Director, Kaufman Interfaith Institute
Seeking ancient wisdom as we face the challenges of the present
"Science in my generation has become like a razor blade in the hands of a 3-year-old."
Albert Einstein is so quoted in Krista Tippett’s book, Einstein's God: Conversations About Science and the Human Spirit. It was as he watched German science being handed over to fascism that he began to lose faith in the increase in knowledge without a corresponding growth in wisdom.
Why do we talk of modern science and ancient wisdom, but not “modern wisdom?” Why do we find ourselves returning to Socrates, Plato, Augustine, and Aquinas when seeking wisdom? Why do the various religious texts and scriptures come up when the topic of wisdom is examined?
Tippett continues regarding Einstein’s concern about the advance of knowledge at the expense of spiritual wisdom. “He began to see figures such as Gandhi and Moses, Jesus and Buddha and St. Francis of Assisi, as what he called ‘geniuses in the art of living.’ He proposed that their qualities of spiritual genius were more necessary to the future of human dignity, security, and joy than objective knowledge.”
One might attribute the success of science to it limiting its scope to only one dimension of the human encounter with reality, essentially that which can be called impersonal or objective. Even in this limited domain, science does not attain complete and absolute truth. The exploration of science results in the creation of “maps” of the physical world which are indeed reliable but not complete.
The map image reminds one of the difficulties of making a two-dimensional map of the three-dimensional planet Earth. When looking at a flat map of the flight route from America to England, it seems like one goes too far north rather than straight east. That is because the map distorts what is in fact the shortest distance on the globe, which is the arc of a great circle. My Muslim friends point out the same situation when in their daily prayers they are to face Mecca, for which the shortest “great circle” route is in three dimensions facing northeast from Michigan.
Theology and religion use metaphor and symbolism to create “maps” which help us comprehend aspects of reality that go beyond the limits set by science. Because of the complexity and uniqueness of human experience, the “maps” are not as specific and precise as physical maps, and yet they can be invaluable in helping us make our way through the pathways of our human existence.
Another difference is between the cumulative nature of science and the importance of tradition and heritage in other fields. A typical physicist today understands much more about the universe than Isaac Newton ever did. This is simply because she is living three centuries later than that great genius. In religion, as in many other encounters with reality, we cannot presume that the present is superior to the past. The individual creative work of a Bach or a Beethoven continues as a vital part of our present experience of music. Likewise, the theological insights of great figures and writings of the past are relevant to a contemporary understanding of wisdom.
Science and religion seek to explain, but there are different and yet not incompatible ways of explaining. I could ask why a candle burns and give a scientific explanation involving the breakdown of hydrocarbons into molecules of hydrogen and carbon, which vaporize and react with oxygen from the air to create heat, light, water vapor, and carbon dioxide. Or I could give a practical explanation: It’s burning because I just lit it a few minutes ago.
One could also offer a purposeful explanation: It’s burning because we are celebrating a birthday, a Sabbath, a Hanukkah, or a baptism. While the scientific explanation might be precise and non-controversial, the purposeful explanation might be more relevant in a given situation. All of the explanations can be true while at the same time not in opposition.
The kind of knowledge that leads to wisdom is not necessarily the kind of empirical knowledge that science explores. That is why personal experience is so critical to the development of wisdom. We can understand people and certain emotional issues often better through a novel or movie than through factual or scientific studies.
In his latest book, Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains why science, by only looking at external observations, cannot discover human freedom or human dignity. He writes, “There is something intrinsically dehumanizing in the scientific mindset that operates in detachment, driven by analysis, the breaking down of wholes to their component parts. The focus is not on the particular—this man, that woman, this child—but on the universal. Science per se has no space for empathy or fellow feeling. That is not a critique of science, but it is an insistence that science is not the sum total of our understanding of humanity.”
Science and objective knowledge likewise will not add to our knowledge of right and wrong, nor will it be the key to restoring morality to our communities. “It is our existence as moral agents,” Sacks writes, “our capacity to refrain from doing what we can do and want to do because we know it might harm others … that makes us different and confers dignity on human life.”
In our personal and communal life, let us affirm that commitment to take the higher road even when it requires sacrifice. It will be the moral commitment to do what is right for our fellow humans and for our community. Let us seek this gift of wisdom to act justly and care for all people.