The Nature of Knowledge
Updated: Nov 7, 2020
The serpent said to the woman, “You surely will not die! For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate; and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate. Genesis 3:4-6
What is true? This is a very important question these days, because we hear many bold claims to knowledge and truth, claims that have the power to divide or destroy our nation, rupture relationships with neighbors, irreparably damage friendships, and rend the fabric of family bonds. Disagreement is vehement and acrimonious, full of accusation born of deep woundedness. And before the rising tide of anger, many of us watch, befuddled, wondering what is true and how to respond.
Some years ago, I visited an enormous castle in Ireland. Of course, being from East Texas where castles are not commonly found, I’m not really an authority on castle size, but I still think this was not a small castle. There were, I don’t know, fifty-sixty rooms in the castle, maybe? So, being from the U.S., I naively asked the guide who all lived in the castle. Besides the nobleman and his family, did extended family live with them? Were there a bunch of aunts and uncles and cousins filling up all those rooms in the castle? It surprised me to learn that no one but the ruling family lived in the castle. Servants lived in servants’ quarters, but only immediate family lived in the castle proper. What does a family of four or ten need with an enormous castle?
Explaining the purpose and function of each room and the accoutrements therein, the docent showed us an embroidered screen to block the view of the servants coming and going in the room. The nobility were so removed in status from the servants that they did not have to look at them? Additionally, we took the servants’ staircase at one point, and it was markedly different from the family staircase. Steps were much higher, lancet windows fewer – meaning less light, walls narrower and often circular. I can’t even imagine carrying heavy silver trays with a full tea service up one of those stairways, and the room in which the family gathered was at least four stories above the kitchen and service staging. When I asked the woman a question about the servants, she told me that the family was expected, though not required, to provide work and pay, and often, aristocratic families would give leftover food and small coins to the poor on Sundays. As I stood there and listened, all I could think was, “how appallingly un-Christian of these people…” because, as we all know, I’m the judge and jury for who is and is not Christian.
The issue continued to gnaw at me during the trip. The group with whom I traveled passed castles in nearly every town, though none so grand as the one we toured. We also saw ruins of smaller castles and medieval keeps. How did the noble families consider themselves Christian if they didn’t treat the servants as equals? Of course, this is relevant for our current times, as well. The argument is, “how could Christians…?” Whatever perspective one takes, the other perspective cannot or will not understand. It seems like a measure of caution is called for when making judgments.
The nature of human knowledge is limited, and it is guarded by a near-unlimited arrogance, the whispered impulse of our souls, “I could be like God…” In each generation and circumstance, people strive to live faithful Christians lives. In every generation and circumstance, all people will get some of their faithfulness and obedience wrong. Human beings can know that which is true, but our knowledge is limited because the human mind is limited. Doing research the other day, I came across three reports on an old census, and the three reports were in conflict, though not in great degree. Oddly, the researchers all claimed to be reading the same document. How much less do we comprehend God? How much less do we understand of His purposes? As the Prophet Isaiah reported, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts.” (55:9)
As I thought and prayed about the aristocratic family living in the enormous castle, seeking understanding (because I think the Spirit leads us to answers and helps us understand matters), I began to realize that God would not answer to me regarding their faithfulness. He instead called me to be obedient with a measure of humility about my own faithfulness. In a hundred years or so, what will our descendants look back and see? What in our Christian faith and life will they think is obviously stupid and faithless? It’s not a question of whether they will be right, and we are wrong. Rather, it’s an issue of humility – of allowing God to be God, of continually being open to truth, and trying again and again and again to repent and to love as Jesus loved.
The rebellion in the Garden was about equality with God, and when we think we have it all figured out, then we are imitating the woman reaching for the forbidden fruit. For all I know, the noble family living in the large castle were living very faithfully during their time. Judging sixteenth century Irish Christianity through the lens of twenty-first century American Christianity, which often leaves much to be desired, is not a task assigned to me. Living faithfully myself is hard enough without adding the burden of judging anyone else now, much less someone living centuries ago.
Please, do not misunderstand me. I do not think the Gospel is malleable or fluid; I think human reason is flawed by arrogance. If we would know God and be witnesses to the Gospel, then we must be humble. Knowledge is not wisdom. Anyone can gain knowledge, although none of us can attain to full knowledge. Wisdom, however, only comes through humility. The humble inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. Humility is so hard. Everything in us leans toward pride. We are made in the Image of God and, therefore, we want to be like Him. That can only happen if we are humble enough to allow Him to pour out His Spirit in us. We can never reach out and take the fruit that will make us like God.
As we face a time of confusion fueled by anger and hurt, let us remember how much we desire to be right – to have the correct knowledge. Truth is good, for the Lord is Truth. The Lord is also full of grace. Pray, then, that as we seek understanding, we will seek first the humility to be wise and to speak with grace.
In Christ –
Rev. Elizabeth Moreau – Copyright 2020