To Know or Not to Know - Is that even a question?
Copyright © 2010 Dorian S. Cole
"Whether it is better to be..." oh, forget the Shakespeare. Is it really important to just know everything or die trying? Or does knowledge fool us into thinking we actually "know" more than we really do? Where does wisdom come from, a university, or digging a ditch?
Does anybody really know anything?
Recently I enjoyed a person's help with moving. The person, like me, often uses self-deprecation as humor. He was very pleasant to work with. He is a former pastor, has a son who he esteems as somewhere around the genius level, and his own intellect is often the butt of his own self-deprecating humor. I regard him as a very wise person, but I wondered if he actually believed his own self-deprecation.
During the Enlightenment, knowledge became revered. We built gigantic institutions to the pursuit of knowledge, and rightfully so. Knowledge has advanced the human condition from living in misery through short lives, to living long, healthy and prosperous lives... for many of us. Knowledge is a wonderful thing, but we have to resolve why we have only made lives better for some. It does the world no good to develop a wonderful medical cure, and then keep it for only a privileged few, as we often do. Perhaps knowledge isn't the only answer. Knowledge without love is dead.
I have had a struggle with knowledge myself. In grade school they gave the standard tests and notified my mother that I wasn't living up to potential. I endeavored to keep it that way. I was a walking contradiction, you see, because as a youth, I wished to be like King Solomon - having the gift of wisdom. You ask for crazy things when you are young, not realizing what you are getting yourself into. I didn't realize that the more you know, the more you realize that you don't know, and it's a dizzying and insatiable spiral into more and more knowledge, especially for someone who aspired to live below potential.
As a young adult, I worried about being misled by religious teaching and being made a fool by nonsense. So I pursued beliefs that "made sense" to me. As I look back, those beliefs not only didn't make much sense in the end - they were simply a dead end. The search itself was simply part of growth. We have to seek, experience, and learn, or we are dead. As Christ advised, we should be hot or cold, not simply apathetic (Revelations 3:15). Apathy gets us nowhere.
Later, I felt that a pastor should be very knowledgeable if he expected to lead people properly. That had a profound impact on the direction of my life. I think it is very important to be able to cut through the lies and misrepresentations, misleading quasi-logic, misleading statistics, misleading rhetoric and ideology, overlysimplistic slogans, illusions, and half-truths that pass for reliable information in our society. Most of it is self-serving crap both in the religious and secular worlds. Leaders may not always be the smartest of people, but the best ones are anchored in the love of God and realize that those illusions placed before us to tempt us are not worth chasing.
I learned several things in my pursuits. Looking back I can say that the pursuit of wisdom is the pursuit of experiences, often painful ones. On the other hand, worry about being misled by religious teaching is the same as a quest for no experience and ignorance. If you try nothing, you learn nothing - you don't become any wiser by doing nothing or simply reading about it. Once you try something, sooner or later you prove whether or not it is true - that is the secret to building faith. But I have to say that the overall quest was worth it. I'm not easily misled and hope that I help others not be misled. Being wise sometimes means that you understand that you don't know very much, but you have better known tools for testing knowledge.
A recent Pew survey showed that atheists and agnostics know more about religion that believers. How do you interpret that - that knowing more destroys faith? Or is it that atheists and agnostics lack the important ingredient of experience. As Rabbi Brad Hirschfield expressed in a Belief.net article, "...one need not know a great deal, even about the history or dogma of one's own faith, in order to feel deeply connected to it." "The history and ideology of any tradition is simply not the determining factor in most people's attachment to it. People attach to religious traditions at least as much because of what they experience within the context of the community of followers, as they do because of the teachings of its leaders."
Read more:A Beliefnet article by Rabbi Brad Hirschfield.
Faith doesn't mean that we already know everything through some unfathomable force. Faith doesn't mean blind following. Faith is learning to trust God's ways and teachings, proving to ourselves that they are true. We're not saved because we are well read, or even memorize scripture. We are saved because we prove to ourselves that God's ways are true by following them. By the grace (favor or gift) of God are we saved, through faith. (Ephesians 2:8.) Faith is an action, not a set of encyclopedias. God makes us whole through our actions based on beliefs.
A moving experience
Back to that recent move I mention; we downsized. I got a nice object lesson out of that move. We have moved many times in the past. Like Abraham we seem to live in a tent. During these moves, I got so tired of moving boxes of books that I developed a method of moving the books right in the bookcase, using a hand truck. I would simply place a board across the front of the bookcase, strap it to the hand truck, and roll it out. On the truck I would either place them front to back or leave a board in front of each. Actually it's hard on the bookcase, and a few books fall, but it's not nearly so hard on me.
This time I refined the method. I wrapped the bookcases in shrinkwrap so the books would all stay in. That was good, until I got the bright idea of laying the bookcases on their side. Before I blow my horn in tribute, I should add that it didn't end well. The shrinkwrap sticks to the other bookcases, so it is difficult to pry them apart. The books? Well my careful categorization was lost, with most of the books stacked on the floor categorized by size so they would stack well. Argh!
My collection of books began in the 1960s, and advanced rapidly when I discovered that once a book goes out of print you can no longer get it. Books disappear from libraries, and college professors reserve it in their field collections so it is only available to a select few. Today I still purchase a number of books, but much of what I have is online. Studying my pile of miscategorized books, it occurred to me that maybe I had too many books. Perhaps it would be better for my back and the bookcases if it was all online.
I probably own most of the actual knowledge in the Western World all in a few bookcases and computer programs. But how smart am I? As I stared at my empty bookcase and doubted my wisdom at having tried such a thing, I had to ask myself, how smart is a bookcase - smarter than me? Sure, it may hold all of the knowledge in the world. But does that make the bookcase smart? By extension, does knowledge make a person smart, or a university? Does knowledge make a computer smart? Sure, computers can hold a lot of knowledge and make an infinite number of associations, but can a computer determine if an association between bits of knowledge can solve a problem or be something useful or true? No.
Even people who are incredibly intelligent in their ability to know a lot, can be totally useless in applying their knowledge. You can know that a nail is driven with a hammer, but without the experience you may be using your entire arm to swing the hammer instead of your wrist, or you may not know that it's easier on your fingers, when driving a short nail, to hold onto it with pointed pliars. Knowledge and experience are not the same things. Then there are also the diabolical people who are incredibly intelligent at being wicked, but shortchange themselves and the world by wasting their intellect and efforts on destructive pursuits.
It is a greater leap from knowledge (the sheer accumulation of facts), to wisdom. Wisdom involves assessment and judgment on the quality and suitability of knowledge. For example, is short term gain through hindering others, worth the price of long term loss because of harming others? Knowledge says yes, while wisdom says no. Wisdom involves listening to the voice of other's experience, and your own experience.
Is it better to be the bookcase that holds all of the knowledge? Or is it better to learn from experience? In reality this is a false choice. Both knowledge and wisdom are necessary, but the goal is to experience to become wise - to develop the understanding by proving knowledge true, false, valuable, or valueless. It was the Buddha who advised us to practice the virtues - do them over and over. Practice being kind to others. Practice forgiving others. Practice doing things for others. The act of doing proves the belief to you.
Personal transformation, or personal development, is what both spiritual and religious pursuits are about. Enlightenment is not a process of gathering correct information. Enlightenment is the transformation of attitude that results from applying knowledge to day after day experiences. We prove it to ourselves.
The spiritual experience, the connectedness with God, for some occurs when they are experiencing the symbols and ritual of the worship service. It is different for everyone, and can occur anywhere and during most any activity.
Part of the process of enlightenment is the process of integrating that knowledge and experience through meditation, or during quiet moments of reflection, or it can simply be the realization that comes while reading a magazine article or listening to a speaker. Suddenly, if we allow ourselves, during a moment of receptivity we gain clarity and we are on top of the complexity that surrounds us. Then we are immersed in it again for more knowledge and experience.
I like knowing things, and I tend to like others who know things. But the measure of a person is not in the amount that they know or the number of college degrees that they have. Wisdom comes from experience and gives a person the ability to judge value. The most valuable knowledge is that which comes from love. God is love. Love is the ultimate intent. As the Apostle Paul tells us in 1 Corintians 13, we can have all knowledge, faith, and abilities, but if we don't have love we are just a lot of noise.
I want to personally thank my friend for helping us move. He volunteered. He acted out of love. From him comes profound wisdom: He gives love to others.