A proposal from Brett McCracken for a Wisdom Pyramid in the vein of the USDA’s food pyramid to help us navigate the often overwhelming waters of the information age has inspired me to tackle some of my questions, criticisms, and hopefully helpful suggestions for such a project.

I’m not sure Brett McCracken imagined someone would spend so long picking apart his idea. I had no idea that unpacking his idea would take me so far either. If he finds this series, I hope he finds that I treated his ideas with respect and care while probing further and asking questions that can lead us further down the path toward wisdom. I’m thankful for his impetus for this series. So here’s a quick recap of where we’ve come and then I hope to wrap this up with some ideas for models, images, and ways of thinking about Wisdom and getting back to McCracken’s initial question about how to navigate a world that is often overwhelming.

  1. We should be wary of simple models and shortcuts that give us a new law to follow rather than the being led by the Spirit
  2. We are part of, inseparable from, nature and it must be the foundation of our understanding of Wisdom, not an optional component.
  3. Pyramids leave out important aspects of Wisdom no matter what elements are put where in the model. Using this kind of model actually embodies the problem it tries to solve in that it is itself a shortcut to Wisdom.
  4. Wisdom in the Bible is not simple or easy. It involves a community. Wisdom is open to listening and is not a secret hidden away. It is available to all and found in nature. It comes through experience and we should pay attention to those with more years and experience.
  5. The Bible and the Church are part of the Wise Community, but exist within the larger community of Creation and should continually keep Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience in a dynamic dialogue and tension.

So nature should be more foundational, pyramids are bad, and Bible and church are still part of the Christian wisdom. So what’s a model for how we should engage the world wisely? How should we approach the pursuit of wisdom?

Dynamic Spirals
I think it’s important for nature to serve as an example and foundation for our pursuit of wisdom (as I argued in the second post of this series). If we want to create a model of some sort, then I think nature is a good place to look for ideas. Turns out that spirals are found all throughout nature; everything from galaxies to shells, sunflowers to DNA, fiddleheads, hurricanes, and pinecones. Why do we find spirals everywhere in nature? According to a May 2014 Discover magazine article, no one knows. It’s still something of a mystery to scientists.

The shape of spirals alone provides much more dynamic possibilities. Consider simply adding it to one of the pyramid models we considered in this post. The spiral shape allows you to move back and forth while also going up and down the pyramid. There is an ability to move in another dimension rather than simply up and down. There is, actually, a whole system of understanding both personality and history built around spirals called Spiral Dynamics. I’m not an expert by any means on this theory, but it does seem to be an interesting and useful explanation of both personal and social psychology.

spiral-dynamic-image.jpg

I would suggest that a model for wisdom using a spiral might include four quadrants represent two spectrums, perhaps more could be introduced or included, but this serves as a beginning. On the X-axis you would have the inner and outer. We move between inner reflection, study, and exploration and an outer movement toward action, engagement with the world, and encounter with the other. We need this movement like we need to breathe. As we move between the two we also have movement in a direction, not just back and forth.

N17-427494
Polished ammonite slice showing chambers infilled with calcite

I’m less confident in what the Y-axis could be, but one possibility is between idealism and realism (or practicality). I find myself oscillating between these two often depending on my conversation partner and I think it’s healthy to hold these in tension. On the one hand, we need ideals and vision to work towards. On the other hand, we have to start with what is and not what we want to be and go from there.

Another similar possibility for this axis or another axis would be between the small and large, or the particular and universal, or the specific and the global. In spiral dynamics it is between the individual and the group. It’s often important to focus on our own particular lives and what tasks have been given to us to do. Please read E.F. Schumacher’s book Small is Beautiful if you haven’t. We can’t solve all the worlds problems and considering many of the problems we face it is incredibly overwhelming. However, if we don’t allow the bigger picture to inform the small tasks that we are given, we can spend our small tasks unintentionally in service of destructive goals. So we also need to move between the small, specific tasks we have been given within our personal spheres and their place in the larger picture of history and the world.

There are certainly other possibilities for models of wisdom and I would love to hear them. Please share them in the comments!

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