Friday, 14 August 2015

Vicar's Sofa – Finding Wisdom in the Natural World

One of the defining moments of my life came from an interaction with nature. I was working in South Africa at the time on the whale watching boats researching the marine life of the area. The boat was quiet that afternoon so I managed to get a spot with a friend for a bit of a jolly. We headed out until the shore looked like a thin line and the houses like tiny dots. The sea was perfectly still, like a shimmering silver blanket.

As we cut out our engine something in the air changed, that is the only way I can describe it, and we all fell into a quiet hush on the boat. I looked at the skipper and he mouthed 'it's going to breach'. I felt every muscle in my body tense up. Then, out of that perfectly still sea emerged a Humpback Whale. 16 metres long, sleek grey body mottled with white, sailing through the air swiftly followed by its 3 metre long baby. It takes a lot to shut me up but that moment left me awestruck, silent, for the rest of the afternoon.

The magnificent Humpback whale from

That experience taught me that you can learn a lot from nature. It can bring up in you all sorts of feelings that are hard even to put into words. Studying nature at university, and being privileged to have that amazing moment with one of the world's most spectacular animals, has given me a sense of the beautiful order, the underlying peace and wonder, that is in the world around us.

When I started exploring wisdom literature I was delighted, then to find that many, many people before me have seen the same thing. That looking to nature as a way of understanding the world, of seeking wisdom, is as old as humanity.

Another spectacular African view -  Sunset at a lake in Zambia

In the Old Testament nature is closely associated with the wisdom tradition. Some of my favourite passages of the entire Bible relate to watching the natural world and drawing wisdom from it. This is a personal favourite written at least two and a half thousand years ago:

'Four things on earth are small yet they are extremely wise:
Ants are creatures of little strength yet they store up food in the summer.
Rock badgers are creatures of little power yet they make their home in the crags.
Locusts have no king, yet they advance together in ranks.
A lizard can be caught in the hand, yet it is found in kings' palaces.' 

 Proverbs 30:24-28

That feeling of connecting to something bigger than ourselves and drawing something from nature to help guide us or inspire us in our life is probably something we can all recognize. It is why we travel, or climb mountains, set up bird tables or go for walks in woodlands.
As well as this observation of nature Wisdom is also associated with the formation of the world in the Old Testament. You will, of course, have your own ideas about how we got here on this strange spinning rock in the middle of space.

One way of thinking about the Old Testament wisdom literature approach could be this - imagine wisdom to be a principle like gravity, something that is set into the ordering of the world. It is there from the beginning and underpins all things just as evolution underpins the emergence of new species and life on our planet. Proverbs puts it like this:

'The Lord brought me forth as the first of his works, before his deeds of old; I was appointed before eternity, from the beginning before the world began.'  Proverbs 8:22-3

The ancient Greeks had a similar idea in philosophy the logos which was the word used for the principle of order and knowledge in the world. Wisdom can be understood as something like that then, an order, a principle, a real and tangible thing that underpins everything in the world.

I love these possibilities raised in the wisdom tradition. I love how they chime with my experience of awe and wonder, how they make sense of our human connectedness and draw to the natural world, when we let ourselves feel it. I particularly love that growing in wisdom might be as easy as flopping down on the grass in my back garden and watching the birds overhead. That wonderful things can absolutely be found in the ordinary.

What do you think, is wisdom to be found in the natural world?
This is the second post in the Wisdom Series, to see the first post click here.

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