Monday, January 23, 2006

Wisdom from the Baptists

Tonight was the Bristol Theological Society at the Bristol Baptist College, and Paul Fiddes (Baptist theologian from Oxford, who taught me Barth as an undergrad) speaking on wisdom. To be honest, I don't find the wisdom literature of the Old Testament, and especially the Book of Proverbs, very interesting. It just seems disjointed and rather twee. But I found this fascinating.

Fiddes compared wisdom and contemporary thinking on the nature of signs. There are some similarities - both see nature as a 'book' of signs. Both also speak of the elusiveness of meaning. There are points of difference as well, not least in the confidence that the wisdom tradition has that it can speak of God, in contrast to the confidence of the likes of Derrida that signs cannot point to anything but other signs.

In effect, Fiddes agrees with Derrida that signs can only point to signs. But signs that the wisdom tradition looks to point to the God who is actively engaged in signs because he is the creator and the constant creator of the world of signs. We can gain access through the signs of the world to the God who created the world of signs only by participating in that world. Through this participation we are drawn into participating in God.

This makes an important distinction between the 'wisdom theology' that Fiddes outlines and a more traditional 'natural theology', of the sort that Karl Barth despised. Where natural theology looks to the world as signs of or messages from someone standing behind the world; wisdom theology sees God present in the universe, drawing us into the life of the universe and into the life of God. "Signs are not messages but places where the Creator is presence in an active way: speaking, living, giving, drawing us into the divine life".

He also said something very interesting based on Proverbs 25.2-3, which sees sees interpretation itself as a mysterious act alongside and sharing in the mysterious nature of God and the mysterious nature of the world. This requires humility of the interpreter (the one who would be wise), and I think offers room for much pondering!

But it is the metaphor of participation that has me thinking the most. If wisdom is about participating in the life of the world and of God, then the one thing that is most unlike wisdom is trying to occupy the referee's chair and sit outside life looking on. The starting point is learning to live, that is where wisdom and God are to be found.

1 comment:

Gareth said...

Signs and participation... very Catholic.

Pace Derrida et al, I do think that when a philosopher tries to be all things to all men, he ends up being nothing to any of them.

And what of it if signs can only point to other signs? As we Catholics are so apt to tell you, there are Seven Sacraments (oh, such a primitive theology!) all of which merely point to the one, truest Sacrament of them all: Christ.

If a sign points to a sign, does that make them all relative? Not necessarily. So many of the signs here in the North are simply marked "The South." This is because you have to move away from your starting point for the more precise directions to make sense.

Or, if we look at it from the Ineffable perspective, as the Revelation descends on the rollercoaster to the human soul, it revisits the same point many times as it falls.

There is intelligent deconstruction, and there is reductio in absurdum. There is Wisdom in hypostatic union with the Creator, and there is wisdom the human construct.