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The Way of Wisdom


Two weeks ago I wrote on Proverbs and I suggested that, rather than each individual proverb being a piece of prescriptive advice, to be applied to various situations as we encounter them (but otherwise ignored), all the proverbs, taken together, embody the search for insight into life. They are the epitomized experiences of a man (one man, but who had a whole lot of experiences—spiritual and sensual—good, bad, and ugly!) as he thought about his life. They collectively represent his view of what is wise, prudent and sagacious behavior. And so we should not be applying each proverb to a specific situation, as though it were an invariably accurate guide to our deeds, but instead be engaging with the whole body of the Proverbs, since it is in our engaging critically and reflectively with these proverbial nuggets, as well as with the acumen summarized in them, that wisdom can be found.

This might leave some people wondering, though, is “wisdom” a thing we still believe in, in this post-postmodern 21st-century world? Isn’t it redolent of “dead white guys” and all the (purportedly) discredited values associate with them? In these hypermodern times, surely wisdom is passé?

* * *

Recently I read an article in The Atlantic which showed that feeling disappointed and jaded in middle age is pretty much par for the course. The author, Jonathan Rauch, summarized data from surveys all around the world on life satisfaction—or rather dissatisfaction. When adjusted for all kinds of variables—gender, ethnicity, education, profession, income/wealth and health—these surveys reveal that people feel less happy in their 20s than their teens, less happy still in their 30s, but really hit rock bottom in their 40s. This would be unbearably depressing except that isn’t how the story ends. Because people then start to feel happier in their 50s and keep getting happier each decade thereafter. [1]

This “happiness u-curve”, as it’s been dubbed, seems to be standard to the human condition—maybe even beyond. Rauch writes that an economist, working with:

… primatologists, found a U-shaped curve in chimpanzees’ and orangutans’ state of mind over time. Zookeepers, researchers, and other animal caretakers filled out a questionnaire rating the well-being of their primate charges (more than 500 captive chimps and orangutans in Australia, Canada, Japan, Singapore, and the United States). The apes’ well-being bottomed out at ages comparable, in people, to between 45 and 50.

With such consistent findings, we may wonder, what chance do we have?! But also, more seriously: how does this relate to wisdom?

Well, just this: mid-life crisis is not just a perception; it’s a measurable psychological reality. But how then to relate to the consistent improvement in mood, across populations of quite different demographics, in people who are past their prime? Their happiness is in inverse proportion to the proportion of their lives remaining!

Rauch interviewed Dr. Dilip V. Jeste, who he describes as:

a distinguished psychiatrist with an unusual pedigree. On the “distinguished” side of the ledger are his multiple professorial titles at the University of California at San Diego, his recent presidency of the American Psychiatric Association, and his record as one of the country’s most prolific geriatric psychiatrists.… On the “unusual” side is his upbringing in a small town in India (he speaks with a lilting Marathi accent), his decision to focus his medical career on helping the elderly age successfully rather than on merely treating their ailments—and his belief that wisdom is a concept that belongs not just to Aesop and Aristotle but to cutting-edge neuroscience. Jeste, who is 70 and thin enough to look frail until you notice his nimble gait, is no mystic. He and his colleagues use magnetic-scanning technology and batteries of psychological tests to peer into the brain for clues to how the mind and emotions work. [2]

While Jeste has no time for mysticism, his interest in wisdom is no coincidence—it reflects his Indian upbringing, in a culture “steeped in reverence for wisdom.” He tells Rauch that this led him to ask the question: “‘Is there anything cognitive that actually improves with aging?’ That led me to think about wisdom. I started wondering whether the life satisfaction we were seeing in older people was related to their becoming wiser with age, in spite of physical disability.” Instead of just wondering, Jeste applied his regular tools of the trade: magnetic resonance imaging scanners. He and his staff are now subjecting men and women in their 70s (volunteers, I should add) to a battery of cognitive and emotional tests, while being scanned by an MRI. There are no conclusive results as yet, but Jeste believes that “the very universality of the concept of wisdom … suggests some biological basis.” [3]

Rauch cites other research, published by neuroscientists and psychologists, from Cornell and Stanford Universities in the U.S. and from universities in Germany, which strongly suggests that wisdom is real. Much of it is based on subjective-response tests (though the evidence is then analyzed with great rigor) but some of the evidence comes from “brain scans and other physical tests.” The deduction is this: “Older brains [are] less susceptible to the furies that buffet us earlier in life.” Why? They have become wise. They have undergone life’s traumas, they have engaged with them, processed them (perhaps cognitively, perhaps spiritually, and/or artistically), and they emerge having learned from experience over time. [4]

Perhaps this is one of the explanations for a great sociological puzzle: the persistence and popularity of religion. For more than a hundred years, sociologists have been predicting the end of religion in general and Christianity in particular in Western countries, based both on church attendances and on surveys. Sociologists in the 1920s observed, with great condescension, that most people in church were old people or women in their 20s-30s with young children. But in the 2000s, similar findings were reported—except obviously, after a century, it is not the same old people or mothers with children in the pews! In fact, studies show that throughout the 20th century, people became more religious after marrying and having children, and as they grew older. [5] Perhaps they grew wiser. That is what the Bible teaches—that only “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’.” (Psa. 14:1 NIV)

What we do know, from rigorous, peer-reviewed studies is “that people feel better, not worse, about their lives as they move through their later decades, even with the onset of chronic health problems that would lead one to expect distress or depression” (certainly in people in their mid to late 30s and their 40s!). [5] Wisdom is not just theoretical. It makes a difference in our lives. The reason the trend line on happiness u-curve eventually bends upwards is because we can learn from our triumphs and disasters, including learning to treat them just the same (as Kipling wrote). It seems wisdom and acceptance are very close to each other. But acceptance is the fruit of experience.

* *  *

Experience, in sum, isthe source of wisdom. We come back to my original point that the value of Proverbs is that we get to engage with the end-of-life reflections of a guy who had seen, done, and felt it all. It is the experience underpinning proverbs that lends them truth. And that is why Proverbs makes for good comparative Bible study. If we look at them alone, then the individual proverbs are just hanging there, unconnected (and apparently unstructured), seemingly some sage’s stream-of-consciousness spouting, nostrums which sound nice but frequently draw the critical question: “Really?!”

However, when we study them in comparison with other Scriptures, then they have power. To take the chapter focused on this week and its opening, famous axiom: “Wine is a mocker, Strong drink is a brawler, And whoever is led astray by it is not wise” (20:1 NKJV). When read together with the description of Noah’s calamitous experiment in viticulture and its consequences (Gen. 9:20-27), or Belshazzar’s drunken outburst of blasphemy with his bibulous nobles (Dan. 5:1-4, which thrice refers to their wine-drinking), we can see the point: we know from science (and the Apostle Paul) that moderate wine consumption can be beneficial, but we see how easy it is to take a drop too many, and what can follow. Or when we read later in Proverbs chapter 20, “It is a snare for a man to devote rashly something as holy, And afterward to reconsider his vows” (v. 25), we may wonder, well, is it? But if we read Judges 11:30-39, and the story of Jephthah’s monstrous sacrificial murder of his own daughter, it gives us a real-life example of the proverb’s wisdom at work—and yes, we can see the tragedy and can reflect on the need to be careful in what we say we will do for God (it also gives us a new insight into Jephthah, for if we read too quickly in Judges it can seem that he did the “right thing”, by God’s standards, whereas actually the Bible tells us that Jephthah’s actions were appalling and no more laudable than Samson’s adulterous dalliances with Delilah).

Wisdom, too, it seems clear, will make us humble. After all, as I Kings relates: “The whole world sought audience with Solomon to hear the wisdom God had put in his heart” (10:34 NIV). But ultimately “Solomon did evil in the eyes of the Lord” and so God “became angry with Solomon because his heart had turned away from the Lord, the God of Israel” (11: 6a, 9 NIV). When even the wisest man in the world could make the wrong choices, it’s natural to question his “wisdom”. When we remember that his acumen is not simply in the maxims, but rather in what the whole corpus of Proverbs tells us about Solomon, we can find new reason to use Proverbs as a basis for comparative Bible study, as indeed we are doing in Sabbath School this quarter. We may hope both to have greater wisdom, and to have wisdom come to us a little quicker, when we build onto our own experiences those of the Bible and its characters: including the world’s wisest man, who nevertheless became an idolater.

* * *

In conclusion: wisdom is a thing, and a pretty good thing too. It may only come fully to many of us with age, but each of us can become wiser by studying the scriptures and pondering on the proverbial wisdom of Solomon—not simply accepting each adage as accurate and universally applicable, but grappling with it, in the context of the other proverbial sayings, to work out what it says about Solomon’s experiences, about the wider human experience portrayed in the Bible, and to relate it to our own experiences. This is the way of “truth … and wisdom and instruction and understanding” (Prov. 23:23).


1.      Jonathan Rauch, “The Real Roots of Midlife Crisis,” The Atlantic, vol. 314, no. 5 (Dec. 2014): pp. 88-95 []

2.      Ibid, 93.

3.      Ibid, 94.

4.      Ibid.

5.      John Wilson and Darren E. Sherkat, “Returning to the Fold,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Vol. 33, No. 2 (June 1994), pp. 148-161.

6.      Rauch, 93-94.

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