Wisdom is a virtue that seems to be universally valued among the cultures of the world.
It is hard to imagine a reasonable argument against its value as a perspective on life’s issues and challenges.
The various branches of the counseling profession, as well as the less formal engagements that offer guidance for living, are guided by a deeper vision of how knowledge is most helpfully applied to life.
When I have asked in the classroom for examples of a “wise” person, the answers typically have been a grandparent or other mature member of the family or community, maybe highly educated and knowledgeable, maybe not; maybe well known, maybe not.
The conversation that follows tends to point to patience, respect and a deeper understanding of life beyond the concerns of the moment.
We remember the stories we learned as children of the wisdom of King Solomon as he adjudicated a dispute between two women in competition for a child by raising the conflict above its surface level to a more profound one.
A favorite feature of the Acts portrait of the early engagements of the apostles with their community is the story of the Pharisee Gamaliel, who defused a partisan conflict over the claims of the gospel by exercising a wisdom that transcended the opposing parties (Acts 5:33-39).
Both testaments of the biblical testimony contain literature and specific examples of the exercise of wisdom as being at the heart of covenant faith. Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job carry on the “wisdom conversation” of Israel’s faith; and the letter of James offers similar guidance for living life infused with wisdom.
In addition, the insights of the prophets and the teachings of Jesus and Paul illustrate the application of wisdom to specific issues and challenges that appear in the journey of life.
To “be biblical” is to embrace and seek to apply its portrait of wisdom as the most comprehensive expression of the love (hesed and agape) that is the nature of God in whose image we are created.
In ethics, where attention is focused on the application of values, especially ultimate values, to concrete experience, wisdom has (or should have) a place at the table.
The specifics of life’s challenges often bring together both immediate and longer range concerns; and both are often in need of urgent attention. Wisdom is the perspective that attends to both and helps them be addressed in a way that is most conducive to the holistic health of the person, community or global society.
In recent days, we have watched leaders of much of the world community come together in response to the invasion and horrific destruction of life and land by a large military power.
The options for response have ranged from doing nothing, which would allow it to continue unrestrained, to kind-for-kind retaliation, which could escalate the conflict to catastrophic proportions for the entire planet.
The wisdom that through careful diplomacy brought the community of world leadership together has created a partnership among national neighbors that also seems to be allowing wisdom a place at the table of their deliberations.
A respectful hearing of the concerns of the victimized people, combined with a firm commitment to do what is possible and prudent in response, seems to be getting high priority. We can hope and pray that wisdom will hold its place in their deliberations and decisions.
The raw material for wisdom’s work, in personal and global life, is most often filled with conditions and variables that make its work challenging.
Those who find security in denial or avoidance of fissures in the status quo (“Not my problem”) are threatened by wisdom’s insistence on attending to the problem. The revolutionary spirit that wants urgent action is impatient with wisdom’s careful deliberations about consequences (“Damn the torpedoes; full speed ahead!”).
Wisdom seeks to operate from a vision of a common good, rather than to please oneself or a particular constituency.
History, of course, will render a verdict on the present situation and wisdom’s response to it.
Meanwhile, we can remember, and encourage others to remember, that we live in a world where the “principalities and powers” and their human agents are met by the possibilities inherent in wisdom to restrain and overcome their destructive agenda, which unfortunately and tragically can prevail for a time.
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).