I think there are three basic levels of knowledge, and there is a profound hierarchy to them.
At the lowest level we have what might be called ‘learning’. This is where a person fills themselves with facts. Such a person may be good at quizzes and may outshine less knowledgeable folk. They can be studious but without ‘setting the world on fire’.
The middle level of knowledge is ‘intelligence’. This is where a person may not always have amassed a huge body of facts, but what they can do is evaluate and use their knowledge. They may not win at quizzes but they often surpass others in being able to see the crucial issues from the welter of information.
I think most people can make an attempt to learn stuff, but not everyone seems able to have the gift of intelligence – through no particular fault of their own. Intelligence seems to be an innate quality: some folk appear to sail through exams without much study, whereas others cram and cram and still don’t excel.
The highest level of knowledge is ‘wisdom’. We might define wisdom as “knowledge for life”, that is, the ability to understand not just facts and ideas but to be able to apply a thorough common-sense to what life throws at them. As such, wisdom doesn’t depend on great learning or even the natural gift of intelligence. Indeed, the most unlearned person can be the wisest. Folk who have never had the benefit of education may nonetheless have wisdom. In fact, I think great learning and intelligence can often be a hindrance to attaining wisdom as such folk tend to rely on their own skills and talents. Whereas we sometimes meet young people who, without great experience, seem to be ‘wise beyond their years’. Wisdom is therefore precious beyond calculation. And – wisdom can be acquired – by anyone.
What then is this ‘knowledge for life’ and how do we get it? I think it has to be grounded in a deep awareness of who we are, what are our limits and rightful ambitions, and what ultimately is our true destiny. As such a purely ‘human wisdom’ is not really true wisdom, because it fails to understand the scope and purpose of life. Any wisdom system that posits that we have only this earthly life is not wisdom at all and will not set us aright for daily living. We are immortal – we come from God and will only find our true fulfilment in God.
The psalmist cries out:
“Make us know the shortness of our life, that we may gain wisdom of heart!” Psalm 90: 12
As such, true wisdom is inseparable from a relationship with God. And any relationship is built on time spent in each other’s company, and, for our relationship with God, this must be based on prayer. And this is why the most unlearned and lowest IQ person can be the wisest – if they are a person of prayer. I have met monks and nuns who radiate joy and ‘simple wisdom’ by virtue of long hours spent in the presence of God. I have also met ‘ordinary’ folk who make a deep impression of goodness because again they have based their daily lives on an intimate relationship with God.
Another way of looking at this is in the context of love. Most people would ascribe to the principle that love is the most positive aspect of human life. But in spite of ourselves we hurt others, we let them down, and try as we might we often fail to know how to love. What wisdom provides is the best chance to get love right: to know what is best for those we love and how to get that ‘best’ across to them, even when it may seem to them that we are being unloving.
We can all of us aspire to success, to money, to status, to power – but surely the single most precious quality of all is to gain wisdom: to know how to live and love properly. Therein lies the secret to joy and meaning.
In His love, Martin