When I hear the name Albert Einstein I think of two things, his hair and his unequaled brilliance. The name Albert Einstein is synonymous with intelligence. In 1905 alone, at the age of 26, he managed to publish three groundbreaking papers that provided the blueprint for much of modern science. The first was on the motion of particles suspended in liquid. The second was on the photoelectric effect, the release of electrons from metal when light shines on it. In the last and perhaps most famous paper, Einstein published his special theory of relativity, which led to the shocking conclusion that time is not constant and neither is weight or mass. It is still hard to believe that Einstein’s work in that single year led to the discovery of, among other things, X-ray crystallography, DNA, the photoelectric effect, vacuum tubes, transistors and the mechanics of the information age. Einstein was one of the smartest humans in history. People don’t say, “You don’t have to be an Edison to figure it out” or “You don’t have to be a Bill Gates to figure it out.” Instead they say, “You don’t have to be an Einstein to figure it out.” Einstein is the barometer of intelligence.
It is said that Einstein’s IQ was 160. According to the Weschler Adult Intelligence Scale, a score of 130+ indicates a very superior intelligence. Intelligence is often understood as the way in which we assimilate, store and use information, knowledge, numbers and also how we confront spatial/physical challenges. And of course intelligence is very important in our culture. I panicked when my daughter’s best friend taught herself to read at 4. It seemed that my daughter, at 4, was already behind the 8 ball of intelligence. A right of passage has become the SAT and ACT tests, whereby high school teens seek to prove their intelligence for college admissions officers. Parents wring their hands and work to stifle their anxiety as they wait to hear about their children’s test scores because they believe that if you can get into the “right college” it will hopefully lead to a great career and a bright financial future.
Now there is also something called EQ, or emotional intelligence. Dancie Goleman wrote a book entitled Emotional Intelligence that challenges our understanding of intelligence. IQ, he wrote, is only part of being an effective human being. Emotional Intelligence, according to Goleman, also greatly influences a person’s success and happiness in life. EQ refers to a persons self understanding, their feelings, their ability to empathize with other people’s feelings, their ability to listen and understand others and communicate with them effectively and insight into and intuition regarding relationships. Very bright people with a high IQ can be short on EQ resulting in personal unhappiness and relationship problems, says Goleman.
Pastor Patrick Brennan, “suggests that there is [still] another category of intelligence that is crucial for wholeness, happiness and effective living.” He calls it Spiritual Intelligence by which he means a kind of wisdom and understanding that goes beyond IQ and EQ. Spiritual Intelligence, or wisdom, is a gift we receive from God. Wisdom is no mere intellectual exercise. Knowledge acquired is not necessarily wisdom dispensed. “Unless intellectual lucidity includes a heartfelt understanding of people and concern for their welfare, it can lead to a broken world.” Thomas Hibbs, professor at Baylor University says that “Contrary to our modern understanding of it, wisdom involves more than accumulation of information; it is more than problem-solving ability. It is not just cleverness. T. S. Eliot wonders at the loss of this virtue in the modern world, ‘Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?’”
If Einstein is the poster boy for intelligence, Solomon is the poster boy for wisdom. In the scripture for today, Solomon assumes the throne of his father David. At this momentous turning point, he has to decide what his focus will be as the new king of Israel. Solomon is very smart. He had married the Pharaoh’s daughter and built himself a home, two very savvy moves to consolidate his political alliances. But he is intelligent enough to know that royal power can be used both for good and evil – something his father demonstrated throughout the roller coaster ride of his 40-year reign. Then we are told in I Kings, that because Solomon has yet to build the Temple in Jerusalem, he goes to a place called Gibeon where he offers a thousand burnt offerings on the altar to God. While he is in Gibeon the Lord appears to Solomon in a dream.
In modern times, various schools of psychology have offered theories about the meaning of dreams. A contemporary interpretation of Solomon’s dream might be that it represented his concern about his potential and ability to succeed and be successful. Or this dream about a request for wisdom could have served as a reaffirmation of the decisions he was making and the path he was taking. In many of the ancient societies, including Egypt and Greece, dreaming was considered a supernatural communication or a means of divine intervention, whose message could be unraveled by those with certain powers. But in 1Kings there is no interpreter – and so we take the dream at face value. God says to Solomon, “Ask what I should give you.” What a question! It makes you wonder what you and I might ask if God were to put such a carte blanche offer on the table. Solomon could have asked for long life, or riches, or for the life of his enemies. Instead he says to the Lord, “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?” God, is thrilled about what Solomon asked for and what he didn’t ask for. In return God gives Solomon a wise and discerning mind and riches and honor. God tells Solomon that never again would another king compare with him.
As we read on in the book of 1 Kings Solomon demonstrates very quickly that his wisdom is heartfelt. In the very next passage we are told the story that established the wisdom of Solomon for time immemorial. You know the story. Two women, prostitutes, came to Solomon and asked him to resolve a dispute – something the king was often asked to do. The women lived in the same house and each had a baby within a few days of each other. In the middle of the night one of them rolled over in bed onto her son and smothered him. Devastated she took her dead child and snuck into the room of the other woman, placing her dead baby at the woman’s side and stealing the living baby. In order to resolve their argument about who was the mother of the living baby the two women took their argument before Solomon whose solution was to ask for a sword. He says, “Divide the living boy in two; then give half to the one and half to the other.” The woman whose son was alive said to the king, “Please, my lord, give [the other woman] the living boy; certainly do not kill him!” But the other woman said, “It shall be neither mine nor yours; divide it.” Then Solomon, with his newly received gift of wisdom said, “Give the first woman the living boy; do not kill him. She is his mother.” Then the story concludes with these words, “All Israel heard of the judgment that the king had rendered; and they stood in awe of the king, because they perceived that the wisdom of God was in him to execute justice.
Frederick Buechner states that, “Wisdom is a matter not only of the mind but of the intuition and heart.” Wisdom isn’t something we learn, it is something that we have to cultivate. Walter Brueggemann powerfully states what wisdom is “how responsible knowledge of the world and passionate trust in God are held together.” In my very favorite book from seminary, The Creative Word, Brueggemann writes about the three ways the Israelites experienced God through the law: the first 5 books of the Bible; the words of the prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah and the wisdom writings, books like Proverbs and Psalms. Brueggemann writes that the demands of the law…which is an agreement about how we are to be in the world (example – The 10 Commandments) and a prophetic viewpoint that encourages a radical break from the ways things are must be balanced with wisdom, which is a kind of not knowing, a being in touch with mystery, a waiting to know, a patience about what is yet to be discerned. In other words wisdom is based in experience, and so it is not dogmatic as the law or the prophets. “The deep riddle of wisdom is that it demands a full affirmation of human responsibility and a full affirmation of God’s sovereignty.” “Pray as though everything depended on God. Work as though everything depended on you,” Saint Augustine wisely said.
If, like Job, we were to ask, God, “but where shall wisdom be found, and where is the place of understanding” (Proverbs 1:7) our faith points us to the Bible where we find lots of clues about how to cultivate wisdom. First of all, Psalm 111 and Proverbs 9, Job 28 state that the beginning of wisdom is fear of the Lord. The Hebrew word for fear, yirah, can also be translated awe, reverence, respect and devotion. The beginning of wisdom is to get our orientation in life centered on God….not our family or our job, our knowledge or our success. Acknowledgement of God, says Brueggemann is the point of orientation for a well-lived life. That’s the first step toward wisdom.
Secondly, the Bible affirms that obedience is also key to attaining wisdom. Listen to Proverbs 10: 8: “the wise of heart will heed commandments, but a babbling fool will come to ruin,” Brueggemann says, “It is the delicate recognition that reality is an intricate network of limits and possibilities, of givens and choices that must be respected, well-managed, and carefully guarded in order to enhance the well-being willed by and created by [God] for the whole earth.” As one person told me, her husband reminds her often that there is no way to do the wrong thing the right way. There are certain laws that govern wisdom.
Thirdly, mystery is also a key ingredient of wisdom. Wisdom is grounded in a kind of humility, an understanding or a knowing that at the heart of life is a mystery we can’t necessarily explain but that we embrace. We often find this wisdom in poetry.
Rainer Maria Rilke
His sight from ever gazing through
has grown so blunt that it sees
It seemes to him that thousands
of bars are
before him, and behind them
The easy motion of his supple stride,
which turns about the very smallest
is like a dance of strength and
about a center
in which a mighty will stands
Only sometimes when the pupil’s
soundlessly opens….then one
and glides through the quiet tension
of the limbs
into the heart and ceases to be still.
Charles Reynard reflecting on Rilke’s poem writes that, “in our information-driven world, we tend to focus on objective reality, composed of data. We view it as the only reality. Yet, just as certainly as we walk and breathe, we live within the heart of a mystery. C.S. Lewis called this the real real world. It lies just beyond the conscious world….These are the moments when ‘the pupil’s film/soundlessly opens’ and awareness ‘glides through the quiet tension…’into the heart. At times like these we don’t so much see as sense; we don’t so much know as intuit.” Wisdom sometimes mysteriously glides into our hearts…especially when we take time to slow down, focus our attention, and open ourselves to God who is the author of all wisdom. We can’t rush wisdom but we can count on it.
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart,” writes the author of Proverbs, “and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him and he will make straight your path. Do not be wise in your own eyes, fear the Lord and turn from evil. It will be a healing for your flesh and a refreshment for your body.” The gift of wisdom is life-giving for us and for those with whom we live. Seek it as a gift. Work to cultivate it: devote yourself to God, respect the givens and choices that God has established for us, and open yourself to the mystery of God’s wisdom which is ever new and available to us. Amen.