Friday 24 February 2017

The Getting of Wisdom

In days past, when people quoted the verse from Proverbs 9:10 that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom”, it did little to enhance the educational process. Terror is no great starting point for learning. But here, ‘fear’ really means ‘respect’ or ‘reverence’. Therefore, in our Judao-Christian tradition, real wisdom has God as a core reference point, that is, a dimension laden with ultimate values and transcendent purpose. We now acknowledge wisdom as one of the gifts of God’s Holy Spirit.

One would expect that wisdom is a very bread-and-butter issue for any school. But not always so. In many quarters, people confuse knowledge with wisdom. Some might remember when Bob Hawke was Prime Minister he referred at one time to Donald Horne’s 1960s Australian classic, The Lucky Country. He went on to say that what Australia needed now was to produce “a smart country”. I used to cringe a little at that. Being smart only gets you so far. And sometimes it gets you into trouble. In a school like ours, knowledge is the starting point which then leads to understanding and ultimately wisdom. We need a “wise country” – and wise citizens.

Karl Rahner was a German Jesuit, perhaps the greatest theologian of the 20th century. This what he wrote about knowledge and wisdom:

Only knowledge gained through experience, the fruit of living and suffering, fills the heart with the wisdom of love, instead of crushing it with the disappointment of boredom and final oblivion. It is not the result of our own speculation, but the golden harvest of what we have lived through and suffered through, that has the power to enrich the heart and nourish the spirit. And all the knowledge we have acquired through study can do no more than give us some little help in meeting the problems of life with an alert and ready mind.

Rahner is talking about more than the transmission of facts, of just “head knowledge”. Rather, he is talking about richer experiences. That is because real wisdom is not concerned with answering questions like “write the general formula of an organic acid”, or “describe the forces giving rise to European nationalism” or “translate this poem by Virgil into English”. No.  Wisdom is about the bigger questions of life. Like: What gives ultimate meaning? Why is there suffering? Is there a God and, if there is, how is that God revealed? What is it to lead a good life? Is everything relative, or are there absolutes? What is it to be really human?

Questions like that are in the marrow bones of religious studies here, of course. They are also at the heart of good literature and poetry in the English or the Language Departments. The same goes for service programmes and immersions which are so central to our formation here. All of these are seedbeds of wisdom, if you like. The result is what Rahner referred to as “the golden harvest of what we have lived through and suffered through, that has the power to enrich the heart and nourish the spirit”. The shaping of, the wrestling with, those big questions. Forming values and character and conscience. Enlarging the heart. That is wisdom indeed.

Norman Mailer, that extraordinarily gifted American novelist and playwright, offensive and vulgar though he was in both public and private lives, once observed, “The only journey of knowledge is from the depth of one being to the heart of another.” Mailer is hardly a traditionally religious man, but he is speaking “heart language”. About the depth of a person. The things that really matter. Big questions; profound issues. Wisdom.

Here at the College we hold that real learning stretches the heart as well as the mind, and that the right question is often more valuable than the easy answer. The easy answer can have you sitting comfortably smug. The right question has you restless.  Wanting to do more. To be more.

If our formation here encourages that restless wrestling with ideas, with big questions, noble causes, then it is a place for dreams as well. Ignatius Loyola was big on dreams. Dreams of what might be. Of who I might become. Great and worthy dreams. Small minds and small dreams are not worthy of an Ignatian. Not to be trapped inside the narrow haunts and habits of this world, but to want to make a difference in the world. To see the world as God’s kingdom which is still in-the-making. Which has more than its share of injustices and inequalities. Which is increasingly populated by the hapless, the helpless and the hopeless.  A world which needs and beckons young men of energy, vision and wisdom.

In the busy-ness of schools, the temptation to skim the surface of things is always present and always to be resisted. The movement to real wisdom is ever to go to the depths – that is what we style the magis. It is not in the world of tweets and sound bites. Of course, all this is nothing new. In 1934, that great poet and social critic, T. S. Eliot, cautioned:

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

A caution to hear again almost a century later.

Fr Ross Jones SJ