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The Tree of Wisdom
February 28, 1993

PROVERBS 3:13-20

The Bible begins and ends with references to the Tree of Life, an ancient image which we have chosen as our theme this Lenten season. The last chapter of the last book in the Bible, the Book of Revelation, refers to the Tree of Life. The first book in the Bible, Genesis, lists the Tree of Life, along with the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, as features in the Garden of Eden. Common mythology and folk lore in middle eastern culture told of a Tree of Life which gives immortality to all who eat of its fruit. The Genesis account of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden rejected the myth. True life is not gained through a magical tree, but through a relationship with God. The Tree of Life then became symbolic of a life giving relationship with God, a relationship which richly includes wisdom, knowledge, beauty, healing and compassion. As we sang in the hymn, Christians go one step further and identify the Tree of Life with Jesus. Its name is Jesus. Developing the theme--The Tree of Life: Its Name is Jesus--will lead us into interesting areas of exploration this Lent. We begin today with wisdom.

A famous New England preacher of yesterday, Henry Ward Beecher, once received a letter that had one word written on it--fool. The next Sunday, during the sermon, Beecher said, "I have known many an instance of a man writing letters and forgetting to sign his name. But this is the only instance I've ever known of a man signing his name and forgetting to write his letter." A fool was put in his place by a wise man. Our text today said,

Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding...

Wisdom is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called happy.

In Old Testament religion, three groups of people provided leadership: Priests, Prophets, and Wise persons, men and women identified and revered as wise. In Jesus' day, priests led worship in the Jerusalem temple, primarily by performing sacrifices. Prophets proclaimed the word, preached the Word, like John the Baptist. Wise persons were the teachers, the rabbis, who probably, as today, were associated with synagogues. However, Jesus , an itinerant prophet, was also called rabbi, a wise man.

In ancient Israel, as well as the middle east as a whole, wisdom was sought and revered. In early times, wisdom was a practical matter. Wisdom was that native intelligence or shrewdness by which one performed tasks skillfully and well. What was called wisdom then, we might call common sense today; common sense which President Clinton says he has found little of in Washington!

By the time the Book of Proverbs was collated, wisdom was further seen as synonymous with moral and religious intelligence, filled with a strongly ethical content. Wisdom was seen as the unifying, directing principle of nature and the world; what we would call today the overview, the larger picture. Wisdom is the gift of seeing the larger picture. Wisdom sees not just the pieces of the puzzle, but the puzzle in its wholeness and completeness. Wisdom, in the Old Testament, assumed a divine cosmic order which we humans can discover and live with in harmony.

We United Methodists are fortunate to have had a founder who believed strongly in the place of wisdom in our faith. John Wesley gave us what we call the Quadrilateral approach to theology. When you are forming your theology, when you are deciding what to believe, when you are choosing which stance or approach you will follow, Wesley urges you to ask four questions. Is it scriptural? What does tradition or history have to contribute? How does it relate to your own personal experience? And, is it reasonable? The four approaches--all equally valid, all necessary--are Bible, Tradition, Experience, and Reason (what I am calling today wisdom).

God gave us each an intelligence, a mind with which we can reason. We are not only to use and develop our reason, but trust it. The philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, defined superstition as religion which has grown incongruous with intelligence. Superstition is a religious belief that is no longer reasonable. We are called to wisdom, to use our common sense, and to develop the larger picture, the overview.

I have a concern about the direction American education has been taking, and continues to take with new steps in a direction towards technology and away from wisdom. Is the primary purpose of an education to train us for jobs or make us wise? Is the primary purpose of a degree from an established, accredited university, what we call an institution of higher learning, to be able to run a computer, or design a building, or cut open a body? Or, is the primary purpose of an education to develop leaders who have an understanding of and a commitment to the larger picture of values and goals; in other words, to develop leaders who have wisdom?

President Casper of Stanford University is making headlines with his daring proposal to award the undergraduate degree in three, rather than four, years. On the surface, it sounds practical and sensible. After all, the high cost of a four year education is becoming unreachable. But, we do need to ask, what happens in a three-year program to the commitment to liberal arts education which, according to my understanding, has the purpose of developing wisdom, the ability to understand and appreciate the larger picture? We intentionally sent our three sons to liberal arts universities--Stanford and Redlands--rather than state schools. The state schools, at least the ones we investigated, seemed to be interested primarily in training students in their vocational pursuit. There was little opportunity to study philosophy, religion, art, great literature, etc. Alfred Whitney Griswold, President of Yale University some forty years ago, wrote,

Books won't stay banned. They won't burn. Ideas won't go to jail. In the long run of history, the censor and the inquisitor have always lost. The only sure weapon against bad ideas is better ideas. The source of better ideas is wisdom. The surest path to wisdom is a liberal education.

Thomas Huxley said it even stronger, back in 1868,

The only medicine for suffering, crime, and all other woes of mankind, is wisdom. Teach a man to read and write, and you have put into his hands the great keys of the wisdom box. But it is quite another thing to open the box.

Are we teaching persons to read and write, to be technologically literate without opening the wisdom box? I really appreciate President Clinton's and Vice-President Gore's commitment to public education. And I listened intently to the discussions in their recent visit to Silicon Valley. I applaud their interest in making our schools more technologically advanced. Technology is certainly crucial to our nation's growth and prosperity; but, let's not forget wisdom. Since Sputnik stirred us up forty years ago, we have increased science, mathematics, and now computer technology, in curriculums while increasingly cutting the humanities. As a nation, we are becoming very smart in technology, but are we wise? Are we making the best uses of technology? Are we making the best decisions with our advanced technological expertise? Are students studying history so they won't repeat the mistakes? Can we really relate to post communist Russia without understanding Russian history? Are students studying philosophy so they learn to think and develop the larger picture? Are students studying religion so they have some values with which to direct technology? We need to be studying religion just to understand one another. Look at the conflicts occurring around the world today. Many are religious wars. I wonder if our diplomats understand Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism.

Let me be perfectly clear. I am not criticizing the President's emphasis on technology. I am not criticizing the desire to improve our schools. I am not advocating a decrease in science and mathematics. I am advocating a balance. I am pleading for serious study of history, philosophy, ethics, religion, literature, etc.

I am making a plea this morning for our Tree of Life to include wisdom; and for Christians, its name is Jesus. Christians approach all learning and all quests for wisdom through Jesus. Not that the earthly Jesus as we know him through the Bible is exclusive, but Jesus is the perspective, the lens through which we look. Christians look at technology from the perspective of Jesus, through the lens of Jesus. Jesus measures and evaluates each technological application with the criteria: What about justice? What about changing systems that oppress people? What about feeding people, housing people, educating people? Wise Christians are about the business of challenging by asking: Is this research, this engineering feat, this new invention, this product, going to improve the quality of life on our planet? And quality is defined through Jesus.

Happy, fulfilled, creative, and useful are those who find wisdom. "Wisdom is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her." Wisdom's name is Jesus.


© 1993 Douglas I. Norris