The Death of Wisdom

Armand Kruger, MA

Overview: Nietsche’s madman; information is the main commodity; knowledge is (not!) enough even though it is available; standards for wisdom; wisdom is....not knowing why (God does what He does) but how to live (practically).

“And what is this valley called?”
“We call it now simply Wisdom’s valley: but the oldest map
mark it as the Valley of Humiliation”
(CS Lewis: The Pilgrims Regress; p.125.)

"The Principles of the Proverbs... are piety, charity, justice, benevolence,
and true prudence. Their universal purity proves
that they are the word of God."
(John Calvin)

"But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle,
reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy."
(James 3:17).

I am reminded of the famous piece by Nietsche where he describes the Madman stumbling through the market place with a burning lamp, shouting that he is looking for god. He comes to the very (in)famous, and often incompletely quoted, conclusion: “God is dead, and you people have killed him!” I can imagine a modern day parallel where the shout is for Wisdom, and the conclusion that wisdom is dead, with the accusation that we have killed Her!

Wisdom: A Kind of Knowing

In reading Proverbs and Ecclesiastes and the wisdom Psalms, I am struck by the poetic quality that comes with the meaning of wisdom (and being a psychologist rather than a theologian, I talk from the point of view of being a cartographer of experience). Wisdom does not act as a substitute for knowledge, but rather wisdom refers to a certain kind of knowledge. This kind of knowledge has inbuilt ethical/moral qualities to it. It is more than just knowing, it is knowing in the right way. It is knowing in the way that endorses “piety, charity, justice, benevolence, and true prudence” (Calvin, above).

Today, being in the information age, we have not only replaced wisdom with information, but with information of a certain kind. I cannot remember when last I heard the word “wise” being applied to somebody whose name came up in a conversation. I hear how people are smart, how they are knowledgeable (including having insider/secret/advance information), and influential, powerful, in-the-know, etc. but not “wise”. One apparent derivative of information utilization, “being successful” (as in “ask them because they are so successful”) leads me to the realization of how the standards for the application of information has changed.


The obstinate clinging of therapists to “insight” as the cause for change, contrary to the information available in the advertising industry and in adult education, is amazing. Thinking that insight (as determined by the therapist) is the precondition for change, is one example of the false optimism we have about the ability of information to change people. It is the same as thinking that knowing about Jesus as a saviour, makes you a Christian. In opposition to knowing about Jesus stands recognizing the “signature of Jesus” in your life (see Brennan Manning’s beautiful book by the same title).

Listen to how people give meaning to the “power” of information (power already being a value-word implying a standard):

If, in the absence of wisdom, “successful” is used as an example of how, confusion in experience can result from information and the pseudo knowing that sometimes go with it. “Success! What is this thing that all desire, few comprehend, and less are willing to pay for? Many think the coveted prize will fall to them without effort, but it will not. If it were something external, it might be so. Possibly we could then wander aimlessly, drifting with the tide, shifting with every changing breeze and gather success as a sort of side issue while lounging along the highway of life. But it cannot be so acquired; it is not for sale upon those terms; it is not accident, but a result; it does not come by chance but as a reward of long and painful effort.” (Og Mandino in “The Greatest Secret in the World” p. 114).

Let me say this in another way: “Everything he knows is always present to him. He knocks on all doors and enters nowhere. Having knocked, he thinks he has been there” (Elias Canetti in The Penguin Thesaurus of Quotations p.227) “Having been there” raises the expectation of having arrived, and here is the birth of “quick fixes”. The magic of the “12 steps”!

Information “make things happen”, “it is the source from which to create things”, and people are expecting the magic of “blueprinting to make things happen” to take place in their lives, like it does with reference to creating “things”. We expect the same birthing magic from the ”blueprint for success” or “the steps” for success - cheap success, quick fixes, and “cheap grace” (see Bonhoeffer, Dietrich (1963): The Cost of Discipleship; Collier Books.)

Given the explosion of knowledge, here is a neat piece of wisdom from A. N. Whitehead: “Knowledge does not keep any better than fish”.
R. C. Sproul has a more sobering outlook: “One can have knowledge without having wisdom, but one cannot have wisdom without having knowledge.” (Source unknown).

Wisdom: A Kind of Doing

Wisdom is the kind of knowing that leads to doing, it is about how to be in the world, in relation to other people, and to have the right kind of relationship with oneself.

Wisdom is walking your talk when the wheels come off. Being wise when you really need it is the test for one’s personal wisdom. Wisdom is a way of thinking (to use a favourite unspecified predicate) by paying attention to the knowledge of your experience, the knowledge of “where you live.” It is having an understanding in, or about, the map of the events from which your behavior will flow.

Wisdom starts off with a discerning awareness of the central (ethical/moral) issues exposed or hidden in the event (test 1), followed by a reckoning of what to do, using godly information as the guideline and standard for the action or non-action considered (operation). This thinking continues until the standards of the two major commandments and James 3:17 are being met (test 2), before overt action results.
Wisdom is not asking about, and not knowing why, (God does what He does) but asking how to live (practically) within the given circumstances. J. I. Packer ([1993]: Knowing God. Hodder and Stoughton; p.118ff ), after discussing what the preacher in Ecclesiastes has to say about what wisdom is not, then offers: “Fear God and keep his commandments' (Ec.12:13); trust and obey him, reverence him, worship him, be humble before him, and never say more than you mean and will stand to when you pray to him (Ec. 5:1-7); do good (Ec. 3: 12); remember that God will some day take account of you (Ec.11: 9; 12: 14), so eschew, even in secret, things of which you will be ashamed when they come to light at God's assizes (Ec. 12: 14). Live in the present, and enjoy it thoroughly (Ec. 7: 14; 9: 7 ff; Ec. 11:9 f); present pleasures are God's good gifts.

Though Ecclesiastes condemns flippancy (cf Ec. 7: 4-6), he clearly has no time for the super spirituality which is too proud, or 'too pious', ever to laugh and have fun. Seek grace to work hard at whatever life calls you to do (Ec. 9: 10), and enjoy your work as you do it (Ec. 2: 24; 3: 12 f.; 5:18 ff; 8:15). Leave to God its issues; let him measure its ultimate worth; your part is to use all the good sense and enterprise at your command in exploiting the opportunities that lie before you (Ec. 11: 1-6).”

“Thus, the kind of wisdom that God waits to give to those who ask him, is a wisdom that will bind us to Himself, a wisdom that will find expression in a spirit of faith and a life of faithfulness. Let us see to it, then, that our own quest for wisdom .... does not frustrate the wise purpose of God by neglecting faith and faithfulness in order to pursue a kind of knowledge which in this world it is not given to us to have.” (J.I. Packer, as above, p.119).

“You can’t access wisdom by the megabyte. Wisdom is concerned with
how we relate to people, to the world, and to God”
(Edmund P. Clownley - source unknown).

Wisdom: Sensitizing to good news

Wisdom is opening up oneself to the good news also, not just to what is right and/or difficult. For me it is a strange people thing that our convincers for bad news is much shorter and more convincing than it is for good news. I suspect that this is why Christians have difficulty staying away from “legalistic earning and maintaining” their salvation, as if they can do anything to convince God. The gospel-news is too good and too simple for us.

Another wisdom-thought that we can trust, parallel with the advice from Proverbs, is “... whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.” (Phil. 4:8; NAS).

The moment one hears the good news in wisdom, it convinces one that it is equally true, equally valid, equally possible, when compared to any other wise content. Wisdom is not just painful, difficult, etc. In any form, wisdom is a blessing, and it is one aspect of our faith in a good Father in heaven.

"Do not forsake her, and she will guard you; Love her, and she will watch over you.
"The beginning of wisdom is: Acquire wisdom; And with all your acquiring, get understanding.
"Prize her, and she will exalt you; She will honor you if you embrace her.
[Proverbs 4:7 (NAS)]

Contact information for Armand Kruger:

South Africa's Institute of Neuro - Semantics
Armand Kruger
PO Box 494
South Africa, 1960
Fax: 2716-362-1559

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