What is Wisdom? Voices from Psychology and Christian Faith

Throughout history, one tends to find at least two categorically different ways in which wisdom is understood. These might be described as a wisdom of knowing, and a wisdom of unknowing.

 

In Christian terms, we might call these a cataphatic wisdom, and an apophatic wisdom. A cataphatic wisdom relies on knowledge, texts, and accumulated wisdom – what is known and declared to be known. An apophatic wisdom, which recognises what one cannot know, relies on a direct and open kind of awareness. This is what John of the Cross called “the dark night of the soul”, where one leaves one’s knowing behind and plunges into the darkness of the ineffable. The former wisdom relies on longstanding traditions of meaning and knowledge – it represents a tried and tested wisdom usually gained from long experience. The latter, more spiritual wisdom, opens one up to a more subtle sense of things beyond oneself. It depends on a quieter, more embodied awareness of the world. One might say that both kinds of wisdom are important for a full religious existence.

 

In psychology, we find many models that align with this split. On the one hand, we encounter various cognitive (or metacognitive) models of wisdom. For example, Sternberg’s “Balance Theory” and “the Berlin Wisdom Paradigm” describe wisdom in terms of one’s ability to reflect upon, and apply knowledge in a way that serves the wellbeing of all. For the Berlin group, most wisdom is stored in cultural sources outside of the individual. Individuals learn how to draw from that knowledge and apply it for the good of everyone concerned. And, for Sternberg, wisdom is a form of balanced judgment, which arises from reflecting upon the interests and good of all concerned, using both short- and long-term thinking.

 

However, some psychologists were dissatisfied with these cognitive-heavy accounts of wisdom. A wisdom of knowledge is important – crucial even – but not all wisdom can be described in terms of manipulating knowledge, ideas, and expertise. Eleanor Rosch set out to describe a more holistic and embodied form of wisdom. This is a wisdom, not of knowledge and procedures, but of simply being in the world. In fact, Rosch described wisdom in direct opposition to Sternberg and the Berlin group. For her, the possibility of wisdom only arises once one quietens down the mind and temporarily suspends the ruminative functions, so that one is able to experience reality directly for oneself.

 

Relying on the entire body as a means of knowing the world (rather than looking at reality primarily through concepts and previous knowledge), promotes a unique kind of awareness of things. This kind of awareness cannot be adequately captured in cognitive or metacognitive terms. Countering what she perceives to be a cognitive-heavy bias in Western psychology, Rosch is adamant that other modes of knowing need to be explored. Not least of these is the way that bodily factors shape our awareness; as well as the kinds of implicit, inarticulate intuitions that the body is capable of perceiving. In other words, humans know, not just with our cognitive apparatus and brains, but with our entire bodies as wholes. From this point of view, no psychology of wisdom can be complete without making reference to how the whole body contributes to wisdom. Over the past few decades, and not least because of Rosch’s contributions, a sophisticated psychology of embodiment has begun to emerge.

 

It is important to distinguish between these two kinds of wisdom. As Iain McGilchrist has suggested, the kind of attention one pays to the world completely alters one’s experience of the world, and changes also one’s entire relationship to the world.

 

Though the Christian and psychological accounts of wisdom utilise completely different vocabularies, the basic contrast between wisdom in terms of reflection and accumulated knowledge; and a simpler, embodied kind of awareness, can be found in both. This overlap should not be too surprising. Christian reflection and wisdom psychology are both drawing on profound human universals. Their languages and frameworks are indisputably different. But, ultimately, the foundational concern for wisdom is the same: wisdom is to do with the wellbeing of all involved, above all. The difference relates to how one is to go about discerning what will make for that wellbeing. One school advocates for a reliance on knowledge, reflection, and expertise. The other calls for direct, simple, and embodied awareness of the ways things are.

 

Who can deny the value of either form of wisdom? Both offer, in their own distinct ways, a profound relationship to the world, and an intent to act in ways that go beyond merely serving one’s own self-interest. As Warren Brown suggests, the difference between cunning and wisdom is wisdom’s orientation towards some vision of a greater good. Or, similarly, as Aristotle put it: intelligence can attain any goal, but wisdom knows which goals are worth attaining. In any case, both a wisdom of knowing and one of unknowing have important roles to play – in religious and secular life alike.

 

To illustrate the value of such wisdoms we need not look far. A wisdom of knowledge and accumulated experience, for example, is what we seek from respected elders and friends, whose life experience and avuncular concern for our well-being might help us in the process of living. It is the wisdom of Proverbs, with its rules of thumb, its general good advice, and its optimism that wise living brings good fruit and many rewards. It is the wisdom of “the capable wife”, also from Proverbs – described by theologian David Kelsey as expressing the epitome of the well-run household (and here “the household” is to be taken to be our families, our communities, our social institutions, and the whole of God’s creation). Wisdom for Kelsey is the process of discerning what makes for the wellbeing of God’s created world in ways consistent with God’s ongoing creative care. So, whether we are speaking of Christian theology, or a more broadly secular wisdom psychology, we see that experience, expertise, tradition, social scaffolding, good advice, and accumulated knowledge form parts of a crucial kind of wisdom that we simply cannot do without.

 

A wisdom of unknowing is equally crucial. While accumulated knowledge is our constant scaffolding and support in this life, each of us has to learn to see the world for ourselves. A wisdom of the heart is required for coping with the direct experience of life, and many of the demands life puts on us. Sometimes past wisdom is not enough. The classic expression of this truth can be found in Hebrew wisdom literature. This body of biblical texts also contains the tension between the value of accumulated knowledge, and its failings and limitations. In contrast to Proverbs, which contains tried and tested wisdom, we find in the book of Job a very different view of wisdom. The book of Job is very suspicious of the idea that past knowledge is sufficient to cope with the difficulties of living. Moreover, it is very critical of the idea that there is justice in this world, or any other world for that matter, such that wise living will necessarily bring countless rewards. In Proverbs, good living brings many rewards, and there is truth in that. But, in Job, wisdom must be its own reward, and there is truth in that too.

 

Job lives a righteous life, in good keeping with the word and spirit of his tradition’s wisdom. Yet, he is cast into sustained and unbearable affliction. Job’s friends, expressive of the standard theologies of the time, advise Job to keep faith. They condemn Job, and tell him that, since the world is just, his suffering must be punishment for his iniquities. But Job is not content with any of this. For him, these pieces of advice are merely stock answers and clichés which do not fit with his own experience of life. Indeed, Job is not content until he has had a direct experience of truth (given to him in the presence of God who instructs him through a whirlwind). Job is told, in effect, that the world is bigger than his suffering, it is bigger than anyone can comprehend, and that it has value in itself – over and beyond what any of us suffer.

 

Therefore, the book of Job offers us an extreme example of a direct confrontation with that which is incomprehensible and utterly beyond us – in the face of which we must be humbled and surrender. For all the value of accumulated knowledge and experience, in the confrontation with the larger questions of life, we must accept our limitations, and we must accept that the world has value beyond any of our own individual selves. This is truly a spiritual wisdom. The word ‘spiritual’ is so often misused in popular parlance. But across the world’s faith traditions, one consistent characteristic of true spirituality is that it opens the individual up to the direct realisation that they are part of a much larger scheme, one which has value in itself. In spiritual wisdom, individuals learn that there is value beyond themselves, and that their own personal value arises, not because “I am so important, and I have done so many great things”, but because all things participate in that larger scheme. Some experience this in personal terms, some do not. In either case, since one is a part of that larger scheme, one shares in its value too.

 

Of course, when one states this verbally, it sounds like nothing more than traditional wisdom, the same old stock answers and clichés. But the actual personal realisation of it is something else. The wisdom of the heart, this spiritual wisdom, allows us to experience for ourselves that we are a part of this world and not separate from it at all. And, as is testified to by millennia of human writing, it seems to be a universal human experience that comes about gradually through sustained and quiet awareness – through simple experience and being-in-the-world. It is a potential realisation that is open to all human beings, in their own way, as it comes from a profound universality in the human condition. It is interesting that even the most rabid of atheists will admit to having had flashes of such wisdom (though they will reject vehemently that there is anything religious or divine about it).

 

There is indeed a universality here. For, whether we are talking about a Christian wisdom or a psychological discourse, we can see that many more similar themes can be found. For example, one profound question life poses to us all regards how we are to cope with our human limits and biological finitude. In Christian discourse, as much as with psychological discourse, we find a split between what might be called a wisdom of preparedness, and a wisdom of surrender. While both forms of wisdom agree that it is essential to know that humans are limited – we are limited in what we can know, and limited in what we can do – the two types of wisdom proffer very different kinds of answers for coping with these limitations.

 

The first kind of wisdom, the knowing wisdom, is particularly threatened by the fact that it is not capable of knowing everything, as that is the very basis for its standing. As we have seen, a wisdom of knowing deals with the world primarily by appealing to longstanding experience, tried and tested knowledge. Such a wisdom copes with its limitations through preparedness. A wisdom of knowing copes with its limitations by attempting to know its weaknesses, and providing contingency plans to compensate for these limitations. One finds explicit mention of contingency plans throughout the cognitive-heavy Berlin Wisdom Paradigm. And, certainly, this is a wise thing to do! There is indeed a wisdom to being well-prepared, to knowing one’s shortcomings, and for seeking broader supports and advice in face of one’s shortcomings.

 

But one cannot prepare for everything. And, in contrast to the above, the wisdom of unknowing is less threatened by the fact that it cannot know or do everything. Such a wisdom copes with such limitations by simply accepting them. Or, not so simply, for authentic surrender is not easily won. Yet, some truths are unassailable. Human knowledge and capacities will always be limited. Things do not always work out. Evil people sometimes prosper. Sometimes children die horribly. We live in a universe infinitely greater than ourselves. And, there is a wisdom in simply knowing and accepting such limitedness, and making one’s peace with that.

 

The interesting thing is that both kinds of wisdom are needed in coping with our limitations. There are times when it is wise to be prepared, and to know oneself. There are also times when one must surrender (and, as Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous prayer exclaims: “God, give me the wisdom to know which is which!”). So, perhaps this speaks to the need for a further wisdom – one of being able to discern what one can change, and what one must surrender to.

 

As such, although we have drawn a distinction between these two kinds of wisdom, we see that they need each other too. The one wisdom cannot be complete without the other. Surely one is asking too much here! Gaining in one or the other kind of wisdom is challenging enough, the work of a lifetime, one might say. The wisdom of knowing is difficult because it involves learning, practicing, gaining in knowledge and long experience of living. The wisdom of unknowing is difficult because it involves cultivating the sense that one is not the centre of the universe, and perhaps not especially important at all in the grand scheme of things. But in that realisation one sees that there is a greater kind of value to things, and one shares in that value too.

 

Yet, both kinds of wisdom are crucial, and growing in either of these kinds of wisdom can be no easy matter.

 

Perhaps it is too much to expect that a person can become wise across all dimensions, and perhaps this is the value of having good friends and a good base of social support. What one person lacks in one kind of wisdom, another can make up for. All the same, I would like to finish by remarking upon the possibility of an integral wisdom, one that is able to balance knowledge and reflection, with a simple awareness of the world as it is. When phrased like that, such a wisdom does not seem so much of a stretch after all. Balancing reflection and knowledge with a meditative wisdom would by no means be an easy thing to cultivate, but it must surely be possible. Have we not all met people like this?

 

Indeed, such an idea – balancing reflective and more implicit modes of knowing – runs through the work of Fraser Watts, who has long advocated for multi-level models of human cognition. Such models, like Teasdale and Barnard’s “Interacting Cognitive Subsystems” model, integrate both intuitive as well as verbal cognitive machinery, implicit and explicit forms of knowing, in describing human understanding. Also, more recently, Watts has suggested that the development of the world religions themselves might be described, to some extent, in terms of such a balance – alternating movements between moments of spiritual intuition, interspersed with periods of reflection, which attempt to give voice and structure to such intuitions. Perhaps, the development of religion might helpfully be understood as an ongoing attempt to articulate such profound intuitions (or, as Douglas Adams put it: “to eff the ineffable”), and to give structure to them.

 

In a world such as ours, where dangerous and foolish forms of dogmatism continue to create such mayhem, perhaps one might more helpfully describe a living religious wisdom in Watts’ terms. Such wisdom would not be an unquestioning alliance to texts and procrustean interpretations (as was the advice of Job’s friends, against whom God vindicated Job). Nor would it reside in the purely inarticulate nakedness of transparent spiritual awareness. Instead, living religious wisdom would then be a matter of continuing in this process of balancing the accepted wisdom of old with the constantly present spiritual challenge we face. That is, attempting to give better and better voice to the profound and inarticulate spiritual sense that so many of us seem to share, and whose wordless yearning (“with groans too deep for words”), so many of us seem to struggle with.

 

Harris Wiseman

Honorary Senior Research Associate

Institute of Education, University College London

By | 2017-06-12T14:19:05+00:00 June 12th, 2017|Categories: Blog|Tags: , , , |

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