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Where Does Wisdom Come From?

“It’s interesting to be in San Francisco, to be near Silicon Valley, [where] we get so titillated by the idea of our machines becoming intelligent,” said Krista Tippett during a recent interview with Alan Jones, Dean Emeritus of San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral. “I think it would behoove us to get titillated by the possibilities for our intelligence, our consciousness that in fact we already possess, and our capacity not merely to become knowledgeable, but to become wise.”

Indeed, there is a significant difference between knowledge or “scientia” in Latin, and wisdom or “sapientia.” While the former might be approximated, for instance, by a camera’s ability to recognize a fearful expression on someone’s face, the ability to determine the cause of this fear – not to mention its possible remedy – is born of something far more sophisticated than even the most complex computer program.

But where does such wisdom come from?

Contrary to the popular adage, wisdom doesn’t necessarily come with age. “We all grow old, but we don’t all grow wise,” said Tippett, host of public radio’s Peabody award-winning “On Being” program, recounting the wisdom of her 9-year-old daughter, who realized one day that name-calling, and not just “sticks and stones,” can actually be very hurtful.

It’s also hard to believe, as many neuroscientists insist, that wisdom resides inside our skull. Sure, we may be able to observe certain activity in the brain when someone is engaged in what is generally considered “wise behavior,” but that doesn’t account for the inspiration behind such behavior.

However, in her interview with Jones, Tippett hinted at a possible answer to this question. “Wisdom,” she said, “is the imprint a life has made on other lives,” suggesting that, even if we have yet to agree on its origin, we can at least observe the effects of wisdom.

One of the most often-cited examples of this is from the Old Testament account of King Solomon.

As the story goes, two prostitutes approach the king asking him to settle a dispute. One of them had secretly exchanged her baby, who had just died, for the baby of the other. She denies this, insisting that hers is the living child and not the other way around. Solomon decides to settle the dispute by asking for the child to be cut in two, giving half to the one and half to the other. At this point, the woman to whom the child truly belonged cries out, “O my lord, give her the living child, and in no wise slay it,” thereby revealing the child’s legitimate mother.

Although the story provides a clear example of wisdom in action and the impact it might have on another’s life, it still leaves open the question as to the source of Solomon’s keen judgment. For this we need only turn back a page or two in the Bible to discover that it was given to him by God. “Behold, I have done according to thy words,” says God, “lo, I have given thee a wise and an understanding heart; so that there was none like thee before thee, neither after thee shall any arise like unto thee.”

That’s great for Solomon, but what about the rest of us? Is wisdom something that God gives to some and not to others? Or is it, as Tippett indicated, something we all embody that’s simply waiting to be uncovered, waiting to be applied?

Based on my own experience, I’m going to go with the latter, and not just because of some story I read in the Bible. I can think of any number of times when a heartfelt appeal to the Divine to remind me of the wisdom He’s given me to express has laid the groundwork for the resolution of some personal challenge – financial problems, relationship issues, even physical healings. The same can be said for others I know who have asked to be reminded of the same thing, solidifying my conviction that wisdom is indeed a divinely bestowed trait. “All substance, intelligence, wisdom, being, immortality, cause, and effect belong to God,” writes Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy. “These are His attributes, the eternal manifestations of the infinite divine Principle, Love.”

To see the “manifestation” or “imprint” of wisdom, then, is to see evidence of its source. It also lifts wisdom out of the confines of matter-based reductionism into the realm of the transcendent – a titillating if not life-transforming prospect indeed.

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