Facebook Twitter

Perspective: How modern science is calling us back to ancient wisdom

Wisdom is not the same thing as intelligence. It might be a remedy for the mounting chaos around us

SHARE Perspective: How modern science is calling us back to ancient wisdom
“The School of Athens” is a fresco by the Renaissance artist Raphael at the Vatican in Italy.

“The School of Athens” is a fresco by the Renaissance artist Raphael at the Vatican in Italy.

Wikimedia Commons

More than any human society ever, we are surrounded by data, information and constant “breaking news” that may or may not be relevant to our lives. Yet few of us ever feel “up to date” or “in the know.” I often hear people say, “I’m not sure I can even tell what’s true anymore.” 

We’ve increasingly lost trust in the institutions that used to help us see more clearly, from churches to universities to media. As two scholars note in their new book, “A Time for Wisdom,” Americans harbor concerns about the ability of the media to “stand outside the fray” and “report something that seemed like transcendent truth-telling.”

And there is growing concern about the ability of faith communities to function above the partisan tensions as well — and whether people can still effectively gather “in synagogues and temples and churches throughout the world to explore and celebrate the possibility of a Truth that transcends human squabbles and differences.”

Paul McLaughlin and Mark McMinn, who are clinical psychologists and researchers, point toward some perennial insights to help us navigate the cultural pressures in these stressful and polarizing times. These have been reaffirmed today in a modern field known as “wisdom science,” which seeks to define and explain one of the most ancient virtues.

For all its many classic definitions, wisdom is usually regarded as the ability to know the right thing to do in a difficult circumstance (think King Solomon and the baby) and to be able to identify what matters most among myriad choices. That’s something different from head knowledge, reason or mere intelligence. McLaughlin and McMinn see wisdom as an embodied disposition or act, resulting from deep contemplation, that leads to “self-transcendence, tranquility and elevated insight.”

They write, “Wisdom is the apex of intellectual and moral judgment, experienced in the orchestration of emotions, desires, and life experience. It calls us to a higher self and a more noble way of existing in the world, and if there has ever been a time where we need higher selves, it is now.”

Among other things, wisdom can help us neutralize some of the hyperpartisanship and vitriol in the air around us. As the authors put it: “Wisdom calls us … out of preconceptions, out of the constant flow of media enabling us to believe we are always reasonable and others always crazy.”

That’s a dangerous place to be for any of us — and certainly for our country as a whole. As these scholars point out, “Just as pests attack the weakest plants in the garden,” it’s those people who are furthest away from self-awareness about their higher possibilities of growth who are “most vulnerable to conflict, sectarian warfare, and the urge to dehumanize political and ideological opponents.”

McLaughlin and McMinn go on to suggest we are living in a kind of “wisdom eclipse,” in which wisdom and its pursuit is blocked by noise and distractions, but that we shouldn’t give up on the search. Of course, compared to a day when people spent more time sitting around fires and contemplating the stars overhead, or gathered in a public square to hear sages teach, there are unique challenges to finding wisdom in the digital age.

To help us break through some of the barriers, McLaughlin and McMinn offer a “fourfold path to wisdom” that they call the “KDTT model.” The acronym stands for knowledge, detachment, tranquility and transcendence, all of which can be pursued by:

  • Openly receiving knowledge, new insights and deeper understanding. 
  • Standing back to see a larger perspective and being willing to sometimes detach from tightly grasped notions.
  • Cultivating tranquility and equanimity amidst life’s turbulence, which includes learning to experience challenging emotions without allowing them to run our lives.
  • Reaching for transcendence that allows us to “step outside ourselves into some higher or elevated insight” through a sacred encounter with Someone Bigger than ourselves.  

Two things stand out about their analysis for me: first, how much it contrasts with our conventional sense of wisdom as something we gain only in later years of life. Instead, the authors insist that wisdom can be proactively taught and learned, cultivated and developed. In fact, they have worked with clergy to develop a faith-based program designed to help people become wiser.

But rather than arising from a strategic focus on developing a certain virtue, these authors emphasize how wisdom, joy and peace arise naturally from the cultivation of a certain kind of life. To illustrate, they recount how a group of Benedictine nuns were “somewhat amused when asked how they developed humility and love, because these were not direct pursuits but rather consequences of their lifelong focus of developing a meaningful relationship with God.” 

That raises a second point. Amid all the hand wringing about the state of America, more and more people are classifying religion and people of faith not as a strength and protection, but rather as one of the threats to our shared future together. 

Yet as these authors make clear, this is a very hard argument to make if we’re paying attention to the basic conclusions of wisdom science, which calls upon us to take “long-standing religious traditions seriously,” in the words of Evan Rosa of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. 

Indeed, if it’s true that greater knowledge, wider perspectives and transcendence are crucial to cultivating deeper wisdom — along with that elusive tranquility and calm — where are we to gain any of that in our day? Is watching more movies or going to political rallies or malls really going to get us there?   

While there are paths to wisdom that don’t involve religion, these scholars suggest that the major world religions provide a unique distillation of support, encouragement and community to help people find this knowledge, perspective and calm — not to mention the transcendence that few other life experiences can ever hope to come close to matching.  

Sure, we can continue to hide in our “ideological fortresses” with like-minded people who reinforce how correct we are and how misinformed others are. That “may feel like a safe place, but it is not,” the authors write, and “is no way to live, at least not if we hold any hope of a harmonious world for the generations to come.”

This might well be the shortest path to preserving and restoring our ability to discern truth again in American society: departing these fortresses to “discover our neighbors, to sit at a common table, share good food, and truly listen to one another.”

That didn’t used to be complicated. May we accept this invitation to find our way back there.  

Jacob Hess is the editor-in-chief at Public Square Magazine and served on the board of the National Coalition of Dialogue and Deliberation. He has worked to promote liberal-conservative understanding since the publication of “You’re Not as Crazy as I Thought (But You’re Still Wrong)” with Phil Neisser. With Carrie Skarda, Kyle Anderson and Ty Mansfield, Hess also authored “The Power of Stillness: Mindful Living for Latter-day Saints.”