Discernment / Faith / Ordinary Life

Expertise vrs. Wisdom

Knowledge isn’t enough
I’ve noticed recently that I hear a lot about expertise and being knowledgeable or informed, but I rarely hear anyone talk much about wisdom or being wise. I have no research data to back up this observation, so it could be a fluke. Perhaps you hear things differently. But I doubt it. It could be an issue of terminology, I suppose, people talking about being informed when they actually mean being wise. I doubt that, too. We live, it seems to me, in a world infatuated with experts, overwhelmed with knowledge and data, and glad it is all only a click or two away. Wisdom, on the other hand, seems to have receded into the background. Someone could argue they are interchangeable—someone who is wise has expertise and an expert has wisdom—but I’d argue they are different and that the difference matters.

For most of human history when people had serious questions about serious things they sought out someone who was known to be wise. Today we tend to try to find an expert. In the past people believed that wisdom was necessary if they were to find true answers to the big questions. Today we tend to believe that better and more knowledge will allow us to find the way forward regardless of the issue or question we happen to be facing.

Now, knowledge and wisdom are very closely related, of course, so I need to be careful not to overstate things. Still, they are not identical. Not too long ago people were willing to trek miles to visit a hermit living in isolation far from human habitation. She will have proven herself to be wise, with keen insight into people and life, though she might not know or care much about the latest unsavory scheming in the royal court that everyone is talking about. Today we want quick access to information, knowledge, research, data, and facts and so seek experts who make it their business to collate and present such things in clear, unambiguous, easy steps.

The shift from wisdom to knowledge began in the 18th century in a period called The Enlightenment. This was a radical period for thinkers in the West when the astonishing advances of the industrial and scientific revolutions made them optimistic about the possibility of human progress. The name itself expressed their optimism, and their elitism, believing they were in the vanguard of those who had finally reached enlightenment after millennia of superstition and intellectual darkness.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), for example, a seminal philosopher of the movement wrote, “What is Enlightenment” in 1784. “Enlightenment,” he said, “is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another.” For human beings to be fully mature, in other words, Kant argued we must free ourselves from the old traditions and dogmas of the past. We need not be guided by claims of revelation or by those whose voices have for long been deemed authoritative. Instead, by using pure reason based on careful sense perception and experimentation we can come to know all that needs to be known. As a result we can solve all humankind’s problems, answer all its perennial questions and provide for progress, economically, politically, personally and socially.

In contrast, the wise women and men had steeped themselves over a lifetime in the ideas, metaphors, writings, stories, proverbs, rituals and poetry that had been faithfully handed down over many centuries. They sought to indwell and embody the rich wisdom of an ancient tradition in a new, up to date setting. It was a long, slow, often painful discipleship. Now, however, with the advent of modernity this arduous path was no longer needed. Instead, an expert specializes, summarizing the best findings of the best studies, developing an expansive expertise in a narrow slice of life. In fact, the old traditions are considered out of touch with the present moment, a narrow set of beliefs that are best set aside as doctrinaire and unscientific.

The wise person answers your question by saying something that invites quiet reflection; the expert answers by outlining knowledge that solves your problem. The expert’s preferred tool for communication is PowerPoint; those who are wise tend to tell a story, a proverb and send you away with the suggestion you learn to live in them. Wisdom is always relationally centered, so that being with the one who is wise, and spending time with them is essential to becoming wise. Knowledge can be emailed. Wisdom insists that things are convoluted, interrelated and very richly textured, that reality is messy, and that answers always lead to more questions. Expertise insists that when things are reduced to their basic essentials the solutions and proposals will be precise, straightforward and easy to comprehend. Wisdom suggests that life is best lived in the company of the faithful; expertise argues that enough studies will present a solution.

I should clarify: I am not anti-expertise; I am pro-wisdom. Life in the world of advanced modernity requires all sorts of expertise, and no one—no one—is capable of mastering more than a fraction of it. We might be up on the latest technology but uncertain about which flowers will do best in a hanging pot on our porch. I may be able to build a deck that is the envy of the neighborhood but baffled by the electronic locks on my car. Even the most handy, knowledgeable and highly skilled people usually have some aspect of modern existence for which they need the help of an expert.

Recently a component in our entertainment center went out. I am proud to say I figured this out on my own. I concluded it had gone out because it not only stopped working, but the lights on the front blinked wildly in strange patterns and then went dark. I tried unplugging and then plugging it in again, and with that effort utterly exhausted my technical ability. I watched several videos online, each of which assured me that solving the problem was simple enough that anyone could do it. The only thing I learned from them was that anyone can most certainly not do it. I watched more videos. After several frustrating and fruitless evenings of experimentation I tried to order a new component online, but couldn’t make heads or tails of the variety that are available, and mine was old enough that the new products didn’t even seem remotely related to it. I watched several more videos. Finally I drove to a tech store, explained my problem and humbly bought whatever the salesperson pointed at. He assured me that putting it all together was, and this is a direct quote, “Simple, no problem, anyone can do it.” Anyone, I should report, could not.

After several more frustrating evenings I hired a tech guy, who came to our house, said, “Oh, simple,” and within twenty minutes had everything working. We chatted a few minutes and I asked him what he had planned for the weekend. “I’ll help some friends who just bought some new electronics. Unbelievable how often people confuse HDMI and DVI.” I agreed—unbelievable.

I paid him happily and am grateful for his expertise. And he is an expert, garnering facts and knowledge in a field that I know little about—and have absolutely no desire to learn—yet find is a part of my life. He is an expert that has made my life better with his knowledge.

We need experts for those parts of life that require knowledge. They are important parts of life, and when we ignore the experts and their knowledge we pay a price for our arrogance. The problem is that though its almost never mentioned it is assumed that this sort of knowledge is all we need—that every human problem and question can be adequately addressed by research, studies, and the results of experimentation. A legacy of the Enlightenment, this is an assumption that might seem natural and obvious today but is actually a novel and untested hypothesis.

I would suggest, instead that what we need to flourish as human beings is knowledge in those areas of daily existence that resolve easily into routine issues, as well as wisdom deeply rooted in story, tradition and revelation for the bigger questions of life and reality. Only someone who is wise can tell us whether to go to war, after which the experts can inform the generals which armaments are needed to neutralize the enemy’s attacks. Only someone who is wise can help us identify our calling, after which a vocational expert can help us land an appropriate job. Only someone who is wise can provide the story necessary to define the story of my life, after which a real estate expert can help us find a house in which we can live out our story before a watching world.

For Christians this distinction between expertise and wisdom is of significance in several ways. One is how we read the Scriptures. Some believers seem to think they should be able to find a specific verse for every issue. There are even lists you can find that tell you what text to read if you need peace, or feel lonely, or doubt, or whatever. And the texts on the list may speak of that topic. Still, the Bible is not constructed like an appliance handbook, and shouldn’t be treated as such. It has a great deal to say about peace and loneliness and doubt, but it speaks to them within a great tradition of wisdom about life and faith and God.

Another way this is significant is where we seek guidance in life. Expertise can be helpful but if we are really to flourish we will need wisdom. Over the years our living room has been graced with numerous people who told us they had received answers—usually complete with proof texts—that in the end answered nothing. Some of them didn’t need to hear anything from us; what they yearned for was that we listen to them and in doing so affirm the significance of their existence, their struggle, their pain. Some just needed a safe place to rant, and like the psalmists bring their complaints against God to God without being chided for forgetting that everything works together for good. Many of them had read the books of experts, but needed to hear the poetry of prophets and the fiction of the Redeemer.

And this distinction is also significant in how we respond to Jesus. Sometimes Jesus could be excruciatingly opaque in what he said to people. Our desire for expertise tends to make us want to unpack it all and make it simple, clear and unambiguous. But I would suggest that the opacity is intentional.

For example, near the end of his life, as the time of his crucifixion approached, Jesus spoke to his closest friends about what would transpire. “A little while,” he told them in John 16:16, “and you will see me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see me.” Now, I don’t know about how you would have heard that, but the disciples were confused.

So some of his disciples said to one another, “What is this that he says to us, ‘A little while, and you will not see me, and again a little while, and you will see me’; and, ‘because I am going to the Father’?” So they were saying, “What does he mean by ‘a little while’”? We do not know what he is talking about. (16:17-18).

Jesus told them he knew they wanted to ask him about it, and then responded to their confusion.

Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy. When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you’ (16:20-22).

Here’s the question: would you have found that helpful? Or would you have remained somewhat confused? And here’s my point: Jesus could be very clear when he wanted to, and here is it possible that he wanted to be opaque for a reason?

Yes, in hindsight we can see that Jesus in John 16 was telling the disciples that he would leave them during his arrest, trial and death, and then be with them again after his resurrection. And then would come his ascension and he would again leave them, and us, until his return to consummate his kingdom. And could it be that rather than spell out a timeline (which he could have done) he wanted to give them—and us—a saying that could reside in the imagination, a fragment of a story in which we can live in faith?

Jesus lived in an ancient wisdom tradition and spoke out of that tradition. He didn’t just come to provide necessary expertise, but came to invite us into the very wisdom of God. This is why St Paul could refer to him as, “Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24). He came to provide a richly layered gospel that we can learn to indwell and find as we do that we come to know and love God in ways that can be only partially expressed in words. Jesus’ parables are not to be merely reduced to catchy lessons, but are stories meant to slowly transform our way of seeing and being and loving. Jesus’ words about “a little while” provided his disciples with a new way of waiting under his Lordship so that their search for the joy of his presence was rooted not in their present reality but in the anticipation of God’s fulfilled promises.

Perhaps the most famous biblical quotation about wisdom is that found in Proverbs 9:10:
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” the Scripture says, “and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” It’s well known but viewed with some suspicion, since the fear of God is hardly a popular notion. Non-Christians think it’s a dangerous idea and Christians prefer to emphasize the peace they have with God. Yet there is health in knowing the fear of God because without it hubris and self-sufficiency quickly becomes deadly. A fear of the Lord reminds me that I am responsible to someone higher than my own desires, or my fondest ideology, or the pressure of my peers. It allows me to be content when I don’t know and to believe that the answers that really count are always costly.

Rather than acting as if the knowledge attained is neutral, wisdom always is concerned with righteousness and the glory of God. J. I. Packer summarizes it this way:
In Scripture, wisdom is a moral as well as an intellectual quality, more than mere intelligence or knowledge, just as it is more than mere cleverness or cunning. For us to be truly wise, in the Bible sense, our intelligence and cleverness must be harnessed to a right end. Wisdom is the power to see, and the inclination to choose, the best and highest goal, together with the surest means of attaining it. Wisdom is, in fact, the practical side of moral goodness.

We can hope that over the years we’ve developed a measure of expertise, a store of knowledge that proves useful. Whatever mine is, it isn’t in electronics and the next time part of our entertainment system crashes I’m skipping the videos and the self-help brochures and going to call in a tech person. But more than that we can hope, by God’s grace, to grow to be wise. To be the sort of person it’s worth being with because doing so seems to deepen the things that matter and makes the things that matter less recede into the background.


“God Only Wise” in Knowing God by J. I. Packer (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press; 1973) p. 90.