Wisdom and the Emperor's New Clothes
Of the four essays I’ve now written on this topic, today’s may be the most important; but it requires a lot up front to set the stage for the main idea—please hang with me. Most OT theology (words about God and the life of faith) comes to us from Israel’s priests and prophets. Both spoke about love for God, the history of God with Israel, and other shared themes. But while priests placed an emphasis on holiness, purity, and worship, prophets stressed justice, the rights of the oppressed, and Israel’s broken covenant. Priests appealed to the Torah while prophets announced, “Thus says the Lord,” based on God’s direct revelation.
There is, however, another viewpoint in the OT: men and women from all walks of life (including some priests and prophets) who thought about life with God from a different perspective—the sages. Unlike priests, sages didn’t appeal to the Torah for information or authority. And unlike prophets, they didn’t claim direct revelation from God. Instead, they watched, observed, reflected, and learned from life and the world around them. Check out this compilation from the book of Ecclesiastes:
I saw under the sun that in the place of justice… (3:16);
Again I saw all the oppressions that are practiced… (4:1);
Then I saw that all toil and all skill… (4:4a);
I saw vanity under the sun… (4:7);
If you see… the oppression of the poor… (5:8);
There is a grievous ill that I have seen… (5:13);
This is what I have seen to be good… (5:18);
There is an evil that I have seen (6:1)
It’s rather easy to see. The sages derive their understanding of God and life with God from what they and others see and experience. In a loose sense, their ‘scripture’ is the world God made and everything in it. The object of their quest is life beyond worship and covenants—life in the trenches of the daily grind. Sages seek wisdom: all that we can know about how to live a life that is good from studying how life and the world work—and they tell it the way they see it, regardless of tradition or assured results; if the emperor’s clothes are invisible, they say so. What’s more, the sages accept these insights as normative or God-given, just as much as a divine vision to a prophet or Torah to a priest. For this reason, we find many of their observations in the books of Job, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs, and especially Proverbs—and a watchful eye can see wisdom’s influence throughout scripture, including the gospels where Jesus often draws on insightful observations of the world and human nature.
Here comes the first big idea. The sages argued against a closed theological system in which everything had been decided that ever needed to be decided. Instead, they asserted a way of life that constantly learns and adapts. If this sounds risky, it is. It’s the issue that propels the argument in the book of Job. Job’s friends have a closed theological system: everything is already determined by the wisdom of their ancestors. Job claims, however, that we can’t close our eyes to the present, to our experience and new insights into God’s world. Of course his friends couldn’t accept his claim or his experience because it violated what they already believed. So instead of opening their eyes and being receptive to new ideas (wisdom), they double-down on their accusations, terrified by the possibility that Job might be correct. They protect their doctrine and the God enclosed within it at all costs. They must, or the foundation of their theology will crack wide open and the earth will swallow their self-made security. By the end of the book they are staring at the emperor’s “new clothes” unable to admit to themselves that the emperor is naked—all because they refuse to accept genuine wisdom. Do you recall who God said spoke correctly? (see Job 42:7)
Here’s the second big idea: what does wisdom theology have to do with questions surrounding same-sex attraction? It all depends on a simple question: what’s the validity of wisdom in theological discussion today? What role (if any) should the accumulated wisdom of our lives and ‘secular’ study play in faith decisions? I grew up in a loving church where the Bible and only the Bible was relevant in matters pertaining to God. For every question we turned to the Bible for an answer and dismissed any personal experience or other data as inadmissible evidence in the court of Christian orthodoxy. Could it be possible, however, that like Israel God provides us with another source of theological insight? Do we not also have sages among us, believers who observe and study life and God’s world, experts who offer their insight to us? Insight we desperately need as we face issues Israel never imagined. Sages who, beginning with faith, observe, test, and analyze to discover new truth or wisdom about God’s world. Certainly we have sages, believers who work in the ‘soft’ sciences such as psychology and anthropology as well as believers in the ‘hard’ sciences such as biology, chemistry, and medicine. We listen to our sages in many matters, but will we listen to what they have to say about same-sex attraction, transgender, intersex, and other related matters? If so—if we will listen, I suggest that our theology, our understanding of God’s world and our practice of faith may be transformed.
I’m not a scientist. I invite those who are to share with us the wisdom they have gained in their discipline. All I can say is that research has revealed physiological differences among us: differences in chromosomes, in the hard wiring of the brain, and physical manifestations—differences present from the moment of birth and before, when God knit us together in our mother’s womb (Ps. 139:13). For believing sages, all of these insights are theological insights, understanding God’s creation and how it works. These findings do not belong to a separate ‘secular’ category that those with faith dismiss in decision-making. Rather, I suggest that these theological insights belong with careful reading of biblical texts. To neglect our sages for surface readings of the text seems to be a terribly foolish mistake.
If we accept the testimony of faithful sages about what they know to be true of those who are attracted to the same sex, those who are transgender, and others—as well as the testimony of believers with these experiences of life, we will begin to understand these matters and how to live as people of faith. We can dispel myths in favor of truth. And we can destroy fear with understanding. Of all places in the world, on a Christian campus God provides immense wisdom from every department and school. After all, this is one of the great distinctions of a Christian liberal arts university. I regret that sometimes we fail to remember the very concept for which we exist and instead of providing our students with a model for seeking and listening to the wisdom God richly provides us, we take short-cuts to the so-called “clear teaching of Scripture.” As we face the complexities of the 21st century, my hope and prayer is that we will drop the pretense of knowing and understanding all that needs to be known. And instead, we will humbly seek out the faithful wisdom God provides us. For those watching us, the difference is no less than praising the emperor’s new clothes as he parades around or looking with the eyes of a child that cuts through the pretense to name truth: the emperor is naked.
This post draws on information in my forth-coming book, A Life that is Good: The Message of Proverbs in a World wanting Wisdom (Eerdmans, September 2018). My thanks to those who helped refine my thoughts in the book and in this essay.