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Studying nature cannot be left to scientists alone. What is required for wisdom is not only the detached rational enquiry of science but also the immersed, meditative contemplation of artists and poets.
Today’s environmental problems are so complex they often seen intractable. To tackle them, we not only need politics and economics, science and technology. We also need great wisdom to move towards a more sustainable and just world. But where can we find it?
King Solomon was renowned for his wisdom. In response to God’s astonishing offer, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you,” he could have requested security, prosperity, health or happiness. Instead, he chose wisdom. As a result, “God gave Solomon wisdom and very great insight, and a breadth of understanding as measureless as the sand on the seashore”.
Today, we tend to think of wisdom as primarily self-knowledge and understanding of human society. While Solomon could judge human dilemmas wisely (as in the famous example of the two women who both claimed a baby was theirs) the heart of his wisdom lay elsewhere.
Ellen Davis, professor of Bible and Practical Theology at Duke Divinity School in the United States, writing about Proverbs, says “wisdom means holding two things together: discerning knowledge of the world plus obedience to God”. Christians are familiar with the second of these from the familiar biblical adage: “The fear [reverent awe] of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7, Psalm 111:10), but what about “discerning knowledge” of the natural world?
According to 1 Kings 4:33-34, Solomon was a dedicated naturalist: “He spoke about plant life, from the cedar of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of walls. He also spoke about animals and birds, reptiles and fish. From all nations people came to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, sent by all the kings of the world, who had heard of his wisdom.” At the heart of the wisdom of Solomon was close, detailed observation of the flora and fauna of the ancient Near East. Just as Jesus instructed his followers to become botanists and ornithologists in order to live worry-free lives, so Solomon’s wisdom was rooted not in books or philosophical discussion but in deep immersion in God’s works.
Throughout Christian history there are examples of those who took Solomon’s path of natural wisdom. The Desert Fathers and the early Celtic saints combined meditating on God’s revelation in nature and scripture. Francis of Assisi embodied a Christocentric spirituality that recognised other creatures as fellow members of the community of creation. John Ray, Gilbert White and William Carey are among many others whose wisdom arose from a deep contemplation of the wonders of God’s world.
Today, we need to recover this kind of wisdom. Outdoor field studies should be a part of the educational curriculum for every young person. Studying ecology and wildlife to a professional level needs to be affirmed as a holy and important Christian calling. However, studying nature cannot be left to scientists alone. What is required for wisdom is not only the detached rational enquiry of science but also the immersed, meditative contemplation of artists and poets.
“It is regrettable that the church has in the last three centuries largely lost sight of the fact that ‘nature wisdom’ is indispensable to an accurate estimation of the proper human role in God’s creation,” says Professor Davis. “Perhaps the time has at last come for the revival of this branch of theology.” In an increasingly globalised, virtual and digital world, all who would seek wisdom need a close attention to their environment. Getting to know the local species and habitats should be part of worship and godly wisdom for every Christian.
We cannot understand God’s character and purposes without looking at what God has made. We cannot understand what it means to be human unless we know how ecosystems function and how we belong within them. Jesus humorously pointed out that wayside flowers were better dressed than even King Solomon.
We cannot find wisdom second-hand by reading books by wise people. We find wisdom by seeking God and by getting to know our place, within the places that God has placed us.
Dave Bookless is Advisor for Theology and Churches for A Rocha International.
This article was first published in Solas magazine. Solas is published quarterly in the U.K. Click here to learn more or subscribe.
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