It was a favorite Sunday school lesson, and we relished hearing it repeatedly. The story of God appearing to young Solomon as he assumes the kingship of Israel reminded us of what was most important: wisdom. “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil …” (1 Kings 3:9).
God honors his petition, and stories of the wise king are included in the Hebrew Bible. The one we remember best is when two women claim the same baby and ask him to decide who is the rightful mother. He suggests dividing the baby with a sword, and the true mother protests, revealing that she prizes the baby’s life above all else.
Humans are a bundle of competing desires, and we do not always sort out what should take priority. We live distracted lives, and a culture of instant gratification eclipses deeper pursuits. Wisdom is rarely the focus of our yearning, to our detriment. We tend to associate wisdom with old people, insight hard-won after long years of experience. Yet wisdom does not automatically come with age (or I would be much more sapiential than I am!) Young persons can be wise, as well, and the generations have much to gain by sharing what they have learned.
“Wisdom is rarely the focus of our yearning, to our detriment.”
In recent years, it seems that wisdom is making a comeback. Educational programs stress character and virtue; wisdom fits into this discourse, even if not directly named. The University of Chicago, however, explicitly names this pursuit and has created the Center for Practical Wisdom. Their Wisdom Research shows that growing in wisdom requires varied experiences. To that I would add a caveat: experience is not enough without deep reflection and “wisdom from above” whose source is God.
Writing about the need for wisdom, Gary Peluso-Verdend of Phillips Seminary writes:
Practical wisdom is deliberation and beneficial action concerning matters that could be different from what they are. Such matters involved morals, ethics, spirituality, community formation, conflict management, and all the ways human beings relate to one another and to our habitats.
As models of church and ministry continue to change, wisdom is more important than ever. Where do we turn for this?
Theologian David W. Ford of Cambridge University speaks of theology as wisdom. This is a helpful turn from the more venerable notion of theology as knowledge or doctrine, which often has negative connotations. Wisdom is more than information; rather, it is the practice of living with discretion, understanding, and the guidance of the Spirit.
Ford believes that the source of wisdom is “a sustained engagement with scripture’s testimony to God and God’s purposes amidst the cries of the world” (Christian Wisdom: Desiring God and Learning in Love). He adheres to the Psalmist’s teaching: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding” (Psalm 111:10). Fear of God is not cringing anxiety but yielding the self to God’s claim. It is recognition that God’s reign is ultimate — and it is for the good of humans.
“Theology as wisdom is the lifelong pursuit of learning to love God for God’s sake, not just for what we might extract from the divine.”
In addition to the study of scripture, participation in worship, regular prayer and rigorous interrogation of the received tradition conspire to form a wise person. When a horrific tragedy befell a nearby monastery, the Abbot guided the community with uncommon grace and wisdom. His daily practice of praying the Psalter in choir, accompanied by private prayer and the discipline of living in community, had so formed his heart and mind that he instinctively knew what to do.
The desire for wisdom is a form of schooling as one is taught by the Spirit of God how to love God and others. The Spirit is the source of wisdom, and one learns to listen to that which wells up from the innermost being. Living in the Spirit prepares one to meet the cries of the world, as well as the groaning of one’s own spirit.
Theology as wisdom is the lifelong pursuit of learning to love God for God’s sake, not just for what we might extract from the divine. We meet God afresh as we read the biblical narratives of human encounter with the creating, coming, and abiding Triune God. Gaining hearts of wisdom allows us to “number our days” with gratitude and discernment, being careful how we live, “not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time…” (Ephesians 5:16).
Like the biblical sage Solomon, God offers to us the possibility of become wise. Our time abounds in foolishness; nevertheless, wisdom can overcome it with patient fortitude and grace. Grounded in the life of God, humans share in the promise wisdom holds.