I love the Wisdom writings of the Old Testament. There is something wonderful about a religion that can give space in its sacred writings to compare a beautiful person lacking in sense with a gold ring in a pig’s snout, or include a verse such as “The lazy person says ‘There is a lion outside! I shall be killed in the streets!’” (Proverbs 22:13). Whilst the Advent Antiphon speaks of wisdom that comes forth “from the mouth of the Most High”, the scriptures are full of more earthy wisdom. It’s the wisdom that emerges from careful observation of the way the world is. Such wisdom can rightly be said to spring from God’s mouth because it is God’s word that makes and remakes creation.
Within the Christian tradition the wisdom that comes from evidence has often been made subservient to that which is derived from abstract thought. Redressing that balance is a key aim of the branch of academic study known as Empirical Theology, in which my own research group is based. Holding conversations with people, or inviting large numbers to complete questionnaires, may not look as highbrow as reflections on basic theological principles but it might actually tell us something about the Christian faith as lived. And if that faith is lived by God’s grace then maybe it is also telling us truth about God too.
The things that my colleagues and I find out often challenge the presumptions of those responsible for running church programmes – especially the tendency to assume that everyone else believes and likes what I do. They also expose the gap between the intentions of some religious policy or practice and what people make of it. Doing theology on the basis of evidence chimes well with Archbishop Rowan’s famous dictum that the task of the church is to see what God is doing, and join in. Above all it suggests that the form of theology that is of most use to the church is reflective practice – which is just what some wise individual some 2500 years ago was doing when they collected together the distilled essence of their observations in the Wisdom literature.