But Where can Wisdom be Found?

This is a different sort of post.  There is a fair bit to report in due course on the central theme of Faith and Wisdom in Science –  the great cultural story of science within our communities, its deep (and theological) roots, and how it needs healing.  I will write in days to come on the Times Cheltenham Science Festival Debate, ‘Can Science and Faith Coexist?’, and on an evening at the Cambridge Wesley Methodist Church ‘Science and Faith’ series – but not today.  For today other ligaments within the body of our society need healing.  JoCox

Once again, and desperately, we need not fighting spirit,  not left or right wing concepts, not racy rhetoric or the sure soundbite, but Wisdom.  At the end of the darkest week I can remember in this country, the appalling, senseless, tragic murder of Yorkshire MP Jo Cox has opened our eyes to a shadow of evil that has been stealthily blocking out the light.  Since the first days of the campaigning in the lead-up to this Thursday’s EU referendum in the UK, our public debate has become increasingly sour, twisted with untruth, debased to thoughtless side-taking – and worse of all – infested with what Albert Camus called La Peste, the repeatedly resurfacing evil within us that dehumanises humans for political gain.  The people that Jo Cox spent her life as an MP to help, and before that with the charity Oxfam, the men, women and children in positions of fear, homelessness and despair, through no fault of their own, that she sprang to aid – these people, all equally as we are beloved of God, have had painted on them the objectifying ‘Immigrant’.  I wrote a book decrying the dehumanisation of science – but much much more needs to be done in the face of the dehumanisation of people themselves.  When our media and our political leaders do this we need to speak out and condemn it.

It’s strange how the themes of the predicament that I think science has been driven into are amplified and deployed more widely in this case.  The use of language to dehumanise is one.  It has happened with science.  The replacement of depth with shallowness, of contemplation with instant gratification, of complexity with superficiality – this is another.  One of the leaders of the campaign to leave the EU, Michael Gove, in on record (quite astonishingly and irresponsibly for a Cabinet Minister) speaking out against ‘experts’ and their voice in the debate.  But what is an ‘expert’ if not someone who has spent years of study in acquiring knowledge, experience, information and competency in a field.  Science rejoices in expertise – not in isolation – for it needs a critical public to ask it questions, to challenge, to weigh up, even to enjoy.  So should any political process, and to abjure it is to abandon the role of a responsible leader in any field.  This question, of the subtle balance of a nation’s sovereignty, trade, and position of global responsibility, needs expertise of the highest order to decide.

The commentator on US politics for the BBC for over 40 years, Alastair Cooke, in one of his broadcasts cited an elderly US Senator pleading that what that nation needed now was neither more hawks, nor more doves, but was suffering from a lamentable shortage of owls.  We too, at this time, so need the precious commodity of Wisdom.  But where can wisdom be found? Where does understanding dwell? is the great cry in the Hymn to Wisdom of the Old Testament Book of Job (chapter 28).  The writer wanders to the depths of the earth, to the ocean bottom, to the marketplace of gold, precious gemstones and fine goods – and finds no sign of it.

At the very end of the Hymn we read something astonishing – that the way to wisdom, as God knows is, is to view ‘everything under the heavens’, ‘appraising’, ‘confirming’ and ‘testing’.  And to follow this ability – this expert and God-given ability to see into the workings of the world in response to Him (that is what is meant by the ‘fear of the Lord’ here) – that is wisdom, and finally:

and to shun evil is understanding

That is the word for this week.  May this terrible death not pass utterly in vain, may her words and life remind us what wisdom is, and to choose our future accordingly.


5 thoughts on “But Where can Wisdom be Found?

  1. The problem I have with (some) experts in the EU debate is that they claim expertise which they don’t have.

    Some economists (eg signatories to the letters to the newspapers) claim to be able to predict the economic implications of remain or exit, but they aren’t trained to predict the future. They have no clairvoyant skills above anyone else, but they misleadingly give the impression they have this ability.

    There were plenty of experts advocating the UK to join the Euro, but that has proven to be a bullet dodged.


  2. I very much agree with your conclusion. However, I would want to tease out further the difference between expertise and wisdom. Expertise is the mastery of a subject borne of close attention and study, often over a long period. It tends to the objective – to what can be demonstrated to be right and accurate (given the current state of knowledge and understanding of a subject). Wisdom is the ability to stand back, take a wider perspective that is informed by expertise, but also by, perhaps, more subjective, less quantifiable, factors, and to conclude rightly. In a court of law, the arguments are assisted and informed by experts; the verdict is arrived at through the exercise of wisdom. It requires something more than a mechanistic ‘data in, results out’. In the case of the EU referendum, experts are unable to say much with certainty about the results of a vote either way – their speculation may be informed, but it is still speculation. If we put our faith in ‘mere’ expertise, then democracy has no part to play – we simply look to the relevant experts to decide on our behalf. That is why we need wisdom as we think about how to vote – a wisdom that weighs up expert input alongside our values, and concludes rightly.


    • I very much agree with this – thank you Julie – and did not mean at all to conflate wisdom with expertise. I did mean to suggest that ignoring expertise was not wise, and that wisdom, more positively, includes that weighing up and evaluation of expertise after listening to it. This may often, but not always, include seeking a consensus of expertise.


  3. I loved your blog Tom. As an ex-physics professor I admire your speaking out (I switched to petroleum engineer later and worked on fracking for 25 years). Re wisdom from God, I found myself in an engaging discussion with an atheist once (can search for Atheist in my website). As well as topics like Higgs-bosons, I mentioned the discovery of the city of Sodom by an archeologist from my home town of Albuquerque, and how consistent it is with theBiblical record.


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