How Do We Stay Wise?

Over the past three weeks, we have been talking about Solomon’s wisdom. In the first week we heard how Solomon asked God for wisdom in a dream. He received it, along with great wealth and power. Solomon wrote the Proverbs, those nuggets of wisdom we heard about last week. And most famously of all, Solomon built God’s first temple. It was a spectacular building, constructed out of the best cedar from Lebanon, with rooms coated in gold (1 Kings 6:22). It contained an artificial pond made of bronze that held 44,000 liters of water. (1 Kings 7:23). The temple was huge and was considered one of the wonders of the world. Solomon went all out for God.    

But the Bible tells us that as Solomon built the temple, he caused problems. He asked too much of the northern kingdoms. He taxed them too much.[1] To procure the cedar he conscripted tens of thousands of Israelites to perform forced labour, and enslaved others. [2] He set out to do a good thing, but he went too far. We hear that the same thing happened in his love life. Kings at that time often married foreign princesses to cement political alliances. It was a good way of preventing another king from waging war against your country. So, Solomon married an Egyptian princess[3]. But he didn’t stop there. He kept gathering wives, until they numbered 700, and an additional 300 concubines. (1 Kings 11:3) [1] They later beg Solomon’s son to make their load lighter (which he refuses, sparking a rebellion) 1 Kings Chapter 12:4 [2] The others were non-Israelites: 1 Kings 9:20. [3] 1 Kings 3:1 

Women, wealth, power, fame – Solomon had it all, but God was not impressed. Solomon the wise was living out of proportion. He was respected by his subjects, even revered. Foreign leaders like the Queen of Sheba came to visit[1]. But this wise king who had the respect and admiration of his people had gone too far. God calls him to account, [1] 1 Kings 10:1. telling him he shouldn’t trust the faith of his wives. He has lost sight of what God wants, of what wisdom in a ruler looks like.  

But how can this be? The Bible says Solomon is the wisest king ever[1], yet here he is, being brought down for his excesses. How can a wise king fail?

Solomon had the respect of his subjects, they admired his wealth, his power, his harem of women. But he was also living dangerously out of proportion, and that will become a major problem. When his son inherits the kingdom, a civil war will break out and tear Israel in two. The kingdoms in the north which he exploited will break away.[2] The United Kingdom of Israel will end. All of this because of the actions of the one whom people called the wise king.  

How can rulers be wise and still come to disaster? We are living through that contradiction in our own time. Canada is considered one of the most civilized places on Earth. We are a magnet for immigrants, students, and refugees from all over the world. In 2021, 17,000 people all over the world were asked to rank the world’s best nations, and Canada was judged to be number 1.[3] A study of Google searches found that Canada is the country most people want to move to.[4] And why not? We do have a good education system. Our politics are more stable than our neighbour to the south, and we are certainly more civil. We also have a beautiful country, with mountains, prairies, forests, seas, and lakes. We and the world consider us to be a success story. We are wise in their eyes, and in our own.  

 We’re number one in other ways, too. When global surveys measure how much Greenhouse Gas each person emits on average, for most of the last 20 years, Canadians have been in first place.    

Here’s a graph that shows how we compare to other countries. That’s us at the top of the graph. Per person, we put more greenhouse gases in the air than the Americans, the Chinese and the British. In Britain’s case, we put 3 times as much.  We rely on fossil fuels for our cars, for our heating, and in some places, for our electricity. The biggest share of our emissions comes from the vehicles we drive, the energy we burn, and the way we produce oil and gas.  

How could we be the world’s worst so often? Afterall, we signed the Paris Climate Accord in 2015, the one that aims to drastically reduce carbon emissions worldwide. This is the same accord Donald Trump wanted the Americans to get out of.  

In 2015, the Canadian minister of the Environment was the Right Honourable Catherine McKenna. She led the Canadian delegation to Paris and made sure we signed it. She is a dedicated advocate for the environment. Yet, three weeks ago, she announced that she is leaving politics. She said that she wants to spend more time with her children.[1] She is also tired of all the online and in person threats she receives on a regular basis because of her opposition to climate change. She has repeatedly been verbally accosted in person while out with her children in public. Now she has a security detail to provide protection from these attacks. She is one of the only cabinet ministers to need this degree of security.

 She declared “"This is a critical year for climate action in the most important decade that will decide whether we can save the only planet we have…I want to spend my working hours helping to make sure that we do."[1]

Think about that for a moment. Here, in Canada, a minister of the federal government is being hounded out of office by verbal abuse, in person and online. Often very sexist abuse. That’s the sort of thing you  expect to hear about in Mexico where drug cartels rule the streets and want to intimidate members of the government. But not here. And why is it that she has reached the conclusion that the best way to protect the environment is to leave the government?  

The problem is that for all our talk, Canada is not making much progress in reducing our green house gas emissions. 

Here’s a graph of our total emissions since the year 2000. We went up quite a bit for a few years, then we came down to where we were around the year 2000.  As far as nature is concerned, we are just as bad as we ever were.

In Europe, meeting the Accord’s targets has meant changing the way people live. Cities are redesigned so cars are locked out from the downtown core.   

In Barcelona, city planners are working on creating massive nine block areas that are off limits to cars most of the time. New bike lanes and public transportation routes are being set up so that no one is more than 300 meters from a bus stop. [1]

In London, carbon-emitting cars are charged an electronic toll of 15 pounds each time they enter the downtown core. [2] That would be like paying 25 dollars to just drive downtown here In Toronto, with an additional charge if your car is older and a bigger polluter. And then you’d need to pay for parking.  Other European cities have literally reprogrammed their stoplights to make driving downtown a miserable experience.  

Meanwhile, here in Canada, we build pipelines to export more oil and natural gas to the rest of the world. The volume of oil and gas we export is roughly equal to the amount of Green house gases we emit  domestically each year. *  It is like we are a family that has decided to give up smoking because it is bad for our health. But to make money, we have expanded our tobacco farm to sell more cigarettes to our neighbours. Whether they smoke them or not is their problem, we say. Canadians say we are green, but we also want to be one of the world’s last gas stations.

Like Solomon, we are living out of proportion. We are one of the best educated, most civilized nations on Earth, yet we have founded our economy on the use and export of the one material we know will destroy the world. And while other countries try to change their ways, our provincial leaders try to get out of carbon taxes, and our cabinet ministers need security details to protect them from the public.

So, what should we do?

In the scripture reading we heard today, God pays Solomon a visit to set him straight. God tells Solomon he has been sinning by worshipping the false gods of his foreign wives. He is disappointed in Solomon – he should have known better. And Solomon did, even if his admiring subjects did not. Solomon knew that to rule human beings, it was not enough to impress them, or keep them well fed. God asks for something more.

In the proverbs which are ascribed to Solomon, there are a few sections when wisdom speaks about who she is. As we heard last week, she beckons people to join her in her house, to learn the wise path of living. But there are also sections where she provides her backstory. In proverbs 8, she explains that she was with God as the universe was created. She was a cross between an architect and a master builder, helping to set planets into motion, stars in their courses, species, and ecosystems into place.  

I was there when he set the heavens in place,   
when God marked out the horizon on the face of the deep,
when God established the clouds above and fixed securely the fountains of the deep,
when God gave the sea its boundary so the waters would not overstep the divine command, and when God marked out the foundations of the earth.
Then I was constantly[e] at God’s side. I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in the Holy presence, rejoicing in God’s whole world and delighting in humanity. 

These passages occur in the early Proverbs, they set the stage for all the wisdom that follows. The Bible is telling us that there is order and wisdom built into the physical universe itself. It is operates based on a sense of proportion and balance, which is dynamic. That’s something our ecologists have been discovering over the past two centuries, something Darwin noticed in the 19th century. The reason this view of wisdom is in Proverbs is because the people who wrote the Bible wanted us to understand that wisdom is not just about human morality and ethics. It’s not enough for humans to have rules and regulations which make human society possible. Rather, wisdom is a way of living which permeates the natural order, and which our human wisdom is meant to align with. In this approach, if human wisdom is at odds with the wisdom of the universe, then human wisdom is not wise at all.

Indigenous people understand this. When they speak of making plans, they say that the plan must work for all their relations. I first heard this at a United Church national meeting in Newfoundland a few years ago. We were sitting at tables on the floor of a hockey arena in Cornerbrook. Bright fluorescent lights shone overhead. Most of the arena was composed of grey concrete. The PA system made everything echo. It was a grim, artificial place to spend five days talking about church policy. But one afternoon, there was a motion about the church’s relationship with the rest of Canadian society. One of the Indigenous members stood up and said the motion should be amended to include “all our relations.” She didn’t mean all of our uncles and aunts, grandfathers, and children. She meant the moose and caribou, the wolves, the plants, and the bugs. For her Indigenous culture, decisions about human affairs had to include all of her relations, which meant everything in the natural world.

Indigenous people in Canada never had cities with populations of millions of people, so what worked for small villages can’t simply be adopted by the City of Toronto. But the principle is sound and aligns with what Wisdom calls for in Proverbs. Human ways of living need to be consistent with the needs and interests of the natural world. We have to take the natural world’s needs into account for any of our major decisions to be viable. For the past 200 years, since the industrial revolution, we have acted as though human ethics and ecology could be strangers. We have worshipped the idea of constant growth and measured human worth by material wealth. These have been our modern gods, our false idols. They take everything we give them, yet the result is not justice and prosperity, but growing inequality among our people, and increasing environmental disasters.

When God appears to Solomon, the conversation takes place in easy-to-understand English. God does not mince words. God tells Solomon he has been following false gods, and that there will be consequences. In our time, nature does not speak in English. She expresses her hurt and frustration in heat domes over BC and the Northwest. For a day this month, Canada was the hottest place on Earth. Nature’s words come in wildfires that can destroy a town like Litton in a few hours. Her anguish comes in the wind, in hurricanes and Tornados like the one that ripped through a suburb in Barrie a few days ago. Her distress comes in floods that push cars down streets like bathtub toys, as Europeans witnesses this week. We can expect to hear more of these messages as long as we continue our worship of wealth and constant growth, freedom bought with airborne carbon.

The ancient Israelites knew that God cared about nature as much as God cared about humans. At the end of the flood, God makes a covenant with the animals, not just humanity, to never destroy the world again. When Jesus tries to explain human ethics to his followers, he says that all of Solomon’s wealth and fine clothes cannot compare to the beauty of the lilies of the field. We were taught that God expects us to live in concert with the rest of creation. We forgot that approach, but now, for our sake, for our children’s sake, we need to rediscover it.

Human ethics and ecology need to come together once again. Politicians need to know they can get elected even if they oppose carbon corporations, because the humans who vote want a different way.

When God comes to Solomon, he doesn’t punish the wise, lavish king. Instead, he tells him that it will be his children who will pay the price. That doesn’t seem fair, does it? But sometimes that is how it works. Let’s try to do better than this Bible story. Let’s not punish our children and grandchildren for our folly. It’s not too late to wise up. We know the path we need to take. Let’s try it. God will be with us, and so will wisdom.

Thanks be to God,