The Science of Wisdom

Second in our Advent series: Psychology professor Mark McMinn considers our Advent theme and points us to research on what may seem a very unscientific topic—wisdom. Enjoy his insights and pointers for ministry as we prepare for the arrival of the fully human Christ child. – Drew


“A 14-year-old girl is pregnant. What should she, what should one, consider and do?”

This question was posed by a premier wisdom researcher a couple thousand years after Mary and Joseph may have faced a similar quandary. We don’t actually know Mary’s age when she became pregnant with Jesus because the Gospel accounts don’t tell us, but many scholars suggest she was a teenager, and perhaps a young teen at that.

If this question seems hard to answer now, it was difficult then, too. Artists may put a halo over the baby Jesus to represent his divinity, but he also was birthed into the gritty human reality of a confusing and conflicted world brimming with hard questions. To be fully human is to live amidst the difficulties of embodied life, where wisdom is required of us every day.

Wisdom for the Christian Life

Several years ago, one of my doctoral students with prior theological training announced that he wanted to do his dissertation on wisdom. I replied, “Paul, that’s a great idea, but psychologists don’t really study wisdom.” He went to the library and proved me wrong. It turns out there is a vibrant science of wisdom. In the last part of the 20th century, much of it occurred at the University of Berlin, where researcher Paul Baltes and his colleagues developed a way to measure wisdom by asking people to respond to challenging questions, such as the one about a 14-year-old pregnant girl. That research continues today at places like the University of Chicago’s Center for Practical Wisdom.

My student, Paul McLaughlin, went on to combine his theological training with psychological science and developed a fascinating dissertation looking at wisdom mentoring in a local congregation. But before describing Paul’s study, I need to distinguish between two types of wisdom in the Christian tradition that Paul and I learned about during his project. Conventional wisdom is about living a good and effective life. Think of the book of Proverbs as the prototype of conventional wisdom. Here we find a vast repository of good advice for how to live well. Similarly, Baltes and his Berlin colleagues defined wisdom as “expert knowledge in the fundamental pragmatics of life.”

The second kind of wisdom we see in Christianity is critical wisdom, which is embedded in complexity and paradox, requiring exceptional discernment and creativity. Critical wisdom is exemplified in the biblical books of Ecclesiastes and Job, and in the life of Jesus.

In the Sermon on the Mount, we see all sorts of outside-the-box, paradoxical wisdom at play. (I’m paraphrasing these examples, but you get the point.) “Consider yourself blessed when people insult and revile you” (Matt 5:11). “You have heard it said not to murder, but I say that some dire cascade starts when you give yourself over to anger and call someone a fool” (Matt 5:21-22). “And, by the way, if you’re about to worship God by offering a sacrifice and remember your friend has something against you, go address that relational problem first even before continuing your worship” (Matt 5:23-25).

Or consider how often Jesus healed on the Sabbath, and often in the synagogue where he stirred up huge controversy. If conventional wisdom promotes general guidelines for effective living, critical wisdom calls us into the murkiest, most complicated places of life.

For his dissertation, McLaughlin developed a group curriculum for critical wisdom mentoring and tested it out in a church context. Small groups of young adults met twice each month with wise, older parishioners selected by the pastoral staff. These mentoring groups leaned into the hard places of life together. For example:

“What do you do when a friend is diagnosed with cancer and you find yourself questioning God’s goodness?”

“A friend with an addiction shows up on your front porch and asks for a place to stay, and it comes at a bad time because you and your spouse are having troubles in your relationship. What do you say?”

The wisdom mentors didn’t dispense neat answers to these hard questions. Instead, the groups talked together about the complexities of Christian life. They studied Scripture and prayed, and they sat in silent contemplation, practicing the art of listening to God and one another.

At the end of the study, those in the wisdom mentoring groups showed improved life satisfaction in relation to a comparison group. Those in the wisdom groups also reported greater increases in practical wisdom, more daily spiritual experiences, and better ability to be comfortable with the ambiguities of life.



Wisdom in the Body of Christ

In pondering implications for ministry, I offer two.

First, we sometimes assume that only older people are wise, but that’s not what the scientists in Germany found when they looked at age and wisdom, and it’s not what McLaughlin found in his dissertation. The greatest growth in wisdom appears to occur in our late teens and early 20s. Congregations that are multigenerational have amazing potential for people to learn from one another.

Second, in this advent season we remember the messy world Jesus entered. Born amidst controversy to an unwed mother who was likely a teenager, and in a smelly barn where he spent the night in a feeding trough, Jesus entered fully into our complexity. Throughout his years of ministry, he was controversial and unconventional, cutting through religious pretenses to show the heart of God.

The eternal Word (John 1:1), the source of all wisdom, became human and lived in our messy world with us. Jesus showed us how critical wisdom shows up in flesh and blood, and invites us to follow his ways of wisdom in our Christian journey.

Cheers,

Mark