Wisdom for a Complex Age | JT 25.3

Posted by Stuart McAllister, on May 25, 2017
Topic: Just Thinking Magazine

The value of wisdom and a wisdom-guided life is a keynote of ancient and Jewish thought, and yet, it is a much neglected theme in life today. When we think of wisdom, we tend to mean someone who is intellectually smart or who is somewhat of a sage, but as it often seems, this “wisdom thing” is a bit impractical to us. We are more focused on data, goals, and outcomes. We attend to very daily real-world concerns. We are the “Flash Boys” or the “Fast and Furious”: we seek to live life to the max and suck the marrow out of existence. We love speed, variety, choice, options, fun, and abundance.

Nonetheless, the Book of Proverbs commends the ways of wisdom to us. Proverbs 3 is a very insightful text, enjoining its hearers,

Blessed is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding, for the gain from her is better than gain from silver and her profit better than gold. She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her … and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her.[1]

This ancient book presents wisdom as the ultimate lifelong pursuit and the key to lasting joy and true wealth. And yet, we live in an age in which the abundance of things, the increase in opportunities, and the growing amount of options in almost all areas of life fill our minds and hearts rather than the hunger for wisdom. There is so much to do, to try, to taste, to experience. Will we ever have time?

Thomas Friedman, in his book Thank You for Being Late, speaks of the age of accelerations—of the dizzying tectonic shifts we are experiencing, whether through technology or globalization. We know and feel the time crunch. It is not just time but our space that is increasingly occupied, filled with demand or under siege, so it seems. Years earlier Kenneth Gergen described this condition as “The Saturated Self,” which was also the title of his seminal book. It is a new phenomenon whereby the sheer influx of data, images, and demand overwhelms us so that we begin to experience what he calls “multiphrenia”—a life in perpetual flux.

This saturated life, in which volume and speed seem to define everything for us, comes at a cost, however. In an earlier context, Blaise Pascal surveyed the sheer lack of concern people had for their souls in his then sophisticated French scene. Diversions and distractions were the order of the day. There were so many enjoyable conversations to have, so much exotic food to taste, so many grand performances at the theater to see and so many stimulating books to read, there was simply no time for deeper or eternal concerns. Immersed in the immediate, modern men and women could live their lives content with abundance but with nary a thought to their spiritual condition or their ultimate destiny. They were—and we are—“amusing ourselves to death,” as the late Neil Postman put it.[2]

The Saturated Self

What is this notion of the saturated self and why does it matter? Kenneth Gergen explains:

At a social level, we have become embedded in a multiplicity of relationships. We are aware of the needs of more people, empathize with a greater number of tribulations, join more causes, confront more potential threats and enemies, sustain more social obligations, experience more longings and disappointments, and are tempted by more varied and tantalizing possibilities than ever before.[3]

The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology summarizes Gergen’s thesis: “The result is a loss of enduring emotional intensity and commitment. With Social Saturation, a major shift is also invited in the conception of the self. With increased immersion in, and dependence on, relationships.”[4]

Furthermore, there are three aspects of multiphrenia—what Gergen describes as our sense of being pulled in many directions—that are of relevance here.[5] One is the vertigo of the valued, whereby the multiplication factor in so many realms and demands of life actually reduces our liberties and freedom. Two is the expansion of inadequacy, in which we increasingly feel insecure or incompetent in understanding or fulfilling expectations of us. We may feel lost, overwhelmed, and struggle to cope. Three is rationality in recession: our own perceived reasoning is put into perpetual doubt or uncertainty by all the other “experts” claiming authority and truth. So we ask ourselves, “Does what I think matter or count?”

If we live what Socrates called “the unexamined life,” then we find ourselves struggling with rampant external pressures and an increasingly panicked internal conversation. Fear or dread or just good old-fashioned angst may grip us as a constant condition whereby we may seek escape, medication, or some way to assuage the bad feelings life seems to generate. Christians are not immune to this, as we often add pressures, demands, meetings, and other expectations that can compound our challenges rather than relieve them.

Gergen writes,

At the most subtle level, these changes in social patterns bring about a profound shift in our conception of ourselves and others. Our traditional belief in ourselves as singular, autonomous individuals gives way. Where in the interior lies the bedrock self? Are not all the fragments of identity the residues of relationships, and aren’t we undergoing continuous transformation as we move from one relationship to another? Indeed, in postmodern times, the reality of the single individual, possessing his/her own values, emotions, reasoning capacities, intentions and the like, becomes implausible. The individual as the center of cultural concern is slowly being replaced by a consciousness of connection. We find our existence not separately from our relationships, but within them.[6]

If we are to live an examined life in such a context we must stop, reflect, and take time to seek God. If wisdom is what truly brings life, we must pursue it and search for alternatives to the rushing, pushing, insisting, and frenetic pull of our time. This is manifested by choosing a way of life that is truly livable, in which flourishing, rather than merely surviving, is the goal. It means we live by greater attention to God’s words and by greater intention to heed them and obey.

But this assumes a level of focus, commitment, and intent that for many is lacking and not on their radar. This is not a mere question of values, or of preferences, or of lifestyle options. The deeper question for many of us in is terms of true discipleship.

What is discipleship? What does it look like in these conditions and circumstances? How should we then live?

Since the time of what was called the Enlightenment, a new vision of life took shape beginning in the West and increasingly dominated what became the modern and then the postmodern world. Promethean men and women came to believe there was no God, there was no heaven, there was no salvation or need of it. But in the rush to erase, remove, deconstruct, and redefine reality, the needs and concerns of life that were once defined by God and his word and answered by his provision for us have now been redefined as purely natural and relocated into everyday life and experience for their fulfillment. We pursue heaven on earth and immediate satisfaction with no view or concern for any so-called eternal dimension. Immanence, immediacy, and experience take on heightened dimensions and roles.

Since the advent of what Paul Johnson called “Modern Times,” we have constructed more and more powerful tools and techniques to help us pursue our dreams and our desire for market abundance. Modern management, as one of our central guiding concerns for business and successful living, adds to our immersion in our own abilities and confidence that we are in control of our own destinies—and we might add, our hopes, wants, and wishes as well. We are promised order and control leading to increasing comfort and convenience by embracing more and more power and techniques or technologies. However, the Promethean bargain, as the ancients found out, came at a price; Pandora’s Box was a picture of the unexpected consequences of our decisions and choices.

The Way to Happiness

I once read an article speaking to what one writer called the “suffocation of transcendence.” Of course, transcendence may be denied in principle by some, but it sneaks back into life in so many ways that it is one of those things in life we cannot truly escape. If we combine the two notions of the “saturated self” with the concept of “suffocation of transcendence” by the myriad offerings of our pluralistic world, we get somewhat of a picture, perhaps a feel, of what many struggle with in our time. We look for more toys, more techniques, newer technology, faster means, but they all too often bring more weariness, emptiness, and despair rather than real liberation or hope.

Now some may still question any need for or interest in transcendence as the daily abundance keeps them occupied. At stake, however, are real questions about the kind of world we are living in and the best way to live, function, and flourish. Aristotle taught that the pursuit of happiness was the central occupying question of life. Older wisdom believed that the way to happiness was found by seeking the good and conforming the soul to reality. Virtue was a way of life cultivated in the pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty. As Epictetus said, “It is the nature of the wise to resist pleasures, but the foolish to be a slave to them.”

By contrast, modern culture encourages the pursuit of unrestricted pleasure as we seek to mold reality to our desires or wishes. Writer Isaac Asimov observed, “The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.”[7] Self-centered pursuits may offer temporary relief and seeming gains, but they lack a long-term, robust quality to life and ignore any eternal or transcendent dimension.

I remember once giving a talk in New York City to an audience of wealthy business people in a downtown hotel. The focus of my message was on the meaning of life and the necessity of considering the existence of God. Having finished my talk, I got in the elevator accompanied by one very confident man who was at the event. As we conversed a bit, he said rather condescendingly as he reached out and put a hand on my shoulder, “What if God does not exist?” I wondered to myself for a second if he really thought that was the first time I had ever considered this question. My whole life had been turned around after growing up as an atheist by an encounter with the living God—which is why I do what I do now. As we arrived at his floor and he was about to step out, I reached out my hand, placed it on his shoulder, and asked him, “What if he does?” He turned and looked at me; then the door closed.

I was not trying to be flippant then and I am not trying to be so now. This is a huge question. In addition, death is the great leveler and we all need to consider our life in light of the whole picture and not just in terms of the accumulation of moments or experiences. I was provoked to reflection recently by these words that Alfred Nobel chose for his eulogy. “Silent you stand before the altar of death! Life here and life after constitute an eternal conundrum; but its expiring spark awakens us to the holy devotion and quiets every other voice except that of religion. Eternity has the floor.”[8] It is vital that we consider the nature of existence as so much is at stake. This is true for the Christian and the skeptic as all of us have much to gain or lose depending on whether we live in the light of eternity or ignore it. 

In the midst of great trials and difficulties, the apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18). Of course, Paul was rooted in a vision of life and a way of being that was not dabbling in religion or treating it as a part-time hobby; rather, God was the central concern of his life. Knowing God, his word, his will, and his way are foundational pursuits that must define our direction and actions.

If we are to thrive in the world of “multiphrenia,” where identity issues and purpose are of vital importance, then we need to sharpen our focus, build significant firewalls, and ensure we have vital fellowship. Speaking to the nature of our focus, Dallas Willard reminds us of a core truth, “Christian spiritual formation is focused entirely on Jesus. Its goal is conformity to Christ, a process that arises out of purposeful interaction with the grace of God in Christ. Obedience is an essential outcome (see John 13:34-35; 14:21).”[9] The antidote to endless distraction and diversions in our lives is a clear and intentional focus. “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things” (Colossians 3:2) and in so doing, the eternal regulates the temporal.

In addition to our focus we must work on our firewalls. Again, Willard is helpful here: “Life must be organized by the heart if it is to be organized at all. It can be pulled together only from the inside. That is the function of the heart, spirit, or will: to organize our life as a whole, and, indeed, to organize it around God. A great part of the disaster of contemporary life lies in the fact that it is organized around our human feelings, not around God.”[10] As long as our appetites and our love of comfort and convenience are our primary concerns, then little can be done to resist the allures of our moment. However, a dedicated commitment to worship and the pursuit of God will be definitive to resisting the idols of our time.

Lastly is the role of true fellowship. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote one of his most famous books, Life Together, for Christians facing the reality of Nazi Germany. Serious community provides for accountability, for prayer, for encouragement and support, and for a reminder of our deepest commitments and their importance. In an age of the “saturated self,” the isolated, autonomous, and self-centered individual is believed to be all in all but is in fact unsustainable. This belief is rooted in ideas and a vision that are diametrically opposed to God’s creational goods and norms. As a result, it is life-corrupting rather than life-enhancing.

The apostle Paul was well aware of the fragility of life and of the many challenges to be faced; likewise, he understood that trials and hardships had there temporal limits. He looked up and he looked ahead for the certainty and assurance of a lasting hope (see 2 Corinthians 5:1-5). He did not look to this world to define him. He did not expect it to fully satisfy him, and he did not bank on it providing for his every need or wish.

As Joseph Barber Lightfoot said, “Eternal truth, eternal righteousness, eternal love; these only can triumph, for these only can endure.” If we have never truly considered our standing before eternity or if perhaps we have gotten sidetracked and distracted by the immanence of our times, there is an alternative. In a time of multiplying trinkets, toys and trivia, may we seek a higher wisdom and a better way.


Stuart McAllister is Global Support Specialist at RZIM.


[1] See Proverbs 3:13-18.

[2] See his widely acclaimed book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin,1985).

[3] Kenneth J. Gergen, “The Saturated Family,” Networker, Sept/Oct 1991, 28, http://www.epistemologyexpress.com/self1.htm. Accessed April 5, 2017.

[4] Online at http://www.blackwellreference.com/public/tocnode?id=g9781405124331_chunk_g978140512433125_ss1-313. Accessed April 5, 2017.

[5] Summarized by James Delande at https://jamesdelande.wikispaces.com/Gergen+summary. Accessed April 5, 2017.

[6] “The Saturated Family,” http://www.epistemologyexpress.com/self1.htm.

[7] Isaac Asimov and Jason A. Shulman, eds., Isaac Asimov’s Book of Science and Nature Quotations (New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1988), 281.

[8] Kenne Fant, Alfred Nobel: A Biography (New York: Arcade Publishing, 1991), 314-315.

[9] Dallas Willard with Don Simpson, Revolution of Character: Discovering Christ’s Pattern for Spiritual Transformation

(Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2005), 16.

[10] Ibid, 29.