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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.

12 Comments Post a comment
  1. I was reading 1 Corinthians 8:1-3 just this morning. I think the ESV gives a much better interpretation of Paul’s meaning.

    “… ‘all of us possess knowledge.’ This ‘knowledge’ puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.”

    It’s not just love, but love of God. Jesus said this is the most important commandment and the second flows out of it. It’s based on relationship and not just knowledge.

    Intelligence without love is evil genius; grounded in pride and set against God.

    February 27, 2008
  2. Thanks for your comment Maria. While it’s not clear to me how the ESV differs significantly from the translations I cited, I wholeheartedly agree that knowing as we were created to know requires personal commitment and proper relationship to God.

    February 27, 2008
  3. Hey Ryan, I’m hoping to get some clarification on a few things here.

    “When we love, we may “know” more than we think.” (emphasis mine)

    How does knowing happen without thinking? Are you talking about what we experience on a subconscious level?

    And I’m curious to understand the need for an “Either/Or” in your second last paragraph. To me, it makes more sense as a “Both/And” unless, where you say “openness and curiosity are properly oriented” (emphasis mine again), you’re meaning some sort of dogmatic exclusiveness in the pursuit of love.

    I’m also getting the impression from this post that God requires something from us to know us and love us. Wouldn’t an omniscient, omni-benevolent being know us and love us regardless of what we do?

    February 28, 2008
  4. Jerry are you serious?

    February 28, 2008
  5. Jerry,

    All I meant in the sentence you quoted was that when we love, we demonstrate that we are more than just “thinking things” – that the world is about more than proper cognition of propositions. By our actions, we demonstrate a certain insight (God-given, I think) into the nature of reality and how it’s supposed to work.

    Re: the “either/or” vs. “both/and,” I think you raise a good point. As I said in the phrase you emphasized, I certainly consider openness and curiosity to be important parts of “proper knowing.” I think that the second conception of knowing ought to incorporate the best features of the first, so I certainly don’t think they are mutually exclusive, despite the inadequate way in which I began the paragraph.

    Re: God requiring something from us in order to know/love us. I think that if the Christian conception of God desiring to relate to his creatures is true, there would have to be a part for us to play as well. While I am convinced that God does know us and love us regardless of what we do, I think that we have to contribute something to the God/human relationship in order for it to work as it was intended to.

    If part of authentic “knowing” (God knowing us/us knowing God) is both parties being properly oriented to one another, then it’s hard to see how God could “make up the deficit” on our behalf. God’s attitude toward us is, I assume, constant; but I don’t see how God could “know” me as an image-bearer who freely acknowledges my dependence upon him, and responds to him in love, obedience, and trust (to the best of my ability) if I refuse to do these things.

    February 28, 2008
  6. Thanks for your response, Ryan. If I understand you correctly, you agree that God’s ability to know/love humanity isn’t affected by the matter of humanity having a proper relationship with God or not.

    Paul, I think it’s ironic for you, of all people, to question my seriousness.

    February 28, 2008
  7. Jerry,

    Just checking 😉

    February 28, 2008
  8. Jerry,

    Just to be clear, I would say that I think that God’s ability to love us is unaffected by the state of our relationship with God. But I do think that a failure on our part to open ourselves up to knowing and being known as we were created to does place a limit on or somehow alter how God knows us.

    As I said in my previous comment, God cannot “know” me as as an image-bearer who freely acknowledges my dependence upon him, and responds to him in love, obedience, and trust if this is not the posture I take toward him. God would, undoubtedly, know everything there is to know about me – presumably even what it would be like to know me if I chose to alter my posture appropriately – but I don’t see how he could know me in the sense of two parties relating to one another if I showed no interest in this.

    February 28, 2008
  9. Jeff #


    I love the distinction made here of “knowing” someone because of the observations one could make (and obviously with God these observations are thorough) and “knowing” someone that can only be done in a relationship, or perhaps that which describes what it means to be in relationship. But I can’t help wondering if there is a better word. Even the OT had to resort to “know” to describe sexual union between two people. There is “something” that “is” when two beings give themselves to each other (whether that be sexual or friendship…etc)that “isn’t” when those beings stand apart.

    Perhaps I am making it more complicated here, but I think we are stuck, without having the right words to really explain what we mean by “knowing.”

    February 29, 2008
  10. I agree, Jeff, the word “know” doesn’t seem adequate in cases like this – especially in a cultural context which makes such a radical distinction between public “facts” (which we either “know” or “don’t know”) and private “values” (which reflect our own personal subjective sentiments). If this is the plausibility structure that most of us are operating within, claims to “know” or be “known” by God will often, I think, be viewed with a mixture of cynicism and/or bewilderment.

    I actually like the way you’ve worded it – there’s “something that ‘is’ when two beings give themselves to each other… that ‘isn’t’ when those beings stand apart.” There’s a kind of indeterminacy and mystery there that seems appropriate and necessary when we’re dealing with any aspect of the divine/human relationship.

    February 29, 2008
  11. “For Hitchens and the rest of the “new” atheists, the solution to human limitation seems to be more knowledge.”

    And the only variable by which to judge the legitimacy of knowledge is empirical verification. However, by what empirical means do they make this judgment? The so-called “track-record” of empiricism contra religion?

    It is an argument Hitches and other make that we are supposed to blindly accept and that casts their adjudication in the guise of merely an alternative dogma to the one they construct as “what Christians believe”.

    March 17, 2008
  12. Absolutely, Drew. Very well said.

    March 17, 2008

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