“Now the serpent was more clever than any other wild creature that the Lord God had made.” So begins the Genesis account of the fall of Adam and Eve. The Bible portrays the devil as a crafty, wily tempter, intelligent and subtle, a master of deceit. But despite all the devil's artfulness, one attribute is never applied to him: that of being wise. In fact, for all his intelligence, the devil comes across as the consummate fool, since he lost the one thing that really matters: his friendship with God.
In his latest encyclical, Faith and Reason, Pope John Paul speaks much about true wisdom and its opposite. “The fool,” writes the Pope, “thinks that he knows many things, but really he is incapable of fixing his gaze on the things that really matter.” Wisdom, on the other hand, pursues “the full truth of things, their origin and their destiny” and “the ultimate and overarching meaning of life.”
In a generation that seems incapable of “fixing its gaze” on anything other than a television screen, we may well wonder whether foolishness is not becoming the cultural standard, and wisdom the rare exception. It's not that we're lazy, or lacking in important achievements. Like the serpent, we too are clever: we split atoms, clone sheep, catapult men into space, and cram enormous amounts of data onto tiny computer chips. Yet though “we think we know many things,” we seem to have lost our grip on their ultimate meaning and value, and on the hierarchy among them. Thus, we no longer distinguish between the important and the trifling, the transcendent and the mundane, the worthwhile and the useless.
This homogenization of reality has given birth to a veritable crisis of meaning, where “facts” and “data” overshadow life's deeper questions. Young people are especially affected by this crisis. The Pope compares their situation to that of a person “lost on a sea of information, disparate stimuli and data, experiencing a sort of permanent nomadism without concrete guideposts.” The modern segmentation of knowledge, the Pope adds, with its splintered approach to truth and consequent fragmentation of meaning, “keeps people today from coming to an interior unity.”
Being a Trivial Pursuit wizard does not make one wise. Moreover, the truly wise person may not possess the skills required to solve problems of differential calculus, astrophysics, or thermodynamics. But the larger questions on life's meaning are his daily bread and butter. “Why am I here on earth? Where did I come from and where am I going? Why do I work, and study, and play? What is God's plan for my life?” These and other such questions go beyond mere “facts,” to penetrate the substance of human existence. They provide a sturdy framework into which knowledge and experience can be integrated in a meaningful way.
We have undoubtedly received a more extensive technological education than our parents and grandparents, yet humanity's cumulative growth in knowledge has not been accompanied by a corresponding growth in wisdom. Knowledge alone does not make one wise. St. Paul asserts the contrary: “Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know.” Wisdom, after all, consists not so much in knowing many things, as in knowing the right things, and above all in knowing what life is about.
In her characteristically blunt way, St. Teresa of Avila reduces “knowing what life is about” to a binary function, noting that “at the end of life, the one who saves himself knows, the one who doesn't, knows nothing” (“Al final de la vida, el que se salva sabe; y el que no, no sabe nada”). And before we hasten to attenuate Teresa's hard words, we should remember that they merely echo our Lord's equally hard saying: “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?” (Matthew 16:26). In the final analysis, no amount of knowledge can equal the wisdom we receive from faith.
As we begin the blessed season of Advent, we join the company of the first pilgrims who made their way to Bethlehem to worship the newborn King of kings. Among them figured prominently three travelers from the east, whom popular tradition has dubbed “the Wise Men.” They left behind palaces, comforts, and all the securities the world can offer, to seek out the One who gave meaning to their existence. Wise indeed, not only because they knew many things, but because they were able to fix their gaze on a star that led them to the place where the Savior lay.
Father Thomas Williams is rector of the general directorate of the Legionaries of Christ in Rome.