Opinion

Homo Sapiens: Are we really so sapient?

Is humanity lacking wisdom now more than ever?

By George Browning

September 17 2018Along the evolutionary trail we have somewhat ambitiously called ourselves homo sapiens, or humans who are sapient – knowing or wise. The truth of the matter is tragically far from this: we seek to resolve difference through violence rather than dialogue; we give greater weight to possessing rather than being (our other species name); we assume winning to be an achievement of the individual rather than the community, thus imposing losing on others; we claim exceptionalness  for our momentary place in history and we constantly appoint leaders who show absolutely no aptitude for the task.
 
In the Judaeo-Christian tradition wisdom is the foundational building block of life, the skeletal form which makes order possible – it precedes everything else in creation. Wisdom is chaos’ antidote. The pursuit of wisdom defines human vocation. But what is wisdom? I have often said wisdom is the understanding of how things work. Socrates is not so sure. He thought that understanding was possible, but that it is only known to the gods - let me come back to that. Socrates taught we are only as wise as the awareness of our ignorance. From a biblical perspective, as well as from a Greek sapient perspective, we can say that wisdom is knowing one’s place, a place which is always part of a far greater whole.
 
The context of this blog is twofold; first, that in the common lectionary on Sundays we are currently reading from Proverbs, a key component of biblical wisdom literature, and secondly because so much has been happening of late which defies logic, let alone wisdom.
 
First to the wisdom literature. She (wisdom) is not defined. No definition would be sufficient,  and like the wind she breaks through any human attempt for containment. My favourite literary flourish is from the Apocrypha, the Wisdom of Solomon 7:22ff:
 
There is in her a spirit that is intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, subtle, mobile, clear, unpolluted, distinct, invulnerable, loving the good, keen, irresistible, beneficent, humane, steadfast, sure, free from anxiety, all-powerful, overseeing all, and penetrating through all spirits that are intelligent, pure, and altogether, subtle.
For wisdom is more mobile than any motion; because of her pureness she pervades and penetrates all thing.
For she is a breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty; therefore, nothing defiled enters her.
She is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of His goodness.
Although she is but one she can do all thing, and while remaining in herself she renews all things; in every generation she passes into holy souls……
 
Now, to refer back to Socrates and his notion that “only the gods can know how things truly work”. For the Christian community knowing, or the wisdom of God, has been made known to us in the person of Jesus - the incarnate wisdom of God. To be one of his followers is to be a follower of wisdom. Is wisdom clearly defined? No, of course it is not, it is laid before us in parabolic form through Jesus’ teaching and through his death and resurrection. The Parables of the Prodigal Son or the Good Samaritan, for example, are wisdom parables. So also is his death. The life-giving power of unconditional love through sacrifice is wisdom in its most confronting.
 
Given we know all this, how then is it that this ‘enlightened’ generation is so unwise? Well, there’s a question!
 
Perhaps it is that we are increasingly unaware, that understandings that were taken for granted in the building of western civilisation have been forgotten, rather than abandoned. Today it is easy to parody mock or otherwise belittle Christian faith and Christians generally, but would it be so easy if it were known that here lurks true wisdom.  And is its disappearance into the fog of lost memory partly attributable to the fact that what now so popularly passes for Christianity is no more than simplistic, cheap, unintelligent jargon?
 
Perhaps it is because we have ceded wisdom’s place to technology. If it is possible to build it, we do, without asking is it needful or appropriate. Start-up tech companies make instant billionaires, but their technology also enables POTUS to spew out bile and nonsense in equal measure and it enables trolls to bully the young and even the not so young at an unprecedented level.
 
Perhaps it is simply that the real enemy of wisdom has always been wealth or at least, as the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the US Bishop Michael Curry put it on ABC’s 7.30,  “the unbridled desire for it”. We have reached a point in Australian political life when any attempt to question let alone bridle the unbecoming desire for wealth, which brooks no regulation, is mocked as a ‘culture of envy’. No, it is not. The Royal Commission looking into the behaviour of banks, superannuation and insurance agencies has revealed a culture that no one would envy, a culture that values profit above ethical behaviour. Even our new Prime Minister in his attempt to sound ‘cool’ this week produced a cringe worthy stunt that had his side of the house wave their hands every time money was mentioned in a song by Fatman Scoop that was dubbed over the footage. 
 
This last week has seen some spectacular moments that have defied any connection to Wisdom:
 
- The US secretary of State John Bolton sought to destroy credibility to the international criminal court.  The US clearly believes it has a specialness that puts it above international law.
- In similar vein the US has sought to discredit and defund UNRWA, the UN relief and works agency for Palestine, leaving Palestinian children without educational resources and a space for extremists to insert their radicalising ideology.
- Serena Williams spat the dummy at the US open making out she was the victim and in a superhuman manner was standing for female rights, when in fact she was the one who owed the umpire, Naomi Osaka, and the adoring public an apology
- Everything that has occurred before and after the curtain call of the ‘Muppet show’ in Federal Parliament, especially the shameful use of abusive tactics, have lacked any credible wisdom.
 
While all this wisdom-less activity prevails and the unbridled desire for wealth rushes headlong:
 
Wisdom cries out in the street: in the squares she raises her voice.
At the busiest corner she cries out: at the entrance of the city gates she speaks:
How long O simple ones will you love being simple?
How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge? (Prov. 1:20-22).

Dr George Browning is the former Bishop of Canberra and Goulburn. This is a slightly edited version of an article he wrote for his blog on 15 September 2018. See http://www.georgebrowning.com.au/