It’s important to be informed. But it’s also important to be wise. One is rarer today than the other. We live in the information age, but not the age of wisdom. Now that we’re in a strange new world of isolated anxiety about illness, money, jobs, etc., it’s a good time to make wisdom as important as information.
Even though we all know that being informed is important, it’s frankly not a problem, any more than people’s intelligence is an issue. People have all the IQ they need, and access to more news or data than any human beings in history. What is lacking is something else.
That something else is, in a word, wisdom. Wisdom is more than knowledge or information. It’s not a mental capacity like, say, great memorization skill or high mathematical proficiency. Wisdom is more of a commitment and a practice; it’s being a careful and critical thinker. It’s perspective. Wisdom isn’t morally neutral. It requires what the Greeks called “intellectual virtues” like fairness, honesty, consistency, etc.
In historic Christian terms, true wisdom has a theological foundation. The wisest non-omniscient man in the Bible wrote (Prov. 1:7 and other places) that true knowledge (the wisdom kind, not the raw data kind) begins with “the fear of the LORD.” The name is YHWH (Hebrew), and the fear is not a servile, cowering terror but a submissive respect.
A wise man knows who and what he is compared to God. A wise man knows how little he knows, and how much he has to learn. That was the secret to Socrates’ genius. By contrast, the rest of the verse says, “a fool despises wisdom.”
Wisdom is “Worldviewish”
Wisdom is a ‘big picture’ way of thinking. It’s what Francis Schaeffer referred to as “thinking worldviewishly.” This is how a wise person should read every news story and opinion piece. It’s how we should process all new information about the world and its events. Owen Barfield, the good friend and colleague of J. R. R. Tolkien & C. S. Lewis, said of the latter, “What he thought about everything was contained in what he thought about anything.” That is what it means to think in worldview terms.
People today are, as I said, perfectly intelligent and thoroughly informed. If anything they are too informed, in that we face a daily deluge of news and opinions. What is missing is not more information, but the discernment to make sense of all of it – to sift, to judge all of the opinions wisely.
Wisdom Transcends Politics
A lot of people think first in terms of political allegiances. A few people are so obsessed they can’t see past the politics our think outside of it. The political divide is real, but not the most important lens through which to see events.
If you have no theological framework, no philosophical roots, no spiritual substance, no moral foundation, no sense of the history and development of ideas, then you will be helpless. The river of cultural opinions will carry you away. You will just become assimilated into some dominant way of thinking, finding yourself on a “team” so to speak, wearing the jersey for one political side or the other.
The difference between being wise and being “on a side” is the difference between the way our public discourse should sound, and the way it actually sounds. Millions of people find themselves on a political “team” without the ability to articulate convincingly the reason why. Their team seems to stand for some good ideas, they think, and they’ve been told how terrible the other team is., But team sports is fueled more by emotion than reason. It’s more about winning than wisdom. The people who disagree are your opponents, and must be defeated.
Make Wisdom your Goal
The aforementioned writer of most of the Book of Proverbs did not just recommend wisdom, but commanded it. The words are inspired. And the words are clear. “What is God’s will for me?” people always ask. Here is part of it. Being wise is part of your calling. It is our responsibility to hone the precious and powerful instrument of the mind. It is a gift to everyone who bears the image of God, and that excludes no human being.
Difficult times can be great life coaches. Suffering is a teacher that is hard to duplicate artificially. Americans have lived well for a long time, with overall hardship minimized. In this way we are victims of great success and its consequent comforts. Wealth and privilege have a habit of cultivating vices instead of virtues. It’s an old story but still true. When life is good, everyone forgets God & slides toward moral decadence. We grow confident & arrogant. It has often been noted that while rich masters became more worldly, slaves were writing great hymns.
As the great Puritan scholar and minister Cotton Mather put it in his time, “Faithfulness begat prosperity, and the daughter devoured the mother.” The point I am making is that perhaps just a little deprivation and inconvenience, mixed with the sobering reality of illness and reminder of our mortality, can awaken us from the zombie-like stupor of our privileged lives.
We could decide to read, watch or listen to things that challenge us. Imagine if for every hour of usual entertainment, you had around 15 minutes of wisdom-intake. It could be in the form of book, article, essay, sermon, or documentary. I’m thinking of sound, quality stuff that makes you think more carefully and feeds your soul. It should give spiritual depth and moral clarification. It should further shape your worldiview.
We can still stay informed every day, and we’ll be wiser when this is all over.