Monday, August 19, 2013

Holy Wisdom and the Liberal Arts


Wisdom with her daughters
Faith, Hope, and Love

This icon's inscription, HAGIA SOPHIA, can be read as Saint Sophia or as Holy Wisdom. Saint Sophia refers to a Christian martyr of legend who died from grief after being forced to watch her three daughters tortured.

Holy Wisdom, on the other hand, is portrayed in biblical scripture as God's "master worker" (Proverbs 8), as God's "only begotten," the "active cause of all things" who "orders all things well" (The Wisdom of Solomon 7–8), and consistently, in both Hebrew and Greek, as female. Tradition has often called her Lady Wisdom.

As a teacher in a liberal arts college I prize the liberal arts for their immeasurable (and unmeasurable) worth to us as individual persons and as a society. In a posting of August 8th I quoted John Calvin to illustrate that this Christian reformer and originator of one of the great traditions of the church also prized the liberal arts. Calvin prized them because he believed that all truth, whatever its source, comes from God, and that the liberal arts bring us knowledge and insights that are "true and just":
Those persons are superstitious who do not venture to borrow anything from heathen authors. All truth is from God; and consequently, if wicked men have said anything that is true and just, we ought not to reject it; for it has come from God. (Commentary on Titus 1:12, tr. William Pringle, pp.300-301)
Long before Calvin, a passage from The Wisdom of Solomon made an even broader assertion. It declares that an entire range of disciplines involving inquiry, reasoning, and skill are manifestations from God, and that these disciplines are taught by Holy Wisdom:

          May God grant me to speak with judgment,
         and to have thoughts worthy of what I have received;
       for he is the guide even of wisdom
          and the corrector of the wise.
       For both we and our words are in his hand [rhetoric, authorship],
          as are all understanding and skill in crafts. [artisanship].
       For it is he who gave me unerring knowledge of what exists, [metaphysics]
          to know the structure of the world and the activity of the elements, [physics, chemistry]
          the beginning and end and middle of times, [cosmology, history]
          the alternations of the solstices and the changes of the seasons,
          the cycles of the year and the constellations of the stars, [astronomy]
          the natures of animals and the tempers of wild animals, [zoology]
          the powers of spirits and the thoughts of human beings, [psychology]
          the varieties of plants and the virtues of roots. [botany, pharmacology]
       I learned both what is secret and what is manifest,
          for Wisdom, the fashioner of all things, taught me.... (7:15–22)

Who more than she is fashioner of what exists?
       And if anyone loves righteousness, her labors are virtues;
          for she teaches self-control and prudence, justice and courage; [ethics]
       nothing in life is more profitable for mortals than these. (8:6–7)

Some years ago I read this biblical passage with a class. Afterwards one of my wonderful students, a chemistry major, came into my office. She told me, through tears, that though she had grown up in church, never before had she ever heard a single word of religious affirmation concerning her studies in chemistry.

I asked her, "So do these biblical verses increase your respect for your major?" "Oh no," she said. "They increase my respect for God."

I think my student got it exactly right. Some Christians reading this passage might tend to boast, "So, we see that academic studies are subordinate to the God we worship." My student upended this reasoning with a more profound insight: the God who is worthy of worship is revealed through our authorship and artisanship, our study of cosmology and physics, our observations in zoology and botany, our experiments in psychology and chemistry, our inquires in metaphysics and ethics.

Lady Wisdom (13:5) tells us so:

       For from the greatness and beauty of created things
          comes a corresponding perception of their Creator.


*****


          

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