The Beginning of Wisdom

by dgboland © 2000

In order to obtain anything one must first want it. The searcher after wisdom must be, first of all, a lover of wisdom (a philosopher). Wherein, then, lies the beginning of this quest? Aristotle called it wonder; we know something but we wonder why it is so. More precisely, we know some fact but we are ignorant of the cause, or the reason for the fact. This search for causes will bring us at last, as it did Aristotle, to the first cause. Thus the discovery of God is in a sense the end of philosophy. Some will cynically take this in an anti-religious sense. But the true sense of the statement is supremely religious. Without the realisation that God is the first and final cause of all we are left still wondering - our world remaining fundamentally unintelligible, our desire for happiness frustrated. The question Why? Why? Why? burns into our hearts and minds. As St. Augustine puts it, our hearts will not be at rest until they rest in God.

That is the experience of every seeker after knowledge and wisdom, be he poet, artist, priest, politician, scientist or philosopher. Even in the order of rational and experimental knowledge the search for the explanation of things comes back ultimately to God, and rests there. Only "the fool says in his heart, there is no God". Wonder, Aristotle explains, is a mixture of knowledge and ignorance. The discovery of God as the supreme cause generates a sense of awe, a feeling of being in the presence of something greater than what one knows from experience, and greater than oneself. Once we come to an awareness of God, we acknowledge his power over all and over us. Thus humility and a holy fear go with true wisdom, even in the order of natural wisdom or philosophy.

But God had a surprise in store for us mere mortals when he created us. He was not content to be the distant, even forbidding, God that our lowly reasoning powers point to. These powers cannot do any justice to his true nature. For our God, as he has revealed to us, is most of all a God of personal relationships. Certainly he is a God of supreme power, of incomprehensible truth, of transcendent beauty. But he is also a God who is Love itself. And love thrives on personal relationship. So we find in the history of humanity, right from the beginning, the personal intervention of God in the affairs of man. This culminates in, wonder of wonders, God himself, in the person of the Son, actually uniting himself to the whole human race by becoming man, the man we know as the Christ, Jesus. No one would believe this if it did not come from God himself. This Jesus Christ has turned all our thinking about the relation between God and ourselves upside down. At the purely rational level, what God has revealed to us is frankly unbelievable.

We need therefore access to a higher wisdom. This God has done for us. Indeed, he has given us Wisdom himself, in the person of Christ. But to enable us to know him he has endowed us with the necessary faculties. As sight is to the visible, so faith is to the invisible things of God. We see the divine in Christ with the eyes of faith. One would expect that something would be needed to 'shock' us out of our tendency to believe only what we can naturally understand. So, in order to deliver this most profound of messages, St. Paul tells us, "God has chosen what the world holds foolish to confound the wise." This higher wisdom appears at the purely rational level as nothing but foolishness. But the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of man.

Our quest for wisdom thus takes on a new and perplexing dimension. The fear of the Lord, God, is the beginning of this new wisdom. We are in the presence of the Almighty One. God is everything. Without him we are nothing. But this overwhelming sense of awe of the infinite majesty of God is immediately overtaken by the personal encounter with Christ. God, like a good host, immediately puts us at our ease, indeed treats us like a long-lost friend. What is more, by 'condescending' to visit us in our humble abode, he has made it clear that we are to consider ourselves members of the divine family. It is not surprising that those who we tell of this do not believe us. So we simply say to them. Come and meet Jesus. We can take you to him. He will not force his attentions on you but he longs to have you too as a brother or sister.

From here on then it is Christ that is the beginning and end of wisdom. The search has been marvelously simplified, and placed on a personal level. All rational searching after the explanations of things, all striving for natural happiness, all efforts to achieve peace and harmony among ourselves, all hope for the future of the world, find their satisfaction in coming to know Christ as a person. The more we attach ourselves to him and his the more we will see things aright and understand why things are the way they are. We shall then achieve our hearts' desire, indeed a taste of heaven already here on earth. But the wisdom we acquire will by no means be what we imagined it might be. In fact we should not be surprised if it is the exact opposite.

We should also not be surprised if we do not fully understand many things. We are puzzled by the record of the Fall. Free will, and the ability to sin at all, to offend the God who made us, is a mystery. But the radical nature of Adam's sin, of original sin, and its consequences, ending in God himself dying on a cross, can only serve in this life to make us wonder at the enormity of sin and the enormousness of the love of God.

The lives of the saints, as well as their writings, tell us much about the meaning of what Christ and his apostles have told us. That enigma of our existence, suffering, not only is given an explanation, but even is given a central role in the wisdom of God. The way to heaven is the way of the Cross. This is how St. Rose of Lima puts it: "The Lord, our Saviour, raised his voice and spoke with an incomparable majesty. 'Let all know', he said, 'that after sorrow grace follows; let them understand that without the burden of affliction one cannot arrive at the height of glory.'"

From the viewpoint of reason we naturally shun suffering as evil. But the saints seem to be telling us to welcome what we see as undeserved misfortunes. Thus, St. Rose goes on to say: "No one would complain about the cross or about hardships coming seemingly by chance upon him, if he realised in what balance they are weighed before being distributed to men."

We have much, everything, to learn from Christ. That is not to say that we should neglect the pursuit of natural wisdom and the study of science and philosophy. The wisdom of God enjoins us to use our talents to the full. But now all must be subsumed in Christ. If we become carpenters or tent-makers, let us imitate Joseph and Paul in our attachment to Christ and work with and for him. In study let us imitate St. Thomas Aquinas, who devoted his considerable intellectual energies to explaining how all things could be seen as proclaiming the glory of God and that nothing of science or philosophy need be thought to be in conflict with the teachings of Christ's Church. Most simply, then, the greatest work of wisdom we can do is to preach Christ crucified and risen.

dgboland ©2000

Don Boland is a lecturer at the Centre for Thomistic Studies, in Sydney, Australia.

This article posted December 2000. It was published in Universitas, No. 8 (2000).
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