Love and Knowledge
Near the end of Christopher Hitchens’ God is not Great, tucked away in a chapter entitled “The Resistance of the Rational,” is the following definition of an educated person, approvingly attributed to Socrates: “All he really “knew,” he said, was the extent of his own ignorance.”
While we might wonder exactly how seriously Hitchens has taken his own understanding of what an “educated” person ought to claim to know in the 250 pages that precede this quote (he has, after all, claimed to “know” an awful lot about the truth claims of many of the world’s religions), there is much to be said for this view. Many people find that the older they get and the more that they learn, the more they realize how little they know. Ideally, I think, a recognition of the inherent limitation of being human ought to make us more humble, gracious, curious, and generous people who are committed to knowing what they can about the world within the time they are given.
I came across another ancient writer who “knew” the extent of his own ignorance this morning. 1 Cor. 8:2-3 contains the following words of Paul which I had never really noticed or considered in this context before:
Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him. (NRSV)
The TNIV puts it a bit differently in 8:2b, saying that those who claim to know “do not know as they ought to know” but the main ideas are, I think, the same. First, there is a moral component to knowledge, an approach to knowledge that we ought to have. Second, the ultimate “solution” to the inherent limitation of being human is not to steel our resolve, and try to cram ever more into our storehouses of knowledge but to be known by God.
For Hitchens and the rest of the “new” atheists, the solution to human limitation seems to be more knowledge. Each writer ends up arguing for a “new Enlightenment” of some kind, a recommitment to the rational as the exclusive path to knowledge, and the only possible remedy for the ills that plague us. And this is good, as far as it goes. I think that human beings have both the ability and the obligation to discover as much as we can about our world, to fulfill our mandate as image-bearers, to make the world a better place. It’s good to “know stuff,” after all. I, for one, certainly enjoy acquiring new knowledge, and God knows I’m deeply grateful for the amount that others know in the (many) areas where my knowledge is inadequate or nonexistent.
But knowledge only goes so far. What Paul seems to be implying is that human knowledge must recognize its limitations, understanding that it is a means, not an end. And that end, Paul says, is love—love of God, love of neighbour, love of the world for which Christ died and which will one day be fully redeemed.
Recognizing our limitations as “knowers” can, I think, do one of two things: 1) it can, as in Hitchens’ portrayal of Socrates, lead us to embrace “free thought and unrestricted inquiry,” refusing “to give assent to any dogma,” in the maintenance of a perpetually open and curious posture to the world; or 2) it can help us to see that there is a goal higher than knowledge (love), and that when we pursue this goal, our openness and curiosity are properly oriented. Our knowing grows closer to what it was intended to be.
When we love, we may “know” more than we think. More importantly, when we love we are known by the One who stand beyond all human knowledge, the One who dignifies and encourages human beings as seekers of knowledge and who provides the means and the goal of all knowing.