The Pursuit of Wisdom

Dr Anna Holmes
Issue 17, November 2005

There is in her a spirit that is intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, subtle, mobile, clear, unpolluted, distinct, invulnerable, loving the good, keen, irresistible, beneficent, humane, steadfast sure, free from anxiety, all-powerful, overseeing all, and penetrating through all spirits that are intelligent, pure and altogether subtle.

--Wisdom of Solomon 22-23

We live in a knowledge economy and access to information is power. Those who do not have access to information are disempowered. We live in a world that values scientific knowledge but pays scant attention to wisdom. Indeed it tends to discount any knowledge that cannot be measured and tested by scientific method. Knowledge gained through experience is also often ignored. This trend has been escalating in the past century as scientific understanding of the world has increased. It is almost as if the more we unravel about our physical being and world the less we really understand our real selves and relationships.

Wisdom balances the power of intellectual information against an understanding of the real world, with its imperfections and finiteness, yet infused by the presence of the Spirit. Wisdom calls us to accept our vulnerability and our relationship with all creation and, for those who believe our relationship with God. In a wise world life becomes a gift to be cherished as indeed is the rest of creation. Wisdom sees and celebrates the Godliness in a child or a grain of sand. Wisdom gazes at the beauty of this world; it does not stare at it to see what use it can be. Such a gaze of love enfolds that which it contemplates.

Knowledge - especially scientific knowledge – often divides the world into smaller and smaller fragments in an effort to unravel the mystery of life, of creation. It can fail to recognise that creation, and particularly human beings, are more than the sum of their parts. Those who are dying become aware of this as they struggle with the physical changes that terminal illnesses may bring. They often complain, "I'm not myself any more." As they reflect on this they realise that physically humans change from the time they are born until death. However, physical being does not encompass the whole self. Human essence is more than a physical body or mind ­– people exist in a web of relationships with others and the world and they leave impressions on all of these.

There are major differences between knowledge and wisdom. While knowledge is continually developing and focuses on the parts, wisdom is about integration of the whole created world. Knowledge shapes our understanding of the world while wisdom brings meaning to life and creation.

Intellectual knowledge continually asks questions about creation and is uncomfortable with contradictions until solutions are found. Wisdom has no problem with paradox and mystery as part of creation. Knowledge is seen as a possession that confers power on its possessor and has financial value. Wisdom is a gift to the community available to any who are prepared to contemplate. It also confers power but it is spiritual power of inestimable value.

Knowledge generally has a forward focus and often requires a narrow specialist view. Such a view tends to ignore anything it cannot explain.Wisdom reflects on a wider view and looks both backwards and forwards. Wisdom, because it reflects on the whole of creation is timeless whereas knowledge is very much about the present moment. Knowledge is cultivated in debate, competition and intellectual striving. Wisdom emerges from times of quiet contemplation, in letting go of control and accepting the fragile reality of what it means to be human. While over valuing knowledge tempts people to pride and denial of the spiritual, wisdom enables integration of all levels of being and fosters humility, gratitude and openness to all creation.

Advances in scientific knowledge are responsible for both advances in health and agriculture as well as threats to the environment and damage to the fabric of society. We talk proudly of the knowledge economy and living in the age of communication, but we also live in an age when the gaps between rich and poor are growing, the whole world environment is changing as a result of human activity and the sacredness of human beings is being sacrificed to the quest for knowledge. Some scientists even claim their work on understanding the human genome will finally make God extinct.

It is unfortunate that the religions of the world have tended to opt out of debate and reflection with the scientific world particularly when knowledge is expanding at a very rapid rate. The Vatican's chief astronomer said recently:

So why does there seem to be a persistent retreat in the church from attempts to establish a dialogue with the community of scientists? ...There appears to exist a nagging fear in the Church that a universe, which science has established as evolving ... escapes God's dominion. [i]

There is a particular need for wisdom in our present world. Wisdom listens and reflects before speaking and is not fixed on ideas or concepts that are tethered in a previous world-view. Both scientists and theologians tend to get stuck in particular world views.

One of the weaknesses of scientific research is that, because it is based on hypotheses that must be proven, those who stand to gain power or money have a vested interest in pushing forward hypotheses yet to be proven.

The quality of medical and scientific research can be both extremely variable and misleading. A recent article which suggested that only 1% of articles in scientific journals are scientifically sound made the following six points about Health Care Research:

  1. The smaller the studies conducted in a scientific field, the less likely the research findings are to be true.
  2. The smaller the effect sizes in a scientific field, the less likely the research findings are to be true.
  3. The greater the number and the fewer the selection of tested relationships in a scientific field, the less likely the research findings are to be true.
  4. The greater the flexibility in designs, definitions, outcomes, and analytical modes in a scientific field, the less likely the research findings are to be true.
  5. The greater the financial and other interests and prejudices in a scientific field, the less likely the research findings are to be true.
  6. The hotter the scientific field (the more scientific teams involved), the less likely the research findings are to be true. [ii]

Research on cloning embryos for stem cells fits this category. The studies are extremely small, diverse and do not reach statistical significance. The pressure to be first to make vast sums of money, and gain kudos from the treatment of as yet untreatable diseases is enormous. But is it wise? Will it really benefit humankind? Where will it lead us? If embryos may be used in this way, what is to stop children or adults being likewise used? Human embryos by their very nature are connected to the rest of humanity. To ignore this in the interests of the advancement of science is unwise, and contradicts the biology of human development. Wisdom derived from reflection on history reminds us of what happens when we categorise some persons as less than human.

At the New Zealand Bioethics Conference in 2004, speaker Michael Burgess made the following comments:

"There are persistent moral quandaries and moral remainders"

"There are pressures for premature closure"

"Good ethical dialogue is inclusive, identifies sources of power, and the ethical platforms, and asks the question: what kind of a society do we want?"

The scope of bioethics is very wide. It recognises there is more to life than facts or objective truth. It also understands that knowledge, respect and understanding arise out of a relationship. In 2004 the Chairman of the Bioethics Council, asked a very important question: "How do we encourage moral strangers to cooperate?" He also suggested "Ethical dialogue is a process of awakening communion" (Sir Paul Reeves NZ Bioethics Conference 2004).

Dialogue needs to be pursued in a way that understands and respects the scientific position while maintaining a search for truth and wisdom. Wisdom involves a focus on our relationships with other humans and all creation. There is need to develop an understanding of belonging to a unified creation, not apart from it, or in control of it.

Acting ethically and wisely in such a complex and evolving world involves a continuous process of debate and truth seeking. Some religious concepts that developed in a world thought to be static and fixed cannot hold in a world where knowledge and truth is still unfolding The conflict between seekers of the truth and those who believe they possess the truth is unbridgeable. Religious fundamentalism is as destructive of dialogue as scientific fundamentalism.

In a dynamic evolving universe, wonderful new insights will continue to emerge. No one can claim all knowledge in such a universe, nor can arbitrary limits be placed on human endeavour. Living without certainty can be terrifying, but on the other hand is that not what faith is really about? Definitive statements will not bring about co-operation between "moral strangers". It is only in face-to-face dialogue and conversation that we will all be converted by the revelation of our common humanity, and will grow in wisdom and truth.


Anna Holmes is a General Practioner who also works in a Hopsice. She has a life long interest in the relationship on wholeness and health fostered by her roles as wife, mother and grandmother.


[i] God's Chance Creation George Coyne Tablet 6/8/2005

[ii] On Caution, Bandolier 139 Independent evidence-based thinking about health care