Wisdom: What is It & Who has It?

What is wisdom?  It seems to be a popular question these days.  I signed up for a William & Mary lecture series to be held later this fall on the tradition of American wisdom.  Curiously, a friend on the other side of the continent told me about wanting to develop a curriculum on wisdom for a continuing ed. program in his area.  Coincidently, wisdom is the subject of lectionary readings for the twelfth Sunday after Pentecost.  Not only do we want to know what wisdom is, we also want to know who is wise.  Is there anyone?  The psalmist has his doubts (Ps. 14 & 53).

It seems timely, given today’s political environment, to ask who is wise? What wisdom do they have? Until recent years, the nation generally attributed a degree of wisdom to political leaders, educators, clergy, the judiciary, etc., but that’s changed. A January 2021 Gallup poll placed members of Congress below car salesmen as the least trusted occupation. Corporate executives, lawyers and journalists weren’t far ahead. Clergy were in the middle. High trust was attributed to the medical professions and grade school teachers. Nurses were at the very top. University faculty weren’t in the survey, but given the current anti intellectual environment, I doubt they would have been high on the list.

Trust and wisdom are not the same thing, but they’re related because trust is a measure of confidence in the honesty and reliability in the services provided.  Wisdom, whatever else it is, is radiated by the wise through their honesty and reliability in what they say and do.  Honesty and reliability in what?  Given the high regard for nurses, it has to do with caring for the welfare of the other.  Empathy might be another word for it.  That’s a start, but scripture more often describes wisdom for what it is not.  Proverbs 9, for instance, says to be wise requires laying aside immaturity, at least according to the NRSV.  The RSV says simpleness, the KJV says foolishness, and the translated Masoretic text says thoughtlessness.  Immaturity, simpleness, foolishness and thoughtlessness are not manifestations of wisdom.  It makes sense.  People who are immature and thoughtless in what they say and do cannot be trusted to be honest or reliable, especially about caring for the welfare of the other.  They lack empathy.

If honesty, reliability and empathy are possible signs of wisdom, on what are they anchored?  As a Christian, my understanding of wisdom must be anchored in God as revealed in scripture, tradition and reason.  Scripture says ”the fear (respectful recognition) of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom…” (Ps. 111, Proverbs 4, 9, Sirach 1 ).  Don’t get too doctrinaire about what fear of the Lord means.  Among the world’s wisest in our times is the Dalai Lama, whose Buddhism doesn’t require a god, yet God seems to be present with him and through him.  God will work through whom God will work. 

The book of Wisdom adds that the beginning of wisdom is a sincere desire for instruction (WoS, 6).  The desire to learn is motivated by curiosity about the world and how it works.  It’s a process in which new information leads to changes of mind as greater understanding is gained.  What is held to be sure and certain is to be held provisionally.  That’s uncomfortable for a great many people, but wisdom calls us to trust in God alone as eternally true, and dare to live with confidence in a provisional world. 

To honesty, reliability and empathy, we can add curiosity and the desire to be instructed as descriptors of wisdom.  Wisdom might be summarized as the understanding to think and do what is right in the way of godly love.  It’s also a growing willingness to be held personally accountable for one’s words and deeds, as illustrated most clearly in the life of Jesus, and through his disciples as they matured in their faith. 

Wisdom is made known by people who act wisely.  It can be studied as a subject in its own right, but the discussion will always come back to how it is displayed in the lives of real people living real lives. 

2 thoughts on “Wisdom: What is It & Who has It?”

  1. I’ve thought of wisdom as feminine, sapientia….and, yes, God will work with (and within) whom God will work…

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