learning the words: wisdom


Today’s guest post is from Physics & Whiskey, who blogs about his journey away from absolute certainty and toward endless curiosity at Science and Other Drugs. “Learning the Words” is a series on the words many of us didn’t have in fundamentalism or overly conservative evangelicalism– and how we got them back. If you would like to be a part of this series, you can find my contact information at the top.

As far as fundamentalist homeschooling families go, mine was fairly average. We saw a lot of families that were definitely more extreme. Growing up, I felt like my parents had balanced everything out fairly well. They swallowed the Pearls’ teachings on discipline hook, line, and sinker, but they shied away from the patriarchal teachings. All of us envied the sense of community in the local ATI group, but we knew there was something a little off about the whole business. My dad preferred the KJV, but we recognized that the KJV-only dogma of most Independent Fundamental Baptists were ridiculous.

We sampled a little here and a little there, never entirely diving into any one system or group or ideology. Perhaps that’s why the word I’m most thoughtful about is wisdom.

“The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight.” (Proverbs 4:7)

Growing up, this passage always seemed tautological. “In order to get wisdom, get wisdom.” Boy, that sure tells us a lot. Of course, the presupposition of Biblical Literalism obscured the poetic depth of many such passages, but still, it was puzzling.

In our family, wisdom had a very specific meaning. Wisdom was a special piece of knowledge or insight provided by the Holy Spirit apart from any epistemic process.

Epistemology is the study of how we acquire knowledge our information. For example, empirical (observational) epistemology says that we use our senses to arrive at most or all knowledge. An epistemic process is a pathway to making a claim; it follows the basic principles of logic and reason and includes both premises and arguments. Because it has all these elements, a statement based on an epistemic process can be questioned, debated, and ultimately understood.

But wisdom was something different. A piece of wisdom couldn’t be questioned or argued or analyzed. It came from God, so it just had to be accepted. You weren’t allowed to understand wisdom; you just had to follow it.

In practice, this meant that whatever insight my parents gleaned (either from the Bible or from a fundamentalist parenting book or from a pastor or from special revelation during prayer) could not be questioned. According to fundamentalist belief, parents had a special connection to the Holy Spirit which allowed them to make the right decision 100% of the time, as long as they were “trusting God’s Word.” They didn’t have to understand it, they just had to apply it and believe that it would yield positive results. “No chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”

Labeling intuition or church dogma as wisdom essentially made it God’s Word; since God is the source of all wisdom, questioning anything labeled as wisdom was tantamount to questioning God. Worst of all, not even my parents were permitted to question it. If my mom said something was wisdom, my dad was duty-bound to defend it; if my dad said something was wisdom, my mom had to do the same. Wisdom could be invoked at any time to end any discussion. If you continued to protest after wisdom had been invoked, the full weight of Proverbs was brought to bear.

“Fools despise wisdom and discipline.”
“He who disdains instruction despises his own soul, but he who heeds rebuke gets understanding.”
“A fool despises his father’s instruction, but he who receives correction is prudent.”
“A wise son makes a glad father, but a foolish son is the grief of his mother.”

Oh, and here’s my personal favorite. Any time we tried to defend ourselves: “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but he who heeds counsel is wise.” In other words, shut up and face the consequences; the more you try to explain, the more foolish you are.

I say “favorite” with my tongue planted firmly in my cheek, because nothing could be further from the truth. Even now, I’m having trouble glancing through the book of Proverbs. These passages bring back a lot of difficult memories. My heart is racing and I have a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. Wisdom is hard for me to talk about. I can feel the nervous panic of sitting in my parents’ room waiting and waiting because I had made the painful mistake of “despising wisdom.”

The irony was that fundamentalists prize the doctrine of “solo scriptura to an extreme degree. Scripture is supposed to be 100% sufficient– except when it’s not, and you need to add wisdom to properly round it out. This practice is hard to spot, especially since most “wisdom” consists of Bible verses pulled out of their context and applied liberally to the current situation.

Wisdom was a way of cementing parental authority. “Do not despise the chastening of the Lord, nor detest His correction.” To question a parent’s wisdom was to rebel against God. It was our responsibility to simply pray until God gave us the same wisdom he had already given our parents.

So it’s easy to see how I might be a little hesitant about using the word “wisdom” now.

“The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.” (Matthew 11:19)

Growing up, wisdom couldn’t be questioned. Wisdom was a guarantee of results. You simply applied it, and it always worked. No matter what.

But in Matthew 11, Jesus says: “Wisdom is justified by her deeds.” Even Jesus, who metaphorically embodied wisdom, didn’t act as though he was above question. He didn’t say, “I have divine wisdom on my side, so I’m right no matter what.” No, he said that wisdom was identified by what it actually did, not where it came from. If actions bear good fruit, they were wise; if actions bear bad fruit, they were unwise.

Wisdom isn’t magical. It’s the result of experience and reflection. If something works, it’s wise; if not, it isn’t.

If I want to be a wise father to my son, I can’t depend on “wisdom” as a fall-back that will guarantee the proper results if I don’t know what I’m doing. Finally, I understand what Proverbs 4:7 means: In order to be wise, I have to get wisdom. I have to pay attention to what works and what doesn’t; I have to be willing to change if my intuitions are leading me the wrong way.

“Test everything; hold fast to what is good.”

That’s wisdom.

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  • Reblogged this on Science and Other Drugs and commented:
    Guest post over on Defeating the Dragons about the meaning of “wisdom”.

  • What practical wisdom have you gleaned from the bible? (Not talking about the philosophy of wisdom, rather actual, stone-cold, hard, functioning direction)

    • The Bible is about people, not propositional logic.

      I guess I can understand why it’s so hard for you guys to get away from the presupposition of propositional-literal interpretation, simply because you’ve been exposed to it so many times. But seriously, let it rest.

      The Bible was not written to us; it was written for us.

      • For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”
        (1 Corinthians 1:19)

        That doesn’t sound too nice, does it.

        • Sounds like Paul knew my pastor.

        • No, it certainly doesn’t. That’s what happens when fundamentalists rip it out of context and ignore the historical and cultural context into which Paul was speaking.

    • The only Christians I’m aware of who take a strict, stone-cold, hard functioning approach to “wisdom” in the Bible are fundamentalists. It’s not a good idea– in my opinion, it’s downright dangerous to take this approach. The Bible is principally a book written about people, about family, about relationships.

      The only “advice” I think is safe to glean is the Golden Rule– to love your neighbor as yourself. Outside of that, the “advice” is buried in historical context, in the perspective of the writer, in the culture, and most importantly, in the story being told.

      • I’d agree with you that the Golden Rule is the only workable piece of advice in the entire Bible. It’s plagiarized, though, you are aware? It dates back to the Egyptian Middle Kingdom (c. 2040–1650 BC): “Now this is the command: Do to the doer to cause that he do thus to you.” It also emerged in the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi, (1780 BC) and in Mohism, Taoism, and Confucianism. The greeks were working it as well: “Do not do to your neighbor what you would take ill from him,” Pittacus (640–568 BC).

        Here some other examples which all predate the bible by hundreds of years.

        “Zi Gong asked, saying, “Is there one word that may serve as a rule of practice for all one’s life?” The Master said, “Is not reciprocity such a word?” – Confucius

        “Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.” – Confucius

        “If people regarded other people’s families in the same way that they regard their own, who then would incite their own family to attack that of another? For one would do for others as one would do for oneself.” – Mozi

        “The sage has no interest of his own, but takes the interests of the people as his own. He is kind to the kind; he is also kind to the unkind: for Virtue is kind. He is faithful to the faithful; he is also faithful to the unfaithful: for Virtue is faithful.” –Laozi

        “Regard your neighbor’s gain as your own gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss.” –Laozi

        • Yes, I was already aware. Thank you for sharing.

          • Pleasure. So we can agree that there’s absolutely nothing in the bible actually worth applying.

          • Oh, of course. Because wow, you just totally obliterated the contributions of an ancient document in one example! I’m so blown away by your intellect and insight. How silly of me to think that the Bible is the only possible source of common sense and basic human compassion!


          • *sarcasm noted 😉

            But the point is valid…. unless, of course, you can cite something in the bible which is actually useful. As far as i understood, you said on the golden rule was applicable, but that was it… and its plagiarized.

          • My point was that looking for a “strict, stone-cold, hard functioning approach” is an inappropriate response to literature in general. Moralizing art and literature is reductive. It cannot exist without ignoring the complexity and nuance of a text that primarily tells stories about people.

            The Christians who do that are fundamentalists, and it’s also an approach called “proof texting,” which is considered impossibly bad hermeneutics.

          • OK, i can see that. The problem though with the bible is it claims supernatural events, and people actually believe that hogwash. In that regard it is a dangerous story and cannot be compared to something truly wonderful like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

          • Ok, now that is certainly an interesting conversation, and one I always enjoy. 🙂 However, that will get us really far off-topic. You’re welcome to e-mail me if you’d like to talk about metaphysical naturalism and quantum mechanics.

          • How about a post on it? That’d be great. No rush.

          • I might do that, although physics&whiskey is a much better choice for that– I’m trying to keep my blog on a specific focus, and it may or not fit in with what I write about. If it comes up as part of my story, I definitely will.

          • Sounds good. PeW and i are (remote) friends…. i like to ruffle his feathers 🙂

  • This is a great post on wisdom. I used to be in a church that talked about certain people having “the gift of wisdom.” Because they were pointed out, whatever they said was supposed to be the absolute truth.

  • That all sounds very scary, especially the image of your child self waiting for whatever your fate was for not heeding a random person’s arbitrary understanding of wisdom. I expect most parents behave along those lines in some respects though. The “I’m right because I’m an adult and you’re a child” line know no religious boundaries. I’m concerned about a couple of things you say though.

    “Wisdom isn’t magical. It’s the result of experience and reflection.”
    While I agree it’s not magical, it doesn’t always come with experience and reflection.

    “If something works, it’s wise; if not, it isn’t.”
    Who evaluates if it works or not? I’m concerned you’re slightly falling into a similar line of thought your parents had, and assume that your experience, reflection and logical evaluation of what works, will help you make correct decisions about what’s wise.

    I would imagine it’s far safer to take a more realistic position along the lines of “I’ll do my best, but nothing is absolute, everything is subjective and kids aren’t stupid”.

  • Good post. You are certainly correct that “wisdom” is used to support a strict theonomy – and support authority. Violet makes the good point that not all become wise with experience and reflection. I can think of many who have failed to learn wisdom – or even common sense.

    You can’t learn wisdom simply from trying to apply Scripture. You can’t learn it just from thinking. Wisdom is relational, and it requires the use of both intellect and social knowledge. Without that, all you have is that clanging gong…


  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    At one point in my college years, I was tangentially involved with Pentecostals. (I think it was some sort of “Gifts of the Spirit” fad at Campus Crusade.) Something I noticed about them — when asked by the Anointed about to lay hands on them which Gift of the Holy Spirit(TM) they wanted, they ALWAYS wanted to Speak in Tongues. Speaking in Tongues, Speaking in Tongues, Tongues, Tongues, Tongues, Tongues, Tongues.

    They looked askance at me when I always replied “Wisdom”. Because Wisdom is the command control over all the others, telling you when to use them and (often more important) when NOT to. To me (and to few others), as obvious as 2 + 2 = 4.