In Season 2 Episode 5 of the Eudo Podcast, Dr. Paul M. Gould discusses the virtue of Wisdom and how we can join with God to develop the Christian virtue of wisdom.
Why is wisdom important?
In Romans chapter 1, the Apostle Paul tells us that when the truth about God is suppressed, one of the results (among others) is foolishness.
Romans 1:21-22: 21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools.” (NIV)
They claimed to be wise, but they were fools. This is an apt description of many in our disenchanted age. Everything, it seems, has been turned upside down. We are told there is no sacred order to things and so anything goes. We are told that we’re free to chart our own destinies and find our own purposes. We narrate our lives on social media and perform foolish acts to garner attention. Lest you doubt, consider the latest viral videos—whether it is people doing the “bird-box challenge” or eating tide pods for attention—these are foolish acts with potentially deadly side-effects.
It was not always this way. Philosophy, as originally conceived placed a high premium on wisdom. In fact, the English word “philosophy” comes from two Greek words: phileo(love) and sophia(wisdom). So, for the Greeks, philosophy was the “love of wisdom.” Actually, Plato puts it a bit more scandalously (in the Republic). For Plato, the philosopher is wisdom’s lover—the philosopher is moved by wisdom, and gives everything to find it.
What then, is the virtue of wisdom? How can we understand this great good—this good that is of supreme value according to Scripture, yet so absent from this world, a world that seems to have little patience for it?
Consider first the etymology of the word for what we typically call practical wisdom, the word “prudence.” Prudencecomes the word providence, which literally means “the ability to foresee.” So, the prudent person sees or perceives reality accurately, so that they can choose a course of action that is good. Of course, given human finitude and the contingencies of life, we can never eliminate all uncertainty, anxiety, and risk from our decision making. But the cultivation of “perfect prudence” can help us live life well, as we shall see.
“The good must be loved and made reality.”In other words, the common goal of all human action is to knowthe good, lovethe good, and servethe good—and it is not a stretch to say, ultimately, to be united to the good (since ultimately, goodness finds its source in God). If we weave all these ideas and definitions together, we arrive at a working definition of Christian wisdom.
“Wisdom is understandingthe sacred order of things and actingin accordance with this order.”
Wisdom has also been called the “chief” or “mother” of all the cardinal virtues (the other three cardinal virtues are courage, temperance, and justice). Why is that?
Wisdom is considered the chief of the cardinal virtues because of its indispensable role in all the other virtues. It has been described as “the charioteer of the virtues” since we need wisdom, or prudence, in order to apply general principles to particular situations in such a way as to promote the good and avoid evil. Only the wise person can be just, brave, and temperate. Wisdom is a pre-requisite for the moral virtues, a prerequisite for moral excellence. That is why it is so important to a well-lived life.
How specifically does the process of reasoning well so that we might live well look? What are the phases or parts to successful practical reasoning?
Practical reasoning is complex, consisting of various ‘moments’ or ‘phases’ as the prudent person “looks both ways.” The formal “mechanism” that transforms true knowledge of the sacred order into prudent decisions and action have three states of phases: deliberation, judgment, and decision.
The first phase, deliberation, of prudential reasoning requires that we seek the counsel of others. There is a kind of humility then in the truly wise. The practically wise realizes that he or she needs the counsel of others. For Christians, part of the counsel we seek is divine counsel—through prayer, God’s word, and the wisdom of the Christian community.
The second phase of prudential reasoning is to make good or soundjudgements. Life’s circumstances don’t allow us to deliberate indefinitely. We must make a choice—after we reflect on our own and in the counsel of others. We must intellectually “pull the trigger” and choose a course of action.
Finally, after deliberating and reaching a good judgment, practical wisdom moves one to action.
Practically, how can we join with God to develop the Christian virtue of wisdom?
First, engage in good conduct.Since good conduct is largely a matter of living virtuously, the idea is that we can work to develop all the virtues by and through habituation and as a by-product we will become wise (cf. James 3:13).
Second, pray for wisdom. The first phase in practical reasoning is seeking counsel; what better than seeking the divine counsel? It is in Christ that all treasures of wisdom and knowledge are found. As we pray to God and ask for wisdom, we can trust, that God will provide it (cf. James 1:5).
Third, meditate on and delight in God’s word. Do you want wisdom? Do you want to see and delight in the world the same way Jesus does? Then immerse yourself in the world of the Bible. Meditate on the word of God for it is “living and active” (cf. Hebrews 4:12).
Finally, observe its presence or lack in others. This includes real life role models and villains, as well as fictional characters in stories.
Three ideas in closing:
- First, remember,apart from seeking God there is no wisdom. It is based on the conviction that God is our highest good and when we organize our lives around the good that is God, we flourish. We gain wisdom and knowledge and understanding.
- Second, to gain wisdom, remember we must turn the soul in the right direction.Off of the stream of experience to Jesus we must look. Our job, as followers of Christ, is to “fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith” as we read in Hebrews 12:2.
- Finally, wisdom is a virtue that results in blessing to others.We are blessed to be a blessing. Part of the fruit of the wise life is the restoration of order—shalom—in our own life, and in the lives of others.
So, do you want to successfully find your way through this fallen world—a world full of danger, toil, trials, and temptation? Then follow in the steps of Jesus and cultivate the virtue of wisdom. Enter into the gospel story so that you might perceivethe world correctly and live rightlyfor the glory of God and the blessings of all.
- C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters
- Joseph Pieper, in The Four Cardinal Virtues
- Karen Swallow Prior, On Reading Well