In recent weeks, I’ve been reading a lot about wisdom, and longing for more of it in my life. Wisdom provides a robust biblical and theological lens for understanding God, humanity, and faithful living. Wisdom theology has waxed and waned throughout church history, with expansive development in the early church and Patristic era, continued influence in the Middle Ages, an eclipse during the Reformation, and resurgence in recent decades among a diverse (though perhaps still somewhat small) array of theologians. Biblically, wisdom finds its first and primary home in Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the apocryphal books of Ben Sirach and The Wisdom of Solomon. New Testament authors, particularly Matthew, John, Paul and deutero-Paul (Colossians and Ephesians), draw heavily upon this wisdom literature in shaping their portrayal of Jesus and the Christian life. Jesus is the Wisdom of God and he teaches us the way of wisdom.
Wisdom cries out to all of us: “Hear instruction and be wise, and do not neglect it. Happy is the one who listens to me, watching daily at my gates, waiting beside my doors. For whoever finds me finds life and obtains favor from the Lord; but those who miss me injure themselves” (Pr. 8:34-36a). Yet where is wisdom to be found for us today? Certainly in scripture, especially the portrayals of Jesus Christ, God’s Wisdom and ours; in the communal worship of God; and in the spiritual presence of Christ in the world. And how can wisdom be cultivated? (I’m assuming here that wisdom is both a gift from God and a task that requires intentionality, commitment, and perhaps above all listenin.) David Ford, professor of divinity at Cambridge University, offers us profound insight into answering this question, and like my assumption, his answer privileges a certain kind of listening when it comes to cultivating wisdom.
In his book, Christian Wisdom: Desiring God and Learning in Love, Ford develops what he calls a “hermeneutic of cries.” It’s worth an extended quote to explain.
The more I have searched for wisdom the more I have been struck by its core connection with cries: cries for wisdom and cries by personified biblical wisdom; cries within and outside scripture that arise from the intensities of life—in joy, suffering, recognition, wonder, bewilderment, gratitude, expectation or acclamation; and cries of people for what they most desire—love, justice, truth, goodness, compassion, children, health, food and drink, education, security, and so on. Christian wisdom is discerned within the earshot of such cries, and is above all alert to the cries of Jesus. Doing justice to diverse cries is at the heart of this theological wisdom. The insistence of the cries lends urgency to the search for wisdom. The persistence of the cries, together with the diversity and, often, novelty of their challenges, constantly expands the search and refuses to allow it to rest in any closure (Ford, 4-5).
What I love about Ford’s argument, besides his close reading of scripture and commitment to hearing truth wherever it may be found, is that it plunges us into the world with a kind of abandon, or at least vulnerability. To cultivate wisdom we must be moved by the joy and sorrow, insight and perplexity, hope and despair, peace and stress of those around us. Yet not just those in our own churches and circles of friends. We must also bend our ear toward ignored and sequestered cries, perhaps by intentionally placing ourselves in contexts where those cries can be heard, whether that be in a mental hospital, homeless shelter, prison, or languishing inner city school system. To hear these cries is to hear Christ himself in the world. It is to hear his many cries to God and his many cries over the wayward, ill, or outcast in the cries of all humanity, if we are to take Matthew 25:35-36 seriously. “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
When we listen repeatedly to the cries of people for what they most desire (and that includes ourselves), we begin to hear echoes of a more encompassing desire—the desire for the kingdom of God. Longings for peace, justice, wholeness, health, empathy, authenticity, intimacy, trust, integrity, beauty, and hope: all of these desires, or what I would call needs, correspond to life in the kingdom of God. They are the same longings embedded in the lives of biblical characters, in the prayers of the psalmists, and in the cries of Jesus himself. Thus there is a kind of wisdom in the cries of themselves—for wisdom expresses itself in kingdom living. Since this is both already-and-not yet, we are moved, again and again, along with all humanity to another cry of wisdom: “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”