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What's with the Name: Seeking the Hidden Thing?
An introduction to into my thinking and where I hope to go with this Substack.
This Substack newsletter draws its inspiration from the biblical concept of “wisdom.” Once you begin to consider the subject directly, it is surprisingly elusive. It took me down a 20 or so year rabbit hole before I felt like I was truly comfortable with it. The name of this newsletter uses an interesting passage in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church, chapter 2, verse 7 and 10 as its muse:
“We impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God…God has revealed it to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the deep things of God.” (RSV)
The Greek word translated as “hidden” (lit. “the thing having been hidden”) is ἀποκεκρυμμένην (apokekrummenain). In a bout of excessive cleverness, I took this word as my “name” here and discovered very quickly it is impossibly difficult to say or remember and so shortened it to κρῠπτός - Kruptos. As a fantasy fiction buff, the trope of “the deeper magic” or the “the deeper wisdom” is everywhere. There is something attractive about the idea. Deep knowledge vs. shallow knowledge and all that. Everyone likes the idea that they they think deep thoughts. Who wants to be shallow? One does need to acknowledge, though, that the danger of Gnosticism and esotericism are always present once one starts talking about “the deep places” and “the hidden truths.” So we face this head on and seek some answers. What is “wisdom,” and specifically, what is biblical wisdom? Let’s have a go at it.
There is, at the heart of this thing called “wisdom,” especially when we talk about the biblical idea of wisdom, a contradiction. The point is not to shy away from it. Rather, we embrace it. Wisdom is something that cannot really be put into words, neither definitionally, nor in terms of content. Yet here we are speaking about it. Biblically, the idea goes back to the very beginning. God spoke and it became. The very fabric of the universe is the wisdom of God. Yet, it remains a mystery:
“But where can wisdom be found?
Where does understanding dwell?
Man does not comprehend its worth;
it cannot be found in the land of the living.
The deep says, 'It is not in me';
the sea says, 'It is not with me.'
It cannot be bought with the finest gold,
nor can its price be weighed in silver.
It cannot be bought with the gold of Ophir,
with precious onyx or sapphires.
Neither gold nor crystal can compare with it,
nor can it be had for jewels of gold.
Coral and jasper are not worthy of mention;
the price of wisdom is beyond rubies.
The topaz of Cush cannot compare with it;
it cannot be bought with pure gold.
Where does wisdom come from?
Where does understanding dwell?
It is hidden from the eyes of every living thing,
concealed from the birds of the air.
Destruction and Death say,
'Only a rumor of it has reached our ears.'
God understands the way to it
and he alone knows where it dwells,
for he views the ends of the earth
and sees everything under the heavens.
When he established the force of the wind
and measured out the waters,
when he made a decree for the rain
and a path for the thunderstorm,
then he looked at wisdom and appraised it;
he confirmed it and tested it.
And he said to man,
'The fear of the Lord - that is wisdom,
and to shun evil is understanding.'"
That is Job 28:12-28 (NIV). There is a lot there that could be unpacked exegetically. There is also much going on as a commentary on the neighboring pagan beliefs of the time. I bring this text up, though, as an illustration of how biblical writers viewed the very nature of wisdom. It is something mysterious, unsearchable and unknowable, yet present every where. You cannot buy it. You cannot own or possess it. It is a thing bound up with God himself. Yet, like God, it can be experienced. You meet wisdom.
This is very much different from our western idea of knowledge. As the saying goes, “knowledge is power.” Knowledge gives you the means to control and manipulate the world. We think there is no limit to what can be known. All things can be explained. Knowledge is testable, verifiable, it is scientific and free from prejudice and superstition. The artifact of our society, its science, its technology, its systems speak to the power of knowledge and knowing. There is nothing that cannot be known or explained if we put our minds to it. Even Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle will bow to our ability to know.
The evidence is all around us. This computer upon which I am typing. The cell phone in my pocket. Machines. Robots. Medicine. Rockets to the moon. All of it and more are a testimony, a hymn of glory ringing out praise to the human quest for knowledge.
The power of this form of knowing has swept over our culture such that anything which cannot be stated declaratively and tested rigorously using methods free from personal bias, prejudice and belief is deemed somehow lesser or suspicious. All branches of learning thus strive to be “scientific” and “rational.” We want our “facts.” You can’t argue with the “facts.” Rigorous, tested, verified, free from human bias. Through the use of the scientific method we will free humanity from ignorance and superstition. All traditional forms of knowing are cast aside in favor of reason and science. This creates a bias towards words and mathematical calculation. Such confidence is placed in reason and mathematics that there are those convinced that we will soon be able to replicate human intelligence and consciousness in machines.
Lest those of us who are religious, Christian, conservative Christian even, think we know better and are off the hook in this regard, we unfortunately often approach our faith this way as well. We can know God. We can use language and reason to give a fulsome and true explanation of God and his ways. We even cast this in heroic terms. We pick up our bibles and talk of the “plain meaning of the text.” We are told that in each passage there is conveyed a propositional truth that can be understood in its plain meaning and formulated into straightforward truth claims that are universally true always, in every time and every culture. We do this to combat the corrosive nature of “relativism.” And while it is true that modernity and post-modernity are relativistic and this relativism has a corrosive nature on the veracity of the idea of truth itself, this type of understanding is as much rooted in modernist ways of thinking as is scientific rationality. This type of “plain meaning of scripture” “propositional truth” approach to reading the bible is in fact an embrace of the modernist principles of rationality and scientific learning. Scripture is a rational document that can be, must be, understood rationally, even scientifically. We lose the battle with modernity before we even start because we accept their terms of debate, their terms of reality itself.
The problem with the “plain meaning of scripture” view is that it is at odds with the nature of the document itself and the claims it make from within its own content. If we believe that the bible is the word of God, one would think that if God wanted his word to be rational truth claims that can be formed into straight forward universal truth declarations, why didn’t he just give us a bunch of universal truth claims, a series of universal loci that float free from bias and culture and can be applied easily and without misunderstanding anywhere and at all times?
Instead, we are given a lot of stories, some lists of names, theophanies, some poems, visions, letters, personal accounts, rules, sayings and so forth. For people who want their truth to be straightforward, simple, propositional, not bound to time or place, the bible is anything but this. The bible is rooted in specific places with specific people and a specific culture. On the surface it does not leap out as an automatically “universal” document. How many people have you heard say that they would read their bible more if they could just understand it better?
There is very little abstract propositional thinking in the bible and I get the sense from the bible itself that this is just the way God wants it. Maybe it is a function of getting older, but there are a lot of things that I used to think were straightforward, that just are not. I have also come to understand over time that there are a lot of things which I can understand that cannot be put into words, they cannot be communicated to anyone else.
There is this sense that God can be met and experienced, but he cannot truly known. This idea is familiar to the Orthodox in the east, but less so to western Christianity. We cannot box God in with words and language. No words can adequately describe God. We use words to talk about God, but we know that they don’t really capture who God is. As soon as we say them, we know them to be inadequate. Words, and even rationality itself, is not up to the task of describing God. He certainly cannot be known “scientifically.”
God himself says as much. This is what is happening in Exodus 3 when God tells Moses that “I am whom I am.” God is saying to Moses that he will not make it easy for Moses. God will not give him a “name” that reveals the essence of who he is. He will not be owned or defined with language. You cannot boil my identity down to a name, Moses. It is, rather, an invitation to journey with God, meet him, walk with him and discover him on the way. Because of the flexible nature of Hebrew verbs, we could understand God saying to Moses, “I will be whom I will be.” Journey with me and you will get to know me.
If we begin to think about it honestly, there are a lot of truths, a lot of understanding, that cannot be put into words. Many things can be grasped intuitively, can be felt, and are lost once we attempt to formulate them verbally. They slip away from us even as we try to grasp them and give them shape with language.
How many times do we have that connection with someone, we we look them in the eye and just know that they “get us,” that they truly understand that core essence of who we are. We cannot even give voice to it ourselves. Neither can they, yet we both know that we know. The bible does say we are made in the image of God, so this does make sense.
Let’s think of it another way. We have all told jokes. One of the things about jokes is that they are lot less funny if you have to explain them. It is something you get or you don’t get. It is a piece of wisdom that is hard to convey to a child when they first start telling jokes, getting them to understand that they don’t have explain it, its ok, we get the joke.
It is similar with metaphor. Some have argued that metaphor is at the foundation of language. We can use a simile and say, “Love is like a red, red rose”, drawing the explicit comparison; or we could simply describe the rose and let the reader/hearer make the connection themselves. Or not. The connection between love and the rose remains hidden, in the background. Like the joke, the less that we bring the connection to foreground, the less that we put words to it, the less confined and more powerful the metaphor remains. The bible is filled with metaphor:
"The desert and the parched land will be glad;
the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.
Like a crocus it will burst into bloom;
it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy."
You can savor the language and let the image settle on you. You can “feel” the words and “know” what is being said. But as soon as I tell you that the desert is an image of our life without the salvation of God and the blooming process is what happens in the process of salvation, I can just feel the power of the words leech away as I give you “the straightforward, plain meaning of the text.” It is almost tragic. Every Sunday there are preachers getting up on the pulpit tasked with the job of emptying the power of scripture for the sake of producing sermons with a “practical life application.”
This nature of scripture that is on the one hand present to us and yet at the same time hidden to us is intentional and they reflect the very nature of God in the words themselves. Scripture can be known in the way that God can be known. The bible itself testifies to its own nature, and to the nature of truth and the nature of wisdom.
This is largely the reason that even though I am a conservative orthodox Christian, I am not a fundamentalist.
We are down the rabbit hole, so let us press on and hopefully we will get to the other side. There is an fascinating passage in the gospel of Matthew, chapter 13 verses 11 to 15. The disciples are asking Jesus why he speaks in parables and does not speak plainly to them. This sounds familiar. To which Jesus answers, drawing from older texts himself in his answer:
“The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whomever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whomever does not have, even what he has will be take from him. This is why I speak in parables:
'Though seeing they do not see;
though hearing they do not hear or understand.
In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:
'You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.
For this people’s heart has become calloused;
they hardly see with their ears,
and they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts;
and turn, and God would heal them.'"
In our North American entrepreneurial growth minded seeker church mentality this passage sounds both alien and counter cultural. Jesus is saying that he speaks in parables so that they will not understand him.
We are like, “What? How do you grow and build a church like that, Jesus?” And Jesus responds, “Well, the people who will get it will get it. You don’t have to worry about it.” And with a dumbfounded look on our face we come back at Jesus with, “So, we want to make it harder for people to understand?” And Jesus says, “Yeah, we do.” If you are serious about finding God, you will keep at it and do the work until you are able to understand it. If not, maybe you really didn’t want to hear it anyways. And why make it easy? These truths are the kinds of things that defy being put into words anyways.
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold all he had and bought it.” (Matthew 14:44-46)
There you have it. Jesus has explained it for you.
We live in a society, a culture, a civilization, that values knowledge for its utility. Can what we know help my life, help me control and manage the world, make me money, solve problems, build things, invent things and so forth? Knowledge is power. By trying to squeeze the bible into this mode, the “practical life application” approach to the bible, we are essentially saying that the word of God is yet another tool that can help me control and master my life and the world around me. But the bible is not so much a book of knowledge as it is a book of wisdom.
Wisdom is something very different altogether. Wisdom is very often found in the metaphor. It is the meaning of the joke, so to speak. We can grasp it and understand it but we do not possess it. We can laugh, but we cannot really explain why we are laughing.
There is an excellent little two verse passage in the book of Proverbs that shows us the nature of wisdom as something that can be grasped but cannot be known as in the sense of “knowledge is power.” Proverbs 24:4-5. The first verse is familiar to many, even in popular culture:
"Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
or you will become like him yourself."
You hear that, and you are thinking, “Ok, good advice. I have met a few fools and tried to set them straight but just ended up being dragged down to their level in the end. Good advice.” Then we read on to the very next verse:
"Answer a fool according to his folly,
or he will be wise according to his own eyes."
And now you are thinking, “Ok, isn’t that the exact opposite advice that was just given the verse before?” It is. You might be wondering now where your practical application has gone. Two opposite pieces of advice. Contradictory, even. So what do you do? Well, the message of the ancients whom God spoke through tell us that what we do is live before God, fear him and look to him for guidance and when you meet the fool you will know what to do. Sorted.
That is the essence of wisdom. It is the “thing” that lives between, or is hidden by, two pieces of contradictory advice. They are both right, depending on the circumstances. There is no amount of “rational knowledge” that will give you the power to always have the right answer. There are no “seven steps for successful fool encounters.” You can intuit it. But you don’t really have anything. At best, you have a relationship with God and you trust and have faith that in the moment the right path will present itself.
There is the open question, though, with the power of rational and scientific learning to give us a sense of control of our environment and society, does anyone actually fear God? Is the proper fear of God even possible in such a society? Do we tremble before our Creator? Not really. And this is a large part of why we are a society of fools.
Once more from the Job passage we quoted earlier:
"Where can wisdom be found?
It cannot be found.
God understands the way to it.
The fear of the Lord,
that is wisdom"
More could be said, of course, but for now it is best to leave it there and see how this resonates. Going forward, I hope I can use this spirit and posture to talk about the things we see and encounter in our society and hopefully we can walk away a little wiser. Hopefully without entirely ruining the joke.