Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon
Proverbs 8: 1-13
Proverbs depicts the
central crisis of the human condition as a choice between two options.
But it's not a choice between good and evil, as you might think. Rather
the choice is between folly and wisdom. This choice is characterized in
Proverbs as a man choosing between two women. So you'll have to excuse
the rather sexist language of the text. The first of these two is folly,
portrayed as a seductress, who temps man with her wily ways. And so we
read, in chapter 7 verses 21 through 23:
With much seductive speech, she persuades him.
With her smooth talk, she compels him. Right away he follows her and
goes like an ox to the slaughter, not knowing that it will cost him
his life. [Yes, I know we can make all kinds of jokes about
that, but the writer of wisdom goes on to say]:
"Now my children listen to me and be attentive to the words of my
mouth. Do not let your hearts turn aside to her ways, do not stray
into her pass".
And then this writer
of wisdom introduces us to the better choice, Lady Wisdom. Proverbs 8, 1
Does not wisdom call,
and does not understanding raise her voice?
2On the heights, beside the way,
at the crossroads she takes her stand;
3beside the gates in front of the town,
at the entrance of the portals she cries out:
4‘To you, O people, I call,
and my cry is to all that live.
5O simple ones, learn prudence;
acquire intelligence, you who lack it.
6Hear, for I will speak noble things,
and from my lips will come what is right;
7for my mouth will utter truth;
wickedness is an abomination to my lips.
8All the words of my mouth are righteous;
there is nothing twisted or crooked in them.
9They are all straight to one who understands
and right to those who find knowledge.
10Take my instruction instead of silver,
and knowledge rather than choice gold;
11for wisdom is better than jewels,
and all that you may desire cannot compare with
12I, wisdom, live with prudence,
and I attain knowledge and discretion.
13The fear of the Lord is hatred of evil.
Pride and arrogance and the way of evil
and perverted speech I hate.
This wisdom permeates creation, we are
told later in the text. We read that she was with God at
creation, working alongside God like a master worker. In the
Jewish tradition this wisdom is synonymous with the Torah, the
first five books of Genesis (which of course forms the heart of
Judaism). Thus, if you want to know and understand God's wisdom,
you will study Torah. In the Christian tradition, though, Sofia,
the Greek word for wisdom, is a feminine noun. This wisdom
become synonymous with Christ largely due to the introduction of
John's Gospel which substitutes the masculine noun 'logos' which
we translate as "word", a familiar Greek concept of that time.
And of course 'word' is 'Sofia' in English.
And so we read in the introduction to John's Gospel "In the
beginning was the Word, the Word was with God, the Word was God,
and all things are created through Him". And so if you want to
know and to understand God's wisdom, you will seek to know and
understand the life of Jesus.
Sometimes in the Christian tradition this figure of wisdom, or
Sofia, is portrayed as another another manifestation of God.
Feminist theologians in particular have made great use of the
concept. For those of you who have read the book "The Shack",
you will recall that scene when Mac goes into the cave and is
confronted by the judge -- a woman. That figure is taken right
from Proverbs 8, of Sofia.
Now a historical footnote that I have to make about the text: in
verse 22 we read that' the Lord created me at the beginning of
his work'. The Hebrew word for 'created' actually has two
possible meanings -- the other meaning is possessed, to possess.
So the New Revised Standard Version translates 'the Lord created
me'. But the New International Version translates 'the Lord
brought me forth', and then there is a footnote on the text
which says 'the lord possessed me', meaning the Lord was full of
wisdom at the beginning of creation, in the creative act.
Now, it seems rather absurd today but on the differences of that
interpretation hangs the biggest theological dispute of all
Christian history, which resulted in the formation of the Nicene
Creed in the fourth century.
That dispute was between two bishops.
Arias followed the idea that the Hebrew word meant 'to create'
and therefore concluded that Christ was the first of all of
God's creations, unique and special to be sure, but still a
creation and therefore not equal to God the father. Athanasius
followed the idea that the word meant 'to possess', meaning God
was full of wisdom at the beginning of creation, as a way of
saying that Christ was not one of God's creations but of the
same 'stuff', the same essence of God. Athanasius said that
Christ was therefore begotten, not created. Begotten of God. And
Athanasius won that debate and thus the Nicene Creed today has
the language of Athanasius. You'll find that on page 358 of our
hymnals (by the way we call it an 'affirmation of faith' rather
than a creed). But there it says, in the second paragraph, 'we
believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, begotten not made, of one
being (of the same stuff) with the father'.
Arias was excommunicated for his views which is officially known
as the Arian heresy. I take time to go into that ancient history
because it reveals a fundamental flaw in logic that remains with
us to this day. Namely, that truth requires that one make an
intellectual choice either A or B. They both cannot be true and
only one can be the correct interpretation and therefore the
other must be a heresy. Well, the truth be known, my own belief
is closer to that of Arias them to Athanasius, which just
confirms what many have suspected -- that I am a heretic!
But wisdom is not always a choice between two contrary truths.
Remember the dilemma put to Solomon? Two women claim the same
baby. Well, reason would dictate that Solomon had to choose
between the two and award the baby to the rightful mother. But
instead, what does Solomon do? He says 'cut the baby in half',
thereupon of course the real mother protests and says 'give the
baby to the other woman', thereby revealing who the true mother
In the movie "Sophie's Choice", Sophie,
played by Meryl Streep (one of the best performances of all time
easily on my list of one of the top 10 movies of all time),
Sophie was forced to choose between two children as they entered
Auschwitz, a choice that would torment her the rest of her life.
In a reversal of Proverbs 8, Sophie, which of course is short
for 'Sofia' (Lady Wisdom), must choose between two men. One who
is sheer folly (if you remember the movie, that part played by
Kevin Kline, a rather insane character) and the other the wise,
safe choice who is the narrator of the story. But that earlier
choice in Auschwitz with which Sophie cannot live, in the end,
leads her to choose a rather insane character played by Kevin
Sometimes we are forced to make those kind of awful choices. But
it is when we are forced, when we should not be, that is the
problem. Last Sunday, we changed the words to a very familiar
song (the Lord's prayer). Now it's one thing to change the words
to a hymn, it's quite another when you're messing with the words
of Jesus. And that stimulated a little reaction from a few
folks, so for the sake of peace on earth and goodwill to all we
changed it back this Sunday. Next week will take on peace in the
It seems that folks feel bound to sing the words that appear on
the screen or on the page. Well, hear the good news, faithful
followers of Jesus: you have a choice. You can sing the words as
they appear, you can abstain, or you can change them. Don't like
the gender for God? Change it. People have been doing it for
years. Prefer traditional language? Use it. It's your choice --
we are free in Christ so long as we act in Christ. That is,
drawing upon that wisdom we have in Christ we follow our hearts
to sing God's praise in harmony with God's people. Whether we
sing 'father' or 'creator', whether we use 'him' or 'her'
matters not so long as it is to and for God that we sing.
And while we're on the topic of God as our Creator, for 150
years, ever since Darwin published "The Origin of the Species"
(the same year that Oregon was founded as a state), we have been
told by many in the church that we had to choose between Darwin
and God. Between evolution and creation. There's a new movie on
the life of Darwin coming out that portrays this choice as a
struggle that Darwin had with his own wife. And I'd like to play
a clip from that movie -- you can find the clip at:
War with God, or so some would frame it.
There is a large and growing body of religious leaders, however,
who say we don't have to make that choice. There is no battle
between God and Darwin. The Clergy Letter Project, which
declares there is no conflict between evolution and faith, now
has over 13,000 signatures of Jewish and Christian clergy. For
the last two years we have participated in their Evolution
Sunday for which we were cited in the Oregonian last year in an
article on the 150th anniversary of the publication of The
Origin of Species. You can go back and
read that sermon online (February 15, 2009).
I thought I'd take a break this year because I've covered the
topic for the two previous years, but then at the beginning of
each year I have this little tradition of reviewing my sermons
of the past year in preparation for selecting themes for the
coming year, and I read through that sermon and I noticed that I
said in it that this is such an important topic, Evolution
Sunday should be a regular event on our calendar. Well, there
It is important for at least two reasons: first, it helps define
who we are, what we believe, how we interpret Scripture, and how
we see God acting in our world. Second, it shows that we in fact
don't have to choose between evolution and creation, between
science and faith.
Francis Collins, one of America's leading scientists, who
directed the human genome project and was selected by President
Obama to head the National Institute of Health, happens to also
be a devout evangelical Christian who believes that evolution is
simply part of God's truth. So listen to how Collins describes
his work as a scientist and how he reconciles that with his
faith in Christ. He writes: the work of a scientist involved in
this project, particularly a scientist who also has the joy of
also being a Christian, is a work of discovery, which can also
be a form of worship. As a scientist, one of the most
exhilarating experiences is to learn something that no human has
understood before. To have a chance to see the glory of
creation, the intricacy of it, the beauty of it, is really an
experience not to be matched. Scientists who do not have a
personal faith in God also undoubtedly experience the
exhilaration of discovery. But to have that joy of discovery
mixed together with the joy of worship is truly a powerful
moment for a Christian who is also a scientist.
I love that notion of science as
worship. Well, what is fascinating about Darwin is that he
began his education in study for Christian ministry and became a
naturalist as a result of that famed voyage on the HMS Beagle.
Darwin eventually abandoned his faith in Christ, but not his
belief in God. Late in life he wrote:
"It has always
appeared to me more satisfactory to look at the immense
amount of pain and suffering in this world as the inevitable
result of the natural sequence of events rather than from
the direct intervention of God. In my most extreme
fluctuations I have never been an atheist in the sense of
denying the existence of a God."
So why did Darwin abandon the Christian
faith? It wasn't his theories of natural selection and evolution
that changed his beliefs, but precisely that problem of the
immense amount of pain and suffering in the world, especially
after the death of his daughter. In another scene from the
movie, he confides in her while she was still healthy that he
had not yet published his book for fear of breaking his wife's
heart. His daughter replies: "But you always said that the heart
cannot break". Well, Darwin's heart did break after the death of
his daughter. And his faith in God provided no consolation, for
he could not reconcile his notions of a God, that he had been
taught, who could have saved his daughter but chose not to.
And there we have it again, that problem of those forced
choices. Only in this case I contend that it was not an
unnecessary choice but a non-existing one. That is, it was not a
choice available to God.
My daughter Paulina, as many of you know, is at Chapman
University where she is taking a course in religion this year.
And she texted me that they were discussing Marcus Borg and
reading Harold Kushner's book "When Bad Things Happen to Good
People". I replied to her that she grew up on both of them, so
she better get a good grade :). Kushner concludes, in essence,
in that book, that human hearts are not the only ones that
break. God's heart breaks too. For ultimately it is up to us,
not God, to make the right choices, guided by God's wisdom, that
will defeat evil and suffering. Wisdom says to us 'pay attention
to creation' and what it teaches us about how this world has
taken millions of years to evolve and therefore we must be more
careful in considering the consequences of our actions and
Wisdom also says 'pay attention to God's Word as revealed
through Scripture and the life of Jesus' on living true to God's
word of love and justice and the way of peace. Finally, the
wisdom says don't accept the false choice of faith over science,
creation not evolution, or evolution not creation, science over
faith. In verse five of this text, we were told to acquire
intelligence. I realize it may be harder for some of us, like
myself :). But I understand that to mean to educate ourselves.
To learn from both the scientists and the poets. From teachers
and artists. From news reporters and storytellers. To read the
scholars and the prophets. Study geology and study Genesis.
Listen to the news of the world and to the wisdom of creation.
Behold the mystery in science. See the wonder in life. Ponder
the awe of the cosmos.
And find the wisdom that is there and
know that God is in all.
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