Wisdom’s Cry

Sermon for Sunday, August 16, 2015 || Proper 15B || Proverbs 9:1-6

wisdomscryHomo sapiens. That’s what Carl Linnaeus, the 18th century biologist, called the human species. All living organisms in his influential system of taxonomy are given two Latin names, a genus and species. There’s Canis lupus – dog.* There’s Felis catus – cat. There’s Macropus rufus – red kangaroo. And then there’s Homo sapiens – modern day human. The “sapiens” distinguishes us from other extinct species of hominid like Homo habilis and Homo erectus. Carl Linnaeus used the word “sapiens” to describe our species because, like any good Enlightenment thinker, he prized the human abilities to gain and retain knowledge, to question and understand, to solve problems, and to discern. Sapiens, after all, comes from the Latin word that means “wisdom.”

I often wonder, however, if this scientific classification – Homo sapiens – is losing its accuracy in today’s world. Indeed, modern American society has become a hostile environment for wisdom. Wisdom thrives when deep thinkers share their deep thoughts with one another and discover new territory for exploration. Wisdom thrives when thoroughness and care gain the upper hand over speed and ease. Wisdom thrives when we take the time to listen to our grandparents. But in modern American society deep thinkers don’t have the luxury to share their deep thoughts because the 15-second sound byte is all that will get quoted by the news. The 140-character limit of a tweet serves only the surface level of a discussion. The fact that you all give me ten minutes a week to share what little wisdom I’ve gleaned in my 32 years on this planet is practically a marvel. It’s certainly countercultural. In today’s world, how could we possibly be expected to sit through ten minutes of anything?

And still, the brevity and pace of our modern discourse is only part of what makes our society a hostile environment for wisdom. Ever since the advent of the Internet, we have slowly but surely been outsourcing our brains into devices. And as the devices have gotten smaller and more portable, the pace of this outsourcing has accelerated.

Here’s a common example of cranial outsourcing, one that I’m sure many of you can relate to. I know exactly three phone numbers by heart: I know my cell phone number, Leah’s cell phone number, and the number for St. Mark’s. That’s it. I don’t know my parents’ phone numbers. I don’t know my sister’s phone number. I don’t know the numbers of any of my friends. But in the prehistoric, pre-cellular days of the late nineteen-eighties and nineties, I knew every one of my friends’ numbers by heart. I probably had 40 or 50 phone numbers crammed in my head. And so did everyone else. But we, as a species, have lost this capacity, because we have outsourced phone number collection to our devices.

This is one fairly innocuous example of cranial outsourcing. Others include the inability to calculate a tip at a restaurant; or to make change at a cash register; or, perhaps most ubiquitously, to drive somewhere without turn-by-turn GPS instructions. I have friends who have been to my house four or five times and have absolutely no idea how to get there. The Internet and related technology have given us the opportunity to download all of human knowledge and most of human capacity into machines. And we took that opportunity without even blinking.

The coupling of our sound-byte society with our cranial outsourcing has begun the process of evolving us into a new species, I’m afraid – one where the “sapiens” of Homo sapiens is a misnomer. While there are certainly still bastions of wisdom out there (notably, the aforementioned grandparents), I’m not sure generations to come can expect innate wisdom from their elders like we can. I’m honestly afraid my millennial generation has neither the attention span nor the cognitive discipline to gain wisdom. When knowledge, experience, and empathy are brewed together over time in an atmosphere of unhurried reflection, wisdom is the result. But these days, most knowledge lives in machines. Experience is gained second hand through the media. Empathy can barely survive in the toxic, anonymous climate of Internet comment sections. And too few things, reflection among them, are done in an unhurried manner.

So when I read the words of today’s lesson from the book of Proverbs, I hear a clear, yet plaintive cry from Wisdom herself calling us away from our modern American lifestyle; calling us, instead, back home. Indeed, the reading begins as such: “Wisdom has built her house, she has hewn seven pillars.” Seven pillars – a number of completion in the Bible, of divine perfection. In this house, Wisdom has laid a sumptuous feast and has sent out her servants with an invitation to be shouted from the rooftops. All you naïve people, she says; all you who lack sense, come here. Eat my bread, drink my wine. “Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.”

The book of Proverbs personifies Wisdom throughout its chapters. She is called God’s first created being, there with God at the creation of all other things. She implores people to despise pride and arrogance and to embrace prudence, knowledge, discretion, righteousness, justice. She laments being roundly ignored by the foolhardy. Wisdom has been around the block a few times, and today she invites us again not to forget her, but to feast in her house. This is vital for our walks with God because so much of that walk with and toward God follows the road that leads to wisdom.

The Wisdom Road we could be walking has become obscured in our modern American society. But we can take steps to clear away the brush and brambles, to hack back the overhanging branches, to uncover the well-worn path so many have trudged along in days gone by.

The first step is to recognize the extent of our cranial outsourcing and try to arrest its growth. Reclaim some hard drive space in the old gray matter. Try not to use your turn-by-turn GPS for a week. Yes, you might get lost, but getting lost is how you start learning the roads. When you retrieve information from the Internet, try to keep it in your brain instead of letting it drift away back to virtual space.

Second, take the time to have some real, honest-to-goodness experiences, and then take even more time to reflect on them. Have some deep conversations. Discuss things that really matter. Go out and rub shoulders with folks you might not normally associate with. Get your hands dirty. Serve.

Third, practice empathy in every conversation and interaction you have. Try to put yourself in the shoes of your companion and feel what he or she is feeling. In all of these, spend time in reflection so that your knowledge and experience has time to grow roots and sprout into wisdom. Some of you are grandparents already, so I’m sure you’ve got wisdom to spare. Perhaps you can help us young `uns stop and hear wisdom’s invitation to the feast. The Wisdom Road and the road God calls us to walk share quite a bit of pavement. Let’s walk it together.

* It was pointed out to me (while I was preaching at the 10 am service) that this is actually a wolf and that dog is Canis familiaris. Oops.