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5 Ingredients for Becoming Wise, Backed by Psychology

Mark McMinn


Framing wisdom as a relational discernment process

Professor of Psychology / Director of Faith Integration in the Graduate Department of Clinical Psychology, George Fox University
June 30, 2014

[Note: I am grateful to Gregg Koskela, lead pastor at Newberg Friends Church, Megan Ann Neff, a ministry consultant on this project, and Paul McLaughlin, a doctoral student doing this project for his dissertation. Each of them has contributed their wisdom to the ideas described here.]

In my first blog entry in this series on Psychology and the Church I explored the adventure of developing a wisdom project with a local Christian congregation. My dissertation student and I are working with Newberg Friends Church to do something new and exciting to promote wisdom among young adults.

So now we just need to figure out how people become wise. Solomon was simply handed the divine gift of wisdom. How is that fair? The rest of us have to work for it. But what does that work look like?

Too often the Church has assumed that wisdom is a cognitive form of declarative knowledge, assuming that becoming wise is a matter of learning the values and beliefs that Christians hold, and then pronouncing those values in ambiguous situations. This is not all wrong; even scientists studying wisdom acknowledge that declarative knowledge is part of it.

But there is an experiential part of learning wisdom, too. If wisdom is about the “fundamental pragmatics of life” then my grandfather certainly had it. Grandpa could build anything and could take the things he didn’t build and make them work better. He survived the Great Depression, built several houses, farmed 80 acres, raised two responsible children, saved for retirement, survived cancer, and made an important mark in his small community of Hillside, Oregon.

“Whenever it shows up, we expect wisdom may have a face.”

Grandpa learned wisdom by facing life’s problems and figuring out a way to overcome them, at least until that sudden heart attack at age 86. He wasn’t much for theological reflection, formal education, and intellectual pursuits. Grandpa just did things until he figured them out.

As much as I admire my grandfather and the way he survived life’s difficulties, and as much as I resemble his independent soul, experience on its own isn’t much more satisfying than declarative knowledge as a path to wisdom. Both lead to a form of wisdom, but not the deep wisdom that seems possible in Christian community.

Maybe relationship is the missing ingredient here. As Karl Barth reminded European Christians in the twentieth century: the story of Christianity is ultimately a relational story with interpersonal “I-Thou” connections seen all through scripture. And even scripture itself is best understood in the context of a living, vibrant, relational community of faith.

So here’s where we are going with our church-based wisdom project. Wisdom will be considered a relational discernment process involving three components:

1.     Experiencing God through a variety of spiritual practices

2.     Considering one’s own experience in the context of trusting relationships with others who share common core values

3.     Understanding, adapting, and appropriating the values and practices that have become a vital part of a particular Christian community

Notice that all three elements are present here—values, experience, and relationship—but the order is turned upside-down from the stereotypic Christian impulse to start with declaring “proper” values. Instead, we start with experience and relationship and then move toward values and practices.

Our current plan is to form wisdom cohorts consisting of about seven members plus a leader. The members will be between the ages 18 and 25, which corresponds to the life stage where wisdom appears to grow most rapidly. Cohort leaders will be nominated and selected according to the qualities of wisdom they possess. Cohorts will meet for eight months, and will engage in problem-solving exercises and spiritual practices between meetings.

Will cohort members grow in wisdom? Will they show other signs of human flourishing along the way? Science will help us figure this out.

As I mentioned in my last article, the John Templeton Foundation is funding this research. The point of the grant is to promote dialog between positive psychology and the church. True dialog requires mutual transformation—science transforms the Church’s experience, and the Church transforms scientific understandings of wisdom.

“Wisdom requires a degree of relational humility.”

We’re already seeing ways that the Church is transforming our understanding of wisdom. The Berlin Wisdom Paradigm, though criticized for being overly cognitive, is one of the most widely cited in the science of wisdom. It posits five criteria for wisdom:

1.     Factual knowledge

2.     Procedural knowledge

3.     Lifespan contextualism

4.     Value relativism

5.     Managing uncertainty

Each of these will prove important in the cohort discussions, but they will be understood in light of the experiential, relational view of Christian wisdom just discussed.

1. Factual Knowledge

To be wise, we need to know stuff. With our project, much of this knowledge is embedded in a Christian narrative. Each time our cohorts meet they will spend time considering a passage of wisdom literature from the Old Testament (Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, or Song of Songs). They will also spend time considering a New Testament account pertaining to the life of Jesus. And, of course, this will be accomplished in a relational context as they draw close to God and get to know their leaders and peers while discussing the contours of daily living.

2. Procedural Knowledge

Wisdom requires knowledge of how we conduct ourselves amidst the complexity of daily conflicts, decisions, and goals. To address this, each of the cohort meetings will be focused on a particular life problem. For example, a problem might be posed at the beginning of a meeting: “Imagine one of your friend makes a racially insensitive comment to another one of your friends. How will you respond?” This is a complex problem involving questions of justice, love, loyalty, honesty, kindness, and more. Important values come to play here, but these are relational values that defy quick reflexive answers. The goal will not be to quickly prescribe an answer, but to allow the cohort to ponder different procedural paths and consider where they might lead.

3. Lifespan Contextualism

Wisdom requires a contextual understanding of past, present, and future, and of culture and context. Life decisions are not merely about today, but about yesterday and tomorrow. The racially insensitive comment is spoken from one person’s context into the experience of another soul who may have quite a different context. Words carry power, so however innocent the comment may have seemed to the speaker, it has the potential to influence the identity and future of the other. Again, this is a relational and experiential task that calls for discernment and Christian virtue.

4. Value Relativism

No, it’s not that kind of relativism, if that’s what you were thinking. Although some scientific models of wisdom seem to assert a sloppy value-whatever-you-want sort of ethic, the Berlin model acknowledges virtue and universal values while also recognizing that the knowledge and judgments associated with those values shift from one culture and time to another. What would Jesus do is still the right question, but the twenty-first century will look different in some ways than the first century.  And remember that Jesus was not one to passively accept the values of his day. He questioned and challenged religious leaders and traditions, and so embodied mystery and paradox that he, the Messiah, lived in the humblest way imaginable and ultimately demonstrated the sort of love that should take our breath away every time we remember Golgotha. Our cohorts won’t be asked to derive simple answers for complex problems. Rather, they will seek to honor Christ by considering Christian values embedded and embodied in contemporary life.

5. Managing Uncertainty

Wisdom requires a degree of relational humility. None of us knows everything. We can’t know others fully, nor can we know the future with certainty. Our insights are flawed. Even our faith is riddled with mysteries. Uncertainty calls us to sit quietly, remember the importance of community, and to listen God’s still small voice. Our wisdom cohorts will entail a time of silence during each meeting, in the manner of Friends (Quakers), allowing people to sit with the complexity of the problem being discussed, the wealth of the Old and New Testament passages just considered, and the Christian call to humble awareness of God’s presence. There, in the quiet, we expect wisdom may show up.

Whenever it shows up, we expect wisdom may have a face.

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