A Brief Sketch On Wisdom

Dr. James S. Spiegel, PhD

An Ongoing Series of Sketches from the Contributors of Being Good: Christian Virtues for Everyday Life, co-edited by Michael W. Austin and R. Douglas Geivett (Eerdmans, 2012). More info can be found at www.beinggoodnews.com.

Today in American society it seems the last thing on people’s minds is wisdom. From Hollywood to Wall Street, we are preoccupied with wealth, entertainment, and social status.  And even where wisdom is generally acknowledged as a noble aim, genuine devotees of this virtue are rare.  Yet the biblical exhortation to wisdom is clear, as the proverb says wisdom is “more precious than rubies” (Prov. 8:11).  But what exactly is wisdom?  What is it about this trait that makes it so valuable?  And what practical steps can one take in order to become wise?  Is it a matter of simple dedication in study, or are there other things involved in the attainment of wisdom?  In my chapter I address each of these questions.

Generally speaking, wisdom is a kind of practical moral insight.  So it appears to be both a moral virtue and an intellectual virtue.  For the wise person has knowledge of what is the best conduct in particular situations, and this knowledge is manifested in good conduct.  So you might say that wisdom is a sort of “governing” virtue that is necessary, to some degree, for the development of all other virtues. This is why wisdom is especially important and perhaps why we find such a strong biblical emphasis on it.

How does one become wise?  Is it just a matter of study and cognitive reflection?  While we usually think in terms of beliefs determining behavior, Scripture suggests that the causal dynamic runs the other direction as well.  The Old Testament wisdom literature tells us that God makes wise the simple and grants understanding to those who humble themselves (see Psalm 19:7, Psalm 25:9, Prov. 1:4, and Prov. 11:2).  And some New Testament passages underscore the critical role of behavior when it comes to belief formation (e.g., Rom. 1:18-32, Eph. 4:18-19).

Alvin Plantinga has provided some insights regarding how vice undermines wisdom.  He notes that cognitive faculties are like any other aspect of human beings, in so far as they were designed for a purpose (to form true beliefs) and that they function properly only under certain conditions.  Like any physical organ, such as lungs or eyes, cognitive processes can malfunction because of corrupting influences.  And moral vice, such pride, resentment, or the habitual indulgence in perverse behavior, is a major cause of cognitive malfunction.  In other words, sin compromises a person’s capacity to form true beliefs, particularly regarding moral and spiritual matters.

Psychological studies have shown that, when faced with a conflict between their personal beliefs and behavior, people will often reconcile this conflict by changing the way they think about their behavior.  Rather than alter their conduct, they will take the less demanding route and search for some way to rationalize it.  This response is almost always unconscious, which of course makes for a morally insidious dynamic in contexts involving vicious behavior.  These moral-psychological insights appear to confirm the Apostle Paul’s remarks in Romans 1:18-32 where he describes how wicked behavior leads to futile thinking.

So sinful behavior undermines the quest for wisdom.  But on the positive side, virtuous living leads to wisdom.  By living rightly we diminish the corrupting impact of sin on the mind.  Consequently, our cognitive processes can function properly, and we are more likely to form true beliefs about moral and spiritual issues.  So those who faithfully obey God will grow wiser, just as Scripture tells us.

While Plantinga and others have done some helpful work in exploring the negative dynamics of moral psychology when it comes to cognition, more work needs to be done to understand the positive impact of virtuous living.  What are the specific moral-psychological causal dynamics involved?  What role might the spiritual disciplines (e.g., prayer, fasting, sacrifice, etc.) play in maximizing cognitive health?  And what specific implications might there be here for Christian educators and scholars, for whom proper cognitive function is especially critical?

James S. Spiegel
Taylor University