Friday, August 31, 2012

Relating justice and faith

We talk a lot about justice on this blog, and in this entry as the Summer wraps up, I want to talk about what justice is in relation to one's faith or spiritual vocation. The thing that has occasioned this particular entry is a meeting I had recently where we talked a bit about concepts of justice and how, as Dr. Wolterstorff mentioned in his address at the Social Justice and Human Rights conference, justice differs from benevolence. During this meeting, someone raised the question of whether justice had any links to piety, and to a sense of Christian calling. I thought that was a pretty good question.

It's an important question for the Christian tradition, of course, because the answer will shape the way Christian faith is understood. This is not to say that other faith traditions don't also have conceptions of justice as part of a spiritual calling—many do, and one of the greatest things about inter-religious dialogue is the fact that we can learn from each other's understandings. What, then, do we as followers of Christ bring to the proverbial table in terms of understandings of justice? And are such concepts linked for us not just to a moral imperative to do the “right thing” but to the very ground of our faith?

In thinking through this question, it struck me that both the Old and New Testaments have quite a bit to say on the matter, and many of the passages that could be cited use language that is quite striking. In Isaiah 59:15-16, for example, God is described as being “appalled” at the lack of justice, and at the fact that there was “no one to intervene” when the needs of justice were not met. Interestingly enough, earlier in the same chapter, injustice is described in terms of spurious law suits and false witness, and while law during the time the book of Isaiah was written is certainly a great deal different than law today, they are part of the same tradition (very broadly defined) stretching across time. “Intervening”, then takes on a particular tone, and justice is linked with law--with what is required of one.

In the Gospel accounts, justice does not appear in quite the same way, but Christ does issue a very specific call regarding “whatever you do to the least of these”. In that passage, he describes those who intervened in a different way: clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, and visiting the imprisoned. Furthermore, Christ draws a parallel with the treatment of “these” people, and the treatment of his own person. He seems to make it clear that however we act to those in need is how we act to Christ himself.

If, then, God is appalled at injustice, as Isaiah describes it, and Christ issues a very pointed call to feed, clothe and otherwise care for those in need, it seems to me that acting justly—where such action is understand as intervening to help those in need, treating them as we would treat Christ, were we to suddenly stumble across him in a similar situation—is in fact part of a Christian vocation, and not just “what we should do.” (Which is in no way to detract from saying that acting justly is what we should do). Going out on a limb here, I would even say that we could call it a requirement of faithful living. 

In the understandable rush to work for justice in this day and age, those of us who are already justice advocates of one kind or another can become enmeshed in structures that are not comfortable with spiritual language such as “calling” or “spiritual discipline”—another phrase I have recently heard used to describe justice work. And I think we do have to be aware of whether that kind of language can be alienating to some. But I also think, for those who consider themselves to be followers of Christ, that it is worth having a look at our own concepts of justice, and how they may be linked to our very vocation--how they may be linked to our commitment to be a follower of Christ. Can we see such a relation between justice and a life of faith?


  1. Very intriguing, Allyson! You ask some pertinent and perennial questions that I think cannot be circumvented by religious adherents both collectively and individually.

    I personally have been attempting to tackle this big one of justice and faith somewhat. Or more broadly, "faith and duty," or "faith and action" and their relationship to one another. I read through the book of James in the New Testament quite recently, and got quite the uneasy reminder that "faith is dead without good works." (James 2:26b). Consistently throughout this short book in the Bible, the author is splashing cold water on our two-facedness to wake us up out of the faith hypocrisy we so often find ourselves in. It is not like we don't care or don't have the best of intentions. But I do think we often fail to assume responsibility for justice. I do like to think less of 'justice' in terms of judgment when it comes to humans meting out justice. I do prefer to think of justice more along the lines of how James defines "pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father", that is to say, it is "caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you." (James 1:27) (the spirit of which could translate more generally as "caring for people and doing the utmost to cultivate selflessness as you do so." The corruption James speaks of can take on many forms, I am sure. But I would say that part of the insidious corruption we so often find ourselves subject to is the infectious apathy of not caring enough about others to go do something about their situations.

    Easier said than done.

    Carrying out justice is no small task, but it is nothing by which we ought to feel overwhelmed. God via the prophet Isaiah also tells us to learn to do good and seek justice! (Isaiah 1:17).

    Paul in his letter to the Christians in Rome made it simple: "Don't let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good." (Romans 12:21).

    It seems there is a mechanism by which we can restore the balance to justice; passivity, sitting back and allowing evil to have its day, is only overcome by una vita activa, a life of action. And now we are all in the mood for a good lecture on Hannah Arendt.

  2. Hannah Arendt would indeed be a great place to start in terms of thinking about a vita activa and what we are called to do. I've spent some time recently reading over some bits of her work and she asks some good and also unsettling questions about the nature of human work and human actions--not to mention human responsibility!

    It's that part of your comment I'd pick up on too: you say (quite rightly, I think) that all too often we "fail to assume responsibility for justice". It may sound silly, but I remember being told as a very young child that everything will (somehow) be "made right" and that fairness was somehow in the fabric of the way we interact. As I grew, I came to believe that much fairness or "made rightness" that takes place doesn't happen on its own, but is a result of people taking responsibility to support, foster or create that fairness or rightness. And I saw many of them doing so on the basis of their faith--whether through readings of books like James, such as you mentioned above, or (with other faiths) other scriptures or teachings. But for the majority of people who articulated what justice is and why it is important, I found they included a sense of calling related to their faith. Oddly enough many (myself included) keep returning to a sense of the active life as well, though there is a part of me that suspects a more "full" active life is rooted in the practices of a contemplative life too--the one feeds the other, or perhaps they can even build off each other. Given that so many people talk about their faith when we get into the "whys" of justice, I suspect that the living practice of faith is a well-spring both for thinking and for acting on "making things right".

    1. I agree with you Allyson that justice has traditionally been associated with the "active life". Since I am writing a book on Aquinas maybe an insight or two from him can contribute something. First, religion is for him an excellence that is pendent from and a part of justice; for him justice in its most expansive meaning is right relationship between oneself and another. Religion names right relationship to God, and that involves at its deepest an intimacy that constitutes the very condition for the possibility of contemplation. Everything thought or done out of that intimacy, that friendship we might say, is a thought or act of contemplation. Caring for orphans, widows, the poor that is at the same time walking humbly WITH God is contemplation, that is, an act of contemplative living, by Aquinas' lights; there is something ultimate about contemplative living. For Aquinas, the active life is by contrast instrumental; it participates in the deepest and most authentic dimensions of our existence at a remove with a mediate end or intention that is itself distinct from those deepest and most authentic dimensions (although connected to them as means are connected to ends). He thinks that the hurley-burley of our lives is such that we live for the most part in alienation from our deepest and most authentic dimensions (selves we could say). And that alienation makes us vulnerable and unseeing in a host of ways. The effort it takes to concretely overcome that alienation involves a disciplined living that is all-consuming, that must come to suffuse the totality of our living. We are to live like monks, nuns, canons or canonesses, friars, hermits or anchoresses: those who lived what might be termed professionally religious lives. Of course, his kind of professionally religious were deeply connected to people like us caught up as we are in the hurley-burley. His way doing justice to God is to help us do such justice as well. What he hopes to be able to do in and through theological and spiritual reflection (in his Summa theologiae for example) is to move his readers (us) toward their (our) deepest selves which is to be open and available to the God who looks ever to the poor and the vulnerable for friendship, lifting the lowly up so that they may have a seat of honour at God's table so to speak. The question is and I suspect it is a question that Protestant and Catholic thought take different stances on to this day is whether doing justice to and in creation and the human community for God's sake (the Ur-Augustinian as well as Thomist intuition) effaces the creaturely other in a way that impedes forms of justice other than that justice we call religion, or whether religion-justice is better seen as the very condition for the possibility of doing justice in all its many other dimensions. I admit myself to feeling suspended within a sort of dialectical vortex moving back and forth from the one judgment to the other. Help!

  3. If we could explore further Aquinas's discussion of justice, perhaps his distinction between Christian reflection on justice and Cicero's reflection is illuminating. For Aquinas, an authentically religious understanding of justice is one that sees justice through the eyes of a relationship with a personal God, a God with whom one could never declare to hold an equal stance or symmetrical reciprocity. For Cicero, Aquinas notes, justice at its most basic level is duty toward others based precisely on levels of equality. But Cicero's own sense of duty in terms of justice is also informed by a worldview infused with a level of trust in transcendence. We are of course far from Cicero's and Aquinas's worldviews, but at the same time, I am convinced that even the most secularly professed proponents of justice, when authentically seeking truth in their work, do in fact reveal aspects of transcendence in their theories. Different approaches to looking at justice may help to bring these aspects out. For instance, I.M. Young's critique of "symmetrical reciprocity" as an ideal, as well as her contrasting deliberative and communicative democracy such that we include a shift from focusing on critical argument and assumptions of shared relationality to attend instead to the conversational features that are in fact elemental in the formation of just policies and procedures. This is an initial attempt at addressing Bob's question

    1. We could do that Jennifer, but I was wondering about Sarah's consideration of James. I remember that Luther was much discomfitted by the Letter of James. I'm guessing that means it is worth hearing on this score. What other resources might be at our disposal were we to assemble a dossier of the Christian tradition in its many nooks and crannies on the intersection of piety/calling and social justice?

  4. To follow up on Sarah's reflection by attending to such a dossier is a worthy task indeed. As a Catholic scholar, I look to the Catholic Social Teaching corpus as one resource that includes reflections on the scriptures' call to be responsible for those in need (Acts 4:32-35), since when one of God's creatures suffer, the whole body suffers (1 Cor 10-11), and the scriptures' reminders that worship is most authentically reflected in Christian witness (Hebrews 10:22-25, 12:14-17, 13:15-16), so the faithful must persevere in such active faith in the world (Revelation 5:10, 19:8, 20:6, and 21:2).
    But this same tradition of social teaching also calls me to look to many other resources in the tradition, a task that Augustine himself commended in his manual On Christian Teaching. So as I think more intentionally about drawing those resources together in thinking about this dossier, I defer to another contributor to this blog to move us along.

  5. If I may interject with some of my own reflections, disconnected as they may be from the pillars of theology (e.g., Aquinas), it seems to me that our calling (or spiritual vocation) is to bring about a time of deepening life, freedom and prosperity for all.

    The "for all" bit is important here, for I believe that it helps us relate our calling to justice.

    What is also important for this relation is the idea that justice is when what is due is received, and that sometimes what is due is NOT life, freedom and prosperity but rather death, restraint and 'withholdance'... (e.g., to Sodom the receipt of death was justice while for Jesus justice was the receipt of life.)

    With these "important" considerations in mind there SEEMS to be a certain incompatibility between our calling, which is to establish a time of life, freedom and prosperity for all, and justice, which may very well involve death and restraint for some.

    I think this is where love/benevolence comes in (curious how Wolterstorff relates these...).

    If I could put what I'm thinking in Biblical terms, I would say that in the OT the tendency was to err on the side of justice. Moses did this (i.e., gave Israel the law) to help Israel in its time of infancy, but the result was an Israel that was obsessively legalistic and hard-hearted (e.g., stoning women for adultery since this is what the law/justice says is due for such an act).

    Jesus and the NT corrected this obsession with justice by having Israel err on the other side, which is to say on the side of love/benevolence. Instead of doling out what was due Jesus would have Israel do the opposite, i.e., dole out what was NOT due (e.g., forgiveness for the adulteress who justice says deserves a stoning).

    The idea then is that Jesus tried to correct and bring balance to an extreme(ly legalistic) situation by erring in another extreme, which is to say in the extreme of love.

    I think this too was done to help Israel in its time of infancy. Jesus knew that the people still needed an easy way to decide what was right and love provided that while countermanding the finality of justice. The problem however is that instead of leading us to be too hard love can lead us to be too soft.. (Erring on the side of love brings up the notions of 'welfare states' and coddling parents..)

    What is REALLY required then, IMO, and which I believe Moses and Jesus knew as well, is something in between the poles of justice and love... What is required is a harder path involving the moral maturity to discern the right way between and/or among the extremities of justice and love...

    Does that make some sense? If so, justice would be related to our vocation as an extremity or pole that should constantly influence and inform our decision-making just as love forms the opposite extremity or pole and should equally influence and inform our decision-making.

    If we focus too much on justice we'll never fulfill our calling to bring life, freedom and prosperity to all for sometimes love will be required to bring about a second chance for those to whom death was due and received.

    If we focus too much on love we'll never fulfill our calling either since sometimes (e.g., Sodom) it is justice that is needed.

    What we have to do is find that golden mean between/among the two... (Wisdom!)

    The hope is that with this right application of justice and love a time will eventually come when what is deserved BY ALL is life, freedom and prosperity so that our calling to bring about this era will be in perfect accord with justice. (Even Sodom will deserve the good life in the end.)

  6. You've got a whole framework here in germ! It has a very Ansellian ring to it unless I am wholly tone-deaf and am underplaying your own ever creative eye on things. It seems to me that you work here with dialectical tension; you see something productive at play in opposing love and justice. Perhaps you are not thinking of something like a Hegelian moment of synthesis for you are after the NEW, not the sublation of the old into a more expansive ordering capable of containing opposites in a deeper or perhaps future unity. But then you do something really interesting, maybe even shocking. You take these primary norms of the Christian tradition and speak of them as if they are extremes in an Aristotelian ethical discourse. There is something unbalanced about love and justice viewed in and of themselves or absolutely that would or rather does lead to unwanted consequences if the one norm or the other is allowed to dominate. The one, justice, when viewed absolutely, is a figure of excess (too hard), the other, love, a figure of lack (too soft). What is needed is a "Golden Mean" (Wisdom) you say and the Aristotle of the Nichomachaean Ethics "smiles into his beard". So by your lights Wisdom is the mean between love and justice. Am I right in thinking that an implication of such an understanding would be that Christians ought not to think of justice per se as a primary norm measuring their walk with God, but rather either as an absolutization when viewed absolutely or as a kind of incidental by-product of wisdom? And the same with love? And how is such an idea to impact our sense of the God whom we worship? And the revelation we confess that God has left us? It sounds like there would have to be a rather dramatic overhaul of our philosophical, theological and confessional understanding. Would such an overhaul be worth the effort? I'm skeptical I admit but am interested in hearing more, Jared, or anyone else who cares to comment. And of course, I maybe misunderstanding in the most doltish way. I need to hear that too if it is the case.

  7. I think you've presented my idea perfectly Bob. So yes, I would say that neither justice nor love should be considered primary norms when measuring our Godlikeness. If there was such a norm I would call it wisdom, which I described above as the mean between justice and love, or the right application of justice and love to the situations we encounter.

    This Aristotelian idea is not something I would set in stone though (wisdom as the mean of justice and love that is, not wisdom as the mark of true authority and Godlikeness). For instance, I characterized love as something soft, but love can be fiery and full of anger, and sometimes needs the coolness of something like justice to simmer it down. There's also a wide swath where love and justice coincide, and where my characterization of them as polar opposites breaks down. (i.e., Sometimes justice will say what is due and love will wholeheartedly agree.)

    What I would insist though is that both justice and love have secondary/supporting roles in our walk with God, and that walking with God requires something more elusive or impossible to pin down than justice or love. It is not enough that we establish law, or take the law established for us in Scripture, and abide by it. Nor is it enough that we simply act lovingly all our lives, always being patient, kind, forgiving, etc. We always have the 'fallbacks' of justice and love in moments of indecision and doubt (with love I daresay being the better of the two) but neither of these should be adhered to absolutely if we hope to be with God perfectly.

    In sum, there is no surefire rule to rely on, but rather maturing to full adulthood as human beings means getting over such devices and embracing the difficulty of the life set before us.

    I think that this impacts our sense of God in a pretty profound way. Among other things I would suggest that it points to a God for whom it is just as hard to discern the way forward as it is for us. God may be more advanced in the ways of wisdom than us but God needs to work through the difficulties that life presents just as we do. I would say that we're all in this together and that far from wanting us to follow some safe bet (e.g., the law) what God really wants is for us to throw our full weight against God (and/or each other) in the mutual search for wisdom and the right way forward.

    I think we see this expressed in some key places, notably in Abraham against God on the fate of Sodom and in Moses against God on the fate of Israel after the whole golden cow thing. In both places we see that the way forward is neither clear nor easy, not even for God, and that our calling, if we trust that Abraham and Moses fulfill our calling, is to work with God (and/or each other) in heated discourse to figure it out. Basically, God is our wrestling partner in the search for wisdom. God is not our overlord on high but our potential equal who we should strive to match and even overcome in/with wisdom if we feel that God has erred (as Abraham and Moses do).

    I think that this also seriously impacts our sense of the Scriptures. To put it in popular terms, the Bible isn’t the end of free thinking as the atheist community would have us believe but rather it is the platform for the most radical call to free thinking imaginable: a thinking so free that it is encouraged to put even God in the wrong if need be. (If only Hitchens could have seen that! What God's speeches to Job really meant for instance...)

    In regards to whether our current philosophical, theological, confessional understanding requires an overhaul I would say that insofar as it insists upon a lesser role for human beings, or fails to recognize the difficulty of discerning the way forward including for God, then I would say that it does. Would overhauling it be worthwhile? If there’s any truth to what I’m saying I can only assume yes.

  8. You raise some interesting points, Jared, and I must say, I have felt for a long time that it might be better if more people took a "wrestle with God" approach instead of a "God as overlord" approach. It does seem that God as described in the Biblical account likes a good verbal/intellectual/spiritual (and in the case of Jacob at least, physical) tussle. Who, then, am I to disoblige?--Though, when viewing the various and manifold threads of Biblical narrative as a whole, it also seems to me that any such "tussle" comes as part of an already established relationship, and I can only assume that God would make spiritual provisions for the verbally pacifist or meek at heart.

    That said, I'm still not sure about the relationship you describe between love and justice. I'm all about shooting for wisdom, and it can often be found in the median between two poles, but it's also often found refusing to be part of two opposed poles at all; hanging out somewhere off to the side shaking its (or in the sense of the Wisdom figure from Proverbs, her) head. I feel too that there's more depth to love and justice, such that they can't (in my book) be well described as poles, even poles with some overlap as you mentioned above. It seems to me, rather, that justice is something like a call to right living for shalom--what some people might describe as living in right relationship with all around us--and that love, in its deeper sense with all its complexities, is the nitty-gritty nuts-and-bolts responses of how we work that call out. This of course does not give a systematic definition of either justice or love, but I'm not convinced that a truly systematic or universal account of either of those has ever been managed. Moreover, I suspect it's likely it never will be managed. Working out definitions in concrete details is messy work; you have to get your hands dirty in all the particulars of life to do a good job of it. And at least in my experience that often means you end up dealing with a lot more than two poles, all while tackling a myriad of issues at once. Or perhaps they tackle you--I suspect such issues rarely just sit there passively. Then again, I'm a "wrestling" sort of person.

  9. My 'poles' idea is definitely too simple Allyson. It provides a useful means of establishing my thinking but justice and love are far from opposed, and opposing them as poles is misleading. In fact, I see justice and love coming together perfectly in the end, at the end of history, when we’ve brought about a state of justice and love for all, or as you put it shalom (life, freedom and prosperity). Our difference I think is simply in the definition of justice (and love and wisdom for that matter), which in particular for me is that state of affairs when what is due has been received. Acting justly is not necessarily living in right relationship or directing things to our ultimate end in shalom (which is what I would call wisdom), but rather it is doling out what is due, which sometimes means death or restraint, and during such times the incompatibility between a state of justice and shalom.

    Living in right relationship (wisdom) sometimes means being the bringer of justice. Sometimes it means being the bearer of love and countermanding justice. Sometimes it may mean something else, whether a mean of love and justice, both of these fully at once, or something else altogether.

    The point is, and I think you would agree despite our differences in definition, there are no surefire rules to rely on when directing things to shalom. Wisdom, which is what above all leads the way, is a hard business, for us and for God, requiring constant effort and discernment, responding to whatever life throws our way. Once we make this assertion, or get over any devices that we could rely on (like the law or the practices of love), what we're left with is a dangerous and quite frightening situation where we need to find our way forward but have nothing we can absolutely trust, not even God, since God is in the same boat. We have the fallbacks of the law and love but that’s just what they are: fallbacks, or rules given to help us through times of moral immaturity because they work pretty darn well most of the time.

    But if we take the leap that I’m suggesting, and we recognize these devices for what they are (i.e., if we realize our nudity so to speak, or the fact that we have no surefire rules to direct our lives), and we put them aside and step out into the wilderness nonetheless (i.e., if we embrace our nakedness versus hiding or covering up with something such as love, the law, or what could be much worse, a device or rule of our own fashioning), you’ll see that the first step of my thinking, though I speak of wrestling in the search for wisdom, is really quite timid and meek and non-violent…

    While I say there is no surefire way forward, a surefire way does start to emerge I think. That is, there is a way of ENTERING INTO the engagement (/wrestling match) where wisdom is found, a surefire way, which sets us on the right path, and that goes by the name ‘fearing God’ in Scripture (the beginning of wisdom) but that I would call an act or posture of nudity.

    Nudity / fearing God is not the end of wisdom (as love and the law might claim to be as rules to direct our lives) but rather it is a way that we can rely on to set us out on that course, and to facilitate the kind of engagement / wrestling match where wisdom is found.

    Hopefully that somewhat addresses your valid concern about pacifism and explains my thinking a bit better.

  10. This is interesting for sure! I detect a lot of Nik's Biblical Foundations material in your position, Jared (I guess I better watch what I say being one of his students at present), am I right? Here are some points that I'd like to contend or need more clarification on:

    1) God as an equal; I'd have to disagree on that one. While I do believe we have more power than we realize to participate in the divine council as created beings (via prayer, right/just action, truth-speaking, etc.), I don't think it's giving honour where it's due (to the Most High God) to say we are equals with God. He did make us. He wants us to partner with him to bring about justice. I would like to put absolute trust in God, not because he's omnipotent, but because he's omnipresent, and moreover, because he's GOOD. "Only God is truly good," Jesus says. We can trust him.

    And better yet...

    2) We can have intimacy with him. Allyson asked a relevant question in her first post: "And how is such an idea [about love and justice] to impact our sense of the God whom we worship? And the revelation we confess that God has left us?" I strongly believe that a life lived in intimacy with God and the Spirit of God will produce the fruits of eudaimonia (maybe that one's not in the Bible so much), but of love and justice to be sure. I'd rather not trust my own judgment so much as the judgment of Christ in me (but we still have brains for a reason and the Spirit works through our thoughts with us when they are in unison):

    Some scripture-food for thought: (as judgment is related to justice... one problem for me is how do we "dole out justice" as you say Jared, when we ourselves have no right to do so, or as we might put it, "cast the first stone"? I would never want to be responsible for taking another's life no matter how badly they deserved it).

    "Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven." (Luke 6:37)

    "Judge for yourselves." 1 Corinth. 11:13a (slightly taken out of context, I admit)

    "As for me [Paul], it matters very little how I might be evaluated by you or by any human authority. I don’t even trust my own judgment on this point. My conscience is clear, but that doesn’t prove I’m right. It is the Lord himself who will examine me and decide. So don’t make judgments about anyone ahead of time—before the Lord returns." (1 Corinthians 4:3-5)


  11. Hi Sarah. Sorry for the delay, I've been in England.

    You say that God is most high and that God is good. I don't want to disagree with you but I do want to clarify my view of this by saying that God is only most high and good because of wisdom. It is wisdom that invests God with power and authority, just as it is wisdom that invested Jesus with power and authority and the disciples too (to do even greater things than Christ).

    In other words, God is beholden to wisdom, which is something external to God, something that God indeed created and creates with (God's 'first born'), and something that God too needs to work at and continue striving to be with. The same holds for us. It is not obedience to God and to what God says that we must constantly work at but obedience to wisdom which is what subdues even God and is what God strives to speak.

    Once we make this shift, to wisdom as the source of all the power, authority and goodness that we rightly associate with God, then we see that our relationship with God is more precisely, or most importantly, that of rivals, not that of subject to God-the-master. (Cooperative-competitive rivals though not undermining-competitive.) We can equal God with this view because wisdom is there for us to be with just as it is there for God. It has been created. We can surpass God with this view because it is possible for us to find or create wisdom that is new even to God (think of wisdom as a tree that grows). We are subject to God-the-master with this view, again, because God is with wisdom and is rightly worshipped as the one who creates, and creates with, wisdom.

    To put it one last time, where you want to build a relationship directly with God I want to build a relationship directly with wisdom and a relationship with God through this relationship (where we are 'partners' in the search for and establishment of wisdom). God and human beings share this common end and while God may be significantly more advanced than us, or far more mature, we are walking side by side toward this shared end, and the goal, I think, is for us to walk side by side (versus us following behind).

    But anyways, I know this shift asks a lot. It flies in the face of orthodoxy (which stresses faith in or obedience to God) and risks idolatry, or the worship of a created reality (i.e., wisdom) over God (the most high). My only answer to that is if God is beholden to wisdom as I say then our being beholden to wisdom as well can never put us against God but rather makes us God's constant ally and friend with a common end and role. Even if we disagree with God and voice it. Even if we surpass God in wisdom (as Moses did for instance) or God surpasses us (which is of course more often the case!).

    One last point about doling out justice... Above all it calls for wisdom, and I certainly can't give you any rules about how to do it (as that would fly in the face of all that I said in previous posts about wisdom trumping the law and the law of love). But I bet there are instances where even you would quickly and in full assurance of your authority cast the first stone. For instance, if a woman was being assaulted before your eyes: what would you say is due there? At the very least a strong arm to stop the assault, no? That would be justice, or the assailant and victim getting what is due. The assailant needed to be restrained (the furthest extent of which is death, in those most unyielding of cases).

    1. Yes, thank you for your response, Jared (late or on time, always appreciated).

      I'm glad you are aware that it "risks idolatry, or the worship of a created reality." The wisdom-as-an-entity in an of itself apart from God hypothesis is definitely an interesting one, to be taken seriously I'm sure. But to make it doctrinal would be a laborious task (not one I'm saying that anyone is or should be trying to accomplish, but to want to establish it as truth certainly comes close to doing so I might add).

      So, here would be some things to consider if this hypothetical endeavour were to be taken up:

      1) We would have to explain what is meant by the scriptures that describe God as perfect (we are not perfect, and so already this puts Him above us not as equals):

      a) "As for God, his way is perfect; the word of the LORD is flawless. He is a shield for all who take refuge in him." (Psalm 18:30) *I don't think "the word" is being used here in the same way it is in John 1:1, but if it is, it reads, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." (some translations read 'the Word already existed'). But the Word, like Wisdom, was with God in the beginning... if the Word was God, though, why cannot it not be said that Wisdom was God too? They are differentiated, but not nonidentical.

      b) "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." (Matt. 5:48) This is interesting as it seems to confirm that God is perfect (and can we define this then as lacking nothing, viz., wisdom?), but also that we can strive to be like God (you talked about maturation; I would say we can become like God (although only with his help, see James 1:5), but He is already perfect.

      2) Along these lines, Isaiah 55:8-9 reads, '"For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,' declares the Lord. 'As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts."' So long as we are finite and on earth, I think this is how it's always going to be. I'd disagree that we can surpass our Creator in wisdom, who is wisdom.

      3) And finally, to drive the point home, 1 Corinthians 1:20, "So where does this leave the philosophers, the scholars, and the world’s brilliant debaters? God has made the wisdom of this world look foolish" and 1 Corinthians 1:25, "This foolish plan of God is wiser than the wisest of human plans, and God’s weakness is stronger than the greatest of human strength." Basically to say that God-wisdom is way beyond what we'll ever reach, but it's worth a try.

      So, yes [in playful overtones], your idea is worth a try. But I would like to suggest that God (the river of life) and Lady Wisdom (the tree of life dependent upon the river) are part and parcel with each other; just as God created man and woman in his image, so he can reveal himself as Father and Lady Wisdom (whom I take to be God or his counterpart). Thoughts?

  12. It's easy to understand why it happens but it always strikes me as unfortunate that we live in an imperfect world and so assume the imperfection of human beings. Sure, we're not perfect. Perfection is a tall order to say the least. But the Bible is not against ascribing perfection to human beings, and passages from God to a fallen world suggesting the magnitude of the distance between heaven and earth or between our wisdom and God's do not mean that that distance is untraversable. Job, for instance, was described as perfect. Heaven, for instance, can 'descend' upon the earth and close the gap (I'm thinking Book of Revelation here...).

    I think the passages you cite from John 1 and Psalm 18 are quite perfect too. I would say that the Word is indeed wisdom and that it is an entity separate from God. John 1 is especially instructive on this I think. I just got married (in England) and I believe there are connections to be made between John 1 and that paradigmatic wedding verse about two becoming one... I think that's how we have to understand the relationship between God and wisdom: two becoming one. Wisdom was there in the beginning (God's first born, or the first of God's ways). Wisdom was with God (in the partnership that is marriage). Wisdom was God (the two became one).

    Marriage is an important and relevant theme in the Bible and it seems to me that our bride, if I can use some gendered language for a moment, was always meant to be wisdom. She and she alone is to be our helper and partner and the one with whom we endure as one. She comes out of us, just as wisdom was born from God in the beginning and Eve was taken from Adam. And she is the one that we are all meant to wed, including God, so that she is established as our helper and partner and we are on the way to life and prosperity.

    But we need to see that there are layers to this! And we also need to loosen up on wisdom as a separate and distinct entity... To see what I mean it is helpful recalling Nik's thinking again (hopefully I don't misrepresent!), about the partnerships between Moses and God and Aaron and Moses. To speak loosely, God takes Moses as His bride, to be His helper and partner (--His wisdom!) and Moses takes Aaron as his. (See the layers?) In the case of the golden calf (Exodus 32) we see Moses fulfilling his role as wisdom to God. He directs God away from destroying Israel. However we also see Aaron's failure to fulfill his role as wisdom to Moses, and so Israel is decimated at Moses' word... (See the non-distinctness of wisdom?)

    I think this example, especially if we look at Moses who is involved in two partnerships, shows that we are called to be both bridegroom and bride. Wisdom and lover of wisdom. There is no distinct entity called wisdom out there but rather we must search wisdom out wherever, whatever or whoever she is, produce her ourselves if she is nowhere to be found, and sometimes be the wisdom that others seek.

    This may not bring any closure to the matter, but hopefully gives a little more insight into why I'm taking the dangerous and potentially idolatrous path that I am. And it may cause my thinking to resonate a bit more with your own, despite my insistence on wisdom as a created reality separate from God!

    1. Thank you again Jared for responding. That is exciting about your new marriage - congrats!

      I think we agree on some pretty fundamental elements, i.e. that perfection a state we can all direct our lives/aspire to as we mature, for example.

      Well the Bible never says that "Wisdom was God" or that the two became one (the verse in Genesis is talking about two flesh becoming one and so would we then want to say that Wisdom and God are fleshly?) John 17 is a prayer of Jesus who is asking that his followers (us) become one with God just as he is one with God (and is God). Jesus is the word, as John tells us. But I would definitely hesitate to put Wisdom on par with Jesus, unless they are identical. I would just be very careful with some bold statements you put forward that I would say need more grounding in scripture: "[wisdom] and [wisdom] alone is to be our helper and partner and the one with whom we endure as one" for example seems to be one such case. In the light of John 17 and the comprehensive motif of relationship with Christ and God through Christ in the Bible and not of [lady] wisdom (and this personification can be read as metaphor, arguably, though I don't believe that detracts from essential truths), Jesus is our helper and we are to abide in him as the vine alone.

      Nik - I will take the liberty to refresh your memory on the positions he takes that he has made apparent to us in classes since they are more fresh on my own and I hope I myself do not misrepresent him- believes a "wisdom reading" of the Bible is fundamental and has not been given enough attention in academic theology. But I highly doubt he'd say it is the ONLY reading we can make of the Bible; there is wisdom literature, but the Bible is not all that - it is salvational/christological, etc. In your fourth paragraph wisdom sounds more functional than substantial, and that is a reading I'd prefer to go with I think.

      From my reading of scripture, I have come to believe that lovers of wisdom love God and are blessed by God, so ultimately wisdom has a highly important place in faith but is mostly a means to seeking God's approval and fellowship as an end, and the abundant life that comes in Christ.

  13. Hi Sarah, The Bible says a lot of things and doesn't say a lot of things. Sometimes the most subtle themes or passing references are the most important. Sometimes we have to fill in the most important pieces ourselves. (It is wisdom literature after all!) Also, I refer to Nik extremely loosely. I only meant to reference him above in regards to the story of Moses being God's wisdom and Aaron failing to be Moses' wisdom when dealing with Israel and the golden calf. In regards to what you say I think Nik would absolutely agree: we need to recognize other readings. I never meant to suggest that he would say a wisdom reading is the only way of understanding.

    Wisdom does take centre stage for me though. Wisdom is the word. In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and was God. Again, John is describing a marriage here between the word (=wisdom!) and God, a marriage that results in the blessings of a good life. (For me prosperity is not through God's approval and blessing of us when we act wisely but through wisdom itself, which alone leads the way to the promised land and which God too relies on for direction.)

    I would say that Jesus was a man who followed his father in heaven by committing himself to wisdom here on earth. Jesus was with wisdom and was wisdom and so was in the beginning with wisdom and God too. He taught Israel the wisdom of love so as to soften their hearts hardened by rigid adherance to the law.

    So yes, I would say that he was the true vine as much as wisdom is. Jesus was with wisdom and was wisdom. It vested him with the authority to rule, to command the body to come back to life, to take on new forms, and to cast out demons.