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Knowledge, Understanding and Wisdom: Broken!

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Feb 19, 2010

As gifts of the Holy Spirit, knowledge, understanding and wisdom are distinct from each other in important ways. Wisdom is the proper valuation of all that we know, such that we desire to order our lives according to the highest goods, ultimately the contemplation of God. Understanding is a grasp of the meaning and force of what God has revealed such that the teachings of Christ become both intelligible and relevant to us (rather than something we just recite). Knowledge is the ability to see the circumstances of our life as God sees them, so that we can proceed to make proper judgments about how to draw closer to Him.

Clearly all three of these gifts are necessary if we are to make spiritual progress. They lead us to desire union with God, to see the path to such union, and to recognize how the habits of our own lives deviate from that path. But if the Holy Spirit gives us knowledge, understanding and wisdom in the supernatural order, all three also have analogues in the natural order. Not surprisingly, as man inhabits both the natural and the supernatural orders, our attitudes toward knowledge, understanding and wisdom in one realm have a significant impact on the other.

This has been brought home to me again by two developments in higher education in which I’ve recently participated vicariously. I say “vicariously” because many readers know that I was a co-founder of Christendom College, a four-year Catholic liberal arts college, in 1977 when I was 29, and I worked to secure the College both academically and financially until I was 37. There was nothing remotely vicarious about that! But now, with the energies of a sixty-two year old, I have all I can handle trying to keep up to snuff. My involvement in any significant new and inherently risky academic enterprises comes primarily through observation of (and sometimes consultation in) the work of others—that is, vicariously.

It is through the interests of one of my sons that I have been reminded of the increasing number of efforts in recent years (none overwhelmingly successful as yet) to develop truly outstanding Catholic undergraduate distance learning programs. In the secular world, distance learning is a growing model for the simple reason that the traditional model of college education is badly broken. Of course, the traditional model can still work extraordinarily well for a college committed to truth and able both to attract wealthy students and to provide substantial financial aid. But the model is broken for the vast majority of students. You’ll see my point if you think of the impact on a young man or woman of graduating from Relativity University with a mortgage-sized debt.

Somebody once said that sons are like arrows in a quiver. Actually, it wasn’t just “somebody”; it was the Psalmist (127:4-5). The gift of Understanding enables me to see that this is true, and it so happens that through another son I’ve been hearing about efforts to develop a course concentration blending the sciences and the humanities at the University of Dallas. Dallas is, happily, one of a relatively small number of Catholic colleges where the traditional model still works extremely well for those who can take advantage of it. But the very effort to improve instruction there calls attention to a deficiency not just in the university model but in contemporary intellectual life in general. What I mean is that knowledge, understanding and wisdom have been broken in our time partly because the explosion of raw knowledge in each individual area of study has exceeded our abilities to synthesize. We can be (and usually are) acclaimed brilliant without any significant understanding of the whole.

For purposes of analogy with the gifts of the Holy Spirit, let us say that knowledge is our grasp of the facts on the ground in this or that area. Understanding, then, ought to be our effective grasp of a pattern of deeper truths to which we relate this knowledge. And wisdom ought to be our interior commitment—a deep and fruitful desire—to order all that we understand toward the highest possible goods. Now this way of looking at things actually provides a fairly concise description (or model) of what knowledge, understanding and wisdom in the natural order should be. As we have seen, this model has been broken by the explosion of raw knowledge in the modern world, and it has also been broken by the near impossibility (for most people) of obtaining an immersive, synthetic and systematic education grounded in a commitment to truth. Moreover, the ways in which the model is broken in the natural order deeply impact our ability to discern its prototype in the supernatural order.

If we add the radical secularization of the model of knowing since the Enlightenment, such that the supernatural order is held to be unknowable, irrelevant, or even chimerical, and if we add as well the resulting positivist assumption that the only real knowledge is that which arises from material measurement, then we begin to see how our loss of a proper supernatural model makes the whole state of affairs very much worse. For this divorce of the natural and the supernatural (or even the material and the mental) further fractures everything by predisposing us to ignore the quickest and easiest way to grasp how knowledge, understanding and wisdom ought to function, at least in the abstract.

I’m not proposing solutions here, though I have in passing hinted at two steps in the right direction. For now, I’m merely thinking out loud. But I’m doing so with the complete assurance that knowledge, understanding and wisdom are very much worth thinking about, either out loud or in silence, in both my life and yours.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: - Feb. 23, 2010 9:59 AM ET USA

    In the secular view of the world it was decided at some time that reason was incapable of arriving at ultimate ends in a rational manner, and therefore that reason had a purely instrumental use, i.e., reason was limited to determining the best means to achieving ends arbitrarily chosen. Since final ends were taken off the table for rational discussion, wisdom (which addresses final ends) disappeared as a desideratum from the academy (and almost all educated discourse). We are the poorer.