Why wisdom is so difficult

From where I sit, one of the most urgent needs for everyday people, especially believers, is wisdom. Actively cultivating wisdom is difficult even when such a pursuit is universally acknowledged to be worthwhile. How hard is it when almost everything in a society is encouraging the abandonment of wisdom, the suspension of careful thinking, and outsourcing virtuous belief to political tribes? I fear losing wisdom is a loss that compounds interest. The less of it you have, the less of it you can recognize.

Why has wisdom become more difficult to cultivate? Here are three main stumbling blocks I see:

1) The spiritual problem

By this I mean more than unbelief and the noetic effects of sin. Yes, those are real and devastating. But they’re also evergreen; they’re never not problems. The spiritual problem I have in mind here is the loss of common spirituality and community virtue. Call it polarization, call it identity politics, call it what you want: it’s a fundamental loss of shared religious and moral commitments. I’m not pining for “civic religion,” but it does seem to me that the alternative to Christ-less public spirituality ought not to be social disintegration.

The reason cultivating wisdom is threatened by social fragmentation is that wisdom assumes its own possibility. To be wise is to look at disparate things in life and understand them coherently. In an age of expressive individualism, we despair of the possibility of understanding. It’s why we stop thinking and start asserting our own right to self-definition. A friend of mine recently sent me this passage from Charles Taylor:

That is what is self-defeating in modes of contemporary culture that concentrate on self-fulfillment in opposition to the demand of society, or nature, which shut out history and the bonds of solidarity. These self-centered ‘narcissistic’ forms are indeed shallow and trivialized; they are ‘flattened and narrowed,’ as Bloom says. But this is not because they belong to the culture of authenticity. Rather it is because they fly in the face of its requirements. To shut out demands emanating beyond the self is precisely to suppress the conditions of significance, and hence to court trivialization.

2) The technological problem

On this issue Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows has been a revelation for me. We simply do not talk enough about technology’s potential to radically alter public epistemology. One of the points Carr makes in the book is that the printed reading and internet reading position reader much differently. Printed reading, especially after Gutenberg, centered the individual reader and asked him to come to terms with ideas and arguments that could be presented in a linear structure. Internet reading, however, de-centers the reader and centers the disparate elements of digital text: hyperlinks, comments, etc. Internet reading blurs the lines between receiving meaning and giving back interpretation, which is one reason why trolling is effective at altering people’s perceptions of an idea.

As daily reading shifts almost entirely online, linear thought is threatened by “loaded” digital forms. An embedded link can transform the context of an argument. A “related article” or algorithm can imply logical connections subliminally but illegitimately. Comments, tweets, and “Likes” manipulate our intuitive response to written words. This is all noise—noise that handicaps the authentic pursuit of wisdom. Instead of becoming wise we are often becoming marketers. Minutia dominates our emotions. We see enemies where algorithms tell us to enemies. We lose wisdom in the weeds of the online jungle.

3) The tribal problem

Our response to the above problems leads to the third wisdom roadblock: hyper-tribalism. In the absence of thick communities of shared value, the internet atomizes and manipulates our thought, making judgments simultaneously more difficult and more instant. The only logical thing to do is to preserve our energy by letting political categories think for us. We “sort, lump, and dismiss” ideas instead of engaging with them. We lose the ability to communicate as words become hijacked by movements. Everything is ideology, ideology is everything.

Biblical wisdom is about perceiving the way God designed the world and patterning our thought and life accordingly. Wisdom is living in reality: the reality of divine providence, grace, judgment, mercy, and design. All three of these roadblocks to wisdom plunge us into unreality. We are left adrift by fragmentation, tricked by technology, and rendered passive by tribalism. I’ll say more later about this. For now I’m trying to look more soberly into my own intellectual and spiritual habits to see traces of these problems. I know they’re there. They don’t have to be.

The Magic of Secularism

Contemporary paganism meets modern individualism.

Alan Jacobs recently linked to a concise summary by Charles Taylor of “buffered selves” vs “porous selves.” The dichotomy is crucial to Taylor’s thesis in A Secular Age. Taylor argues that the essence of secular modernism is the transition from an enchanted world—which creates porous selves—to a disenchanted one, which creates buffered selves. Here’s how Jacobs puts it:

The porous self is open to a wide range of forces, from the divine to the demonic; the buffered self is protected from those forces, understands them as definitively outside of it. The attraction of the porous self is that it offers a rich, multidimensional cosmos that’s full of life and saturated in meaning; but that cosmos also feels dangerous. One’s very being can become a site of contestation among powerful animate forces. The buffered self provides bulwarks against all that: it denies the existence of those forces or demotes them to delusions that can be eradicated through therapy or medication. But the world of the buffered self can feel lonely, empty, flat. “Is that all there is?”

Sometimes this contrast is referred to as the difference between paganism and modernism. Paganism is a magical worldview, where spirits roam the cosmos, elixirs heal body and mind, and the self is open to the influences and effects of a whole spectrum of metaphysical forces. Modernism is the age of science, logic, and rational belief. Spirits do not roam, bacteria and viruses do. The world is disenchanted in the sense that it can be explained without reference to things beyond the material.

Almost everyone would say that we live in a rationalistic age. We are buffered against the superstitions of our pre-modern ancestors through modern science, medicine, philosophy—the heritage of developed Western thought.

Or are we?

Consider a thought exercise. Ask yourself this: Is the individualistic, self-determining, self-expressive ethos of modern society a porous worldview, or a buffered one? In other words, is “follow your heart” the logical sum of rationalism or is it closer to a mystical mantra? If you’ve read many books on this topic, especially books about identity, you probably got a good dose of “From Descartes to Nietzsche” history of ideas. These books argue that Western rationalism created the modern self. I think that’s probably true and as reliable a narrative of how-we-got-here as we’re going to get.

But here’s where it gets interesting. There is a cultural rise right now for actual paganism (witchcraft). In this Atlantic piece, the author and her interviewees frame the contemporary pagan self in explicitly fashionable terms. It seems there’s a seamless continuity between being a witch and “telling your truth.” Stay for the final sentence:

Now 38 years old, Diaz remembers that when she was growing up, her family’s spellwork felt taboo. But over the past few years, witchcraft, long viewed with suspicion and even hostility, has transmuted into a mainstream phenomenon. The coven is the new squad: There are sea witches, city witches, cottage witches, kitchen witches, and influencer witches, who share recipes for moon water or dreamy photos of altars bathed in candlelight. There are witches living in Winnipeg and Indiana, San Francisco and Dubai; hosting moon rituals in Manhattan’s public parks and selling $11.99 hangover cures that “adjust the vibration of alcohol so that it doesn’t add extra density and energetic ‘weight’ to your aura.”

…To Diaz, a witch is “an embodiment of her truth in all its power”; among other magic practitioners, witch might embody a religious affiliation, political act, wellness regimen, “hot new lewk,” or some combination of the above. “I’m doing magic when I march in the streets for causes I believe in,” Pam Grossman, a witch and an author, wrote in a New York Times op-ed.

“I’m doing magic when I march in the streets” is about a clean a summary of the post-Christian West as you could ever read. The porous theology of Wicca is transposed onto politics-as-religion, and the essence of telling one’s pagan truth is to become an activist. The only question is whether it’s the secular, political identity that is masquerading as a witch, or if the paganism is putting on an activist front. I think somebody committed to the Cartesian theory of self-expressionism would say the former. But what if it’s the latter? What if modern witches reach for political self-actualization precisely because the Modern Self is not a rationalistic creature but a mystical one?

There are clues that point me toward that theory. For one thing, the liturgical and creedal nature of social media culture strongly suggests that many in the contemporary West are becoming less shy acting on impulses and habits that are religious in shape. For another thing, the ecclesiastical personality of spaces like university campuses—featuring excommunication, defenses of orthodoxy, etc—reveal not so much a secularized public square but a religiously redirected one. Yes, in one sense formal religious affiliation is thinning, but in another sense, religious practices have arguably never been more mainstream.

I’m reminded of a great blog post a few years ago in which Ross Douthat flagged a feature essay in Elle magazine about a woman’s experience with mediums. Pointing out that irreligious Americans tend to show interest in things like spiritualism and astrology, Douthat argued that the best way to understand modern secularization is not as a negation of the numinous, but as an ambivalence toward it. I think that’s a compelling theory, and it stands as a challenge to Christian observers of culture to get too sucked into a “transition” narrative—from porous to buffered, from pre-modern to secular—without accounting for the ways in which human nature falls back into contradiction in order to meets its felt needs. As tidy and seamless as the line from Descartes to Disney may seem, there are complications along the way.

And one of those complications is the impure alchemy of many modern worldviews. If the dogma of modern paganism is to be “an embodiment of your truth in all its power,” then we should ask whether the porous selves of the witch coven are plagiarizing expressive individualism, or whether the whole time expressive individualism was actually plagiarizing the porous Self. It could very well be that the arc of post-Christian history doesn’t finally point toward the scientific laboratory or transhuman technology, but toward Amazon, Oprah, and activist witchcraft.