The Search for Wisdom
The reason we have a hard time talking about wisdom is that we have a very misguided notion of what it is. For modern people the pursuit of wisdom sounds like something you’d have to travel to Tibet for. To us, wisdom is mystical and esoteric. It conjures up images of cave-dwelling hermits, saffron-robed monks, and, well, Yoda.
Yoda is the tiny green Jedi master from the Star Wars movies. He never makes it into the first wave of recommendations because people are too embarrassed to mention him, but once the name is out there, everyone agrees that it fits. Yoda, with his withered body, his sprigs of white ear hair, and his shaky grasp of diction, is the perfect embodiment of our many twisted notions about wisdom.
Consider the virtues of Yoda:
1) He is small and puny.
Yoda’s desiccated form is just what you’d expect from a being whose primary strengths are mental. It is almost as if he compensates for physical weakness with psychic power, the way a blind man might develop sensitive hearing. The ultimate expression of wisdom would be a disembodied brain, and Yoda comes pretty close.
2) He is difficult to understand.
The fact is, most of the time we just have to assume that what Yoda says is wise, because nobody can follow it. When he isn’t speaking in riddles, he is swapping his nouns and verbs around like a bad Victorian poet. Wise must he be, for understand him I cannot.
Biblical wisdom . . . is not reserved for a tiny elite and does not require an austere life of self-mortification.
3) He lives in an out-of-the-way place.
To find Yoda, Luke Skywalker has to travel to a remote and swampy planet. The esoterically wise do not live with the rest of us. You must undertake an arduous quest for the privilege of sitting at their feet.
4) He has magic, almost supernatural mental powers.
Yoda can move things with his mind, read thoughts, and scrupulously avoid proper syntax all at the same time. He has reached the plateau of spiritual enlightenment and is no longer bound by the laws of physics and grammar.
Biblical Wisdom Is Real
All right, so this is clearly an exaggeration. But it is an exaggeration of assumptions we really do have. By and large, we have adopted an Eastern concept of wisdom as enlightenment (which is not without its Western parallels), and as a result wisdom talk seems to belong more to the realm of fantasy than fact. If wisdom requires the life of a hermit, is it any wonder that so few people want anything to do with it?
Biblical wisdom, of course, is nothing like this. It is not reserved for a tiny elite and does not require an austere life of self-mortification. If the example of Solomon shows anything, it is that wisdom is meant to be used in the world. Properly understood, it is very much a part of everyday life.
What God Thinks
When Solomon asked God for wisdom, he conceded a point that we are often reluctant to admit ourselves: the source of wisdom was outside himself. That may seem painfully obvious, but carried to its logical conclusion, it reveals something modern man would just as soon ignore. Wisdom is about judging between right and wrong, and if it comes from outside of us, then right and wrong find their source outside of us, too. In other words, the biblical conception of wisdom assumes the transcendent origin of morality.
Wisdom is not what you think. It’s what God thinks. Even Christians, who are bound to uphold this conclusion in theory, have a hard time with it in practice. The idea that our actions are governed by a set of immutable moral standards is a little frightening. To people who treasure their freedom, it is quite an intrusion. After all, there are some areas of life we would prefer to consider gray. The situation is even worse outside the community of faith, where there is a wholesale rejection of transcendent morality. When “truth” can only be written in quotation marks to denote irony, the concepts of right and wrong, good and evil, carry very little weight.
If terrorist acts, which were once denounced in the strongest terms, are today branded evil, the use of that morally biased term draws down more criticism, it seems, than the crimes themselves. Surely this is not because people approve of terror; rather, it is the confusion that results from feeling moral urges but denying ourselves the language with which to describe them. If we call something “evil,” then that implies the existence of good and evil, and it suggests further that these concepts stand above societies and apply to different cultures equally. International law is one thing—it is clearly a construct—but international morality is something else entirely. In this context, wisdom is distorted. It is no longer seen as the faculty of discerning right and wrong. Instead, wisdom is transformed into pragmatism and we judge a man wise not because he can tell the difference between good and evil but because he can distinguish between what works and what doesn’t.
Wisdom is not a moral sense; it is a form of cunning. Sometimes this cunning is couched in moralistic language. For example, the guiding principle of “situation ethics” is that no abstract ethical code applies across the board. Instead, the right choice changes with the circumstances. There is a sense in which this is true. If I invite a man into my house and then blast him with a shotgun, I am a murderer. If he breaks into my house and attempts to kill me, then it is self-defense. The ethical course does depend on the situation. But this is not what situation ethics is about. Instead, the point is to realize that, outside of the situation, there are no right and wrong answers. The situation constructs right and wrong, and then we, interpreting the circumstances, make the appropriate choice. Critics of situation ethics often act as if it is an attempt to evade morality, but it appears instead to be an effort to reinsert provisional ethics once transcendent morality has been done away with. After abolishing God’s moral code, we find that there remains a need for ethical guidance.
Biblical wisdom stands in opposition to these subtleties. The wise man discerns what is right and wrong; he does not invent it. We turn to God for wisdom because we recognize that, to be wise, a man’s judgments must correspond to the Creator’s. If God is the source of reality, then he (and only he) can supply the means by which reality is interpreted. But wisdom is more than interpreting reality. It involves making decisions and carrying them out. Solomon’s wisdom was not demonstrated in contemplation; it manifested itself in action.
This article is adapted from Rethinking Worldview: Learning to Think, Live, and Speak in This World by J. Mark Bertrand.
James N. Anderson discusses what a worldview is.
Proverbs tells us that there are two voices calling out in the marketplace.
Justin Taylor and Lydia Brownback as they discuss her new book A Woman's Wisdom: How the Book of Proverbs Speaks to Everything.