A version of this article was first published in the Advent Series from Science for the Church. To sign up for content like this, please visit the website.

“A 14-year-old girl is pregnant. What should she, what should one, consider and do?”

This question was posed by a premier wisdom researcher a couple thousand years after Mary and Joseph may have faced a similar quandary. We don’t actually know Mary’s age when she became pregnant with Jesus because the Gospel accounts don’t tell us, but many scholars suggest she was a teenager, and perhaps in the first half of her teenage years.

If this question seems hard to answer now, it was difficult then, too. Artists may put a halo over the baby Jesus to represent his divinity, but he also was birthed into the gritty human reality of a confusing and conflictual world brimming with hard questions. To be fully human is to live amidst the difficulties of embodied life, where wisdom is required of us every day.

Wisdom for the Christian Life

Several years ago, one of my doctoral students with prior theological training announced that he wanted to do his dissertation on wisdom. I replied, “Paul, that’s a great idea, but psychologists don’t really study wisdom.” He went to the library and proved me wrong. It turns out there is a vibrant science of wisdom. In the last part of the 20th century, much of it occurred at the University of Berlin, where researcher Paul Baltes and his colleagues developed a way to measure wisdom by asking people to respond to challenging questions, such as the one about a 14-year-old pregnant girl. That research continues today at places like the Center for Practical Wisdom at the University of Chicago.

My student, Paul McLaughlin, went on to combine his theological training with psychological science and developed a fascinating dissertation looking at wisdom mentoring in a local congregation. But before describing Paul’s study, I need to distinguish between two types of wisdom in the Christian tradition that Paul and I learned about during his project.

Conventional wisdom is about living a good and effective life. Think of the Old Testament book of Proverbs as the prototype of conventional wisdom. Here we find a vast repository of good advice for how to live well. Similarly, Baltes and his colleagues defined wisdom in the Berlin Wisdom Paradigm as, “expert knowledge in the fundamental pragmatics of life.”

The second kind of wisdom we see in Christianity is critical wisdom. This form of wisdom is embedded in complexity and paradox, requiring exceptional discernment and creativity. Critical wisdom is exemplified in the biblical books of Ecclesiastes and Job, and in the life of Jesus.

Article continues below

When reading through Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount, we see all sorts of outside-the-box, paradoxical wisdom at play. “Consider yourself blessed when people insult and revile you” (see Matt. 5:11). “You have heard it said not to murder, but I say that some dire cascade starts when you give yourself over to anger and call someone a fool” (see Matt. 5:21–22). “And, by the way, if you’re about to worship God by offering a sacrifice and remember your friend has something against you, go address that relational problem first even before continuing your worship” (see Matt. 5:23–­­25).

Or consider how often Jesus healed on the Sabbath, and often in the synagogue where he stirred up huge controversy. If conventional wisdom promotes general guidelines for effective living, critical wisdom calls us into the murkiest, most complicated places of life.

For his dissertation, McLaughlin developed a group curriculum for critical wisdom mentoring and tested it out in a church context. Small groups of young adults met twice each month with wise, older parishioners selected by the pastoral staff. These mentoring groups leaned into the hard places of life together. For example:

“A friend who has been married only a few months comes and asks for your counsel on filing for divorce. What do you say?”

“What do you do when a friend is diagnosed with cancer and you find yourself questioning God’s goodness?”

“A friend with an addiction shows up on your front porch and asks for a place to stay, and it comes at a bad time because you and your spouse are having troubles in your relationship. What do you say?”

The wisdom mentors didn’t dispense neat answers to these hard questions. Instead, the groups talked together about the complexities of Christian life. They studied Scriptures and prayed, they sat in silent contemplation, practicing the art of listening to God and one another.

At the end of the study, those in the wisdom mentoring groups showed improved life satisfaction in relation to a comparison group. Those in the wisdom groups also reported greater increases in practical wisdom, more daily spiritual experiences, and better ability to hold the ambiguities of life.

Article continues below

Wisdom in the Body of Christ

We sometimes assume that only older people are wise, but that’s not what the scientists in Germany found when they looked at age and wisdom, and it’s not what McLaughlin found in his dissertation. The greatest growth in wisdom appears to occur in our late teens and early 20s. Congregations that are multigenerational have amazing potential for people to learn from one another. If you’re a church leader, what might it look like to promote mentoring possibilities in your congregation? If you’re young, consider asking an older Christian that you respect for coffee to talk about the complex places of life. If you’re an older Christian, perhaps you could foster some creative imagination about how you might help one or more younger people who are eager to grow in wisdom.

As we grow together in wisdom, it seems important to recognize that simple answers to complex problems rarely suffice. Imagine a 15 year old wants to move out of his house right away. What would you say? The wisest approach is not blurting out an answer—neither yes nor no—but instead to approach this provocative question with curiosity. What is his current living situation? What alternatives is he considering? What culture surrounds him, and what social norms apply? Is he a precocious student heading to college? An abused adolescent trying to get away and find a better life? An idealist wanting to save the world? Wisdom often calls us to be quick to listen and slow to speak (James 1:19) because life is more complicated than we might readily imagine.

It’s right to find conventional wisdom in the pages of Scripture, to study Proverbs, to sink deeply into spiritual and moral practices that contribute to a good and godly life. At the same time, we may find critical wisdom visits us in surprising ways, and not necessarily in ways we invite. Current researchers argue that wisdom often comes through adversity because tough times remind us to focus on what matters the most—what theologian Paul Tillich called ultimate concerns. Adversity also stirs things up and makes us question our deeply established ways of doing something so that we might consider new ways forward. Many congregations today face adversity and conflict, and while no reasonable person deems struggle itself to be intrinsically good, it may still produce good by lighting a pathway toward new possibilities.

In this Advent season, we remember the messy world Jesus entered. Born amidst controversy to an unwed mother who was likely a teenager, and in a smelly barn where he spent the night in a feeding trough, Jesus entered fully into our complexity. Throughout his years of ministry, he was controversial and unconventional, cutting through religious pretenses to show the heart of God. In today’s world, how can we engage creativity and curiosity when facing the big challenges? Sometimes this might even call into question some of our religious traditions and expectations.

Article continues below

The eternal Word (John 1:1), the source of all wisdom, became human and lived in our messy world with us. Jesus showed us how critical wisdom shows up in flesh and blood, and invites us to follow his ways of wisdom in our Christian journey.

Mark R. McMinn is Professor of Psychology at George Fox University and author of The Science of Virtue: Why Positive Psychology Matters to the Church.