Biblical wisdom, cultural knowledge, language and healing

Biblical wisdom leads to understanding the particularities of place and the interconnectedness of all things, and is a source of hope for the healing of the earth. (Listen.)

Note: This reflection is by a white Second Nations person speaking with a white Second Nations congregation, with all the limitations this entails. Yet it seems to us better to fumble our way towards greater understanding than to give up altogether.

Acorn. Dandelion. Fern. Heron. Ivy. Kingfisher. Nectar. Willow. These are but some of the words which were cut from a revised edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary a few years ago. A dictionary has only so much space, and the editors decided these words were irrelevant to the modern child. In their place, they added other words: attachment, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee.

‘Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?’ wondered the twentieth-century prophet, TS Eliot. ‘Where is the knowledge we have lost in information? // The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries // Brings us farther from God and nearer to the Dust.’ As children lose ‘otter’ and gain ‘voice-mail’, we might wonder too. Despite decades of education in Western knowledge, most of us lack even a basic understanding of the particular place in which we live. We have infinite global information at our fingertips; we all know blog, broadband, bullet-point; yet many of us cannot tell a manna gum from a mountain ash.

So we feel the air change and call it ‘spring’, erasing the intricacy of the true season. For ‘spring’ triggers associations like ‘daffodils’, ‘freesias’ and ‘little lambkins’; the word blinds us to the fullness of what is happening here. For Gariwerd has six seasons. It’s not spring, it’s petyan: and pobblebonks are on the move. Eels are migrating downstream; early termites are beginning to fly; and the platypus is laying her eggs. Meanwhile, swamp paperbarks, yam daisy and kangaroo grass are flowering; cherry ballarts are fruiting; superb fairy wrens are nesting.

But we struggle to see all this interconnected life, because we speak a language from half a world away: and it’s the language of genocide. The great forests of sheoak and the cultivated fields of yam daisy are long gone; many of the First Peoples were killed, dispersed or forcibly assimilated; much of the language which describes this particular landscape is lost. And so we cannot see: because language helps us notice and understand what is before us.

In Devon, a wasp was once called an ‘appledrain’; and anyone who has been enraged to find hollowed out apples on a tree knows exactly what this means. The relationship between wasp and apple is observed, described and preserved in the language. But have you ever seen a smeuse? It’s the gap at the base of a hedge made by the regular passage of a small animal shoving its way through. With the word gone, the gap is unlikely to be noticed, let alone understood.

As the ethno-linguist K. David Harrison writes, language death means the loss of ‘long-cultivated knowledge that has guided human-environment interaction for millennia … accumulated wisdom and observations of generations of people about the natural world, plants, animals, weather, soil.’ When we lose language, mountain ash and manna gum both become simply ‘tree’: interchangeable, replaceable, negligible. In such a void, intelligent human interaction with complex ecosystems is nearly impossible; and the void happened here because we are the children of empire. We inherited power, not love; we knew domination, not cooperation; we received information, not wisdom.

Well might we wonder: ‘Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?’

The writers of the Wisdom of Solomon wondered, too. Based in Alexandria in the first century BCE, they were writing for the Jewish diaspora, that is, people who, like us, were displaced from the land of their ancestors. In this strange land, their people were being seduced by Greek and Egyptian ways of knowing: by the ways of empire. In place of God, they were choosing manmade things. In place of story, implacable logic. In place of consultative local governance, centralized control. In place of wisdom, information.

To these people, the writers sought to describe wisdom. They write that she is the gift of God and ‘the fashioner of all things’ who teaches about earth, sea and sky, that is:

‘the structure of the world and the activity of the elements;
the beginning and end and middle of times,
the alternations of the solstices and the changes of the seasons,
the cycles of the year and the constellations of the stars,
the natures of animals and the tempers of wild animals,
the powers of winds and the thoughts of human beings,
the varieties of plants and the virtues of roots,
both what is secret and what is manifest …
Wisdom pervades and penetrates all things.
For she is a breath of the power of God …
and she orders all things well.’

In other words, deep time, constellations, seasons, plants, animals, and humans are described in ordered relationship: and so the Biblical gift of wisdom is highly evocative of cultural knowledge. Of course, there are many and diverse Indigenous ways of knowing; but there are also common threads. According to Leroy Little Bear, an Indigenous knowledge system is always grounded in a particular location; it is also holistic. That is, it is based on a deep and complex understanding of a place; it assumes that everything is related: land, people, animals, plants, rivers, rocks, and weather; and it focuses on how these things connect and change. Unlike typical Western knowledge, which tends to break things down, Indigenous cultural knowledge tends to link things together. It leads to an integrated way of observing and being in a world which is entirely permeated and ordered by wisdom.

Now, we are a people who say we are deeply concerned about climate; yet most of us would agree that we don’t live wisely. We don’t have a deep understanding of the land built up over millennia. We don’t balance and sustain healthy relationships between all things. We don’t live within our limits so that other wisdom-permeated things can also thrive: and our economic and political system makes it nearly impossible to change.

And so many of us feel hopeless and helpless. Given our history of genocide, our education in empire, and our complicity in capitalism, it is logical for us to feel despair. The forces seem too powerful, and we are so ignorant: it seems there is nothing we can really do.

But I insist on hope: and my hope resides in the Biblical concepts of wisdom. And why?

First, because according to the wisdom writers, ‘The multitude of the wise is the salvation of the world.’ (6:24). Now, before you accuse me of heresy because, actually, Jesus Christ is the salvation of the world, take a deep breath and listen. In the Wisdom of Solomon, wisdom is described in ways which have led people over the centuries to understand Jesus as wisdom incarnate, that is, wisdom made flesh. Let’s recall that, in boyhood, Jesus was described as growing in wisdom. As an adult, he described himself as wisdom personified and as exercising wisdom greater than Solomon; and his wisdom frequently astonished the crowds.

In John’s gospel, we recall that, like wisdom, Jesus is the light which dispels darkness; neither darkness nor evil can overcome it. Both wisdom and Christ are described as reflecting and mirroring the very essence of God; and both wisdom and the spirit of Christ pass into holy souls and make them friends of God, and prophets.

Right now, the world needs salvation more than ever: that is, all the wholeness, integration and healing that are encompassed by the word ‘salvation’. Here, the wisdom writers assure us that a multitude of the wise is the salvation of the world. We can understand this as a multitude of those in whom the spirit of Christ dwells; and so we are part of the multitude which will bring about healing and salvation.

Second, we are assured that when we seek wisdom, God will grant it. We might feel like stupid white people, trapped in an economy, ignorant of the land, and incapable of learning, but I don’t believe it. Instead, I trust that, when we ask, God opens our hearts and minds to the place in which we live. And I also trust that, when we ask, God gives teachers, both human and otherwise, who show us how to balance healthy relationships between people and place. Wisdom is ours if only we will seek it.

Third, the text implies that land itself is permeated and pervaded by wisdom. So the land carries an intelligence, and it is speaking, demanding what First Peoples call listening to country. As Yuin Elder Max Dulumunmun Harrison says, ‘It is important to read the land, to be observant of the changing colours of the leaves, and the change in behaviour of the animals, so we become aware and recognise the messages the land is sending us.’

I have no doubt that these messages are telling us how to care for the land; and I trust that ‘holy souls, those friends of God and prophets’ in whom wisdom resides, are listening and sharing what they hear. Our job, then, is to seek out those voices who are speaking for the healing of the land, primarily of course among First Peoples; and, where appropriate, to raise up those voices ourselves.

My friends, our God is a God of newness, who again and again speaks to diaspora people living under empire. In every generation, in each new context, God’s people must find ways to faithfully seek out, learn from and live with wisdom. This suggests one last thing. I am not naïve. I don’t believe we can restore the land to pre-invasion days. Instead, just as the New Testament describes diverse expressions of faith as the gospel spreads, we too are called to cultural hybridity. That is, we are called to find ways of living faithfully and wisely in this place, alert and responsive to the land and its people and the spirit of wisdom coursing through us all.

Of course, for this we will need prayer, a great deal of prayer: and I invite you to join us this Tuesday evening as we gather to pray for the climate. It will not be a time for lament; that happens at other times. Instead, most of the time will be spent listening for what the God of wisdom might be saying to us: and we will continue to devote time to further prayerful listening in the days and weeks and months to come.

We will also need language. Of course, the politics, economics and violence of empire have been disastrous for this place: but so too the language, both language silenced and language introduced. It’s a gross understatement to say the language of empire, that is, English, has not led to healthy balanced relationships between people and place; rather, it has been incredibly destructive to people and place, and the wisdom which links them together. Yet English is all most of us have, and it is itself a great cultural hybrid; it’s open to endless manipulation, borrowing, and change. With God’s help, perhaps we can find new words and rediscover old ones to help us observe and describe life in this place here and now.

Appledrains? They’re alive and well in Cudgee; but so are weengkeel (koala) and moothang (blackwood). We can dig out and use true names, Indigenous names, which teach us more about the place; and where words are lost or cannot describe the hybrid space in which we live, we can find new words, or use old words in new ways. To give one example, if there is no other word, or if the word is lost, perhaps smeuse can be reframed. Perhaps it can move from hedgehog to echidna, from the hole in the base of a hedge, to the tunnel which is formed by the regular passage of an echidna through clumps of tussock grass.

My friends, ‘Both we and our words are in God’s hand,
as are all understanding and skill in crafts.’ (Wis. Sol. 7:16)

May God grant us wisdom in our praying and in our speaking, in our listening and in our seeing, in our understanding and in our living. May we come to know and love and care for this place ever more deeply, in all its particularity and wholeness. And as we take our place among the multitude who work for the healing of the earth, may we always remember this: against wisdom, evil does not prevail. Thanks be to God. Ω

Reflect: What do you notice about the current season? What connections do you notice between things: plants, animals, waterways, soil, and people? What holy souls have opened your eyes to life in your locality?

This piece quotes TS Eliot, from Choruses from the Rock (1934); K. David Harrison as quoted in Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks, published by Penguin in 2015; and Leroy Little Bear and Max Dulumunmun Harrison as quoted in Big Picture Wisdom: Metatheorising ancient, scientific and indigenous wisdom perspectives for global environmental leadership, published in the Journal of Spirituality, Leadership and Management in December 2013. A reflection on the Wisdom of Solomon 6:24, 7:15-8:1 by Alison Sampson given to Sanctuary on 12 September 2021 (Year B Proper 19 – extending the suggested lectionary reading backwards for sheer joy) © Sanctuary 2021. Photo by Daniel Seßler on Unsplash.

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