Sunday, September 11, 2011

Knowledge and Power

For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 16:25)

On a day like today, who can help but think of the horrible things done in the name of religious zeal?

Such thoughts cause us to start drawing lines between the forces of good and the forces of evil. For some, it is between secularism and religion. For others, it is between the West and the Islamic world. I would like to believe that most of us refuse to buy into such divisions. The terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Center ten years ago were evil people doing evil things. But evil unfortunately cuts across all lines. In order to fight it, you must look at yourself as well as your enemies.

Part of the great challenge of our time is to determine what we mean by truth. It might seem strange that such an abstract epistemological question could have anything to do with war and peace. Yet it is precisely when people compete for power that we need to call upon truth--whatever that may be--to know how to take a stand.

This is the central question for religious people today. What do we mean by claiming that our beliefs are true? What are we willing to do for those beliefs?

Are we willing to die for them?

Are we willing to kill for them?

The question is not for religious people only (or do we need to recount the horrible atrocities done in the name of secular ideologies?) for it is a basic human question. It is not simply a question of whether we're going to be nice to other people or not. To think that "decent people" can't do horrible things is exceedingly naive. If we are unclear on questions of principle, we are susceptible to the same horrible evil impulses that drive planes into buildings.

The basic choice all humans have to make is whether knowledge is a matter of control, or whether it is a matter of humility. That is the starting point for everything else.

One may desire knowledge because he thinks that having knowledge can make the world right. Understanding means knowing how things work, and knowing how things work means you can steer them in the right direction. Knowledge is power, and power can be used for good or for evil. Our enemies want to use knowledge for evil, but we wish it for good. This is the inevitable dualism arising from the notion that truth is power.

On the other hand, one may instead desire knowledge for love's sake, with the profound awareness that deeper knowledge is cause for deeper humility. The more we know, the more we realize how little we know. Understanding may help us solve certain problems, but it won't help us "change the world," at least not in the way we expect. Knowledge is not power, but some people might use knowledge to gain power--and this might be disastrous, no matter who it is seeking power.

The Christian seeks to make all of his conscious decisions based on deeply held convictions derived from faith. These convictions are not a private affair only, but they must influence the Christian's public life, as well. His beliefs must therefore be on display, and he can and should share them with others. Does it not follow, then, that a Christian should ultimately be a zealot, seeking to shape the whole world according to the principles which he believes are given by God himself?

Not at all, for his principles do not fall into the first category, but rather the second category of knowledge. Christian beliefs are not ultimately proved by their ability to give us control over the world. Quite the opposite, really: they tell us that with greater knowledge comes greater humility. As offensive as it may be to modern man, Christianity insists that true knowledge must be humbly accepted as a gift, rather than proved by our reason.

It is for this very reason that Christians ought not to have anything to do with "world-changing." We are not called to sacrifice the world, but rather ourselves (Rom. 12:1). Our beliefs can and do provide a very powerful critique of the modern world, but we must never mistake this for a mandate to rebuild the world according to our principles. The Tower of Babel, after all, was meant to reach heaven.

No wonder modern man is repulsed by religion! He has no other conception of knowledge than that which is synonymous with control. If man is to be controlled, he would at least like to have proof that the principles controlling him have withstood the test of rationality. If it is control we desire, then the only hope for civilization is the scientific method (although even that will fail us, since the desire itself is vain). Nothing could be more heinous than faith posing as a substitute, insisting on some unquestionable authority to guide human affairs.

I say these things not because I have any answer to why evil people fly planes into buildings. I say these things because in the future we may find that our own flawed principles have wrecked the world as we now know it, despite our best intentions. I have heard vague rumblings of Christians everywhere trying to determine how best to transform the culture. There is no question that our beliefs offer a thorough diagnosis of the modern world. What, then, is the cure?

Whatever may be the cure, we will not find it, and may rather create something horribly opposed to it, if we start with the wrong understanding of truth. The fundamental truth of Christianity is that God died for us, and this is not what we wanted him to do for us. I fear we would have preferred that he "changed the world."

God, forgive our ignorance.

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