Do we still seek wisdom? After all the time we spent in school, after all the lectures and explanations we’ve heard about every possible subject – after the extra time and energy we put into learning about the subjects we actually care about – what’s left? We read all the controversial things about which everyone has an opinion – but is it better to know more or to know less? On the one hand, we can only be happy if we know certain things – specifically, good things. Knowing is an unavoidable part of being human – it is something we start doing before we’re even born. On the other hand, knowing other things can make happiness impossible – at least seemingly. We receive a formal education at school about different subjects: math, science, language, philosophy, art. Life experience also causes us to know more. At a given point, for most people, we accumulate an amount of knowledge in different areas that we deem sufficient. Curiosity wanes in general, though we may still maintain interest in a few select areas, such as wine, sports, technology, history, art, religion, etc.
Knowledge, once seen as a liberation from ignorance, becomes baggage that we are more or less happy to carry around. “I’m glad I know this, I wish I never knew that.” We can see in today’s Gospel how hard it is for the Pharisees to manage the knowledge they have. They know there’s something important about the Baptism of John, but they don’t know if it’s important enough for them to lose their power and influence over the people. If they admit that this Baptism is from God, they will have to relinquish their control and become students all over again. You can almost hear Nicodemus, “What, are we supposed to go back into our mother’s womb?” To which Jesus said, “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” You must be born again – everything you know is baggage that you have to leave behind. “You are a teacher of Israel and you don’t understand how this works?” In the book of Sirach we are given a glimpse of this new knowledge: wisdom.
The cost of wisdom is everything else we know and cling to. Socrates claimed wisdom when he said that he knew nothing. It was not ignorance, but rather ignoring what he knew because understood it was partial, incomplete, and limited. The cost of wisdom is recognizing that what we know – or what we think we know – is actually worth quite little. St. Thomas Aquinas called the totality of his Theological works so much straw that was fit only to be burned. At least then it might provide some warmth for those who study it. The wisdom worth seeking can only come from God, because it is His reflection in our soul and on our mind. The way to receive this wisdom is to be born again, to pass again through the womb of our Creator (whose image and likeness we bear), releasing the burden of our knowledge, thoughts, opinions and convictions so as to enter the cloud of “Unknowing.” There, perceiving nothing, understanding nothing, but with an ache for wholeness and healing from our true source, Wisdom herself rains upon the parched clay of our spirit.
Adolescence and youth are fraught with dangers, because the actions of the exterior person dominate, as Solomon says in the book of Proverbs, confessing that he does not know “the way of a youth in his adolescence,” and the prophet asks the Lord, “Do not recall the sins of my youth and of my ignorance.” For this reason philosophers, representing human life with the letter Y, assign the lefthand stroke to infancy and adolescence and the righthand stroke to the more mature age, when the intellect is more robust and rejects the earlier foolishness of the senses.1
It is as if Jesus had said: “I will not tell you what I know, since you will not confess what you know.” In this way knowledge is hidden from those who wrongly seek it principally for two reasons: first, when the one who seeks it does not have sufficient capacity to understand what he is seeking for, and second, when through contempt for the truth one is unworthy of having the subject of his inquiry explained to him.… So these critics were most justly set aback. They retreated in disgrace.2