|“Knowledge puffs up but love builds up.”|
There is more than one kind of knowledge. First, there is the practical knowledge necessary to design and build machinery, construct buildings, engineer bridges, develop safety systems, and a host of other things on which contemporary life depends. If we can see that knowledge has a usefulness; if we can see how it benefits us; or even if it just promises to make our lives happier or better, we tend to respect it, even want it. And that describes much knowledge on the first of three levels, the kind of knowledge that we might call “worldly” or “practical,” knowledge that has to do with the way the universe runs. It is the realm of that massive hard-to-define knowledge that is generally known as “common sense.”
There is a second level or kind of knowledge. It is what we might call intellectual or philosophical knowledge. On one end of its spectrum is rational analysis. It is the kind of knowledge that is critical in problem solving, whereas common sense does not always grasp the subtleties of a puzzling situation. On the other end of its spectrum is wisdom—the kind of wisdom that has insights into the ways the world operates, that understands the quirks of human behavior, that has digested the sweep of history. Sometimes those who don’t know how to switch from level one—the knowledge that takes the world at face value—to level two—knowledge that is reflective, analytical, and philosophical, can easily miss the value of level two knowledge. When the famous 18th century historian Edward Gibbon finished the second volume of his masterful work, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, he presented a copy to The Duke of Gloucester, brother of King George III. The prince responded, “Another damned thick, square book! Always, scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh! Mr. Gibbon?”
Both the first and second levels of knowledge at their best can serve us well. They make the world function, society relatively effective, and life overall more easily navigable. The downside of either kind of knowledge is that, to use Paul’s phrase, it“ puffs up.” Knowledge is essentially a process of the ego, the conscious part of us. Egos, too, serve us well; and the best kind of ego to have is a strong and healthy one. The ego loves collecting knowledge. Knowledge is power—power to, power for, power over—and the ego likes few thing better than power, especially the power to defend itself against assaults, real or imagined. So the more knowledge we have, whether of the practical variety or the analytical/reflective/philosophical variety, the more apt our ego is to feel secure. In contrast, nothing so rattles the ego as the discovery that the knowledge it has collected and prized is not working so well. Then we frequently flip into defensive gear, or perhaps even panic gear, building fortresses around our ideas, opinions, identities, and values.
Religion is not immune to ego domination, as you might have noticed. And Christianity in particular is well acquainted with reducing the gospel to what it can practically accomplish to make us feel better (Jesus as the self-help savior ready to get us into heaven as painlessly as possible, for example). Perhaps even more, Christians are often obsessed with what is right belief (correct philosophy or theology, if you will). It is very easy for us to assume that true religion is at heart a matter of what one believes, and so we get all twisted up in debates about what is right and wrong, what God does and does not approve of, what will or won’t pass as the Real McCoy on the Christian scene.
|El Greco, "St. Paul"|
There is a third kind of knowledge, however. It is not necessarily opposed to either practicality or intellect. It is practical enough to shape the way we live daily life. It is also profoundly intellectual in that it entails a renewal of mind and mindset. It is what Paul frequently refers to as knowledge or “gnosis,” but “gnosis” distinctively different from levels one and two. In the well known Chapter 13 of the same letter that we read today, First Corinthians, Paul writes, “As for knowledge (gnosis), it shall come to an end.” Yet he says a few lines later, “Now I know only in part; then shall I know even as also I am known.” What is he talking about? He is talking about passing not just from one life to another, but passing from one kind of knowing to another.
And this is one of the best kept secrets in the entire range of Christian experience: God is not reached, at least not entirely, through reading the natural world with a literalistic or “common sense” frame of mind, because God cannot be grasped that way. Nor can God be apprehended through the intellect, although one cannot dispense with the intellect and its ability to think rationally. This third kind of knowing is capable of knowing intuitively, knowing in the body, knowing in the heart. It is a knowledge that goes beyond the world of ordinary experience, a knowledge that engages the imagination. It is knowledge more akin to poetry than to the descriptive prose of history. This knowledge is like the knowledge of a blind person in a world in which nearly everyone is sighted. You’ve perhaps had the experience of seeing a blind person navigate crowded streets and dangerous crossings. Those of us whose vision is relatively clear and dependable often wonder how she does it, how does he who is blind manage? I have a friend, a former spiritual guide, to whom I was drawn in part because she wrote a book called Losing Sight, Finding Vision, a reflection on her experience with juvenile macular degeneration which has brought her to near blindness in mid-life. She writes that she has had to learn another way of seeing, namely seeing with her body, not just with her eyes. That is not unlike—in fact it is a good example of—this third way of knowing: the knowing that experiences and appropriates the world not in the head but in the body, the soul, the heart.
And that is why this third kind of knowledge is peculiarly about the ultimate union of knowing and loving. You probably know that in the Old Testament, “to know” is frequently a euphemism for sexual intercourse. “Adam knew Eve and she brought forth a son.” Deep union is a very powerful kind of knowledge. You know that to be true. It doesn’t matter whether it is a person, an object, an animal, a sport, an art, a skill—if you are passionate about him, her, or it, you come to know and love him, her, or it. In a real way, you give a part of yourself, perhaps even your whole self, your soul, your life to whomever and whatever you love. And the more you know her, him, it, the more deeply you love, the limitations, flaws, and failings you see in what or whom you love. And the more deeply you love, the more you want to know and to understand the object of your love.
That’s the way it is with God’s love. But we don’t get there by trying to reason it out, though once our inner eyes are opened, it makes perfect sense, this love of God and love for God.
It’s time now to go to the context of this notion in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. He is writing about a subject that is pretty far from any concern anyone here has today: what to do about food sacrificed to idols. The sum and substance of what the Apostle is saying is that in the end it is not about what we say we “know,” but rather how much we practice love—especially love towards those who are in a different place from us. “Practice some humility,” might be a way that we could sum up his point. Put others ahead of yourself. You might be right, but being right is not the point nor the way to build up community.
And that is the key to living as Christ lived. If you would save your ego and all that it prizes, well, you’ll ultimately find yourself empty. But if you forsake all that to find another way of knowing, the way of love, you will have, as one of our best loved poets once put it, “all of life and everything that’s in it,” and what’s more, you’ll have all you need thrown in with the love you will know you have.