September 4, 2016
Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: Wisdom 9:13-18b
You might remember the famous chess matches in the late ‘90’s between world champion chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov and IBM’s computer Deep Blue. Kasparov won the first match, but succumbed to the computing power of Deep Blue in the second go-around. Just this year, another champion of human mind games was defeated by another computer: Lee Sedol, world champion of the immensely complex Chinese game Go, lost to Google’s computer, AlphaGo. These champions of human ability and learning went toe to toe with the toughest algorithms that computer programmers could come up with. While a human being must rely on faulty mortal memory, intuition and cunning, these machines could cook up millions of computations a second to try and outmatch them. It might seem unfair, but it is sobering to watch the best of human intelligence square off against a machine and come away empty. And while Kasparov’s skill was extraordinary, to me, the most impressive human chess showoffs are those who can play blindfolded like George Koltanowski who holds the record for playing 34 simultaneous games blindfolded in Edinburgh in 1937.
Our Limits as Clues
Most of us will never play tournament chess or wind up on the world stage, going up against the best supercomputer man can make. However, I think these stories might point us in another direction. We could try our whole lives and still not be able to beat Garry Kasparov at chess or play 34 simultaneous blindfolded games. We have limits and we do run up against them. Even the smartest of the smart have limits—as Deep Blue showed us. The limits are reminders—reminders of our finitude, of our contingency. When we find those limits, it is easy to get frustrated, fall into denial or just ignore their implications. But those limits are essential clues to the structure of the universe, to who we are and where we come from. When I realize I did not create myself, I have to look elsewhere for a creator. When I see that there is something rather than nothing and I must have to account for it, I start on the path to finding the real answer to the mystery of our existence.
Our limits, specifically, our intellectual limits are at the heart of this Sunday’s reading from the Book of Wisdom. It is part of a long prayer, written as though Solomon himself were speaking it. Solomon was the master of wisdom, who famously prayed to God for wisdom (1 Kgs 3:9) and became renown for this wisdom he received (1 Kgs 4:34). In our reading, the Book of Wisdom reimagines Solomon’s prayer and presents it to us with a meditation on the nature of God’s wisdom.
Talking About God
God is hard to talk about and so often, our language about him falls into the category of negation or comparison. That is, it often seems the only way of describing who God is is to describe what he is not. Wisdom here pillories us with rhetorical questions in this vein:
“For what man can learn the counsel of God? Or who can discern what the Lord wills?” (Wis 9:13 RSV)
Later on in our reading:
Who has traced out what is in the heavens? 17 Who has learned thy counsel, unless thou hast given wisdom and sent thy holy Spirit from on high? (Wis 9:16-17 RSV)
These questions probe the limits of human knowledge and compare it to God’s infinite wisdom. The obvious answer to all these “Who?” questions is “no one.” No one can grasp the wisdom of God. No one can know what he knows. This theme recurs many times in Scripture—“my thoughts are not your thoughts” (Isa 55:8); “Who has known the mind of the Lord? and who has been his counsellor, to instruct him?” (Isa 40:13 LXA). St. Paul highlights the difference between our knowledge and God’s, when he declares “How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Rom 11:33). That is, our human judgments are searchable—as we know from Google—and our ways are “scrutable” or able to be investigated, as we know from courts of law.
Our Inability Leads Us to Him
The point of all these comparisons is not to get us to despair about our lack of intellectual facility, but to remember that no matter how smart we are or how many things we accomplish in our lives, we are still utterly dependent on an Intelligence and a Wisdom that is far beyond our grasping. Our reasoning is “worthless” according to the Book of Wisdom (9:14) and we are weighed down by our bodily nature (9:15). We get tired and hungry, sleepy and confused. “We can hardly guess at what is on earth, and what is at hand we find with labor” (9:16). All we need do is reflect on our own attempts to learn, fallible and weak as they are. I often tell my students that learning is like throwing peanut butter against a wall. Some of it sticks, but much of it slides off the wall and down to the floor. In order to learn, we have to work hard, repeat and recognize that not everything will stick in our minds forever. Our lack of ability points us to the One who gave us life and all our abilities.
Glimpses of Wisdom
While our reading meditates at length on how pitiful our minds are compared to God’s, it leaves us on a note of hope. Though we can’t master God’s wisdom or know his knowledge the way he does, we can receive a portion of it as a gift: “thou hast given wisdom and sent thy holy Spirit from on high” (Wis 9:17). God does give us glimpses, a little access to his divine wisdom—through his Word, through his Church, through the power of the Gospel. (Even Deep Blue and AlphaGo don’t have access to this kind of wisdom!) We don’t have to live in the dark forever, wallowing in our own frailty and intellectual darkness. Indeed “the true light which enlightens every man” came into the world (John 1:9). God lifts us out of our limited human thoughts and reveals to us “what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived” (see 1 Cor 2:9-10). I’d rather receive glimpses of this kind of revelation than play hundreds of chess games blindfolded.