Title: “This Wisdom uttered made the sky…”
Date: May 30, 2010
Text: Proverbs 8
Author: Meghan Florian
Absolute in flame beyond us
Seed and source of Dark and Day
Maker whom we beg to be
Our mother father comrade mate…
~ James Taylor & Reynolds Price
Does not wisdom call,
and does not understanding raise her voice?
~ Proverbs 8:1
These are the opening words of Proverbs 8. It is Trinity Sunday, and Wisdom is crying out to us, inviting us, in this universal call, into relationship with the God who creates us out of nothing, who brings order where there is chaos. Our human lives, incomplete apart from our Maker, are contingent upon God taking hold of the raw material of the world and our lives, and bringing stability in this relationship. Not merely stability, but joy, and freedom.
When Issac was making the worship schedule, and asked me if this Sunday worked for me, and I said yes, his response felt a bit like a word of warning. Something along the lines of: “Trinity Sunday, are you sure? The Trinity. That’s hard!”
Yes. Yes it is. Anyone who has spent four summers working at a camp, trying to explain God to 5th graders knows that there is no simple, easy to understand analogy for the Trinity – every time you try to explain it to children, you risk sounding a little bit crazy, not to mention vaguely heretical. A popular approach among the staff I worked with was to compare God to the different states of water – solid, liquid, gas. Of course, how many times have you seen one water molecule be all three at once?
And the score is heresy one, camp counselors zero.
In the last few weeks I’ve thought a lot about early church history, and the intense debates about God and language that took place in the second and third centuries – in the last few years I’ve written papers on these topics; I have strong opinions about them.
But in Proverbs, Wisdom pushes me to think about things a little bit differently. I resonate with the folks in the early church who were trying to find language to express the inexpressible – they cared about getting their words right, and drew on the best philosophy of the day in their attempts to do so. As I read Ancient commentaries on Proverbs 8 this week, I was reminded that this was one of the most highly contested passages during these controversies. And, as much as I know that earthly power struggles played a role in these debates – they were about getting the doctrine right, yes, but not just about getting the doctrine right – on good days I still cling to a belief that it wasn’t merely a conflict over which group of men would run the church.
I was a philosophy major in college, and I still remember how when I changed my major my junior year I started having trouble sleeping because my mind was racing with all of these big ideas all of the time. I had to begin a ritual of forcing myself to sit with a cup of herbal tea for half an hour or so before bed every night, doing nothing or journaling about my day, so that my mind would have a chance to shut down properly.
It probably sounds a bit ridiculous; but I have a feeling that the church fathers lost more than a little sleep over the Trinitarian controversies. At some point during that year, I pulled a cap off of a bottled beverage and found the words “Don’t think about it so much” printed inside. For years I kept it on my desk, a playful reminder that yes, it is possible to think too much. I tell you this story because, on a day whose texts tempt me to try to preach an intense, careful, philosophical sermon about the Three-in-One, what I really want to say is that the harder I try to understand the Trinity, the less sense it makes to me.
One of my Divinity School professors says that too often we imagine the Trinity as “a single parent family with a pet bird.” This playful description makes me laugh – the Holy Spirit as a pet bird? – but it makes me question myself, too, because I think it’s fairly accurate with respect to where we usually end up when trying to understand the Triune God. Maybe we put too much weight on our ability to explain the mystery of God in one single linguistic metaphor – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I really believe this puts too much pressure on our words and imaginations. When we talk about the Trinity, maybe we always flirting with one heresy or another, and while quite frankly I for one am pretty comfortable with that, I’d also like it if Wisdom would provide us with some guidance, a little understanding.
And she does.
In the second part of our passage, verses 22-31, we find ourselves in the midst of a creation poem, and what the poet-sage of Proverbs gives us is not a philosophical treatise, but an image of Wisdom in a playful relationship with our Creator. Listen to verses 30 and 31 again, as translated by Ellen Davis in her commentary on Proverbs:
…And I was delights daily, playing before him continually,
playing in his inhabited world,
and my delights were with human beings.
She experiences delight; she is the occasion for God’s delight. This is not the stoic Wisdom many of us may have been taught to imagine – it is not the old man in the sky with a white beard who looks kind of like a professor, or maybe a mythical “father time” type character. She brings something different to the table, and it is these new elements that I think help broaden our understanding of our Creator, and of ourselves as creatures – she reminds us of creativity, playfulness, delight.
Wisdom, the “master worker,” is with God in the beginning, participating in the act of creation. If we were to consider Wisdom Christology in depth, we would discuss Christ as the embodiment of this same Divine Wisdom – remember those Trinitarian controversies I’m trying to avoid.
In these verses, she is present as God establishes the heavens, draws a circle on the face of the deep, makes firm the skies above, establishes the fountains of the deep, assigns the sea its limit, marks out the very foundations of the earth. In this moment, God looks more like a sculptor shaping mountains from clay, a gardener digging in fertile soil, or an artist dotting stars on a painting of a night sky, than a bearded man looking down on us from heaven.
What are we to make of this delight? And what does God’s creativity reveal to us?
In pondering Proverbs 8 as a creation narrative, I am struck by the simple, beautiful reality of existence. We did not have to be, but we are. We are created in freedom, because we are created out of the freedom of God – that is, God didn’t have to create, but God did; and it was not only God’s freedom, but also God’s delight to do so. I don’t think God just woke up one morning and said, “I think I’ll create a world!” Creating the world and all that is in it is a deliberate act. And so, in being invited into relationship with God, we are invited not merely to think, but to play.
God’s delight and creativity direct us towards, first, engagement with the created world, and second, the ability to be creative ourselves. The God we find in Proverbs 8 is not a God we can know merely with our minds; rather, we know God with our minds and all of our senses, as well. Taste, sight, smell, sound, touch – all of these are ways in which we know the creation that surrounds us.
We might know God in the taste of fresh vegetables from the farmer’s market, or hear God in the giddy, delighted laugh of a child at play, and in our many voices joined together in one hymn. We might smell God in a loaf of freshly baked banana bread, or feel God in the sand between our toes, the sunlight on our skin, our burning muscles doing physical labor. We can see God in the sunrise, or maybe in a thunderstorm. Each of these are ways we intimately experience God’s creativity.
Play, understood in terms of creativity, does not equal frivolousness. There is nothing frivolous about the careful work of the sculptor, gardener, or artist I mentioned before. There is nothing frivolous about God’s work of creation as described in Proverbs 8. Creative work is also careful work. Even the play of a child can be very intentional – I remember watching my younger brother building elaborate cities with his legos as a child, his capacity for concentration astounding. Personally, I would spend hours constructing things with my erector set, or making mud pies for imaginary guests in the sandbox in my family’s backyard.
Then there is the more mature version of this, the hours upon hours of practice my musician sister puts in when preparing for a performance; the yards of cloth in the zig-zag quilt I helped Jill lay out last weekend; the hundreds of stitches in each piece that Judy knits; and countless other creative acts each of us does throughout the week.
The resource center where I am interning recently produced a short film about a local environmental artist, Bryant Holsenbeck, and in that film my friend Courtney, who works at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke, talks about the common misconception that art is something “extra” – like the whipped cream on your dessert. She is memorably quoted as stating that, “Art is not whipped cream!” What I love about Bryant’s art is the way it draws on and and cares for the created world, the “stuff” all around us. Art – and subsequently, creativity – is not just about what you see on the walls of galleries.
Courtney is right, art is not just whipped cream. As human beings, creatures created in the image of God, we are creative. This doesn’t mean we are all artists in the professional sense like my friend Bryant is – but there is something of God that we come to know through creative acts, just as there are things we come to know through intellectual efforts. Growing a garden, painting, cooking, building, knitting, writing, photographing, filming – just as we are shaped by God’s hands, we learn something of God in the creative work of our own hands.