Finding Wisdom Between Love and Awe
A Sermon by Teri Daily
I happen to know a thing or two about aardvarks. Aardvarks live in burrows in the savannas and grasslands of sub-Saharan Africa, and their name comes from the Afrikaans word for “earth pig.” Aardvarks are solitary and nocturnal mammals, coming out at night to feed on ants and termites. With their long tongue, which can be as long as 12 inches, the aardvark can slurp up to 50,000 insects in a single night. Numbered among its predators are lions, leopards, and pythons. And when confronted with these predators, the aardvark digs quickly, runs in a zigzag fashion, or turns around and uses its claws. That is what I know about aardvarks.
Most of my friends growing up knew something about aardvarks, too. We were in elementary school before home computers were commonplace, and most middle-class families owned a set of either World Book Encyclopedia or Encyclopedia Britannica. Almost all of us at some point or another got the idea that we would read the encyclopedia from cover to cover. Since “aardvark” always made the first page, it was a highly visited entry. (My own resolve always faded before I ever made it Abraham Lincoln.)
Maybe it was our exuberance for learning that made us want to read the entire encyclopedia. Or maybe we just wanted to one-up our friends when it came to facts and trivia. Because let’s face it, as Sir Francis Bacon once said, knowledge is power. Perhaps, though, we thought that knowing more about the world would make us feel more confident and secure; knowledge often has that effect. Knowledge is information we can grasp and own; it gives us a sense of mastery; it gives us the feeling that we have control over our own situation and the world around us. Whatever made us want to read the encyclopedia, the truth is that the kind of knowledge we were hoping for is actually a very different thing from wisdom; it’s a distinction St. Ephrem of Syria understood well.
St. Ephrem was a fourth century deacon, poet, and theologian. He wrote more than four hundred hymns during his lifetime; among the most well-known are a group of fifteen hymns called Hymns on Paradise. The following lines are some of the most beautiful from this group, and they deal with the nature of wisdom:
I took my stand halfway
between awe and love;
a yearning for Paradise
invited me to explore it,
but awe at its majesty
restrained me from my search.
With wisdom, however,
I have reconciled the two;
I revered what lay hidden
and meditated on what was revealed.
The aim of my search was to gain profit
the aim of my silence was to find succor.
As I read the psalm for today, Psalm 111, I couldn’t help but think of these lines written by St. Ephrem. I suspect both the psalmist and St. Ephrem would be surprised at the way we often equate knowledge with wisdom.
Wisdom in ancient Israel wasn’t about the knowledge of facts. Instead, the foundation of Israel’s wisdom tradition is the belief that a divine order permeates the entire world, and living wisely is living in harmony within this structure. In other words, wisdom is about learning to live in proper relationship with God, other people, and creation itself. So to be wise is to see ourselves as part of a greater whole, instead of as self-sufficient entities. It’s to see my well-being as inextricably linked to the well-being of my brothers and sisters, to see that my excess isn’t isolated from the poverty that exists in other parts of the world. It’s to see that creation has worth in and of itself, apart from me; it’s to see tending the earth as an expression of devotion to God. It’s to recognize the Spirit of God at work in and through me. It’s to understand my place in the universe. If this is what wisdom means, then Psalm 111 is very much a piece of wisdom literature.
The psalmist begins by praising God for what seems to be God’s great work in creation—work that is full of honor and majesty, work that is beautiful in its own right. Who doesn’t marvel at the depth of the Grand Canyon, or at the grandeur of Mount Everest, or at the force of Victoria Falls? At such moments we are struck by the vastness of creation and the immense glory of God, as well as by our own smallness in relation to them both. The psalmist tells us that this “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” To fear God here means to live in reverence of God, or in awe of God. We look at the rich fabric of creation, and it points to a God that is greater than anything we can know or imagine.
And yet, the psalmist also praises God for the faithfulness God has shown to the nation of Israel—this unlikely people descended from a lone Aramean, from a group of slaves in Egypt, and from a complaining, ungrateful bunch wandering through the wilderness. This is anything but a picture of some distant god. God hears the cries of the Hebrews in bondage and delivers them. God sees the hunger of God’s people in the wilderness and provides manna for them to eat. God knows they need structure in order to understand what it means to be the people of God, and God gives them the Law on Mt. Sinai. And herein lies the paradox: This unknowable God makes Godself known in and through relationship.
For the psalmist, God is greater than anything we can conceive of or ever fully know and God is lovingly active in our own lives, closer to us than our own breath. Wisdom is the ability to hold both of these truths simultaneously; or as St. Ephrem writes, wisdom is that place halfway between awe and love. It’s a very different thing from the kind of knowledge I described at the beginning of this sermon.
The truth is that we live in a world that rewards expertise, precision, and certainty—and there’s a place for that kind of knowledge. The problem comes when we approach our understanding of God in the same way. Because when it comes to God, the wisest thing we can say is that complete knowledge of God is absolutely beyond our grasp. It’s what the mystics in our tradition have been trying to tell us for centuries.
But it is hard to live with mystery; it’s hard to stand in the middle of knowing and not knowing. That’s why we tend to bring things down to our level; we’re tempted to make things black and white, flatten them out, make them fit within a box that we can then wrap our minds around. We do this not just with our understanding of the world, but also with our image of God. Such “knowledge” may help us feel secure and in control, but it’s not wisdom.
True wisdom is knowing our place in this universe. It is understanding that we live our lives in relationship with God, other people, and all of creation. And yet God, other people, and creation itself are not reducible to the relationship I have with them; they have value in and of themselves, beyond what I know or understand of them. In that way, they place a claim on my life, demanding respect and care and love. This is how wisdom is different from knowledge. Wisdom isn’t something we can grasp or own, and it doesn’t put us in control. Instead, wisdom orients us and gives us a right perspective. It becomes the lens through which we understand all knowledge and through which we interpret our own experience of God. And it starts with this unknowable God who is known to us in relationship.
So don’t just be knowledgeable, be wise. Don’t think our knowledge exhausts the fullness of God, and don’t think the unknowability of God means that God is completely alien to us. Instead, revere what is hidden of God, and bask in the Incarnation. Let the vastness of God wash over you, and let the nearness of God bubble up within you. Stand halfway between awe and love, experiencing both, for that place is the beginning and the end of wisdom.