Wisdom in a Troubled Time

30 September 2008 at :00 am

Job 28; Psalm 8; 1 Corinthians 2.1-10

a sermon for the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference at their Annual Service in Westminster Abbey

You don’t need me to tell you that we meet at an extraordinary time. Someone asked me a couple of weeks ago how I was, and I heard myself say, ‘Well, my parents live in Morpeth, which has just flooded; my brother works for Lehman’s Bank; my wife and I are booked on an Al Italia flight next month; and don’t even ask me about Newcastle United.’

Suddenly a lot of the fixed points by which we were navigating have shifted drastically. We find ourselves like a hill walker in the mist who discovers he’s been taking a compass bearing, not on a rock but on a wandering sheep. And we who have on our hearts and minds on the enormously important task of preparing tomorrow’s young adults, not only to find their way in this world but also, please God, to give leadership within it – we find ourselves facing some stark questions about our own priorities, our own compass bearings, our own capacity to lead in a troubled time. In your job, as in mine, there is nowhere to hide. We need to remind ourselves where there is solid ground under our feet, which path to follow through the mist and across the crags. What sort of people must we be in this troubled time? What do we need, and what will the next generation need, to see us through?

To that question, the whole Bible offers one massive and obvious answer: Wisdom. That beautiful and haunting poem from the book of Job issues a call to rediscover the wisdom we need in the middle of the times we live in. I chose that reading long before the present crisis, but re-reading it now it leaps out at us that, in the previous chapter, Job denounces those who think they can make their financial systems last for ever: ‘though they heap up silver like dust, though they build their houses like nests, they may go to bed with wealth but they will do so no more; terrors overtake them like a flood; in the night a whirlwind carries them off.’ I remember being told as a boy that the Bible was as up to date as tomorrow morning’s newspaper, and there you have it in Job 27: a vivid and accurate picture of our world. And it is in that context – our context – that the poet asks, in chapter 28: Where then shall wisdom be found? You can dig for gold, you can trawl the sea for pearls, you can buy coral and crystal and jewels with money; but you can’t get wisdom that way. Indeed, we might want to add, if you spend all your time thinking about gold and pearls and crystal and money you can guarantee that you will not find wisdom.

Our present crisis is of course simply one sharp point of the crisis the whole western world has faced for some time. A generation ago everything was deregulated: the transport system, the Balkans, the money markets, sex, war, you name it: we were free, we didn’t need those stupid old rules, we could do what we liked and it was going to be all right. And anyone in the church who presumed to say otherwise – speaking out against the war in Iraq, warning about global debt, whatever – was told they were out of date, disproved, bad for your health, a kill-joy, a fuddy-duddy, whatever. Well, the chickens have come home to roost now, and they all turned out to be headless anyway, rushing around with a great flap. Francis Fukuyama’s dream of the End of History after 1989 couldn’t have been more wrong, and when people say we’re going back to the Cold War era what they really mean is that we’re lost and have no map. Or perhaps we are like those cartoon characters who saw through the branch they’re sitting on but only when they look down and realise what they’ve done do they actually fall. Our whole world has been living on borrowed time as well as borrowed money, and it’s now giving out a great cry: Where shall wisdom be found? Who will rescue us? How do we find our way through?

Some might see Job’s answer to this question as a plea to push the genie back into the bottle, to reach for a nostalgic vision of a bygone supposedly religious age. ‘The fear of the Lord, that is wisdom, and to depart from evil is understanding.’ That’s it, some might think: back to the old-time religion, get everyone to go to church and obey the Ten Commandments and all will be well. OK, it might be a good start. But church has moved on, and if I can put it like this the Ten Commandments have moved on as well. Don’t assume you know what ‘the fear of the Lord’ is. Don’t assume we know what ‘departing from evil’ is going to look like in tomorrow’s world. They are up ahead, beckoning us to a new sort of wisdom. We have associated such language with an older way of doing things, a half-remembered golden age, of perhaps the 1950s, or the ’30s, or the Victorian era, or whenever, forgetting that each of those periods had huge problems of its own. The vision of Christian faith and commandment-keeping that most people have today is of a privatised religion and ethic, allowing people to be faithful and moral in private but still to go to work to build the Tower of Babel, or, worse, to float it on the stock market and take bets on when it’s coming down.

We are paying the long-overdue price for the arrogance of the Enlightenment. (Don’t get me wrong: the Enlightenment brought great blessings – I certainly don’t want to be operated on by either a pre-modern or a postmodern dentist – but also great problems.) The Enlightenment split religion, faith and morals off from public life and thought we could run the world as though God didn’t exist. But out there ahead, waiting for us, is the larger vision of a way of life, a way of wisdom, a way summed up in that Psalm we just heard with its vision of humanity living humbly under God and wisely within the world; a way we can no longer afford to scorn or patronize, a way which sees the creator God and his loving justice towering over us and saying, ‘Don’t you realize – this is my world, and I love you too much to let you go on for ever blundering around with your crazy schemes.’ And that realization of loving justice, a love which is poles apart from sentimentality and a justice which is poles apart from the malevolence that people always imagine when they want to rubbish God – that realization is what Job calls ‘the fear of the Lord’.

This ‘fear’ is not a cringing attitude, as though God were an angry tyrant. Nor, of course, is it a cosy cuddle as though God were an indulgent grandfather. It is the proper, wise and wisdom-giving human reaction as we realise again that God is God, that he is not mocked, that he is saying to us, ‘OK guys, the game’s up, let’s stop pretending; it’s time to come back and think through what it means to be human, what it means to live as a global community, what it means that actions have consequences.’ Face it, you head teachers spend your lives trying to get energetic but misguided youngsters to see the larger world, to glimpse a vocation to service, and think through the consequences of their actions and the folly of their ways. Far be it from me to remake God in the image of a head teacher, but I have to say that the other side of the equation looks uncomfortably true: we have lived in a teenagerish world, of flirting and flaunting and flash cars and fooling around with other people’s money, other people’s lives, other people’s loves. It’s time to grow up, to sober up, to live in the real world, God’s real world, and to learn again from the ground up what it means to be a truly God-fearing people. The fear of the Lord: the utter and humble respect for that almighty justice and that all-powerful love, cutting across our vision in the familiar shape which tells us that all we need to know of the true God we see in Jesus Christ and in his cross and resurrection, as Paul puts it: Jesus Christ and him crucified, God’s secret hidden wisdom which none of the world’s rulers understood. That wisdom is now urging us that to depart from evil is true understanding, and warning us that evil is not just the misbehaviour you or I get up to in our private lives but the systems which keep the poor poor while the rich get richer, the systems which allow rich countries to bomb poor ones with impunity, the systems which insist that everyone must indulge their erotic desires whatever they may be – the systems that the entire western world has lived on, has died of, has got rich on, has got fat on, for the last few generations, or should we say degenerations. The fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; to depart from evil, that is understanding. And your task – my task, too – is so to understand that message ourselves that we can truly teach it, not as an ideal ethic that the high-minded might like to attempt, a sort of moral extra A level on top of the usual curriculum, but the foundation course, failure in which means failure in the whole syllabus. Wisdom.

And two things come clearly to me as I reflect on what this means today. First, the debate about creation and evolution. There are many sides to this and many misunderstandings. When I worked here at the Abbey one of the most frequently asked questions was ‘Is it true Charles Darwin is buried here?’ – mostly by Americans for whom Darwin was either the great hero or the great villain. On one occasion I came across a bunch of flowers and a card which said ‘Mr Darwin, we love you’, signed by a bunch of schoolchildren. On another occasion a lady who had just walked right over the tomb asked me if Darwin was buried here, and when I said, ‘Madam, I think you just stepped on him’ she replied ‘Good!’ What’s that all about?

It has little or nothing to do with the factual truth of global origins. As we now realise, Darwin was himself what we would call a ‘social Darwinist’ before he ever sailed to the Galapagos. The western world was heavily into ‘progress’, development, a Malthusian vision of a new society growing up towards the light. And this dream – let’s be blunt – served the interests of those who wanted to say that the old rules didn’t apply to them now, that the old religion was just about private piety and heaven by and by, that the way forward was empire, exploitation, compound interest, big profit margins and, yes, big bombs and guns. And those who have opposed Darwin in the name of a fundamentalist reading of Genesis have often, themselves, bought completely into the same larger nightmare in which might is right and the winner is the person who dies with the largest bank account. In terms of biology, I don’t dispute that Darwin put his finger on a massive truth. In terms of social policy and awareness, he was part of a quite different movement which has been part of our problem, part of the unwisdom which has brought us to our present plight. This is the debate we ought to be having. Get the biology right; fine. But don’t assume that you can read off social ethics and imperatives from that biology. The two need to be separated out, so that we can have the real debate, which is about whether we are creatures of blind chance, programmed to be selfish, or whether we live in God’s world, called to wise and humble service. It is time to think again.

And when I say ‘think again’, I mean just that. This is my second urgent point. We need, once again, to relearn, and to teach the young, how to think. I often say in my diocese that I am passionate about the authority of scripture but equally passionate about the vital and necessary place of reason. We live in a world of unreason, where right and wrong have been reduced to personal preferences and ‘attitudes’, which can then be manipulated by smooth talk – like the verbal shift which says ‘credit’ when it means ‘debt’, and the equivalents of that in every sphere – and where people don’t need to think because they can drift along with the current mood. And you and I know that the next generation will need – boy, will they need! – to be able to think: to think hard, to think through where the world is going and what they need to do in it, to think not about how they can feather their own nests but how they can wisely serve their fellow human beings in God’s world. You, my friends, are among the few people who can make a real difference at a time like this; because you can model and teach, for those who will lead us in the days to come, the wisdom, the God-fearing wisdom, the Jesus-shaped wisdom, which alone will enable us to get our bearings and redesign a world in which all can live with new humility and new hope. You are in our prayers. God bless you in your calling.

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