The Possibility of Practical Wisdom: An Interdisciplinary Model for Discernment
Wisdom is not an abstraction. It isn’t a static state of peace, beauty, or justice. Although a wealth of philosophical treatises and literary reflections have articulated visions of existence lived wisely, finally, wisdom is about making choices in the concrete circumstances of life. The immense issues that face the human community can only be solved through individual and communal decisions that address the widening gap between the rich and the poor, the irresponsible pillaging of the planetary organism upon which the life of the human species depends, the significant population increases among the poorest communities on the earth, and the need for imaginative visions of how the human community might live together in a world that is safe from tyranny and terrorism. In the process of decision-making, wise leaders are conscious and intentional about living their values and priorities, putting their faith into practice, while integrating the mission and vision of an organization into the issues of daily commerce. In the heat of discernment, one faces the enfleshment of one’s character as an individual and as a corporate body. Leaders face their own integrity, determining what actions or judgments are congruent with their identity and vision of the world. This process of discerning wisdom is equally important for individuals and organizations of all kinds: corporate leaders, parents, civil servants, community volunteers, families, unions, NGOs, and multinational corporations.
The quest for wisdom requires two key dimensions: a process for wise decision-making and a set of criteria upon which to base judgments. The process defines important steps for consideration or discernment. Who should be involved in decision-making? What kinds of questions need to be asked? How shall these questions be considered? The set of criteria provide the foundation for making judgments, the standards against which the various options will be compared. This paper will propose a set of operating principles to guide the process of decision-making and a set of criteria by which to test the options or alternatives in the decision-making process. Both the process and the criteria will be based on core themes found across the Jewish wisdom tradition, the Christian scriptures and the Rule of Saint Benedict.
The Jewish wisdom tradition refers to Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Sirach and Wisdom of Solomon and pieces of text in Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, Amos, Micah, Isaiah, Jonah, Song of Solomon and Psalms. Although there is a good deal of discussion about the meaning and context of particular texts, there is significant agreement among scriptural scholars about common themes in Jewish wisdom literature which provide the basis for my application of this tradition to the decision-making process. Similarly, the focus is on a few central dimensions of the Christian scriptures as the ground for wise decision making, key themes that are ubiquitous across the Pauline corpus and the synoptic gospels. Finally, the Rule of St. Benedict has been the guiding force for monastic communities as well as for countless lay persons since its writing in the sixth century. Benedict’s purpose was to write a practical, house rule for his extended family as they attempted to live a life based on the gospel.
The operating principles for decision-making will be informed by the contemporary theory and practice of dialogue, especially as they have been articulated by the Nobel-winning physicist David Bohm and his collaborator William Isaacs of the MIT Sloan School of Management, and by the reflection and formation processes used so effectively by Parker Palmer in his programs and writings on the courage to teach and lead.
Admittedly, this process and set of criteria for wise decision-making will be grounded in the Western philosophical and theological tradition. However, the process will be open to and will intentionally invite the perspectives of other traditions, so that a self-transforming process for discernment is envisioned.
The following core themes that permeate the Jewish wisdom tradition, the Christian scriptures and the Rule of Saint Benedict will be explored: 1. valuation of the diversity of voices, especially the perspectives of the marginalized and disenfranchised; 2. integration of the whole person—body, mind, soul and spirit; 3. realization that truth is embedded in common human experience; 4. appreciation of the interdependence of all reality; and 5. the necessity for preservation and transformation. From each of these core themes, operating principles for going about the decision-making process will be identified and criteria for judgment will be articulated.
It should be noted at the outset of this paper that the author does not intend the described wise decision-making process or set of criteria to be exhaustive or limiting. The set of core themes identified here are central but certainly not the only scriptural or Benedictine themes that might be applied helpfully to a particular situation of decision making. It is the author’s hope that the operating principles and criteria here articulated will be an effective starting point for discernment that might well open out into further considerations that integrate spiritual traditions into the everyday ethical decisions. What is discernment? On the individual or personal level, discernment refers to how a person judges among competing possibilities or ways of thinking and acting. On the communal level, discernment refers to how a group weighs options, searches for truth and makes decisions together. In spiritual language, discernment is attempting to hear the creative, transformative call of God luring us into the best possible future. Discernment connotes a way of attempting to know and follow God’s will through a discipline that involves deep listening and prayerful consideration to each other and to God. The aim of this paper is to articulate a way of searching together for truth, moving forward together in a respectful process that welcomes and engages three spiritual wisdom traditions.
Two important introductory remarks are in order as this exploration into the practical wisdom of decision-making gets underway. These remarks come from the realization that individuals are often criticized for making decisions too hurriedly or for taking too much time to come to a conclusion. For the first remark, I rely on the insight of Rainer Maria Rilke in his Letters to a Young Poet:
I would like to beg of you, dear friend, as well as I can, to have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day (Rilke, 2000).
This attitude of living in the question seems contrary to the sense of urgency that is often experienced when persons are faced with critical issues that need to be decided. But time and again, maturity requires living in the tension between polarities, embracing the paradox, rather than running full speed ahead in one direction. Certainly the context for Rilke’s advice is quite different from a discussion of discernment. Yet, Rilke’s words point to a kind of respect for the questions themselves. It is not only patience that he espouses here but also an attitude of acceptance and valuation regarding the questions. Rilke’s perspective applies to the context of discernment. Participants in a wise discernment process must respect the questions and be willing to live with them. Even within the context of urgency, they must be able to create an open space where they can truly consider, converse and reflect.
The second introductory remark is to acknowledge that it is right and proper for individuals to choose to act without waiting for an incontrovertible answer. In fact, there may not be an uncontestable resolution to many of the key questions that face us. On the one hand, the pressure to decide and act quickly should not prevent a regular practice of discerning more deeply and broadly. On the other hand, the lack of a conclusive answer should not prevent persons from acting, from making the best moral judgment possible with the given information after wise consideration. Decision and action must be based on the individual’s or group’s web of experience, the interwoven strands of human influence that affect each person’s way of seeing the world. As long as that web of experience is being continually expanded by analyzing data, clarifying principles, listening to experts and authorities, stretching one’s vision beyond its present scope, and living with integrity based on one’s present world view, the decisions will stand the test of conscience. Expanding the web of experience requires searching beyond one culture, beyond one discipline of expertise, and beyond the present time. With this broadening of the web of experience, persons inform their consciences as they seek coherence among the considerations in the search for truth and make decisions with forethought and good will. It is important to acknowledge that action itself entails a way of knowing. Often, in the process of acting, knowledge is expanded. This articulation of a process for wise decision-making and criteria for wise judgment is best approached with this attitude that loves the questions and values the balance between reflection and action.
Valuation of the Diversity of Voices
A discernment process grounded in the life and message of Jesus, the Rule of St. Benedict and the Jewish wisdom tradition must invite and value the diversity of voices, especially the perspectives of the marginalized and disenfranchised. A key dimension of the Jewish wisdom tradition is its emphasis on the universality of wisdom. Wisdom is not owned by the priests, kings, prophets or judges. One need not consult some holy seer because each person can access wisdom. The wisdom tradition emphasizes that God reveals wisdom not to some elect authority but to all who seek it. Wisdom is universal and international; no office, institution or person holds the monopoly on it. Thus, for the Jewish wisdom tradition, every voice is important to hearing the call to wisdom. This tradition is in sharp contrast to other strands of writing in the Hebrew scriptures, traditions that focus on the divine election of the monarch or the priority of the law and its interpretations.
A constant in the ministry and teaching of Jesus is his reaching out to the poor, the sick, the powerless, and the sinner. In the gospel parables, Jesus repeatedly turns our assumptions about who is saved and who knows the truth upside down. He tells us to follow the example of little children, for “It is to just such as these that the kingdom of God belongs” (Mark 10:14). In Luke’s gospel, when the lawyer asks, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit everlasting life?” Jesus answers with the story of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan, a member of a people that was judged by the Jews of the time to be unclean and unrighteous, is held up as the one who truly understands the law and does it (Luke 10: 25-37). A learned Jewish lawyer fully versed in the law with the confidence and skill to challenge this teacher who has been drawing crowds of people is told to follow the example of the people he has despised all of his life. Again, in Luke’s gospel, when Jesus tells the parable of God’s kingdom in the banquet story, he tells the servants to go out not just to the “streets and alleys of the town [to] bring in the poor and the crippled, the blind and the lame” but “into the highways and along the hedgerows” to fill the banquet hall with all manner of folk (Luke 14:21-23). At the heart of Jesus’ message is a radical inclusiveness and an empathic identification especially with the oppressed.
Consistent with the Christian scriptures, St. Benedict refers to the sick, the poor, and the young as those who must be received as Christ. When he articulates rules for community decision-making, he advises that the abbot listen to everyone in the whole community. The Rule states explicitly what process should be followed and why:
Whenever any important business has to be done in the monastery, let the Abbot call together the whole community and state the matter to be acted upon. Then, having heard the brethren’s advice, let him turn the matter over in his own mind and do what he shall judge to be most expedient. The reason we have said that all should be called for counsel is that the Lord often reveals to the younger what is best (Benedict, chapter 3).
Even when the decision is not of major consequence, several in the community should be consulted. Benedict also identifies the way in which this community counsel is to be given. Monks should speak their own perspectives but “with all the deference required by humility, and not presume stubbornly to defend their opinions…”(Benedict, chapter 3).
This theological foundation of radical inclusivity evident in the Jewish wisdom tradition, Jesus’ ministry and the Benedictine Rule implies that a wise discernment process must provide seats at the table for a diversity of voices, particularly perspectives that come from the margins, from the highways and byways and hedgerows. A discernment process that leads to practical wisdom will listen attentively to those who often are assumed to have nothing important to say. It is a process that values the voices of difference and takes time to hear their stories. In order for the discernment process to fruitfully serve the search for truth, it must be marked not by exclusion but by intentional, hospitable and attentive inclusion.
There are particular ways in which deep listening to difference can be enhanced through the process of dialogue. Through the pioneering work of David Bohm and the efforts of William Isaacs and the Dialogue Project at MIT, there is a growing body of literature that explores the practical strategies and procedures for hearing the deeper wisdom in a community of persons. The dialogue process facilitates attentive listening to the voices of difference and focuses the energy of the group toward a collective intelligence that goes beyond polarization. In Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together, Isaacs describes dialogue as
a conversation in which people think together in relationship. Thinking together implies that you no longer take your own position as final. You relax your grip on certainty and listen to the possibilities that result simply from being in a relationship with others—possibilities that might not otherwise have occurred (Isaacs, 1999).
The basic guidelines for dialogue serve the process of discernment as well. To access the deeper wisdom that comes from attentiveness to difference, dialogue practice involves 1. speaking one’ voice with honesty and integrity, 2. listening to the voices of others and to the voice of the whole with genuine openness, and 3. suspending one’s own presuppositions, assumptions and judgments to allow new thought to happen. This authentic speaking, deep listening, and open suspension of assumptions is facilitated by specific, simple, practical guidelines such as sitting in a circle so the architecture of the gathering symbolizes the equal value given to each voice in the circle. The very way in which a group is arranged physically says something quite profound about how persons are being invited into dialogue. The circle is an ancient technology for deeper understanding in community. Many indigenous peoples use some type of gathering circle, council circle or circle of elders as part of their religious and/or political process.
In the following poem, I recall those ancient traditions and the importance of the circle as a symbolization of the equality of voices.
We place ourselves in circles, crescents, horseshoes, huddles;
knowing somehow that this way of being together
signs the shape of our dreams and longings.
From space we see ourselves round,
connected to one another, facing each other,
with all our differences, dancing around the sun together.
For centuries we have been trying to bring
the circle down from mystery skies,
to set it stone solid in our hearts, to memorize
the knowing of each preciousness
equally gift to the circle of whole.
Spirals etched in red rock canyon story the journey
out of and into the center that holds all things together.
Stonehenge pillars and lintels dragged for miles,
scraped into meaning, set in sacred formation with sun and moon.
Conical mounds heaped into remembrance
ritual the lives of elders who circle the fire of the tribe.
Everywhere and ancient the circle
is repeated, shaping us to its original wisdom.
Give us each day our daily hunger
to be more than we are now,
to be less solitary selves doubting our place,
to be more a circle of connection and acceptance,
spherical harmony of the heavens.
Each one a single voice, a sacred story,
but always in the larger circle of meaning and mystery.
Other guidelines that serve the openness and valuation of difference in the process of dialogue and discernment include 1. allowing space between speakers so the rhythm of exchange facilitates respect and deep listening, 2. using “I” statements to limit the projection of one’s ideas and meanings onto others, 3. speaking to the center of the circle rather than to specific individuals to soften the identification between ideas and persons, and 4. reflecting on the common understandings arising in the group.
When these and other practical guidelines that serve to create a safe container for in-depth, honest sharing of difference and inclusive listening are used, the possibility for fruitful, authentic discernment is enhanced. This challenge to allow the voices of difference to be heard requires deep courage and open mindedness. If the process of decision-making invites in all the significant voices, especially the perspectives of difference from the margins, one may be greatly upset. One’s world view might be radically challenged. Esther de Waal in Seeking God: The Way of St. Benedict has a poignant admonition when she says, “If we stop listening to what we find hard to take, then, we are likely to pass God by without ever noticing” (de Waal, 1984).
The key operating principle that emanates from this valuation of the diversity of voices is that the decision-making process must invite and nurture the diversity of voices, especially those most often marginalized and unheard. Embedded in this core wisdom theme of the value of the diversity of voices are two criteria upon which choices should be based. First, the wise choice will be that option that is best for the whole community, serving not only one person or one class, but all persons. The criterion of the common good will inform the weighing of alternatives in the decision-making process. The focus of consideration will include an expanded exploration of the consequences of the decision for the larger community of which the individual or the group is part. One can argue that as one broadens the understanding of one’s community, one deepens the wisdom of one’s choices. This criterion does not mean that individual rights are unimportant; it does not necessitate a utilitarian model. However, there is a recognition that the very best decision in a particular circumstance is one that seeks the long-range value for all persons.
A second criterion implicit in this valuation of all the voices in the community is that the best choice will give preference to the poor and powerless, the oppressed and marginalized. Since some are already advantaged and have a sufficient share in the resources of the earth, a decision that takes seriously the value of all persons will be particularly attentive to the needs of those who are disadvantaged and have less than they need to be healthy and whole. When all persons are seen as equal members of the same family of humankind, wise decisions will give particular attention to those whose basic needs are not met, to those who are not being treated equitably in the present arrangements of global society. Robert Greenleaf, the father of servant leadership, expresses this perspective well when he says that the best test of a servant leader’s decisions will include the consideration: “And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society; will he benefit, or, at least, will he not be further deprived?” (Greenleaf, 1970).
Integration of the Whole Person
The second core theme evident in the Jewish wisdom tradition, the Christian scriptures and the Benedictine Rule that provides a foundation for wise discernment is the integration of the whole person. Jewish wisdom focuses on the fullness of life as the ultimate goal of the human person. The Book of Proverbs has countless examples of wise choices that cover the full range of human experience, from friendship to investing, from discipline with children to treatment of livestock. Walter Brueggemann in one of the central expositions of the Jewish wisdom tradition explains this fullness of life as referring “to all the assets—emotional, physical, psychical, social, spiritual—which permit joy and security and wholeness” (Brueggemann, 1972). One comes to wisdom through the engagement of all the ways of knowing. Wisdom isn’t comprised only of cognitive understanding, but includes physical security as well as emotional and spiritual wellness.
Appreciation for the fullness of the person is also the bedrock of the Christian scriptures. The most fundamental tenet of Christian theology is the incarnation—that the Word takes flesh in Jesus, that God is embodied in him. In this embodiment not only is God revealed but the fullness of humanness is revealed. Human personhood reaches its apotheosis. God reveals in Jesus the kind of human life that most fully reflects the image and likeness of God. In the Christian scriptures, Jesus is presented as an integrated, whole person. He has considerable intellectual intelligence and is able to synthesize the heart of Jewish tradition, critically analyze legal systems and political structures, and articulate in creative ways a radical new vision of the covenant. The Christian scriptures also give us a picture of a Jesus who has broad emotional intelligence, a person who fully feels human emotion: empathy with the woman taken in adultery, deep sadness with Martha and Mary at the death of their brother Lazarus, profound affection for children and for his disciples, lamentation over Jerusalem, bold anger at the money changers in the temple, joyful participation in banquets and wedding feasts. Finally, in the gospel portrait of Jesus, we see a person who is well acquainted with silence, who seeks out solitude, who takes his friends off to be alone, who prays well into the night, who has certainly spent time reflecting upon and internalizing the Hebrew scriptures. In Jesus one finds a person whose spiritual intelligence is profound. In short, the gospels present a whole human being who values the range of human emotion, who exhibits insightful rationality, and whose heart is attentive to the movement of the spirit and the voice of God.
Similarly, the Rule of Benedict shows a sensitive attentiveness to the whole person. The Rule prescribes a balanced life in which there is time for prayer, physical labor, and intellectual pursuit. This balance is affected by the seasons and is appropriate to the specific abilities of each person. Special attention is given to those who are young, old, weak or sick. When more physical labor is performed, more food is provided at the table. Benedict presents the image of the ladder by which one is able to ascend to God. He says: “And the ladder thus set up is our life in the world, which the Lord raises up to heaven if our heart is humbled. For we call our body and soul the sides of the ladder, and into these sides our divine vocation has inserted the different steps of humility and discipline we must climb” (Benedict, chapter 7). Wisdom for Benedict includes the integration of body, mind and soul.
The three sources of wisdom concur in suggesting a discernment process that intentionally and artistically integrates modes of consideration and deep reflection that include reason and analysis, intuition and aesthetic knowing, as well as silence and being in prayer and meditation together. A wise discernment process must integrate mind, heart, and soul. It process requires discussion, debate, and argument. One must bring to bear on any issue or question the depth of intellect and reason. One must also identify with others, feel, and sense. One must bring to bear on any issue or question the fullness of our heart knowing. Benedict begins the Rule with similar powerful advice to “incline the ear of your heart” (Benedict, chapter 1).
There are many examples of great discoveries and inventions and new understandings that come from heart knowledge. The story of Barbara McClintock is one of these.
McClintock, who died in 1992 at age ninety, became fascinated early in her career with the mysteries of genetic transposition. Though her research was often dismissed as wildly unorthodox, she pursued it into discoveries that changed the map of modern genetics, and she was honored in 1983 with a Nobel Prize (Palmer, 1998).
When speaking about her research and how she was able to see so much more deeply into the mysteries of genetics than her colleagues, McClintock talks about hearing “what the material has to say to you.” She talks about the openness to “let it come to you.” She says that good research depends on having a “feeling for the organism.”
As one commentator puts it, McClintock “gained valuable knowledge by empathizing with her corn plants, submerging herself in their knowledge and dissolving the boundary between object and observer (Palmer, 1998).
If one looks closely at her work, one also sees exacting analytical reasoning and meticulous data gathering. A responsible process of discernment will not jettison reason but integrate it with the ways of knowing of the heart. Finally, a discernment process that takes its theological foundations from the fullness of humanity revealed in the Jewish wisdom tradition, the Christian scriptures and the Rule of Benedict will open the space of consideration to include silence, meditation, and prayer.
There are two key practical guidelines for discernment that flow from this theological foundation in the fullness of humanity. 1. Integrate rationale discussion and empirical analysis with stories, case studies, and artistic expressions. A thorough discernment process will intentionally welcome into consideration philosophical arguments, critical essays, scientific data, empirical observation, oral histories, stories of those most affected by the issue at hand, songs or visual images that connect one to the experiences of those who have a stake in this issue, and silence that allows all of this material to work on the mind, heart and soul of the community. Invite participants to share ideas as well as feelings, to share in spoken word, song, visual image, ritual, or prayer. Create a climate in which sharing in these different modalities is encouraged and appreciated. This entails such simple things as asking persons dealing with a controversial issue not only what they think, but also what they feel. It means inviting music, sculpture, story. It means requiring research, personal journaling, interviewing, and artistic exploration. 2. The second practical guideline that is implied in the three sources cited above, but must be made explicit because it is so counter-cultural, is the invitation to silence in the discernment process. The dis-ease with silence in Western culture must be addressed with patience and persistence. No more than seven seconds of silence is allowed in most social situations. At about five seconds people start feeling anxiety already; and at seven seconds almost always someone feels impelled to speak. The powerful practice of lectio divina in the Benedictine tradition encourages a healthy rhythm of life in which silence is an essential component. This practice consists of repeated slow reading of a scriptural or inspirational text followed by deep listening in silence to what the text is saying in the context of the individual’s or group’s life. A key practical guideline to wise discernment is to allow plenty of time for silence.
In short, the operating principle for wise discernment implicit in this fullness of the human person is to invite and nurture all the ways of knowing: body, mind, and heart. Integrated whole persons who intentionally consider the options in a difficult situation using intellectual, emotional and spiritual intelligence will likely make a wise choice. The criterion for judgment that is evoked by this focus on human wholeness is to do what values the whole person. The wise decision is one that leads to balance, respects physical limits, and encourages integration. Parker Palmer, author of A Hidden Wholeness, expresses this criterion in terms of integrity. He says, “When we understand integrity for what it is, we stop obsessing over codes of conduct and embark on the more demanding journey toward being whole” (Palmer, 2004). That journey, Palmer explains, means joining role and soul, what one does with who one is, being the same person on the outside as on the inside. Palmer provides this prescription for wise decision-making within organizations:
In fact, when we live by the soul’s imperatives, we gain the courage to serve institutions more faithfully, to help them resist their tendency to default on their own missions. … As adults, we must achieve a complex integration that spans the contradictions between inner and outer reality, that supports both personal integrity and the common good (Palmer, 2004).
Realization that Wisdom Is Embedded in Human Experience
At the heart of the Jewish wisdom tradition is the recognition that wisdom comes from reflection on common human experience, not as some supernatural revelation to an elect few. The Book of Proverbs offers maxims of common sense that anyone who stops to observe everyday life can understand. For example, “In the sin of his lips the evil man is ensnared, but the just comes free of trouble” (Proverbs 12:13). Numerous childhood fables and sayings portray the troubles that come from lies and untruths. The honest person doesn’t have to worry about remembering the excuse he gave or whether or not an accomplice will tell the same story. Also from Proverbs: “The fool immediately shows his anger, but the shrewd man passes over an insult” (Proverbs 12:16). The wise person knows that an angry response to an affront often escalates the situation, whereas a measured response that focuses on identifying one’s own feelings often helps the offending person see how certain actions were experienced as hurtful.
The Jewish wisdom tradition tells the stories of common ordinary human beings who courageously stand up to power. For example, the Hebrew midwives in chapter one of the Book of Exodus refuse to follow the direct orders of the pharaoh to kill the Hebrew newborn boys. Shiphrah and Puah act on their own wisdom as midwives, knowing the preciousness of life. They don’t have to consult the law or the priests, they know from their common human experience that newborn babies are meant for life, and they are willing to stand up to the highest authority in the land with their certain wisdom.
In the Christian scriptures, this wisdom from common human experience is seen in the parables of Jesus. When one lights a lamp one doesn’t put it under a basket. When something very valuable is lost, one sweeps the whole house to find it. Seed that falls on good ground produces a hundredfold. The simple wisdom of soil, sheep, seeds and leaven are at the heart of the message of Jesus. Wisdom does not come from some abstruse unrecognizable revelation but rather from close observation and clear thinking, recognizing the common natural consequences of one’s words and actions.
This theme of common human wisdom is also evident in the Rule of St. Benedict in its constant admonition to listen. The Rule defines a way of life in which the seeker of wisdom inclines the ear of the heart to his fellow monks, to the scriptures, to nature, and to his own deepest longings. Esther de Waal explains the kind of listening that the Rule encourages:
Since we no longer associate schooling only with the acquisition of information we are also more open to recognize the vital part that experience plays in learning. St. Benedict’s understanding of listening falls into this order; it is the listening of the whole person, of body as well as intellect, and it requires love as well as cerebral assent. And it also involves mindfulness, an awareness which turns listening from a cerebral activity into a living response. Having heard the word, through whatever channel it may have come, even as unacceptably as a pain in my back, I stop and take it seriously and then do something about it (de Waal, 2001).
When this realization that wisdom is embedded in common human experience is taken seriously, everyone becomes a source of wisdom. Everyone’s experience counts. A key operating principle for decision making arises from this realization. First, the effective decision-making process must provide time and significant attention to reflection on experience. A true discernment process asks questions about personal and corporate experience. What do we know from our experience? What’s going on? What have we observed in the past? What are the customers saying? The experience of persons must be mined for wisdom. The criterion for judgment that comes to light through this central theme of the importance of human experience can be stated as follows: Do what is constructive to life. A key test of a decision is to ask if it builds up the human person, the human community and the universe that supports life. This is a broad but critical criterion for discerning creative, ethical decisions. Wise decision making must bring about new ways of thinking and acting that will support the ultimate value of human life and its sustaining environment.
Necessity for Preservation and Transformation
The paradox of balancing preservation and change, the old and the new, tradition and transformation is a central theme found in Hebrew wisdom, the Christian scriptures and the Rule of Benedict. In the Hebrew wisdom tradition there is a valuation of the eternal truths and openness to new creative possibilities and the latest cultural achievements. The Hebrew wisdom tradition is international in scope, borrowing from other wisdom traditions in Egypt and Babylon; it goes outside the Hebrew tradition to bring in new ideas that will creatively transform its established way of thinking (Brueggemann, 1972; Rylaarsdam, 1974).
Jesus creatively transformed the teaching and tradition in which he was grounded. Jesus was a committed Jew. Daniel Harrington, in an insightful article entitled “Retrieving the Jewishness of Jesus” says, “there is no doubt that Jesus of Nazareth was born, lived, taught, and died as a Jew in the land of Israel… Moreover, most of Jesus’ teachings about God, creation, covenant, obedience to God’s will, righteousness, and eschatology are consistent with his Jewish theological heritage” (Harrington, 2000). It is very clear from recent scholarship on the historical Jesus that he speaks out of a strong foundation and commitment to the Jewish tradition and affirms and values that tradition. At the same time, he radically reinterprets the tradition and uses it as a springboard to his own authoritative statements about the inbreaking, inclusive reign of God.
This kind of creative transformation that incorporates the past in a novel synthesis and inventive advance is exhibited in Jesus’s life and teaching again and again. Here are four examples of this creative transformation. 1. He acknowledges and honors the Sabbath but challenges those who would put ritual practice above people. He challenges the legalism of the Pharisees when he heals on the Sabbath. In Mark’s gospel Jesus says, “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). 2. He is baptized by John in the river Jordan. He recognizes the importance of metanoia, of change of heart and conversion, so much so that he submits to John’s baptism of repentance. However, Jesus himself does not baptize. Instead of taking on the asceticism and ritual of John, he goes into the cities and towns preaching repentance and doing good. For Jesus, change of heart involves feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, healing the sick, freeing the prisoner, and announcing a year of favor. 3. Jesus affirms often the central Jewish commandment of love of God and love of neighbor, but he extends the commandment to include outcasts and enemies. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says, “My command to you is: love your enemies, pray for your persecutors” (Matthew 5:43). In Luke’s gospel, we hear Jesus say, “When someone slaps you on one cheek, turn and give him the other; when someone takes your coat, let him have your shirt as well” (Luke 6:29). 4. When Jesus prays, he uses the central petitions of the Jewish tradition—hallowed be the name of God and may God’s kingdom come and God’s will be done. Jesus adds two unique “we” petitions to the ancient supplication. He prays: “Give us our daily bread” and “Forgive us our debts.” Marcus Borg remarks on these petitions insightfully when he says, “Thus the best-known Christian prayer names the two central material concerns of peasant life in the time of Jesus. The coming of God’s kingdom involves bread and debt forgiveness”(Borg, 2003). Jesus was taking a political stand for justice and challenging the oppressive structures of his day.
These four examples exhibit well the central dynamic of creative transformation in Jesus’ life and ministry. John Cobb, a pre-eminent process theologian, summarizes this transformative dynamic of Jesus when he says,
For Jesus, to know God was not to intensify obedience to ancient laws; it was to be free from bondage to such laws. To respond to God was to give up the security of habitual, customary, and socially approved actions and to live in terms of a radically new and uncontrollable future. The present moment was always a time for a decision required by the coming of the new reality…. …the Christian will be in greater continuity with Jesus if he seeks God in the call forward beyond the achievements of the past and the security of what is established and customary (Cobb, 1969).
Jesus stands in a tradition, affirms and appreciates that tradition, and creatively trans-forms that tradition, honoring and preserving the past and yet advancing beyond it.
Similarly the Rule of Benedict values stability and change. Benedictines take a vow of stability which “means accepting this particular community, this place and these people, this and no other, as the way to God” (de Waal, 2001). In a sense, Benedictines vow to never change their community. They vow to find God in a particular place and with these particular brothers or sisters. At the same time, the Rule demands constant change and development. It is a rule for a journey, for a process of inner and outer transformation. It defines a way of being attentive to the constantly surprising, upsetting, challenging voice of God. Thus, the Rule of Benedict requires staying in one place and constantly changing, preserving a constant way of life and, at the same time, being open to God’s unpredictable call that beckons the monk beyond every certainty.
This theme of preservation and transformation reminds us that the courageous discernment process must be attentive to history, to past formulations and philosophies, and it must also be open to and inviting of the new. It must look for ways to recognize the multiplicity of past experience and enable the community to see that diversity in a fruitful new perspective. The discernment process must constantly be attentive to the foundational experiences, formulations and documents of the past. At the same time, it must guard against the real pressures of comfort and security that lead to inertia and block creative advance. The Jewish wisdom tradition, the life and teaching of Jesus and the Rule of Benedict exemplify in different ways a studied openness to change, a grounding in the spirit of a tradition that allows their adherents to be open to real creative advance.
Two important practical operating principles serve this theological foundation of preservation and creative transformation: 1. Be attentive to origins, to founding experiences, to history, to primary texts andconstantly ask what they mean for the organization today. An effective discernment process will preserve the values, mission, stories and principles that are at the heart of an organization while translating them for a new time and being open to the unfolding of the plenitude of their meaning for a new age.
In situations in which there is significant conflict between preserving past meanings and pioneering new syntheses, the three wisdom traditions would most likely err on the side of change since they see the comfort and security of inertia as ultimately idolatrous tendencies. Especially in the Christian scriptures, Jesus’s proclamation of the kingdom of God is presented as a call to conversion, and that kingdom stands in judgment over all settled human structures and ways of thinking.
2. Value and practice imaginal skills in the discernment process–alternative thinking, breaking set, deferring the habitual response, playing with a problem, making fresh associations, exploring new metaphors and symbols. Exercise the muscles of imagination personally and collectively. Fruitful discernment will often require deep dreaming together. Isaiah said it succinctly, “Without a vision, the people perish.” A fruitful discernment process must dare to think into the future.
Thus, the final criterion for judgment based on this central theme is to do what preserves the individual’s or organization’s mission and values and at the same time represents the boldest possibilities for creative advance. This criterion would recognize as truly creative those movements and conceptualizations which affirm the multiplicity of past experience while seeing that diversity in a fruitful new perspective. Practical wisdom requires both preservation of the best practices, models and theories of the past and a bold embrace of those insights that are able to integrate past knowledge with new observations and understandings.
In conclusion, there are four central themes related to wise decision-making in the traditions of Jewish wisdom literature, the Christian scriptures and the Rule of Benedict: 1. valuation of the diversity of voices; 2. integration of the whole person; 3. realization that truth is embedded in common human experience; and 4. the necessity for preservation and transformation in life. Each of these core themes translates into operating principles and criteria for judgment that embody and result in practical wisdom.
The operating principles and criteria for judgment identified here can be matched to key skills, such as open questioning, deep listening, self-reflection, systems-thinking, valuing, and so forth. The wise discernment process cannot be invoked in the extraordinary time of crisis and expected to be successful unless the skills and ways of consideration that are part of the process are practiced regularly. Like so many skills, this complex and intricate process of making effective decisions is one that must be established internally over years of intentional development and practice. The skills of informed decision making must become a way of life if they are to lead to effective, life-giving decisions and practical wisdom.
The first and last wisdom themes, valuation of the diversity of voices and the necessity for preservation and transformation, ensure that the discernment process and criteria for judgment are self-transforming. If diversity is not merely tolerated but invited and the voices of innovation and creativity are nurtured, the operating principles for wise decision-making and the criteria for judgment will continually be renewed. The process for practical wisdom will be a self-reflective and self-critical process marked by openness and the invitation to the other.
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