Lesson 7: Way to Wisdom and God

Friends at DinnerIf asked to define friendship, most people say something about sharing. Few would include anything about friendship being a way to knowledge. We think of friends working or playing together, but seldom sharing ideas in order to educate themselves. Yet, this idea is common in many ancient writings.

Augustine in his 398 AD Confessions described friendship as the route to Wisdom. He wrote that a real teacher is “a friend among friends,” inviting others to participate in a conversation that seeks Truth.

Aelred, in his 12th century work “Spiritual Friendship,” cites Augustine’s words when he declares the sacramental nature of friendship. He describes human friendship as a means of grace leading to eternal friendship with God. By loving one another and embracing Christ in this life, we can enjoy eternal friendship with God in the future. He felt this involved speaking openly and honestly with your friends, regarding them as equals, and even feeling the obligation to correct them when they are wrong. Christian maturity included sharing your experiences with your friends, so they can grow every way in grace.

Both of these Christians refer back to Plato in the 4th century BC who spoke of friendship as the foundation of the search for wisdom in his “Symposium.” We usually think of a symposium as a formal meeting where experts address an academic topic. In ancient Greece it was a drinking party where friends conversed after a meal. In other words, Plato believed the search for knowledge takes place in conversation between friends in a dining room rather than a lecture given by one professor to students in a hall of learning.

As many of you know, the word “companion” that is often used for friend, comes from words meaning those with whom you share bread. And if you spend any time sharing bread, you also share ideas in conversation.

I began to appreciate this link between learning and eating while preparing first graders for their first communions. When I asked them what they do at the dinner, fully expecting them to answer, “We eat,” the answer I received more than 90 percent of the time was, “We talk.” Young people seemed to know that you share knowledge as you eat and drink together.

Lest we think conversation around a dinner table is too shallow to be considered a route to wisdom, the 13th century deep thinker Thomas Aquinas claimed it provides the joyful playfulness necessary for the creativity that leads to wisdom. Without it, we remain spouting the same old clichés that pass for knowledge.

To some extent industry and education seem to be catching on to this. The model in my day was the lonely scholar with his book in the library cubicle or the scientist alone with his test tubes in the laboratory. Scholars seldom shared their knowledge with people from different disciplines. Today the model is slowly becoming a group that works together on a common project. Each shares the knowledge gained through their specialties to solve the problem.

At the same time, we seem to be going backwards in personal relationships. We never seem to have time to share profound thoughts with friends anymore. In an age of fast food, we do not take time to eat together, which means we seldom talk in depth with one another. As I ponder that thought, I remember people always left their weapons at the door when they ate together, in order that they could eat and speak without fear. That prompts me to think perhaps in our day we should insist people leave their electronic devices when they come to the table.

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  1. Zachary Nelson says:

    Very true. I am reading Augustine right now as an undergraduate at Eastern University. It is an incredible experience to have classmates who are very academically rigorous. Even when we disagree, we are connected in such an intimate way — it is truly beautiful.

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