Wisdom or Love? a Buddhist Christian Conversation
In the Bible, Solomon, King of Israel, is the paragon of wisdom. He prays for wisdom and God replies,
“Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches or the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, behold, I now do according to your word. Behold, I give you a wise and discerning mind, so that none like you has been before you and none like you shall arise after you.”( I Kg 3:11-12)
He is the reputed author of the large section of the Bible called ‘Wisdom Literature’. He was a mine of information about plants and animals and fish. (I Kg 5.13) But wisdom is more than information or reasoning or intelligence. Indeed, Solomon perceives the essential emptiness of things:
Vanity of vanities … vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? …The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises. The wind blows to the south, and goes round to the north; round and round goes the wind, …What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; and there is nothing new under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 1:2-3, 5-6, 9)
Yet wisdom is at the origin of all:
When he established the heavens, I [wisdom] was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, when he made firm the skies above, … I was beside him, like a master craftsman; … rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the sons of men. (Proverbs 8.27-31)
is a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty; …. For she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness. … for God loves nothing so much as the person who lives with wisdom. (Wisdom 7.25-28)
Thus in the Old Testament wisdom involves an accurate knowledge of the world, but also a realization of its insubstantiality. Wisdom shows the right course of action to be performed at any given time. It is at the origin of the world so that to be wise is to be in touch with the deepest realities. It is also has also a divine quality about it and takes the wise person beyond the confines of limited existence.
The title of our conversation today is ‘Love and Wisdom’. Does this mean ‘love or wisdom’, as though they were alternatives? Does it mean ‘love versus wisdom’, as though they were opposites? Does it mean love is the same thing as wisdom, a tautology? Is one reduced to the other? Is love an aspect of wisdom or wisdom an aspect of love? Is Buddhism supposed to be a way of wisdom while Christianity is a way of love? Surely not!
Wisdom and love are intimately linked. Without love wisdom is deceit. Love without wisdom is sentimentality. Love is wise or it is not love. Wisdom is loving or it is not wisdom. The seeming folly of a passionate love is wise in a way that can be disconcerting. Many of the parables of Jesus show the seeming folly of God who prefers forgiveness and mercy.
The term ‘love’ has been debased in modern times to mean much less than love and in fact can mean greed. Love is not mere desire. In Greek, which is the language of the New Testament, three words are used to translate the one English word ‘love’: eros, philia and agape. Eros is the relationship that may exist between complementaries, for example the relationship between male and female. Philia is the relationship between like and like, as in friendship where two people have similar interests and tastes. Eros and philia are duly valued, but in the Christian tradition the highest form of love is agape, which is the love between those who are identical with each other. It is not the relationship of like to unlike or of like to like but of those who are one. This love is said to exist between Jesus and the God who sent him, with whom he has the one mind, the one heart, the one being. For this reason he is the perfect revelation of the Ineffable God.
Jesus comes, and teaches. In keeping with the wisdom tradition he often speaks in aphorisms and parables. He says such things as ,
“Do not cast your pearls before swine.” (Mt 7:6)
“Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.” (Mt 26:52)
But it was remarked that he spoke with authority, not like the scribes of his day. (Mt 7:29) He speaks from personal knowledge and with great assurance. In the Christian tradition Jesus not only speaks words of wisdom he is the wisdom, which is spoken. He is the Word made flesh. Indeed, he presents himself as the one to whom the assent of faith is given, to him in his totality, body and soul. The following famous sentence can be understood in many ways:.
“My flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I live in him.” (Jn 6:55)
According to Christian teaching, wisdom and love coincide in him. He wishes to give himself and does so by means of the cross. He is crucified precisely because of what he teaches. Out of compassion for humanity he endures the passion of the cross. Paradoxically, wisdom leads to the ignorance and desolation of the cross, just as love leads to self-sacrifice. Because he is fully aware he can sacrifice himself without demur, for only the pure can take on impurity. Only the fullness of love can have such compassion. Knowing the extremes of life and death, of good and evil, he comes to full knowledge. Wisdom leads to the cross and wisdom comes from the cross. It is the folly of the cross. St Paul cries out,
Where is the scribe? Where are the philosophers of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? … Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (I Cor 1:20-24)
To the philosophers of Athens and of our own day, the cross is incomprehensible, but to those who know the mind of God, it is wisdom, for by it Jesus shows his compassionate love and the love of the One who sent him. “God so loved the world that he sent his only Son.” (Jn 3: 16)
Important though the wisdom tradition is in Christianity, the emphasis is on love. This is stated most succinctly in the famous sentence “God is love and he who lives in love lives in God and God lives in him”. (I Jn 4:16)
Love is not a morality though it is the basis of morality. Love is a state of being. When Jesus is asked which is the greatest of the commandments, he replies: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength” and goes on to add, “You must love your neighbour as yourself”. (Mt 22:37-39) When the Christian sees some unfortunate person she does not say ‘Thank God I am not like that person’, but, ’You are my very self. We are not separate or apart. We are one, you in me, I in you.’ Love sums up all the commandments. Love is the final teaching. It is the cessation of desire and the abandonment of all constructs. It is the ecstasy of one in the other. It is the simplest and most rapid path.
“God is love” – but God is also indefinable. In Christian theology anything that is said of God is always said by analogy. If we say “God is love” we must immediately qualify this by saying that God is not love in the limited way we understand love. He is love in a manner which is eminently greater than anything we can comprehend. The great spiritual writers speak about the apophatic nature of God; that is, God can be known but cannot be described. Gregory of Nazianzen in the fourth century states
‘You who are beyond, beyond all’…….
What ode could sing your praise?
No words suffice to hymn you. …
Of all beings you are the End,
You are One, you are All, you are None …
Bearer of all names, how shall I name you?
You alone are the Unnameable.
Pseudo-Dionysius in the sixth century says:
‘O Trinity beyond all essences, beyond godhead, beyond all that is good; … lead us …. beyond understanding … to where the … mysteries of the divine … are revealed in the bright cloud of silence … beyond splendour, in the deepest depths of darkness … indeed, it is … by ecstasy out of yourself that you will be carried towards the … ray of the divine darkness.’ 
The One whom Christians call God is unknowable and can be fully known only in ignorance. Wisdom is paradox.
In Christian terms, God is love, but not a love in isolation, a self-love. The three Persons of the Blessed Trinity are a communion, which does not mean division, but identification. The Lover, the one who is Loved and the Love itself are all one. “In the end Love.”
8 October 2005, Buddhist Society of Victoria, Malvern
 (Migne, PG 37, p. 507)
 Theol. Mysti. 1.1, PG III pp.997A‑1000A, quoted in Bouyer, Louis A History of Christian Spirituality: Vol. I The Spirituality of the New Testament and the Fathers. p.412. Slightly adapted.