On Becoming Wise

Have to do it. After posting thoughts concerning stupidity and encouraging its avoidance, it seems not only fitting but morally required to follow up with some thoughts concerning wisdom. The caveat here is that while I readily confess to doing stupid things, I am far more reluctant to make very many claims on the attainment of wisdom.

Rather than offer a definition of wisdom, however, I’d like to put forth a few thoughts about it and invite readers to do the same in the comments. (When you do so, however, be sure to avoid “stupid” assumptions.) We do believe that wisdom begins with “the fear of the Lord.” How that is fleshed out in observable ways of life, decisions, patterns of behavior, manners of speaking, etc., is not as easily discerned as it is said, as all of us have discovered.

To my mind, the most beautiful poetic passage in the Bible is Job 28, the so-called “Ode to Wisdom.” In it, the writer works through a litany of accomplishments, discoveries, bits of knowledge, pieces of information which have been garnered by humankind, only to close the section with the telling phrase, “but where is wisdom to be found?” The distinction between what we know and wisdom is clearly understood. And the exponential explosion of what is known and of the subjects under which it is known has magnified rather than narrowed that gap. One of the telling phrases we have come to accept in the internet age is “information overload;” we have available to us so many facts that we literally do not know what to do with them. We have limited ability to master enough information to function within ever more narrowly defined domains; at the same time, we can gain superficial knowledge about virtually any other subject imaginable. But what is the relationship between all of this information and wisdom; and where is wisdom to be found; how is it attained?

Has technology made us wise? There are so many things we can do which had never entered into the thoughts of man or woman until very recently, when new possibilities began to surface on what seems like a daily basis. Interestingly, a friend (who is no stranger to this blog) sent an email link while I was composing this post; it was a video of Jacques Ellul raising the same sort of questions about technology, in that case tying them to human freedom and responsibility. But the fact that as a culture we are less and less willing to bother asking the “should we?” question leaves only the “can we?” And we probably can, which means someone probably will.

Has philosophy made us wise? It has made us more familiar with different ways of thinking, different ways of problem-solving, and has sharpened our grasp on logic; on the other hand, it has, particularly when divorced from the fear of the Lord, devolved into ever smaller areas of concern. Whereas it once looked for answers to the grand scheme, much academic philosophy has narrowed to the point where it can only speak about the language we use to describe the world (which, according to some, exists only in our descriptions). In short, we are left only with more questions.

I am tempted to posit a definition of wisdom as the right application of our knowledge. That, I think, would be consistent with the fear of the Lord, through whom we can discern what the right application might be. At the same time, I wonder whether that definition gives inadequate attention to an aspect of wisdom that we all perceive in people we recognize as wise–the ability and the willingness to hear and respond caringly and insightfully to our concerns, and speak helpfully into our lives.

But enough for starters. What does anyone think about wisdom and how it is recognized and attained?