genre called Wisdom Literature. The books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job reveal to us how generations upon generations of faithful people have sought wisdom and wrestled with knowing what it means to live a “good life.” One might think since all three books fall in this genre of Wisdom Literature, they each complement and offer similar understandings of wisdom… if only it were that easy.

I once heard the differences between these books described as a growing understanding of wisdom. Whereas Proverbs offers an elementary knowledge, Ecclesiastes jumps us to high school, and Job takes us straight to college. It’s as though Wisdom herself evolves with us as we grow in our understanding of wisdom.

Why you might ask, did I refer to wisdom as  “Wisdom herself”? First, the Hebrew word for wisdom, chokmah, is feminine, as is the Greek word, sophia. But turn no further than Proverbs 8 (1-11) for an introduction to Lady Wisdom:
Does not wisdom call
    and understanding raise her voice?
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:
“To you, O people, I call,
    and my cry is to all who live.
O simple ones, learn prudence;
    acquire intelligence, you who lack it.
Hear, for I will speak noble things,
    and from my lips will come what is right,
for my mouth will utter truth;
    wickedness is an abomination to my lips.
All the words of my mouth are righteous;
    there is nothing twisted or crooked in them.
They are all straight to one who understands
    and right to those who find knowledge.
Take my instruction instead of silver
    and knowledge rather than the choice of gold,
for wisdom is better than jewels,
    and all that you may desire cannot compare with her.
And from where did Lady Wisdom originate? She reveals her origins in verses 22-30:
“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.
When he established the heavens, I was there;
    when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
when he made firm the skies above,
    when he established the fountains of the deep,
when he assigned to the sea its limit,
    so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
    then I was beside him, like a master worker…
Proverbs 8 gives us a look into the origins of Wisdom and the intimate relationship between Wisdom and the Divine. There is a deep connection between God and Wisdom, and from this connection, all of creation is brought forth. Thus, built into the fabric of creation is this Cosmic Wisdom—this way of being. The very essence of divinity manifested through Lady Wisdom.

Within you, within me, within all creation, there is this Cosmic Wisdom. To live into this Cosmic Wisdom is to align yourself, at the deepest level of your being, with the very essence that has been present from the beginning of time.

This is the invitation.
This is who we are.

That is beautiful and poetic, and yet… how does one live into this reality?

As I said, Proverbs offers us phase one in our understanding of wisdom. Through our understanding of Proverbs, we understand wisdom's origins and how conventional wisdom works. Again, Lady Wisdom tells us in Proverbs 8 (17-21):
I love those who love me,
    and those who seek me diligently find me.
Riches and honor are with me,
    enduring wealth and prosperity.
My fruit is better than gold, even fine gold,
    and my yield than choice silver.
I walk in the way of righteousness,
    along the paths of justice,
endowing with wealth those who love me
    and filling their treasuries.
Over and over, throughout the sayings collected in the Book of Proverbs, we find conventional wisdom that aligns with a Deuteronomistic understanding of life. According to this worldview, those who abide by the will of God, those who stick to the teachings of the Torah, will be the ones who find blessings in this world. Alternatively, those who break the laws of God will be punished for their wickedness. Simply put: if you do good, you get good; if you do bad, you get bad.

This understanding of wisdom is all well and good until life happens and you realize it just isn’t that easy. Sometimes bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people. Where is the “cosmic wisdom” in that?

Enter Ecclesiastes…

The author, who refers to himself as “The Teacher,” tells us in Ecclesiastes 1:13-14 (CEB):

I applied my mind to investigate and explore by wisdom all that happens under heaven by wisdom. It’s an unhappy obsession that God has given to human beings.
When I observed all that happens under the sun, I realized that everything is pointless, a chasing after the wind.

Pointless huh? It’s all pointless? Depending on your translation, the word may be “vanity,” “meaninglessness,” or as The Message puts it, “it’s nothing but smoke - smoke, and spitting into the wind.”

Why does The Teacher appear to have such a negative outlook on life? After much examination, he concludes that in the end, the same outcome awaits those who embrace wisdom and those who don’t. The fool and the wise, the poor and the rich, no matter who you are, what you have accomplished, collected, or earned, “there is no eternal memory of the wise any more than the foolish,” (2:16). And while this seems like the quintessential pessimist, your life experiences may actually resonate a bit with what he says. It may not seem real hopeful, but at least he calls out what seems unjust in the world. It isn’t always do good, get good. And his appeared pessimism brings him to this conclusion (5:18):

This is the one good thing I’ve seen: it’s appropriate for people to eat, drink, and find enjoyment in all their hard work under the sun during the brief lifetime that God gives them because that’s their lot in life.

Pessimistic? Or just realistic?
It seems like there’s wisdom in discerning the difference…

Don’t allow the translations of “pointless” and “meaningless” to skew your perspective. The Message’s translation of “smoke” may be closest to the original Hebrew term, which translates as “vapor.” If all life is “vapor,” what wisdom can we draw from that?

Vapor is temporary. Here in one moment, gone in the next.
Vapor is neither good nor bad. Instead, vapor can be used for good… or bad.
I have found profound truth in this book, and it has truly become one of my favorites in the Bible. I encourage you to spend some time with The Teacher!

And finally, we turn to Job. Oh, Job… what a complicated poetry collection, pontification, and prolific wisdom. To study the entire book of Job is a commitment. The 42 chapters are filled with divine counsels, devastating losses, perplexing relationships, far more questions than answers, and some of the rawest and most honest theological reflections you will find in the Bible. Not only is this idea of “do good, get good” questioned, but it is also wrestled with, torn apart, and cursed by the main character.

Graduating from the wisdom Job offers requires one to have lived a little. For those who have never suffered, the Book of Job offers little more than a somewhat interesting, and probably far too long, story. However, for those who have suffered, especially those who have suffered great loss and the grief associated with it, the Book of Job becomes a companion. As one follows the main character's loss, grief, and deep suffering, the reader quickly enters the story. For not only is there the grief of loss, but there are also relationships complicated by grief and an attempt to make sense of that which is nonsensical.

In Job, wisdom moves from questioning the systems and structures of the world (that conventional wisdom of “do good, get good”) to the author of those systems and structures. At the very heart of this text, we find the question that resonates deep within all (most?) of us:

With all the pain and suffering in the world, is there really God?
And if so, is that God good?

Job doesn’t answer all these questions. Instead, like good theological quandaries, we are left to keep wrestling, keep striving for deeper understanding, and keep following the path of Lady Wisdom. Unsure if we will ever arrive at the end with the answer, we press on seeking, exploring, and pursuing this mysterious God.

Cosmic Wisdom.

As we spend time studying Wisdom, I wonder where you find yourself on the path. Where has your journey taken you? Do you resonate more with the wisdom of Proverbs? The realist perspective of Ecclesiastes? Or the deep questions of Job? Sometimes we find ourselves in all three spaces in various aspects of our life. What is your relationship to Wisdom, and who is joining you on this journey?

We’d love to hear your thoughts on wisdom. Email us at office@wrumc.org to share your reflections.
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Nancy Kasten - August 17th, 2022 at 9:11pm

Thank you for this beautiful explication of the eternal truths that are found in our scriptures. How we read them is important, and you’ve given us a reading that resonates with our human lives.

Phil Dieke - August 22nd, 2022 at 6:30pm

Thanks Nancy. I very much appreciate your comment and always love your feedback.