Seeking Wisdom from the Natural World

SunsetWisdom is both a divine gift and a divinely ordained human task. And let’s fess up. We would all prefer the receiving of a gift over exerting ourselves to work toward a goal. After all, work is, well, work. So I suspect that most of us would rather have wisdom handed to us than work at seeking it. Besides, don’t we have too much going on in our lives already? How can we possibly add to that load the work of seeking wisdom?

Since seeking wisdom takes persistent dedication, we can get a bit slack at it. So I thought it might be inspiring to take a timeout from the complicated things that we sometimes talk about on this blog and instead remind ourselves of the importance that Scripture places on seeking and applying wisdom. Of the countless ways we could do this, let’s spend a few minutes remembering just three of the many areas of life in which Scripture itself places a premium on having wisdom and applying it – the natural world, education, and the arts. Today we’ll look at the natural world. Education and the arts will be covered in future posts.

The Natural World
Throughout history, theologians and philosophers have attempted to explain the agency through which the material world exists and holds together. This is not the place to review the diverse answers that have been supplied. What I want to highlight is an answer that is typically overlooked by religious communities, including Christian ones.

To a basic question such as: “How did the material world get here and why does it keep going?”, Christians, as well as Jewish and Muslim believers, would reply with some version of: “God created it and sustains it.”

To stick within my own faith, Christianity, it you pressed Christians to be more specific, most likely you would hear: “God spoke it into existence by his word,” or “God created through Jesus Christ.” Or some such thing. But what you won’t hear is the indisputable role that wisdom played. And this is an unfortunate omission. Over many decades of hearing Christians talk about how the natural world was created and is sustained, I can’t recall anyone underlining the biblical truth that wisdom itself is an essential agency to the founding and running the world. And yet it is clearly evident in Scripture (e.g., Job 28:12-19; Psalm 104:24; Proverbs 3:19; 8:22-31; Isaiah 28:23-29; Jeremiah 10:12; 51:15).

My purpose here is not to unpack the riches of such passages. I only want to note that they include at least these three salient ideas: a) that wisdom was present in the beginning when God created; b) that God sustains the created order by wisdom; c) that human collaboration with God’s wisdom helps sustain the world.

Wisdom, we may say, then, is in some sort of God-ordained way essential to the creation, order, and stability of the natural world, which doesn’t exist like a cat and dog fighting or like a jar of nitroglycerin. Rather, there is a consistency old booksand a reliability to the natural world. The same rules and laws govern this earth as govern the farther reaches of the galaxy. Seasons come and go with persistent regularity. You can count on that, and farmers and meteorologists do.

From this we may conclude that wisdom is not some abstract entity, nor has it been left to gather dust on blueprints in heaven, any more than Michelangelo’s art or Bach’s music was left ignored in their heads. As their gift to us, their art is with us in the world. We can see it and hear it. And those who work to become skilled enough in those kinds of artistic wisdom can have a go at painting it or playing it.

What used to be called the “natural sciences” is the large and varied field where wisdom is sought, discovered, and applied to the multifarious facets and complex intricacies of natural world. First Kings 4:29-34 hints at this about Solomon, albeit in a rudimentary way.

The passage in First Kings celebrates Solomon’s international reputation for wisdom. His prodigious output of proverbs and songs are noted; his practical wisdom and his keen judicial wisdom are commended. And Solomon’s wide breadth of wisdom in natural science is also noted. He is said to have “described” the plant life of the region, from the largest trees (cedars of Lebanon) to the smallest shrubs (hyssop). He “taught about” beasts, birds, reptiles, and fish (the four principle classes whereby the Israelites understood the animal kingdom). To acknowledge that this was all rudimentary is not to say that it was wrong or even that it has become out-dated. After all, even the most advanced physicist began with basic math.

It may be difficult to appreciate the Nobel-like acclaim Solomon received for his accumulated wisdom until we recognize that he lived during a time when the sages of Egypt and of the East were renowned for their wisdom. Everyone knew that. Even so, Solomon is said to have had more wisdom and insight than the sages of the East and of Egypt. And, evidently, he also stood head and shoulders above the sages even of his homeland (Ecclesiastes 1:16).

It might surprise some workers in the natural sciences today to learn that when they discover something more about the created order of things – even today – they are discovering more of God’s wisdom for the way the natural world works. The big question, however, and it has become acute in our day, is how to apply a discovery. What kind of uses should it be put to? Is nothing taboo? Does anything go? Ultimately, this faces us with the question of what should be the proper management, stewardship, of God’s good creation.

Assessing ahead of time the long-term implications and ramifications of any new discovery is not possible because analyzable facts are not yet in evidence by which to base accurate projections. Further, in this world, where by our sin we distort God’s good creational wisdom after we discover it, we will wish in vain that the use of any discovery will have only upsides. British theologian and philosopher John Peck calls this the ICT Factor: the inherent cussedness of things. Uses made of discoveries in the medical and the nuclear sciences are only recent cases in point.

jigsaw big pictureCultivating a humble attitude in the face of new discoveries and their applications is probably the best we can do. I learned something about this years ago while reading how the scientist and philosopher Francis Bacon (1561-1626) approached new discoveries. I don’t romanticize Bacon. The man wasn’t a saint. But in The New Atlantis, his work of fiction, he named his ideal college “Solomon’s House,” which was, he wrote, “the noblest foundation (as we think) that ever was upon the face of the earth…, dedicated to the study of the works and creatures of God.” And in his essay “Of wisdom for a man’s self,” he wrote that wisdom used for selfish interests “is a depraved thing.”

W can also learn from his thoughts about his method of induction, for which he has been celebrated. In brief, Bacon – he entered Trinity College at age 12(!) – strongly objected to the highly abstract forms of knowledge (Aristotelianism and Scholasticism) that influenced the Medieval period. His method of induction was meant to help Europeans produce an alternative to that. He sought a more personal and comprehensive relation to nature via a systematic hands-on approach in which knowledge would be derived and built up from the multitude of people’s practical, studied experiences of the natural world. From these experiences, general laws of nature would be developed and employed. “Nature can only be commanded by being obeyed,” was Bacon’s way of putting it.

Evidently this was not, in his mind at least, to be an exercise in selfish ambition or mercenary exploitation. Significantly, when a law of nature was discovered, it was to be employed in what Bacon called “a holy manner” as the science was developed. By this he meant that the natural world must be approached in a humility of not knowing and then proceed from there by studying from the creation what God has actually wrought in it.

Further, our science, he said, should produce works motivated by charity. Knowledge gained ought to be used to serve others, to alleviate human suffering, increase human well-being. Such an attitude aptly describes the way of investigation and cultivation of the earth that the Book of Genesis (2:15) insists should be the motivating principle of and for human work in the world – good stewardship, or management.

Wisdom, then, is imminent in the natural world and may be found by those who seek it there, for it is a world that “speaks” to all peoples everywhere about itself and its Artist (Genesis 1; Psalm 19). Of course, most of us don’t have careers in the natural sciences. But we may grow our own vegetables, or run an urban agricultural initiative, or even serve our community as a Master Gardner.

Like a city under siege and deprived of food, God’s wisdom is so vital to the proper running of the natural world that to not humbly seek that wisdom and apply it wisely is to contribute to its decay. In Uncommon Sense, John Peck and I tried to capture something of this when we wrote: “When you look out on the world and touch it and use it, you are touching God’s own heart and mind. All the way through it you are touching a product of God’s character.”

Best we be good stewards of that.

©2017 by Charles Strohmer

Top image courtesy of Creative Commons. Old Books, by M. Peterka. Jigsaw, by NASA.

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