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Seeing the World and Knowing God: Hebrew Wisdom and Christian Doctrine in Late-Modern Context

Paul S. Fiddes
Published by Oxford University Press in 2013

Reviewed by Roger Ward, Philosophy, Georgetown College

At first glance this text seems eclectic. Fiddes places critical post-modern philosophy in conversation with Christian doctrine and uses both as a basis for a constructive theology that incorporates the wisdom literature in Ancient Israel. According to Fiddes, our contemporary setting, which he describes as the late-modern context, adopted a semiotic approach to meaning, rejecting the subject/object separation and hypostatizations of onto-theology. The desire for wisdom in this context can be answered by a turn to the wisdom tradition of Ancient Israel. Within both ancient and late-modern interpretations of this tradition, however, Fiddes locates an error that casts wisdom as a mythical figure, an idealized entity separate or distinct from Yahweh and the world. Wisdom, Fiddes shows, develops along with the Yahwehistic tradition and reflects a range of knowledge including the nature of wisdom’s “hiddenness.” This hiddenness is not the opacity of transcendence, but the complexity that enables further inquiry and participation in the very structures of a divinely created universe. Wisdom emerges in this study as the foundation of a common-sense approach to living in the world by observing how things work, discovering the order by which we are able to discern patterns and characteristics that transform our observations into perceiving the signs or traces of God’s life in the Trinity.

The first part, “Setting the Scene,” focuses on sorting out the late-modern quest for wisdom that turns toward phronesis, practical wisdom, rather than sophia, a theoretical grasp as wisdom. Fiddes argues that the affinity between the Hebraic understanding of wisdom as hokmah and phronesis circulates around the notion of living a unified life. But unified does not equate to a fixed or totalized conception of wisdom. Fiddes notes that society is not a stable entity, and neither is the self; “it ‘shimmers’ as ethical norms, social habits, and forms of language are always changing” (43). While some postmodern thinkers collapse the self into a construct, Jaques Derrida, Emmanuel Levinas, and Julia Kristeva take seriously “immersion in the world, making this their starting point rather than a gap of either knowing or being” (43). Christian theology, Fiddes argues, can work with the elusiveness of the self. As Proverbs 20:5 states, “the purposes in the human mind are like deep water.” Fiddes says theology agrees with Sartre that “the self is a dynamic project, always in process of becoming what it is in relation to God and the world in which it is set” (65).

In Part 2, “Wisdom as Observation and Participation,” Fiddes delves into ancient texts to show that the “fear of Yahweh” sayings are a deliberate modification of secular sentence wisdom. By comparison, the Egyptian order of things, Ma’at is an inevitable ‘pressure’ exerted upon a person’s course as a binding force (116). Yahweh acts righteously and does justice “according to his wisdom” (117) that is not an irresistible telos, but the possibility of thinking, or participating in, a divine telos. (124).

In the context of contemporary science the question of participation develops into an examination of complexity. Is chaos original, or does complexity originate from human interactions with nature, or extend from possibilities (137)? Fiddes tracks the object of science along the lines of a progression from the undecideability of textual meanings, to wisdom as an object, then a personification, then to a single comprehensive term for the educational enterprise (145). Wisdom as body of knowledge is also something not yet known to a person; “God must be always committed to the sign of the material world, always involved in its text as God’s ‘context’” (147). The patristic term perichoresis underscores the relational character of God as an interpenetration of each person by the other, in which there is coinherence without confusion (151). Fiddes says “the most adequate, or least inadequate, symbol for God is that of personal relations” (159). The relations between Creator and creatures enter into the technique of wisdom teaching by evoking wisdom within the heart, forming a wise person with a pedagogy of persuasion (163). In a key passage Fiddes writes,

The knowledge of God only arises through being in the world, but this is not the whole story. I suggest that this knowledge emerges precisely because in daily practices, in a created context which is ‘other-than-God’, we are participating in a self-giving movement of God. This is a giving of God’s self which is aptly pictured in the dancing and travelling of Lady Wisdom, who is thus portrayed as an attribute of God. This is why seeing the world is knowing God. (188)

Fiddes focuses on the relationship with Lady Wisdom in three poems from Hebrew wisdom literature (Proverbs 8, Ben Sira 24, and Wisdom of Solomon 6-9). These poems may account for the assimilation of wisdom with the goddess Isis and the error of hypostatization (199). The depiction of wisdom in the poems “offers a much more direct kind of par- ticipation, a sharing of the human observer in the very movement of divine seeing” (205). Wisdom does not bridge a gap between transcendence and immanence, between Creator and created. The spirit of wisdom that stands over against the world as its observer is also the same spirit that is within the world. Fiddes writes, “wisdom flows forth from God so that human beings can participate in that same flowing movement” (211). In a complex treatment of presence and place, Fiddes connects the ‘no-place’ of postmodern thinkers, which challenges the ambitions of the conscious mind to dominate the arena of society and symbolic language but where it is impossible to dwell, with the answer to the riddle of Job 28, “where can wisdom be found?” The answer is “no-place,” not a single place but the inexhaustible scope of the world that breaks open the confidence of the wise that they have complete control through linguistic codes and metanarratives, such as the dogma of retribution that affirms a hiddenness at the heart of reality (250).

Part 3, “Wisdom in the World,” lifts up the way Ancient Israel wisdom literature conceived of the world as a kind of text. This coheres with the late-modern world’s search for the 1) sum of things, 2) the text of the world, 3) the process of learning, and 4) the possibility of the rejection of wisdom. There are two moods about a sense of the whole in modern thought. The first urges a necessity of a vision of the whole in order for the fragments of everyday life to be understood. The second protests against oppressive totalities which assert ideology, suppress the other, and close down the expansion of meaning. Fiddes points out that these two contemporary moods converge and are reflected in the bewilderment of Koholeth (Ecclesiastes). The world is envisioned as existing “within the communion of a triune God, being given room by God within interweaving relationships which are like those between a Father, Son, and Spirit” (320). Scripture, such as Torah, is like an entire world to itself, which creates a requirement to study it and draw it into one’s life, but it is

not an obligation to accept the writers of Scripture as correct or infallible: it is to enter into relation with them…to stand where they stand, to attempt to enter with empathy into their ‘otherness,’ and to hear the word of God in company with them. (339)

The basis for education (construed most broadly) is that the world is the body of the Trinity, that God uses all bodies in the world “to hold us in the embrace of the relations that make up God’s triune life. Bodies are the means by which we connect with the world and participate in God” (342). Knowing Christ as the divine personhood is an instruction to go on re-narrating and re-realizing Christ, where “Christ” is the normative “place” which enables participation in God. Fiddes rejects the notion of a transcendent or hidden wisdom that would necessitate a mediator between human and divine knowledge because that separation sows seeds of domination. Rather, in education there is “an engagement of God in all human wisdom, and the participation of all human wisdom in God” (366). So can wisdom be rejected? Fiddes follows Karl Rahner in that saying “yes” to God as exercising our freedom is the only foundation for saying “no,” though that involves a self-contradiction. Rejection of God and the way that the world is constructed is impossible but it is still a reality, and that is “the mystery of evil” (367).

In a Coda, Fiddes explores “Attunement to Wisdom: from observation to participation,” focusing on bodily attunement and walking with wisdom as the intersection of ancient wisdom, Christian doctrine, and late-modern thought. The degree of participation in and with God can increase to infinity, in which hokmah provides the scope of phronesis open to the ‘always more’ of sophia. The question of whether the created world is necessary for God leads Fiddes to the apophatic mystery that God both is, and is not, in need of the world but is engaged in the event of freely giving his being away to the Son:

This eternal self-surrender within the Trinity is continually resolved in “the bliss of the offered and mutually accepted sacrifice.” And it might lead us to suppose that while no necessity can be forced on God from outside, from all eternity God is freely willing to be in need. (387)

This wisdom theology finds that at the root of participation in others there is participation in God. “Observing an object or another person without trying to control them is a sharing in the flow of love in the triune life of God” (393).

Evaluating this argument breaks into three strands. First, Fiddes’ work with texts, traditions, and the critical reading of a wide variety of authors is simply extraordinary. The sensitivity required to detect the shifts in the orientations of distinct voices and ‘schools’ in the Egyptian and Hebraic traditions is remarkable and convincing. Similar sensitivity to the reading of the post-modern authors, particularly Derrida, Heidegger, and Levinas, is demonstrated in relation to developing Christian doctrine. Fiddes claims these trajectories reflect a “convergence” that establishes sufficient common ground for an examination and critique. It would be interesting to sort out which source of the trajectory – Ancient Israel or the late-moderns – is more ‘primary’ to his project. My guess is that Fiddes finds the similarities and the possibilities of convergence arising just from his deep immersion in both contexts, without the necessity of claiming either is more primary from a logical standpoint.

The second thread of evaluation leads me to ask: what does this shared trajectory mean? In one sense, a constructive theology built upon the wisdom platform means that the image of revelation grounding both sacred texts and their interpretation into habits and doctrine is one of progress and refinement, that revelation is a modal reality inhabiting the core of religious communities, scholarship, and practices of day-to-day living. The fact that the trajectory is discernable leads to several questions: 1) Is there a common feature in terms of error that enable the differences to emerge between Cartesian modernity and postmodern thinkers as well as in the wisdom tradition? 2) Is there a further telos possible beyond the identification of this trajectory? How can we project the trajectory forward as a standard or normative judgment for practices of communal life and Christian doctrine? The question of normativity for a continuing development of practices is what Fiddes demonstrates by delving into Christian doctrine, such as the Trinity. But this begs an important question in terms of the identification of the instructive error necessary for continuing this development.

The third strand leads beyond the textual examination and the logic of trajectory and error within these texts and contexts to the question of reality. What stands beyond thought as its ultimate condition and end? I am anticipating the criticism from others that Fiddes’ reliance on post-modern and Continental scholarship may seem like raising the flag of surrender to anything that might be counted as an objective truth. But two crucial links challenge that criticism. First, from an apophatic standpoint, everything we can say or think is always understood as semiotically related to the Real without being equivalent to the Real, without claiming that the Real (or God) is just a figment of imagination, a product of false hypostatization, or a reification of a particular concept. Second, from the hiddenness of wisdom tradition we can take the demonstrable fact of developing wisdom (in all the pragmatic richness of that process) as itself a conditioning of the Real as the elusive but concrete ground of that growth, sustaining a temporally infinite quest. These two aspects of the Real are joined, I believe, in Fiddes’ concept of Christ as a space for human dwelling. Believers living into that space re-realize or re-narrate Christ without equaling or making Christ redundant. The obedience of the journey into that space is infinite in its meaning for a human life, and all human lives, and yet the end is not an absence but a concrete person.

Implicit in all these three strands of questioning is the concept of error, and to my reading of this book and others by Fiddes, it remains somewhat opaque. Error is essential for the development of the trajectories, as wisdom was mistakenly elided with Isis, and the moderns, like Descartes, cleaved to a notion of the self and God as fully knowable. But the error of disobedience, or sin, is negative in a different way than an error of conceptual thought. The conception that “God is in all human wisdom, and all wisdom is in God,” requires a further articulation of the way error is identified and corrected. Is original sin just the absence of wisdom, or is it an erroneous orientation toward wisdom? Or is the doctrine of original sin an example of error? My criticism is not that Fiddes improperly utilizes a concept of error, just that the ground by which he determines errors of interpretation and development are not fully clear. And the importance of addressing this opacity is heightened by his emphasis on processive inquiry as a means of revelation in his approach to theology.

Fiddes’ great gift to the Christian and especially Baptist community is his own display of wisdom, resplendent with charity both in his reading and in his personal and professional life. This book in particular stands as a symbol of a way of thinking about God and human life that will shows its dividends in both the individual minds it will inspire and the community that will rise to interpret it.

Cite this article
Roger Ward, “Seeing the World and Knowing God: Hebrew Wisdom and Christian Doctrine in Late-Modern Context”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 45:2 , 201-204

Roger Ward

Georgetown College
Philosophy, Georgetown College