Wisdom, Personified

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-36, Romans 5:1-5
© Stacey Steck

Now that we’ve got that doctrinal stuff out of the way thanks to Saint Patrick, let’s talk about just how thoroughly we are a self-centered people. Not just those of us at Thyatira, but all of us human beings. Whether we like to think so or not, we believe about ourselves, as the ancients did about the planet earth, that the universe revolves around us. The 1970s may have been labeled the culmination of the “Me” generation, but the tendency to focus on “Me, Myself, and I” is not limited to one contemporary decade. That is why it should not surprise us that the most profound of spiritual mysteries are put into human form. We call that anthropomorphism. The ideas of good as God the father, evil as Satan, and here in Proverbs, with wisdom personified as a woman, are truths from the spiritual realm given shape, form, and understanding by putting them in the mouths of characters to whom we can relate. It makes sense. I mean, imagine how difficult would it be for us to take our moral, ethical, and religious clues from a floating sphere or a talking rock? Our father in the faith, John Calvin, called language about God using the term “father” condescension, meaning that God lowered the divine self to our level by allowing human terminology to be used for something, dare I say someone, so decidedly NOT human. It is only by the grace of God that we do not insult God by using terms like heart, hands, and voice for our meager understanding of something as awesome as the creator, redeemer, and sustainer of the universe. Indeed, perhaps God finally had enough of our bumbling around and sent Jesus, both fully human and fully divine, thinking -- and there I go again, as if I know God thinks -- thinking that if they are going to talk about me in human terms anyway, I might as make it a little easier for them.

And so we end up with Biblical language like that found in Proverbs, in which we read that Wisdom, who is introduced in earlier chapters as a woman, – perhaps because the word for wisdom is of the feminine gender in the Hebrew and Greek languages – wisdom was at God’s side since the beginning of time. “I was there,” she says, when the foundations of the earth were laid, and when the heavens were established, as the limits were assigned to the sea. “I was there,” calls out Wisdom, God’s partner in creation, a claim that some read as an indication of the pre-incarnational Jesus Christ. Maybe Wisdom’s speech sounds to you a little like the beginning of the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” and from there it is a short leap to the doctrine of the Trinity which we celebrate this day.

The human tendency to focus on oneself, however, runs contrary to God’s conception of the universe. Indeed, from the beginning, humans were not created in isolation from creation or from one another. God created male and female together, at the same time we are told, the alternate story in Genesis about Adam’s rib notwithstanding, though even that story says something about human interdependence. We were created for relationship. As I read the Bible, especially the Old Testament, what I see God saying over and over again, is that there is no “I,” there is only “we.” It is not that individuals are unimportant. It is just that the community and its relationships are of highest importance and that individuals must behave in ways that support and sustain the community, rather than in ways that cause harm to the community. Such is the very purpose of the Ten Commandments and the chastisement by Amos and Hosea and the rest of the prophets and the instruction of the book of Proverbs, all to teach us how to be faithful in the relationships for which God created us. That tendency to focus on ourselves, to forget God and one another for the sake of our own selfish pursuits, is why we need, from time to time, the reminder of words such as those found in the eighth chapter of Proverbs: “Hear instruction and be wise, and do not neglect it. For whoever finds me finds life and obtains favor from the Lord.” “Whoever finds me,” – wisdom – “finds life and obtains favor from the Lord.” That life, as defined in the rest of the book of Proverbs, is shalom: peace, abundance, vitality, all the things we crave the most for ourselves and our children, but that we have yet to learn are the inheritance of all of God’s children, and impossible to fully achieve when we pursue them for our own sakes only.

Enter the Holy Trinity, that God in three persons stuff, that mystery of fuzzy math and that model of relationship. For the theologians of the fourth century who formulated the idea of the Trinity, the idea of personhood, as in “God in three persons,” had nothing to do with individual consciousness and self-expression, but everything to do with relationship. For them, a person was only identifiable by virtue of their relationships with others. It is a little like the idea of not knowing what darkness is without light. Darkness means little unless we have light with which to compare it. To quote one of my professors on the subject: “To be a person is to exist in relationship as the fundamental category or expression of being.” It is from this understanding of personhood that the doctrine of Trinity was derived. To simplify things, let’s say that each person of the Trinity can only be understood in relation to the other persons. We cannot know God without Christ and the Holy Spirit; Jesus Christ is only a historical man who has no meaning without his relationship to God and the Holy Spirit; and the Holy Spirit is just wind blowing without its relationship to God and Christ. It’s a little confusing but there’s a good payoff: the beauty of the Trinitarian formula is that is establishes the relationship within the Godhead as the norm for understanding God’s work in the world, and how we might live our lives. The intimacy of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, sets a pattern for relationships we see lived out by Jesus in the Gospels, and hopefully in our own lives.
Well, if intimacy within the Godhead is normal and easy, it presents its challenge to us here on earth. We both crave it and avoid it. On one hand, we desire community and neighborliness, but on the other hand, we throw up barriers to them. There have been quite a few sociological studies that have looked at the demise of civility in western society. And quite a few of them have cited the movement of the family’s main outdoor living space from the front porch to the backyard deck as a major factor in the increasing alienation among neighbors. While once people from throughout the neighborhood hung out on each other’s front porches and exchanged gossip and stories and recipes and lemonade, and we lament the loss of that interaction, now for the most part, families barbecue on the deck in the back, often behind a fence, and have closed in the front porch to make extra room. In that long running TV show a few years ago called “Home Improvement,” one of the running gags was that the next door neighbor was never seen except from the eyes up because he was always behind his fence. It is much more difficult to nurture relationships from behind fences, no matter how comfortable the surroundings.

And while we are now as connected as we have ever been via social media and computer networks, we hide our true identities behind our online profiles and the photos and updates we selectively choose to share. More and more studies are showing just how inauthentic most people actually are online, sharing to create a false portrait of who they are, or to be able to cyberbully or engage in behaviors not acceptable in public. Our computers and smartphone and tablets help students learn more much easily and let me stay up to date on the exploits of my beloved Cleveland Indians, and shop from home for things I really don’t need to buy, and even, if I want to go that extra mile, turn on and off the lights in my house by a simple click, but we have to wonder if they have become more of a curse than a blessing to the relationships we are called to nurture. I am not a big fan of shopping at the mall but at least the mall gives us a meeting place with the opportunity to interact with real people. Even handing the money to the cashier offers us some measure of personal contact. It’s pretty difficult to nurture relationships behind a computer screen, no matter how easy it is to pay by credit card. And so, despite our desire for human contact, we are slowly but surely becoming more and more isolated and disconnected, both physically and relationally.

Now, it is tempting to think that life would be rosy and good if we all just learned to play nice together, if we all just had more respect for one another. But living in relatedness is a little harder than that, because if we only think our relatedness is based on saying “please” and “thank you” a little more often, as important as those things are, if we think that’s all that is required, we are fooling ourselves. We have to think in broader terms than our immediate surroundings. To live out a Trinitarian faith is to establish and maintain and cultivate and nurture relationships, a process which continually defines us as persons, and helps to define others as persons. The truth is that relatedness must go much deeper than pleasantries; it must pry its way into our wallets and our decisions, causing us to take risks and break out of our comfort zones. As challenging as it may seem, we are called to take the gospel to all nations, which really means to create and maintain relationships with others who are very different from ourselves.

And of course, we are not called to create and cultivate these relationships just for the sake of a greater civility, but for the very purpose Wisdom calls out to us, so that we may find life, and for very the reason Paul shares in Romans, to know that we are children of God, and therefore heirs of God, inheritors of the fullness of God’s grace, and the true power of the Trinity. We don’t find life and grace alone, in our back yards or behind our computer screens. We don’t share life and grace only from the eyes up, or through photos of our latest meal on Facebook. In fact, we can’t find life and grace, or share life and grace unless and until we ourselves are willing to be life and grace, to be wisdom personified, or grace personified, or love personified, until we live those things out in our relationships. Ascribing human attributes to God may be a necessary evil we need to employ because our understanding is so limited. But personification is a two-way street. We can, and must, be willing to ascribe the divine attributes to ourselves, to be God personified to the world, as Christ was to us.

There is no formula for how to successfully be wisdom personified, or grace personified, or love personified, any more than there is a perfect human metaphor for the Trinity. Mostly, we just need to give into the mystery and let the Holy Spirit guide and lead us, as Paul tells us: “When we cry Abba! Father! it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.” And that means that we’re all in it together, this divine community and relationship we celebrate on this Trinity Sunday, and that we try to live out the best we can every other day of the year. May God help us to do that in Jesus Christ. Amen.