Information, knowledge and wisdom

One of the problems of the information age is that people confuse data, information, knowledge and wisdom. Computers deal with data – scary quantities of it – moving it, storing it and processing it. Information is what people deal with: facts, interpretations, ideas, images and so on. Knowledge is the ability to recall and interpret information. Access to data alone does not make you knowledgeable. Nor is the ability to recall information the same as knowledge. Knowledge takes study and reflection. It is a slow process, gradually accumulated through thought and experience.

And wisdom is something else altogether. It is the ability to live aright, to make moral judgments, to exercise discernment, to make choices. This means wisdom does not reside with the academically able in the way that knowledge does. Wisdom resides in spiritually mature; in those who walk with God.

The quantity of information is also creating increasing levels of specialisation. In the past people could be polymaths. Today people struggle to keep up to date with one field of knowledge. One result is increased specialisation. The area over which you can be an expect is shrinking. The problem is that this is diminishing our ability to integrate knowledge. The world ‘university’ derives from the Latin word universitas meaning ‘whole’. Universities once gave you an all-round education. But now our view of the world has become fragmented. We see only parts. Such fragmented knowledge enables us to do specific, discrete tasks: we can transplant a heart or design an aeroplane wing. But it cannot help us live integrated, whole lives.

Theology is not immune from this. New Testament scholars are discouraged from straying into church history; church historians are discouraged from contributing to pastoral theology and so on. Such specialisation ill-equips the church to maintain an integrated or ‘universal’ view of truth. Academic articles exegete individual Bible verses, but do not enable me to comfort a woman suffering panic attacks or share the gospel with my postman. To give one example of how this works: the presumption is that worthy contributions to academic debate must include comprehensive bibliographies and footnotes. Writers are chided for not having interacted with specific authors. But this mistakes information for knowledge and knowledge for wisdom.

Choose quality rather than quantity

The digitalisation of information has created the delusion that we can carry knowledge and wisdom around with us on our laptops or access them via our Palms. This is the promise of the advertisers, but it is an illusion. Whatever the field, pursue quality rather than quantity. Go for material in which information has been digested, examined, applied and experienced.

Choosing quality rather than quantity means reading a book before you search the internet. A book will contain a person’s considered reflections, usually after many years of research or reflection. A book will include an editorial process of selection and refinement. None of these quality controls are available on the web. This will often mean paying for knowledge. The internet promises free knowledge, but it is undifferentiated. Be willing to pay for that differentiation – if only to ensure you use your time is profitably.

Do not do general research through the internet. It is not subject to any quality control. Any one can put anything up the internet. You cannot be sure whether this is a researched, reasoned and balanced perspective on a subject. Even if you have sufficient knowledge of the field to assess what you read, you have to spend time sifting the gold from the dross. If your research identifies a good article then see whether it is available on the internet. Use the internet to access published material which has now been freely made available on the internet (many of the great classic of Christian are available on the web). Use the internet to access sources you already have good reason to trust. You may also use the internet to generate examples of the zeitgeist, though be wary of assuming one example encapsulates the cultural mood.

Choose knowledge and wisdom rather than data and information

When you approach a subject, especially those that relate to the Christian life, do not necessarily try to gather as much information as possible. Do not quickly read everything available. Instead read and reflect on trusted material. Take time to meditate and digest. Your ultimate aim is not to fill your brain to develop your character. Alexander Pope referred to people who read widely but not well ‘bookful blockheads’.

Of course we should not be lazy. What we write and speak should be well-researched. A variety of sources are important to ensure balance and perspective. Beware of only going to sources that will simply echo back your own presuppositions. But neither should we succumb to the ‘fear of man’ that underlies the ‘need’ to include a comprehensive and up-to-the-minute bibliography. You are not trying to win the approval of people, but the approval of the Ancient of Days.

Choose sources that have stood the test of time over the latest sources

We are a nation of news junkies. We want the latest information all the time. We dismiss that which is old in favour of the latest. ‘Have you heard the latest?’ we cry. Resist the need to have the latest facts immediately after they unfold. But little of today’s news will prove significant in months to come. Opt instead for considered reflection.

When it comes to theology and the Christian life, value old books. At the very least, it is arrogant to assume that our generation has more knowledge and wisdom than previous generations. In some fields, such as the physical sciences, this may be true as we build on the achievements of those who went before. But theology and spirituality are different. The gospel is not a developing body of knowledge with new discoveries. It does need to be applied afresh to each generation, but the truth itself is unchanging.

Moreover the passage of time involves an inherent process of selection. Every generation produces both gold and dross. Not everything old is good just as not everything new is dross. The advantage that the old has is that time has sifted the gold from the dross. The books that come down to us are more likely to be those which have stood the test of time within a particular community. With the new there has been no such process.

‘All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field … The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands for ever’ (Isaiah 40:6,8). I invite you to mediate on these words for an information age obsessed with the quantity and speed of information. It is very easy to get caught up in this: to pursue multiple sources, to cram in information, to ensure we have access to data, to prioritise the latest of everything – and then to think that this is making us knowledgeable and wise.

Do not read books so you can say you have read them. Do not read simply to accumulate information. Read books so you grow in your relationship with God and ability to serve him. When you finish reading, pray through what you have read.

True wisdom is found through a relationship with God. ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge’ (Proverbs 1:7). It is as much a moral phenomenon as the product of information. It is the product of prayer as well as reading. It is rooted in the enduring Word of God rather than the latest book or article. It is acquired through meditation, experience, prayer and practice. It may not be trendy or cutting edge, but it pure gold.

The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul.
The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple.
The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart.
The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes.
The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring for ever.
The ordinances of the Lord are sure and altogether righteous.
They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb.
By them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.
(Psalm 19:7-11)

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