Being Right and the End of Wisdom

Happy New Year, all! The reflection below came straight from my heart in 2017, and it found a home in Little Rock Scripture Study's monthly newsletter Little Rock Connections. It is republished here with permission. I hope you will recognize within it your own wisdom, earned by years or given by grace, and that you will enjoy its fruits in 2018!

* * * * * * * * * *

Bell bottoms, encyclopedias, cursive, dinosaurs. Things that aren’t around much anymore. 

Will we soon add “wisdom” to this nostalgic list?

Wisdom is the fruitful combination of experience, knowledge and good judgment. It is a dynamic thing; wise people are dynamic. They learn, grow, adapt, change their minds, take forward and backward steps. Wise people are interesting. They have something valuable. It is sometimes a gift but more often hard-earned.

Emerging from experience and learning, wisdom is an inherently slow-growing thing. But have we lost patience for its cultivation? Has our tolerance for the fluidity of wisdom dried up in hopes of something solid and firmly defined? Has it become more admirable to be right than to be wise? Is it better to “come on strong” than to come on…thoughtful?  Is it more admirable to “stick to your guns” than to muddle your way through that cloudy, sticky, murky, stubborn, ever-present but oft-denied gray area? That gray area is life.

We like black and white; we crave clarity; we devour rules. We want to be right, and we like people who are right. Increasingly, we like people who are right quickly. Slow and deliberate seems out of pace. Changing one’s mind is weakness.

But what did the ancients think? Biblical wisdom is not first and foremost about being right. It is an approach to life – how to navigate the intersection of spiritual and secular, how to get along with people, how to make decisions, how to respond to the problems we encounter every day. Wisdom values work, relationships and dialogue. It points one toward the fruitful paths of life. Wisdom includes knowledge, and a wise person is often “right,” but wisdom is much more. 

The wisdom tradition endorses a viewpoint found throughout all of scripture: human beings are not perfect, but they are remarkable. Where they are lacking, they can change and be better. They are not often “one or the other.” They are more often “both and.” Human beings – and their endeavors – are redeemable.

Wisdom, then, is not cut-and-dried, right or wrong. It is not simple and one-note. It seeks a “breadth of understanding” (1 Kgs. 4:29) and acknowledges that human understanding is a process, and often a slow one (even Jesus, we are told, grew in wisdom). A major contribution of the wisdom book of Proverbs is the assertion that wisdom is learned, and learning requires guidance, and guidance requires humility. This natural humility of the learner, the disciple, is a fading virtue in a world that increasingly heaps skepticism on the possibility that “the other” may have something to teach us. When this humility is absent, very little real learning takes place – even less understanding, and certainly no wisdom. Proverbs offered this warning centuries ago: the one who refuses counsel, guidance and instruction will face the consequences of a simple, static, stagnant life.

There is an ebb and flow to wisdom that mirrors the natural flux of life and relationships. Indeed, the ancients believed that we are supposed to learn and grow and change. The only thing we were meant to be entrenched in is the natural human rhythm of transformation fueled by dynamic concepts like searching, repenting, returning, proclaiming, trusting and abiding. 

A lovely passage from the deuterocanonical book of Wisdom declares that wisdom “renews all things; in every generation she passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God, and prophets” (7:27). Friends of God and prophets.  Surely we could use more of these. Then we must choose a slower, more thoughtful, more receptive, more conversant, humbler, subtler, more nuanced way. Yes, this way of wisdom offers a gentle antidote to our excesses of speed, activity, polarization and bluster, in a human community at risk of losing its grip on intimacy, reflection, quiet, intrapersonal intelligence and interpersonal relationships. If wisdom was the architect of creation (Prov. 8:30), might we benefit from utilizing her blueprint? 

Our world does not have a King Solomon, or a King Arthur, or a single person of legendary wisdom. We only have each other, and the biblical promise that those who seek wisdom can find her, and that those who have found her have found a treasure. Being right can be helpful, but being wise is life-giving. It heals and begets in a way that being right never could. An echo of the iconic Tree of Life, whose roots run from front to back of our ancient books, wisdom bears many kinds of fruit, and her leaves are for the healing of the nations (Prov. 3:18; Rev. 22:2).

tree of life.jpg