Excepts from “Expertise v. Wisdom” by Denis Haack
We live, it seems to me, in a world infatuated with experts, overwhelmed with knowledge and data, and glad it is all only a click or two away. Wisdom, on the other hand, seems to have receded into the background.
For most of human history when people had serious questions about serious things they sought out someone who was known to be wise. Today we tend to try to find an expert. In the past people believed that wisdom was necessary if they were to find true answers to the big questions. Today we tend to believe that better and more knowledge will allow us to find the way forward regardless of the issue or question we happen to be facing.
Today we want quick access to information, knowledge, research, data, and facts and so seek experts who make it their business to collate and present such things in clear, unambiguous, easy steps. …However, wisdom insists that we commit to the rigors of steeping ourselves over a lifetime in the ideas, metaphors, writings, stories, proverbs, rituals and poetry that have been faithfully handed down over many centuries. Wisdom demands that we seek to indwell and embody the rich wisdom of an ancient tradition in a new, up to date setting. It is a long, slow, often painful discipleship.
The wise person answers your question by saying something that invites quiet reflection; the expert answers by outlining knowledge that solves your problem. The expert’s preferred tool for communication is PowerPoint; those who are wise tend to tell a story, a proverb and send you away with the suggestion you learn to live in them. Wisdom is always relationally centered, so that being with the one who is wise, and spending time with them is essential to becoming wise. Knowledge can be emailed. Wisdom insists that things are convoluted, interrelated and very richly textured, that reality is messy, and that answers always lead to more questions. Expertise insists that when things are reduced to their basic essentials the solutions and proposals will be precise, straightforward and easy to comprehend. Wisdom suggests that life is best lived in the company of the faithful; expertise argues that enough studies will present a solution.
I would suggest that what we need to flourish as human beings is knowledge in those areas of daily existence that resolve easily into routine issues, as well as wisdom deeply rooted in story, tradition and revelation for the bigger questions of life and reality. Only someone who is wise can tell us whether to go to war, after which the experts can inform the generals which armaments are needed to neutralize the enemy’s attacks. Only someone who is wise can help us identify our calling, after which a vocational expert can help us land an appropriate job. Only someone who is wise can provide the story necessary to define the story of my life, after which a real estate expert can help us find a house in which we can live out our story before a watching world.
We must recognize, and even appreciate, that sometimes Jesus could be excruciatingly opaque in what he said to people. Our desire for expertise tends to make us want to unpack it all and make it simple, clear and unambiguous. But I would suggest that the opacity is intentional. …For example, near the end of his life, as the time of his crucifixion approached, Jesus spoke to his closest friends about what would transpire. “A little while,” he told them in John 16:16, “and you will see me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see me.” Now, I don’t know about how you would have heard that, but the disciples were confused:
So some of his disciples said to one another, “What is this that he says to us, ‘A little while, and you will not see me, and again a little while, and you will see me’; and, ‘because I am going to the Father’?” So they were saying, “What does he mean by ‘a little while’”? We do not know what he is talking about. (16:17-18).
Jesus told them he knew they wanted to ask him about it, and then responded to their confusion:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy. When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you’ “ (16:20-22).
Here’s the question: would you have found that helpful? Or would you have remained somewhat confused? And here’s my point: Jesus could be very clear when he wanted to, and here is it possible that he wanted to be opaque for a reason?
rather than spell out a timeline (which he could have done) he wanted to give them—and us—a saying that could reside in the imagination, a fragment of a story in which we can live in faith?
Jesus lived in an ancient wisdom tradition and spoke out of that tradition. He didn’t just come to provide necessary expertise, but came to invite us into the very wisdom of God. This is why St Paul could refer to him as, “Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24). He came to provide a richly layered gospel that we can learn to indwell and find as we do that we come to know and love God in ways that can be only partially expressed in words. Jesus’ parables are not to be merely reduced to catchy lessons, but are stories meant to slowly transform our way of seeing and being and loving. Jesus’ words about “a little while” provided his disciples with a new way of waiting under his Lordship so that their search for the joy of his presence was rooted not in their present reality but in the anticipation of God’s fulfilled promises.