Imagine an alien spaceship hovering over a city. Let’s say the aliens have an anthropological bent and start making observations. What intrigues them most is the city’s traffic. Initially it looks like chaos. The aliens are astounded by the fact that there aren’t more accidents. Not only do they observe many different kinds of vehicles, but they’re all going in many different directions, at different speeds, through intersections, making lane changes.
The alien anthropologists realize that there must be some logic or code behind it all. So they take a bunch of video and the run it through some powerful analytical tools. Pretty soon they’re looking at a printout of the rules of the road. They wouldn’t be entirely right, but they’d be close. They might misinterpret speed limits as minimums and yellow lights as invitations to zip through intersections, but for the most part they’d understand how things work.
Wouldn’t it be nice, we might think, if life were like that? Wouldn’t it be nice if there was some underlying code that we could figure out?
The assumption of the Bible’s wisdom literature is that anyone who pays close attention to life, anyone who lives an examined life (as Socrates is reported to have said) can figure out how things work. Watch enough of life, watch it closely enough and patterns will emerge.
You’ll notice that humility has long-term value, that integrity eventually pays off, that controlling your mouth is important, that cheating is self-defeating, and that learning to control your anger can take you far. This is wisdom.
Proverbs 8 says that wisdom isn’t just a logic or a code waiting to be discovered by alien anthropologists. Wisdom is a teacher who calls to us. She stands in all the prominent places, at all the important junctures of our lives, inviting us to listen. Listening involves recognizing wisdom’s value. It means cultivating humility. It means maintaining enough breathing space in our lives for reflection.
There is little that would benefit us today more than wisdom. We’re obsessed with information and with power, but wisdom doesn’t get the attention she should. In the Christian tradition wisdom takes on another level of importance. In I Corinthians 1, Paul says that Jesus is the wisdom of God. If we listen to wisdom’s teaching, placing ourselves within the dialectic of observing how things work and the way Jesus lived, we don’t just position ourselves to flourish, we position ourselves to know God.