Jesus was especially critical of the Pharisees and scholars of the law—those who should have known the most about God’s truth and will, yet slipped into their own intellectual egoism and blindness. They were given much—privilege, knowledge, honor—but they misused their status to conceal, rather than reveal, God and his plan for human flourishing. Gifted handsomely with the knowledge of how to live rightly, they failed to share it, let alone incorporate it into their own lives.
Francis Bacon is attributed with the familiar saying, “knowledge is power.” I would clarify and contend that knowledge only has the potential for power. And to add even more clarification, a potential for power that can be used for good or ill. There is no doubt that the pursuit of knowledge makes for a good and noble venture. We honor God by exploring the vast realms of science, philosophy, theology and so on—bringing to light the Creator’s subtle fingerprints buried within the canvas of creation. The pursuit of any truth, secular or theological, ultimately leads to the source of all truth: God. Yet, if we call to mind those “blind” and serpentine guardians of Judaic law from Jesus’ time, we are reminded that knowledge in and of itself is hardly enough. Knowledge can lead to love, but it can never be its surrogate.
Steven Garber, a contemporary Christian teacher and writer, wrote a book called Visions of Vocation. In the book he questions the role of knowledge in helping us fulfill our vocations in the world. To Garber, vocation remains a complex and multifaceted term and concept.
Garber recounts the lives and choices of several individuals, from artists and scientists to politicians and religious figures, shedding light on how each one responded to the inherent responsibility of their inimitable existence in a specific place and time. And while some choose to enter into the world, and strive to instill what Garber refers to as “proximate justice”—the implementation of human flourishing while living within the tension of a world temporarily ensnared by sin and corruption—others instead remain inactive, refusing to enter into the mess of the world and others’ lives, leaving the world no better—if not worse—after their transitory stint on this planet.
As someone who loves to read and consume copious fragments of knowledge, I have to keep in mind Jesus’ sobering words for the learned of his time often. It’s a possible danger today that was not as widespread centuries ago. In the middle ages, illiterate and uneducated parishioners had little access to theological knowledge or insight outside of the teachings of their priest and the artwork etched on stain glass windows of Jesus, the Blessed Mother, the Apostles and the saints. Today, we can access a plethora of papal documents, the writings from the Church Fathers, the meditative and illuminating musings of medieval mystics and saints, and so on. The Church and all the fruit of wisdom she keeps tucked safely against her bosom is completely at our convenient disposal. Yet, as much as we know, we can still fail to know how to live rightly. To borrow a memorable aphorism from Walker Percy, “You can get all A’s and still flunk life.”
Knowledge always comes paired with responsibility. Any insight into who we are—our gifts and faults—and about who our neighbor is—their needs and suffering—comes with an equal measure of responsibility. Do we take what we know, about the world, ourselves and God, and knead it into the very fabric of our lives—acting with love toward others? Or are we as certain stoics and cynics, peering out at the broken mass of humanity, smugly clutching onto ineffectual knowledge, choosing not to put what we know into practice (or if we do, only half-heartedly) and be the hands and feet of Christ? Do we see a neighbor, or just someone else?
Pope Francis addresses this problem in his richly instructive The Joy of the Gospel. He speaks of the knowledge that comes from the word of God—and implicitly from our deep Catholic tradition which is inspired by that same author of scripture—and how it poses a danger if it remains only intellectually decorative.
“Not to put the word into practice, not to make it reality, is to build on sand, to remain in the realm of pure ideas, and to end up in a lifeless and unfruitful self-centeredness and gnosticism.”
The word of God is a two-edged short that pierces us, compels us, convicts us, comforts us. We must let it wash our hearts and souls anew, but once cleansed, we must act with what we know about God and ourselves, with what we now see. Pope Francis also casts a cautious glance to unreceptive prayer, warning of a prayer life that serves to strip a sense of responsibility as oppose to affirm it.
“There is always the risk that some moments of prayer can become an excuse for not offering one’s life in mission; a privatized lifestyle can lead Christians to take refuge in some false forms of spirituality.”
We can’t do anything without prayer—all must begin and end with prayer—but if our prayer brings us instances of insight about God’s call for our lives—which it will if we do it consistently—and we only shrug and get on with things as if nothing happened, then we have failed to be true people of prayer.
Still, we need knowledge. We can’t choose to act without knowing first that we have the power to act. Knowledge is an invitation—a first step to entering into our vocation as God’s sons and daughters. We need to hear truth first, which is why Jesus spent much of his time teaching. He taught because if his listeners had ears to hear, they could let his words fall upon the good soil of their hearts, take root, and produce fruit. How can we ease the suffering of others without seeing—and knowing—their suffering? That’s why to know is a first step. We are beyond blessed to have access to the Catholic Church’s wisdom and truth, and we should continuously dig deeper into this repository of grace, for it can help us first see. And if we can see, then we can respond. But we must be careful to idolize what we know—no matter how good or truthful. Reading a thousand spiritual books about the lives of the saints will not alone sanctify us. We can remember every word ever uttered by St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas or St. Therese of Lisieux, yet our hearts can remain completely unchanged. God won’t ask us for a systematic study of the trinitarian writings of Thomas Aquinas at the throne of judgement, but he will ask us how our lives revealed that we knew who God was at the deepest level of our being.
May we understand and comprehend the ways of God, and in doing so, know what it means to be children of the most high.
“Do you not yet understand or comprehend? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes and not see, ears and not hear?” – Mk. 8:17-18
This post was first published at Bishop Robert Barron’s Word On Fire blog.
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