Philosophers have been pursuing wisdom for centuries. What is it? Who has it? And where does it come from?
French philosopher René Descartes wrote in the preface for his Principles of Philosophy:
“It is really only God alone who has Perfect Wisdom, that is to say, who has a complete knowledge of the truth of all things; but it may be said that men have more wisdom or less according as they have more or less knowledge of the most important truths.”
Human beings become wise, Descartes suggested, as they begin to approach the truths known only by God. But in Christian mysticism, there is another figure who lays out a path to wisdom.
Her name is Sophia.
“Sophia” in ancient Greek translates to “wisdom,” and from this we derive the words “philosophy” and “sophisticated.” The Hebrew the word for wisdom, חָכְמָה or chokmah, is also a feminine noun.
Religion scholar and author of The Gnostic Gospels Elaine Pagels spoke with HuffPost about Sophia and the significance of a personified wisdom. “In the Book of Proverbs, wisdom as a feminine being,” Pagels said. “She is God’s partner, or darling, his delight. The idea is that wisdom is a personified feminine being who is with God and helps him out.”
Radu Iacob, a religion scholar at the University of Leuven, concurs that theologians throughout history have often understood wisdom to be a feminine being who contains both human and divine traits.
“In some cases,” Iacob writes, “[wisdom] was personified in a feminine nature, as the divine consort of a god, or later as the Eternal Feminine...The Stoics understood sophia as ‘knowledge of the divine and the human,’ which they regarded as a ‘crucial underpinning for the goal of leading a moral life.’”
It is Sophia’s close relationship to God, Pagels and Iacob say, that makes her compelling as a model for wisdom. The Book of Wisdom, often attributed to King Solomon, characterizes Sophia as "the breath of the power of God, a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty, a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God and an image of [God's] goodness.”
Christian mystic Thomas Merton continued with the image of Sophia as an “emanation of the glory” of God by writing:
“His light is diffused in the air and the light of God is diffused by Hagia Sophia… The Diffuse shining of God is Hagia Sophia. We call her His "glory." In Sophia His power is experienced only as mercy and as love.”
Eleventh century abbess and Christian mystic Hildegard of Bingen also revered Sophia and described her as the “encompassing energy of God.” In a prayer to Sophia, Bingen wrote:
“You of the whirling wings,
circling, encompassing energy of God:
you quicken the world in your clasp.
One wing soars in heaven,
one wing sweeps the earth,
and the third flies all around us.
Praise to Sophia!
Let all the earth praise her!”
With one wing in heaven and one on earth, Hildegard writes, Sophia “quickens the world.” In Old English, the word “quicken” referred to giving life and coming into life. Thus Hildegard suggests the world comes alive through Sophia.
In an article titled, “Desperately Seeking Sophia,” Sister Joyce Rupp quotes the Book of Sirach, a portion of the Christian canon included in some denominations. The passage reads:
Happy is the person who meditates on Sophia, who reflects in one's heart on Sophia's ways and ponders her secrets, pursuing her like a hunter, and lying in wait on her paths.
By meditating on wisdom, the Book of Sirach says, one begins to approach it, just as Sophia approaches God by pursuing His truth. The catch, however, is that she never fully reaches him, Pagel says.
“[Sophia] learns that she can’t really understand God,” Pagles told HuffPost, “but she understands that she lives and exists in a divine world that God created.”
Still, the figure of Sophia offers some timeless lessons for pursuing wisdom. Rupp writes:
“We need to look for Sophia. By her very nature she is relational, present in the world, interacting among people and ordinary human lives. By desiring to know her, by opening our minds and hearts, her radiance will permeate our lives.”
Wisdom is a practice, Rupp says, that requires a desire to be like the Sophia. And part of being like Sophia, Pagels says, is realizing that we share her limitations:
“You want to know God, but when you really get there you’ll understand that, first, you can’t know God because God is bigger than you are. And second, you understand that you live in it, and you’re dependent on it.”