The polarized riches of wisdom

]I remember as an undergraduate asking friends what professor they’d recommend in the political science department. I needed a few credits in political science but knew nothing about the teachers and so was uncertain what class to take. One friend had taken several and spoke highly of one of the professors. “A tough grader,” he said, “but he makes complex issues clear without oversimplifying them.” I took that prof’s class on American foreign policy. My friend was correct. I loved it but had to work hard. The class introduced me to a host of new categories and schools of thought, diplomats and scholars, policy proposals and theories; in each instance the professor made complex things simple without making the whole discussion simplistic. It’s a marvelous gift, and not every teacher can do it. I still remember the class with fondness, and what I learned there continues to shape my understanding of American foreign policy.

This is also one of the things readers like about C. S. Lewis, Flannery O’Connor, and G. K. Chesterton. Their explanation of Christian faith has a lovely clarity and simplicity that makes what they are commending plausible and attractive. It’s hard, if not impossible to accept notions that are so dense, so convoluted as to defy comprehension. And yet, all three of the authors just mentioned—Lewis, O’Connor, Chesterton—also display in their fiction an intriguing ambiguity and sense of mystery that comes from their use of metaphor, image, and story.

This polarized richness—clarity and simplicity on the one hand, ambiguity and mystery on the other—turns out to be essential to the nature of wisdom. The problem is that most of us are primarily comfortable with one or the other, not both. We need to live contentedly in both. That is, if we are to be not merely knowledgeable but wise.

Consider how the ancient Hebrew sons of Korah infused their poem that we identify as Psalm 49 with both. Here’s something said with disarming clarity and simplicity:

When we look at the wise, they die;
fool and dolt perish together
and leave their wealth to others [v. 10]

This is what we would call a simple fact, easily observed, fully comprehensible, and irrefutable. Clear, simple, no ambiguity, no mystery, enough said. Everyone dies, wise, fool and dolt, and all their material possessions get possessed by someone else.

But then, consider this in the same psalm:

I will incline my ear to a proverb;
I will solve my riddle to the music of the harp [v. 4, NRSV]

They’ll resolve a word play, a verbal puzzle, by playing something on a lyre. Really? Let’s check a few other translations: “with the harp I will expound my riddle” (NIV); “utter my grave matter upon the harp” (1599 Geneva Bible); “I shall set forth my understanding on a lute” (Wycliffe). And they signal their intentions with a clear statement of purpose. “My mouth shall speak wisdom,” they write in verse 3, “the meditation of my heart shall be understanding” [NRSV]. In the pursuit of wisdom and heart understanding, they say, they’ll solve a riddle with a musical interlude. Here is how Eugene Peterson translated Psalm 49:3-4 in The Message:

I set plainspoken wisdom before you,
my heart-seasoned understandings of life.
I fine-tuned my ear to the sayings of the wise,
I solve life’s riddle with the help of a harp.

I was raised in a church tradition in which it was assumed that one of the roles of the preacher was to resolve any ambiguity in the biblical text so that everything was clear and simple. In practice this required that the words composed by the sons of Korah be reduced to propositions, simple statements easily comprehended. Poetry was reduced to prose, mystery to precision, so that reason but not imagination was involved in indwelling the word of God. What few realized was that this was a modernist formula introduced in the Enlightenment for the pursuit of natural knowledge instead of a living invitation into the wisdom of God that is personified in Christ himself. For a study of Christ as wisdom see 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:16, or just reread the four Gospels. Christ often said things disarmingly clear and simple, and just as often spoke with such ambiguity and mystery we are still discussing what he meant.

The danger we face is to reject the one and embrace the other, consciously or subconsciously, as if the polarized richness of wisdom—clarity & simplicity, ambiguity & mystery—is not fulfilled in the one we call Lord. Sometimes this opposition seems to be a tendency distinguishing the modern and the postmodern generations. It would be good to honestly face how we tend to become imbalanced, by inclination or tradition, where we feel disequilibrated and so pull back, fearful, or uncertain. Regardless, wisdom shortchanged is our loss, is achieved only with discipline, and the line into foolishness is easily crossed. The love of truth, as the biblical revelation proves, requires both heart and mind, both reason and imagination, both proposition and metaphor.

The poet/priest Malcolm Guite, in David’s Crown (2021), a book of poems inspired by the biblical psalms reflects on Psalm 49.

Where Christ himself is there to welcome you
Then you are home, wherever you may fare.
And Christ will keep your inner compass true

Though all the world is rushing everywhere,
This way and that before the winds of fear,
Between false hopes and premature despair.

But you can hear a different tune. You hear
The strong song of his love. Open your ears
To hear his parables.

Embracing the wisdom of God’s word in Christ the living and eternal word, involves hearing music and living in his fiction as well as accepting his revelation that even little children can comprehend. This is the ancient wisdom tradition that Christ indwelled and into which he invites those who accept him as Savior and Lord. This wisdom has a polarized richness, revealing clarity & simplicity, ambiguity & mystery, and nothing less than both, accepted eagerly and held together within a messy broken reality, will suffice.


Photo credit: Photo by Stefan Widua on Unsplash