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When Knowledge Isn’t Power

July 1, 2013

Two weeks ago I wrote an article about science and magic and how we divide the world up.  In short summary for those of you who did not read that article and do not care to I discussed C.S. Lewis’ contention that science and magic could be seen as two sides of the same coin as both are aimed at using knowledge to bend the outside world to our ends, whereas wise men (to use Lewis’ term) attempt to change themselves to conform to reality.  One of the things I think is most valuable about this way of seeing the world is simply that it makes us question whether we divide the world up in the only way it can be divided up or whether we unknowingly accept a division fed to us by our culture.  (There are some issues with Lewis’ divide as well but I covered those in the first article.)  I also think it worthwhile to consider Lewis’ divide because (as I said in the previous article) most of our modern world lies on one side of Lewis’ divide where it strives to bend the world to our ends.  Most disturbingly this happens in our religion as well.

Let me reinforce my point about the rest of the world first.  Think about any body of knowledge you might seek to acquire.  Science?  We’ve already discussed that one.  Engineering?  It’s applied science, certainly aimed at changing the outside world for our ends.  Banking or personal finance information?  That’s certainly used to change things outside of yourself for your benefit.  One of the disputes in higher education actually centers around Lewis’ categories to some extent.  Do we educate people so that they can accomplish a clear direct goal (write a better cover letter, program something useful, work a particular tool, etc.) or to make them better people or citizens (teach them some philosophy, make them write essays about great works of literature, etc.)?  Most of our world really does lie on the practical side of the divide where we bend the external world to our wills.  Even some of the things we learn that might help us change ourselves can be easily co-opted into ways to change the outside world to fit our desires.  There’s an all-too-often-accurate stereotype of undergraduate philosophy majors as people who learn philosophy so that they can always appear be right about everything thereby influencing other people – part of the world external to themselves.  (Were they actually right about everything that would be an internal change.)

Given that most of what we learn we learn to control the outside world it is not surprising that people might assume that this is simply what one does with knowledge.  Since Christianity is frequently presented as a body of knowledge (although I’ve contested whether this is the best way to describe it) it makes sense that many people would assume that Christianity will help us change the outside world rather than reshaping our inner selves.  Indeed, things like the health and wealth gospel do exactly this.  However, there are other effects of treating Christianity in the way that we treat other bodies of knowledge.  The most important one is that we tend to focus on knowing the knowledge.

The difference between a good computer programmer and a bad one is largely knowledge.  Practice is important (I’ve written some programs and there is some real value in getting used to the process of debugging programs and working through problems) but knowledge is critical.  A programmer who knows more has more power to create programs.  Similarly a lawyer who knows more about the law is likely to represent you much better.  An accountant who knows more about finance will do a better job.  A doctor who knows more about disease will give you a better diagnosis and suggest better treatments.  It’s not for nothing that we emphasize what people know in these disciplines.

Christianity is different.  In most knowledge-based fields a failure to get the right results is due to a failure of knowledge.  Did your widget fail to work?  You probably didn’t think about something that’s making it fail.  Does your new TV not work after you hooked up all the cables?  You probably don’t know something which caused you to plug the cables in wrong.  There are certainly cases where other errors can be disruptive but one of the primary problems in most knowledge-based fields is not knowing.  Now take Christianity.  A certain Christian has an affair.  Is the most likely explanation that they did not know that the Bible prohibits adultery?  Another Christian hates their neighbor.  Are they likely to be unaware that the Bible says to love their neighbor (and their enemy)?  No.  In both cases it is highly likely that the offenders know that their behavior is wrong at least in the abstract.  (In the second case it is likely that the offender, knowing that hating their neighbor is wrong, tries hard not to think about how that is what they are doing.)  For the engineer with the broken widget odds are good that providing some key piece of information will solve the problem.  For the adulterous Christian it is very unlikely that simply saying, “God hates adultery,” will help.  The continual problem for the saints is that knowing doesn’t translate to doing.

There are fields in our modern world which we don’t expect extra knowledge to help much in.  A major-league athlete is unlikely to be handed a book by his coach if he is failing to do as well as he should.  We think that practice is more important than knowledge.  We think this for a variety of other more physical tasks as well.  If you’re doing construction I want to know how many times you’ve picked up a drill and not your understanding of torque.  However, it’s hard to find examples where we think practice is the more important thing that aren’t very physical.  Some sorts of art qualify but even when practice is very important we tend to emphasize knowledge in most non-physical fields.

Christianity is non-physical, at least in the sense that one does not “win” at Christianity through physical exertion.  Christianity certainly involves a body of knowledge.  Every once and a while I write these sorts of articles and worry that someone will believe that I think Christians should skip things like careful reading and thinking but obviously the archives of this blog demonstrate that I am not only in favor of careful Christian thought but think that most people do too little of it.  However, Christianity seems to require a lot of practice.  I know that I should pray but don’t do so nearly often enough.  With practice I improve.  When I practice disciplines I get better at them.  When I practice loving my neighbor I am better able to do so.  If I merely understand that I should love my neighbor I don’t do so well when I’m suddenly put on the spot.

This is one of the great dangers of making Christianity into nothing but a body of knowledge.  In an attempt to make Christianity more serious any number of people treat Christianity like a science and emphasize its knowledge component a great deal.  However, in science knowing is essentially the end of the road.  Once you know you’re done and you can move on to the next project.  In Christianity knowing only leaves you prepared to be prepared: now that you know what you need to do you can practice it.  In this way Christianity is more like a sport.  If you don’t know the rules for baseball you don’t know what to practice to be good at it.  In the same way the knowledge of Christianity is vital but it only sets you on a path to practicing what is correct.

Given this the practical implications seem rather clear: read the Bible, learn more about what Christ teaches, but don’t forget to practice it.  The cliché of the overly-intellectual Christian is the Christian who does the first (reads the Bible and knows it well) but fails to do the second and all their knowledge does them little to no good.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 5, 2013 10:59 am

    Good post. Without orthopraxy what good is orthodoxy? (Or, as a wise man wrote, faith without works is dead). But it isn’t always so easy or simple to figure out “what Christ teaches”. Millions of believers reading the same Bible come to entirely different conclusions on many things.

    • Eric permalink
      July 5, 2013 10:07 pm

      I don’t think orthopraxy and orthodoxy can be neatly separated and I think this actually has something to do with the multiplicity of interpretations of Christianity. Orthopraxy, or its attempt, serves to curb certain errors of orthodoxy because when these beliefs are put into practice they give back clearly erroneous results. (Similarly, and widely known, orthodoxy corrects orthopraxy.) Some of the widest divergences in belief about what Christ teaches can be found amongst those who have no real intent of practicing his teachings whatever they turn out to be.

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