I am taking on an extended study of practical Christian wisdom this fall with the same trepidation that I experience when I teach on faith, hope and love. Has not everything to say about wisdom already been said…over and over again? There are certain themes that never leave the human conversation for long. Wisdom is one of them.
We won’t necessarily find this kind of wisdom by looking to those who are older. Towards the end of their lives we may be fortunate enough to cross paths with a few sages-known and unknown–but we will encounter many more fools. This is not to say our elderly should not be respected, only that the basis for respect lies in something different than automatic entitlement to Christian wisdom lived out in life.
Neither do we find this wisdom simply by embracing the Christian faith. Not all Christians are wise. In fact, we can be pretty stupid. If that’s too harsh, let me say it this way: in spite of my best intentions, carefully studied up, thought out and prayed through-my actions have, at times, had really thoughtless consequences. And while I am not responsible for all dimensions of the messes I have participated in, I have often thought later, “what was I thinking?”
Many times in the last two decades I have confessed my part in a past incident in my life with new insight, experienced the Lord’s forgiveness yet again, and have been renewed in this awareness: when I detach from my need for “the wisdom from above” (James 3:15) I have a really warped radar. I can self-deceive in large ways in astonishingly little time. I am capable of doing a great deal of damage in my little corner of the world without too much effort.
My working definition of wisdom is something like this: practical Christian wisdom is the convergence of three “heart-sets”: our lifetime contemplation of God’s love for the world, our receptive communication with God about our own conflicted desires and vulnerabilities, and our ongoing growth in discerning compassion toward others. Contemplation. Communication. Compassion. Practical Christian wisdom is found at the nexus of these “with words. With God, with self, with others.
Over the past few years my thinking on Christian wisdom has been challenged and nourished by the writings of Cambridge theologian David F. Ford. In his recent book, The Future of Christian Theology, Ford writes, “If nothing else we desire can compare with her, then we need to relate our desire for wisdom to our other desires. In the midst of all the cries–longings, appeals and demands that come from within us and from all around us–how are we to shape a wise life? Desiring wisdom means seeking to test and discern the cries, learning how to respond to them. The Bible and life are full of cries…”
My hope in these next few months is to issue an invitation whereby we become more aware of these wisdom “with” words: contemplating the love of God, communicating with him about our own soul’s motions in the light of his light, and acting toward our small worlds and large world from with the divine compassion we have received…not from within, but from above.