Whatever Happened to Wisdom?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
–T. S. Eliot “The Rock” 1934
Always be ready to give an answer when someone asks you about your hope.
“Perhaps most importantly, we must recognize that ethics requires us to risk ourselves precisely at moments of unknowingness, when what forms us diverges from what lies before us, when our willingness to become undone in relation to others constitutes our chance of becoming human. To be undone by another is a primary necessity, an anguish, to be sure, but also a chance—to be addressed, claimed, bound to what is not me, but also to be moved, to be prompted to act, to address myself elsewhere, and so to vacate the self-sufficient ‘I’ as a kind of possession. If we speak and try to give an account from this place, we will not be irresponsible, or, if we are, we will surely be forgiven.”
“I am fully aware that any effort to characterize the present cultural moment is very likely to seem quixotic at best, unprofessional at worst. But that, I submit, is an aspect of the present cultural moment, in which the social and historical setting of critical activity is a totality felt to be benign (free, apolitical, serious), uncharacterizable as a whole (it is too complex to be described in general and tendentious terms), and somehow outside history. Thus it seems to me that one thing to be tried – out of sheer critical obstinacy – is precisely that kind of generalization, that kind of political portrayal, that kind of overview condemned by the present dominant culture to appear inappropriate and doomed from the start.”
The impossible is “something phenomenological, namely, that which shatters the horizon of expectation and foreseeability. For if every experience occurs within a horizon of possibility, the experience of the impossible is the experience of shattering this horizon.”
I prayed, and prudence was given me;
I pleaded, and the spirit of wisdom came to me.
I preferred her to scepter and throne,
and deemed riches nothing in comparison with her,
nor did I liken any priceless gem to her;
because all gold, in view of her, is a little sand,
and before her, silver is to be accounted mire.
Beyond health and comeliness I loved her,
and I chose to have her rather than the light,
because the splendor of her never yields to sleep.
Yet all good things together came to me in her company,
and countless riches at her hands.
One should not, in any case, expect lucidity from the philosopher. Lucidity belongs only to those who know already what they want to say and know how to say it.
As we prepare for the launch of the Global Spiral, the electronic magazine of the Metanexus Institute, it is important for us to heed Socrates’ warning (Apology 39c) against failing to give an account of ourselves. Why are we here and how do we want the world to be different as a result of our labors? What is Metanexus and the Global Spiral all about?
To give an account of ourselves, as Socrates learned all too well, implies risk. As Judith Butler acknowledges, it is to “risk ourselves precisely at moments of unknowingness.” We know that it is possible, at this time of transition and maturing, that articulating our mission in a more clear and profound way might lose us some long-time supporters who may find us to be doing something other than what they had thought (“Oh, is that what they were up to? Count me out!”). But we could just as easily lose supporters by failing to attempt—or failing in the attempt—to give a meaningful account of ourselves.
Nevertheless, we will try to give an account of ourselves and for the hope that is within us.
Our contention is this: we have plenty of knowledge, but little wisdom. Our abilities for analysis, for breaking things down into smaller and smaller constituent parts, seem almost unlimited. We have mapped the human genome, explored the secrets of evolution, scanned the furthest edges of the universe, and plumbed the paradoxes of the quantum level of reality. Today there are more individual fields of knowledge, broken into more disciplines, subdisciplines, and sub-subdisciplines, than at any time in human history—as any college course catalog will prove.
Last year, 25 year old Matthew Nagle learned to play the almost-antique video game “Pong.” Not impressed? You should be, because it took enormous amounts of scientific analysis and technological expertise in a diversity of fields to make it possible. You see, Matthew Nagle is a C-4 quadriplegic, paralyzed in a stabbing incident. But Matthew can now play “Pong” using only his thoughts. He uses a brain-computer interface (BCI) called BrainGate:
“A bundle of wires as thick as a coaxial cable runs from a connector in Nagle’s scalp to a refrigerator-sized cart of electronic gear. Inside his brain, a tiny array of microelectrodes picks up the cacophony of his neural activity; processors recognize the patterns associated with arm motions and translate them into signals that control the Pong paddle, draw with a cursor, operate a TV, and open email.”7
Now how great is that?! It seems like there’s nothing we cannot do.
Except, for instance, plan for tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes, and global climate change; figure out how to bring peace to the Middle East (or Darfur, or Sri Lanka, or the Philippines, or Colombia, or Uganda, or Chechnya, or Philadelphia); determine how to reduce our consumption of natural resources to a sustainable level; how to control our anger; how to help the homeless, or make poverty history; or how to teach basic reading, writing, and math skills to at-risk children. Why do these problems seem so intractable?
It seems that with every report of a new and amazing scientific discovery or dazzling technological breakthrough there are a dozen other reports of impending ecological disasters; wars and rumors of wars; plagues and epidemics for which we are ill-prepared; corruption and ethics violations in business, medicine, and government; and a vast array of other self-inflicted tragedies due mainly to human folly.
The Dalai Lama writes:
It is ironic that the more serious problems emanate from the more industrially advanced societies. Science and technology have worked wonders in many fields, but the basic human problems remain. There is unprecedented literacy, yet this universal education does not seem to have fostered goodness, but only mental restlessness and discontent instead. There is no doubt about the increase in our material progress and technology, but somehow this is not sufficient as we have not yet succeeded in bringing about peace and happiness or in overcoming suffering.8
More books and articles are published on more topics than ever before. But are we any wiser? What about our abilities for synthesis, for integrating all this knowledge into some sort of vision of the whole, to see how things hang together? Can we “see the forest for the trees”? Can we get the “big picture”?
Perhaps today, with all this new knowledge, no one could be expected to become a “Renaissance person,” an expert in a wide variety of subjects, such as an Aristotle or a Descartes. There is simply too much to know. But have we simply given up the quest for the unity—or at least a “harmony”—of knowledge? Is it really just impossible?
Knowledge, we have plenty of, with more on the way every day. Yet our abilities to exercise our judgment seem ever-more impaired as we become overwhelmed with information. We have become enthralled—and paralyzed—by the so-called “expertise” of the few and the relativism of the many. What ever became of practical judgment? Whatever happened to wisdom?
Metanexus—the Institute and the Idea
The Metanexus Institute, headquartered in Southeastern Pennsylvania, is an international network of scientists, theologians, philosophers, historians, and other scholars in the humanities, educators, artists, and religious leaders, advocating interdisciplinary, intercultural, and inter-religious collaboration in pursuit of new insights and a better future. Our mission is to promote the constructive engagement of science, religion and the humanities in the communal pursuit of wisdom in order to address humanity’s most profound questions and challenges.
The present moment, with its ever-accelerating technological development, instantaneous global communication, and unprecedented contact among cultures, presents remarkable possibilities for enhancing the common good. However, as the quantity and diversity of our knowledge increases, our understanding of ourselves and our world is becoming ever more fragmented. This fragmentation lies at the root of many of the threats to the well being of our planet and its inhabitants. A central and particularly troubling aspect of this fragmentation is the rift between religion and science, two domains that are critical to human flourishing.
The Metanexus Institute helps address these profound challenges by promoting a renewed quest for wisdom and the pursuit of perhaps not so much the unity but rather a “harmony” of knowledge. We value religion and spirituality, the sciences, the arts, and the humanities as sources of wisdom—which leads us to the idea of “metanexus.”
A little history: When I came to work for this organization, we had just changed our name from the Philadelphia Center for Religion and Science to the Metanexus Institute, as we began to have a more international outreach. The name “metanexus” had already been applied to our e-publications (“Metanexus Online”) and connoted the networking and links and the transcending of traditional boundaries that characterized our intellectual and organizational work. So after much deliberation we decided to just go with this funny moniker. But as time went on, this crazy name—a name that doesn’t quite name anything, any specific thing—began to take on a life of its own. As we came to understand metanexus as an idea, the Institute that bears its name worked to promote it. And in time, we came to be captivated by this idea, driven by it, and inspired by it.
The idea of metanexus aims at nothing less than the transformation of persons, institutions, education, and culture. Not such a humble ambition, you say. But if you think about it a little more, you will find that metanexus as an idea is quite humble, quite modest.
It doesn’t march in and tell you how to do science. It doesn’t command from on high how to think of God or how to be religious. It doesn’t tell you how to “reconcile” science and religion (whatever that would mean). It doesn’t demand the creation of a new discipline with its own peculiar canon, methodologies, and methods of authorization. It doesn’t tell you whether to go left or go right, whether to look to the past or to the road up ahead. It doesn’t tell you in what wisdom consists. It is, in some ways, too weak for that, and maybe a bit too foolish. After all, how can all these fields of research and discovery, all these disciplines and sub-disciplines and sub-sub-disciplines, all these different religious traditions, philosophical schools, theological and methodological approaches, all these cultural differences and competing interests—how can all of this be bridged, be transcended yet respected, be integrated and universalized, yet remain diverse and particular? The very idea!
But with the idea of metanexus, paradoxically, its weakness is its strength. Its foolishness is its wisdom. Metanexus the idea manifests itself in this chaordic system of bonding and bridging and transcending of which we are all a part. Metanexus the idea is about unity in diversity, synthesis in analysis, an open space for inquiry and research and collaboration, indeed, an opening for the spirit itself. Although it is not the sort of strong idea that can be easily articulated, distinguished from other ideas, set down in writing, and wrapped between the covers of a book, still, metanexus is a kind of wisdom. Not a wisdom that one has, but a kind of wisdom that we have or might have. The humility embodied in metanexus as an idea is the pathway to new knowledge, and indeed, to wisdom—if I may put it this way: something like “the whole story of the whole cosmos for the whole person.”
Now, this “whole story” is certainly nothing we currently possess. Far from it! And there are good reasons for thinking that we may never possess it. But that we do not have it, indeed that we—our culture and our institutions—seem to have lost the joy of the quest for it, is Metanexus’ reason for being. Wisdom is not something we are here to dole out, conveniently packaged. It is our hope.
At the Metanexus Institute, we pursue our hope in a variety of ways. We foster the constructive engagement of science and religion, transdisciplinary research into profound questions of human meaning and purpose, and the transformation of our educational, religious, and civic institutions to reestablish a central place for the quest for wholeness and sustainability. We believe that this endeavor, pursued with passionate commitment and intellectual rigor, in a spirit of openness, collaboration, and humility, offers extraordinary opportunities for global human flourishing.
Constructive engagement of science and religion
There are three common versions of the ultimate purpose of the “science and religion dialogue,” as it has come to be known. The first is about interpersonal and intercultural understanding. To simplify to the extreme, this view holds that there are two basic groups of people: religious people and non-religious people. The latter group are best represented by scientists, as they seem to have the most articulated reaso s for being non-religious. The purpose of the science and religion dialogue would be to help these two huge groups to come to a mutual understanding and to potentially get along better with each other. A sub-species of this purpose of the science and religion dialogue would be interfaith understanding. Interfaith dialogue can only go so far so long as it is about the direct discussion of the tenets of the various religions. However, science, the way in which we best come to understand the world around us, is something all of us can—and, in a general sense, must—engage in. When we do this together, we will certainly come to understand each other’s most deeply held beliefs. We might even temper those beliefs by submitting them to scientific analysis. But in any case, the purpose of the science and religion dialogue is to help us all get along better as persons and as groups of persons.
A second understanding of the purpose of science and religion dialogue is to scientifically study things that heretofore had been under the aegis of religion—prayer, altruism, trust, spirit, etc. The complaint runs something like this: although through science and the technology that it generates we have become so much more adept at manipulating and improving our material world, we have not had the same success with improving our “spiritual” world. Religion as it has so far existed runs the risk of becoming simply irrelevant if it cannot learn to help improve the human condition in a way analogous to technology. Science entails rigorous, disciplined study, and the idea here is to scientifically study those values of religion that are purported to be salutary for humanity, learn what causes them, find out how they work, and determine how better to inculcate them and foster them.
A third understanding of the science and religion dialogue is that science is put to work to study a complex set of phenomena known collectively as “religion.” There have always been sciences of religion—sociology of religion, psychology of religion, history and philosophy of religion, etc.—but now there are also new fields of study such as the evolutionary biology of religion and the neuro- and cognitive-sciences of religion. The essence of the science and religion dialogue is to better understand religion, usually in terms of something that is not, itself, religious.
Despite some critical reservations about tactics and aims, I think all three of these goals are worth pursuing. It would be wonderful to all get along better and make a more peaceful world. If we can scientifically determine how to be more altruistic and compassionate, let’s do it. And if we can learn more about religion (or about anything, for that matter), then let’s learn.
But I also think there is another, deeper motive, a more profound aim that manifests itself under the rubric of science and religion dialogue: the quest for wholeness.
Quest for Wholeness and Wisdom
There are at least four “enemies” of this quest for wholeness which, not so paradoxically once you think about it, are actually effects of this deep drive for wholeness. Those “enemies” are materialist reductionism, fundamentalism, new-ageism, and postmodernism.
In the Christian tradition, however, we are taught to love our enemies, and at Metanexus we (Christian or not) love our “enemies” very much, to the point of being unable to write the designation “enemies” without the ironic scare-quotes. We love our “enemies” because we know they have so much to teach us.
Materialist reductionism, a hallmark of modern science, is a powerful means of circumscribing our experience and appropriation of reality in such a way as to allow us to manipulate it in very sophisticated ways. If you have a particular disease, thank God or thank goodness (as Daniel Dennett would prefer9)—either way—for the scientific analysis that understands you as a highly-complex physical system and can offer you a cure. But materialistic reductionism is an “enemy” of the science and religion dialogue because, while it can understand you as a complex physical system in the most sophisticated way, it has a very hard time dealing with you as a person. Sometimes, it seems so difficult for materialist reductionism to think of you as a person that it denies this plain fact all together. When it does, when materialist reductionism ceases to be a powerful methodological tool and becomes the philosophy known as “scientism,” then it must be opposed as inadequate to any full understanding of reality and the human person. Science has the power it does by limiting its scope. This is essential. Just as you would end up a mess if you were to try to do absolutely everything that might be done in the course of a day, so science would become a murky mess if it were to attempt to pronounce on absolutely everything, qua science. But science is to be staunchly defended from any encroachment from ideology, extraneous dogma, and from craven commercialism. Science is under attack not just from politico-religiously motivated ideologues but also from crass-utilitarian and economic pressures. Science is corrupted both by “putting a thumb on the scale” to make findings safe for theology and by corporate payola and government intervention. The tragedy is that science is debased, science education is watered-down, and the scientific spirit is endangered of being snuffed out.
At Metanexus, we take religion very seriously, both as a field of scholarly research and contemplation, but also in its myriad particularities. But this does not mean we take religion uncritically. Setting aside the fact that “fundamentalism” as it is studied by scholars is an early twentieth-century innovation in Christian thought and practice, the term has a general usefulness. If you would permit me to simplify to the extreme, fundamentalism, in a generic sense, is a stance with regard to one or another particular faith, creed, or position—viz., that this position is absolutely right and complete, and that any others are at least defective if not meaningless or outright evil. On this definition, there are not only religious fundamentalisms but also fundamentalist views regarding science, in particular, materialist reductionism. In this sense, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris might be considered fundamentalists, no less than some of the Christians and Muslims they severely criticize. Fundamentalism is not a function of religion; it is a function of attitude. A point to remember here is that fundamentalism itself is not an essentialism. One acts or thinks like a fundamentalist, but it doesn’t mean one is a fundamentalist. And just because one has very deeply held beliefs, even beliefs that are taken to be non-negotiable, it does not mean one is being fundamentalist tout court. In effect, the fundamentalism comes in as an attitude towards other positions. Not only do I have non-negotiable positions but I insist that you give up your different positions and will act to prevent you from acting on them.
Again, granting this surface reading of the term “fundamentalist,” fundamentalism is an “enemy” of Metanexus. We argue for holding even our “non-negotiable” views as lightly as possible in the hopes that we may come to an even deeper understanding of ourselves and our world by engaging with others. But “others” should not be taken to mean generic others. Rather, we mean engaging with those who have deeply held and richly nuanced and profound positions. We do not rest satisfied with promoting a conversation that is “just for the sake of argument,” but with fostering an encounter among those who recognize certain fundamental truths (from their perspective, we would say). We are not promoting the development of some new, lowest-common-denominator, homogenous “theory of everything,” but rather a human engagement that invites everyone to bring all of themselves to the endeavor. Christians who are committed Christians, Muslim who are committed Muslims, Jews who are committed Jews, Buddhists who are committed Buddhists, Hindus who are committed Hindus, Secularists who are committed Secularists (and let them all say in what that commitment consists) are all in this together as human persons in a world that begs for understanding and compassion, all our knowledge, insight, and wisdom. So the rule is not that you can only play if you give up the most essential of your beliefs. The rule is come only if you bring your most essential beliefs…but come! Come explore together. Come prepared to learn as well as to teach. Come with at least the openness to transformation.
Religious people everywhere should welcome books like those of Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris—not because those books are “right” or because there are “instructively wrong” but because they will be unable to avoid becoming engaged both with these authors’ thoughts as well as with their own, often inarticulate, views. As Proverbs 31-32 counsels:
He who listens to a life-giving rebuke
will be at home among the wise.
He who ignores discipline despises himself,
but whoever heeds correction gains understanding.
Our third “enemy” is new-ageism. At Metanexus, we believe that the lynchpin of our struggles to contend with many contemporary problems we face is our inability to figure out how to get a grasp of the whole, the big picture. As dexterous as we have become in our abilities for analysis, our ability to attempt synthesis or integration is severely impaired. There are complex historical and philosophical reasons why we have come to this state, but we need to re-visit the question of the possibility of something like synthesis.
It is a built-in structure of human thinking that drives at synthesis. The mind, the soul, demands it, or it rests uneasily without it. New ageism, like materialist reductionism and fundamentalism, is a symptom of the impatience with fragmentation and ambiguity. It is a collective attempt make things hang together, even if that means refashioning or excluding essential moments of the whole. But again, we love our “enemies.” We tend to be severely critical of particular new-age “systems” or “doctrines,” almost always because they are dismissive of science and scientific practice or because they are philosophically unsophisticated. But we honor the attempt, the drive towards such a synthesis, and we are sympathetic to the claim that institutional structures have forced out of the academy those willing to conduct their explorations in a holistic manner. However, we regularly have to deny publication to authors who submit a six-page theory of everything as the final word on all there is. In fact, we strenuously argue that it impossible for any one person or school of thought to encapsulate all that there is. If the big picture…call it wisdom…is to be found, it will only be found, if ever, by all of us bringing all of ourselves to the endeavor. It is not, in the end, so much something I can fully attain by myself but rather something that we should attempt to attain to together (which, of course, should make each of us wiser as individual persons).
That said, each of us has this drive towards the whole, towards a “unity” (maybe a better word is “harmony”) of knowledge, and ultimately, wisdom—even as each of us will never be perfectly wise. To be perfectly wise is impossible. But that is exactly why we should not give up the quest for wisdom and wholeness. That is the essence of our human condition. We are driven to be whole, called to be whole, but as finite biological and temporal beings we will never be whole. The entire spectrum of thought in the twentieth century is a testimony to the impossibility of the complete articulation, the “final solution” to our quest. Every final solution is like the Final Solution, a holocaust of persons, communities, and thought. Nevertheless, we must not quash this inner drive. This is our controversial claim. We must strive for wisdom, for wholeness, and for (a form of) finality and universality, or else the fragmentation of life will devour us, our culture, and our world. Chastened by all the warnings against rightly dangerous philosophical final solutions, we nevertheless must, in humility—the key virtue—not lose sight of the quest for wholeness.
We use the terms “wholeness” and “unity of knowledge.” But doesn’t “postmodernism”—itself a controversial term, paradoxically an attempt to “characterize the present cultural moment,” as Said puts it, by thematizing its irreparably fragmentary character—teach us that the “whole” is impossible, that the conditions of its (alleged) possibility are precisely the conditions of its impossibility, that metaphysics has reached its end, that alterity always inhabits and fractures identity, unity, wholeness?
We are informed, and perhaps chastened, by this critique, but undeterred. We by no means believe either wholeness or unity could be achieved by leveling, by homogenizing, or by seeking the least common denominator. “Unity of knowledge” cannot mean some Über-discplinary discourse, some “master narrative,” which would amount to nothing more than the latest flavor of reductionism. By “wholeness” we mean something “symphonic,” something more like a “harmony of knowledge,” and not just of knowledge but also action and praxis. And not just something I do, but even more importantly something we do.
We aim at a way of living and being together in a more sustainable way, for a future to hope in. And that way includes appropriating the discoveries of science, the insights of religion and spiritual life, the revelations of art and the art of politics, in a wisdom that is not a doctrine but a whole life well-lived for persons and communities. The “postmodern condition” has opened up these questions and unleashed these desires by helping us to see that the variety of rationalisms and fundamentalisms deconstruct, which opens up a free-space for wonder and surprise and genuine reflection. This “enemy” that will keep breaking up every formation or formulation that we try to make is the “enemy” that we might love most of all, because it will keep us from idolatry.
Between foolishness and idolatry
The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”
You shall have no other gods before me.
In our quest for wisdom, we need to av