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Pondering Wisdom: Why Science Needs the Church, and the Church Needs Science

Mark McMinn

Scientific input and church community are both essential ingredients to understanding the nature of wisdom.

Professor of Psychology / Director of Faith Integration in the Graduate Department of Clinical Psychology, George Fox University
June 2, 2014

Five white men are sitting around in a restaurant table talking about wisdom. It sounds like the start of a joke, but I hope it’s not.

Clearly, we’ve got some diversity issues to address, and we’re developing a plan for how to do that, but for now the conversation partners are:

Paul, a doctoral student in psychology, who plans to do his dissertation on wisdom.

The lead pastor at an evangelical church who is interested in having his congregation work with Paul on a wisdom project.

A former college president, now retired, who studied wisdom throughout his career, and promoted a scholarship of wisdom among his faculty.

An early-career campus pastor who will help us connect local university students with the church-sponsored program on promoting wisdom.

Me, a guy who has studied how church communities and psychologists get along well. And how they don’t.

Many months ago when Paul first talked with me about studying wisdom I wasn’t sure that a psychology of wisdom even existed, but he went to the library and proved me wrong. Scientists in Germany, the United States, and elsewhere have been studying wisdom and publishing a few papers along the way. So based on one of several scientific perspectives, and to get the conversation going, Paul tossed out a definition at our lunch meeting:

“Wisdom is expert knowledge in the fundamental pragmatics of life.”

Most of us around the table are evangelical Quakers, habitually comfortable with silence, so the pause that followed Paul’s pronouncement was predictable even if difficult to interpret. In hindsight, I think it may have been a polite pause.

Then the questions started coming. Should wisdom be so tightly linked to knowledge? Is experience being discounted here? Can wisdom be adequately defined in such non-relational terms? What about encounter with the living God?

Gregg, the lead pastor, sat quietly through most of this conversation before raising the possibility that given this definition of wisdom we may have the wrong denominational partner for our project. After an initial moment of sadness I realized that Gregg’s words were actually an expression of humility emerging from the assumption that we weren’t looking for his input on how we define wisdom. Paul and I both reiterated how much we want this to be a collaborative process. Then it happened. Gregg offered another view of wisdom—words that have been reverberating in my mind ever since our meeting:

“Wisdom comes from the history of regular individual and corporate practices that lead to making decisions in line with the character of Christ.”

Again, silence. But more than a polite pause this time, I think we all experienced silent awe as we pondered the beauty of these words. Wisdom, as reflected in Gregg’s words, is deeply relational, spiritual, and developed over years of practice. It’s reminiscent of that oft-repeated notion in scripture that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.

Note that Paul’s definition from science and Gregg’s from faith are not mutually exclusive. Gregg’s words speak to how wisdom is developed, and Paul’s describe the outcome of wisdom. Science and faith can work together here, and both can enrich our understanding of wisdom.

We’ll meet again in a month and keep the conversation going. There’s lots more work to do—defining the construct, figuring out what sort of ministry program will be developed to enhance wisdom in the congregation, identifying related qualities that we will measure alongside wisdom, coming up with the best measurement strategies for wisdom and the related qualities, and then launching the program. We’ll get more diverse as a planning group, both because we need fresh views of wisdom and because valuing diverse voices has been a distinctive of Quaker theology for centuries.

But even at this early stage of planning we seem clear on two conclusions.

1.The science of wisdom needs the input of a wisdom community.

Simply put, science needs the church if this collaborative project is to succeed. As committed as Paul and I are to the scientific process, we recognize that science is quite limited when it comes to the historical and relational depth that a faith community can offer.

Let me back up a moment. Science needs parsimony. We take complicated constructs and scrub them down so they can be pristine and measurable. Sadly, in the process we sometimes change the very construct we set out to study in the first place.

If we take a construct as complex as wisdom and brush off all the religious and spiritual “contaminants” so that we can measure it effectively with people who may or may not be religious, might we be left with something that is no longer recognizable as wisdom within a faith community? That lunch conversation reminds me how vulnerable we are to changing the meaning of wisdom in order to study it scientifically.

We scientists may have done something similar with forgiveness a couple decades ago. When it became a way of getting over some hurt, of moving on with life, rather than an altruistic act emerging from a grateful awareness of how much God has forgiven each of us, interpersonal forgiveness started to look more like self-help than faithful worship.

If our project is to succeed we need Gregg to offer his understanding of wisdom, shaped by his training and experience as a Christian and a pastor, and it needs to alter the direction we take.

2.The church needs the input of scientific psychology.

As our lunch conversations continue, it will also become clear that science has an important place at the table. Scientists know something about measurement, about designing and testing the effects of specific interventions. How will the church know if a wisdom ministry program is effective? How many participants will be needed to detect its effectiveness? Science can help the church consider these issues.

Here’s another example. Sometimes in the church we assume that wisdom is reserved for adults with ample amounts of life experience. When you’re young you may be smart, but you’re only wise when you’re old. This turns out to be only partly true. The science of wisdom suggests young people can develop wisdom also, and in fact there may be a critical window in adolescence where people set trajectories for their lives that lead them down paths of wisdom, or not. For this reason—because of the science of wisdom—the church we are working with is especially interested in developing wisdom in students.

Researchers at Berlin’s Max Planck Institute for Human Development compared adolescents (ages 14-19) with young adults (ages 20-37) on five dimensions of wisdom.[1] Though the adolescents were consistently lower in wisdom than the young adults, they found age-graded development among the adolescents.  That is, wisdom gets progressively stronger throughout adolescence. In contrast, no differences in wisdom were observed within the 17-year age span of the young adult sample. It appears that adolescence may provide a unique opportunity for growing in wisdom.

In my next blog post, I’ll explore more of the science of wisdom as well as our initial ideas about what a church-based wisdom ministry might involve. After that I’ll post some thoughts on church-based projects related to grace and gratitude.

Speaking of gratitude, I am grateful for a research grant from the John Templeton Foundation allowing us to fund five dissertation projects related to positive psychology and the Church.

If we’re to understand virtue well, including the virtue of wisdom, then science needs the church, and the church needs science.

What’s your definition of wisdom? How would you measure it? How would you promote it in a church-based setting? Share your thoughts in the comments below.