The Rev. Philip Tierney
August 31, 2014
Each of today’s scripture readings involves discernment.
Monumental issues face us in our time. The survival of global order, the global economy, indeed the very survival in centuries to come of ecosystems around the world require discernment rooted in wisdom. We desperately need wisdom and discernment, and yet those are the very qualities which seem in short supply.
Information is as different from education as air is from breathing. We may have access to it, but we may not actually partake of it.
Knowledge is as different from wisdom as water is from irrigation. We may know what it’s used for, but may not actually know how best to apply it.
Intelligence is as different from discernment as auto mechanics is from driving. We may completely understand something, but may not practice it well.
Education is the process of accumulating information so as to become knowledgeable. Wisdom is the capacity to sort through the knowledge we’ve accumulated and balance it. And discernment is the ability to apply the wisdom we’ve gained to real-life situations.
In our time, information and education are more available than ever before. Vast quantities of information are at our fingertips, available to anyone interested in learning. We have the capacity to learn more than ever. Of course, there’s so much information that we can go deep in any subject without ranging very broadly.
Take business, for example. There was a time, in my lifetime, when a college education had its purpose in learning information in various disciplines and much more in one of them. It was supposed to teach us how to think so that we could either enter the workplace to learn the skills we needed or to go on to graduate school to master a field. Much of that changed almost forty years ago. That’s when college education began to be driven more by getting a rewarding job. Businesses wanted people ready for business and hired those who were trained in one field of business or another, including information technology. They didn’t want to spend the money to train people so much as to hire people who spent their own money for the necessary training. In the process, businesses have become populated by those who look at virtually everything through the lens of business. Ethics and politics have been affected, and in ways that have brought about the so-called bubbles that helped create four economic crises. That’s knowledge without wisdom.
Last Sunday, I preached at the Lutheran church in Hanover. One of the people I spoke with after the service was a woman who worked at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center. She was a lead chemist working on treatment for cystic fibrosis. She was German, and told me about the German educational system. In Germany, an eighteen-year-old student, graduating from their equivalent to high school, is admitted to university to study a subject for six years. The student graduates with our equivalent of a master’s degree in that discipline, but won’t have studied any other subjects. She complained such an approach to education seals the course of the rest of a student’s life from an early age. German students are pigeon-holed, and tend to be challenged when it comes to integrating their specialized knowledge with other matters of concern. Specialized knowledge without balance hinders wisdom.
Also in our time, people can confuse wisdom with ideology. One of the things that drives me crazy is how ideologues exchange craftiness in promoting their ideology for wisdom. Politicians seem to specialize in it. President Vladimir Putin’s reaction to the recent Malaysian airline crash is a perfect example. First, he used information selectively so as to confuse the matter of whether the plane was shot down at all. Then, he blamed Ukraine for shooting down the aircraft. Then, he blamed the Ukrainian army’s assault on separatists for creating a situation in which such a thing would have happened. Then, he called for a neutral international investigation of the crash, while separatists, simultaneously, prevented access to the site and hastily removed evidence.
Craftiness in defending ideology is not the same as wisdom, and neither is blind ideological consistency. Ninety-seven percent of all climatologists and environmental scientists agree that human-advanced climate change is occurring at a faster and potentially more devastating rate than previously projected. And yet, those who deny it claim that climate change hasn’t been proven to exist and that there is not complete agreement in the scientific community about its cause, or they simply say that they don’t believe the scientific data and conclusions. Many have vested economic interests to defend. They don’t want their business profits constrained, their jobs jeopardized, or their political donors inconvenienced. It’s crafty, but not wise! Denial of truth for the sake of short-term prosperity, safety or security, at the risk of long-term global survival is not wisdom; it’s craftiness in service of vested interest.
Discernment is the ability to sort through competing information and claims of truth, and then to make choices and take actions accordingly.
Discernment was featured in both readings assigned from the Hebrew Scriptures for today. In the Genesis reading, Jacob lacked discernment when it came to whom he’d actually married until the morning after. If he’d had discernment, not only would he not have been deceived by his new father-in-law, but afterward, he would have seen that what goes around comes around. Jacob, the deceiver, was deceived. God often lets the natural consequences of our actions befall us. Wisdom involves learning the lessons those consequences teach. Discernment is the ability to apply those lessons. In the reading from the first book of Kings, Solomon was sufficiently discerning to know what he needed but didn’t possess in order to be the most effective king he could be. He prayed, “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people.” It was wise of Solomon to know that he needed discernment.
The reading from the Epistle to the Romans points out that discernment is a gift of God. It is the Holy Spirit who provides wisdom and discernment. St. Paul writes, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not even know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” God’s Spirit is the source of wisdom and discernment, and so we do well to look to God for those gifts — to pray that the Spirit will guide us and grant us discernment in our choices and actions.
Then too, finally, in four different parables, Jesus pointed out the goal of discernment — God’s rule in our lives and throughout the world — the kingdom of heaven. It is ultimate wisdom to know that the utmost good is for us to pursue the Kingdom of Heaven by promoting its hallmarks: love, peace, faithfulness, compassion, forgiveness, grace and justice.
Intelligence, education, knowledge, even expertise, are not wisdom. Discernment is not craftiness or cleverness. Wisdom involves the ability to balance information and discernment involves seeing through competing claims in order to choose God’s ways. These abilities are given by God. They are gifts bestowed by God’s Spirit. We can pray for God to grant them to us. We can know that their ultimate test is congruence with the hallmarks of God’s rule. Their ultimate purpose is the promotion of God’s Kingdom in our individual lives and in the world around us. Seek discernment by God’s help.