Wednesday, November 30, 2005

a little knowledge

Looking at the web the last couple of days has reminded me of the saying "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing." There are websites beyond number where people confidently assert the truth or falsity of this or that set of beliefs based on what they seem to think are irrefutable arguments or proofs. What strikes me is the way in which so many of these people sound so triumphalistic, not only confident in their beliefs but absolutely certain that they can demonstrate, without a doubt, the absolute truth of their position and the falsity of all others. Usually the author offers some appeal to "scientific" proof, or irrefutable logic, or what they are certain scripture says. What is immediately striking about all of this to me is the fragility of most, if not all, of these arguments. Everytime we confidently assert the irrefutable certainty of some particular point of view, it seems to me that we automatically set ourselves up for a fall. Someone who is smarter, or better read, or who just sees things from a different point of view inevitably comes along, completely deconstructs our arguments, and offers counter arguments for their own position. I have seen the debate go back and forth on topics like intelligent design or the existence of God, with either side critiquing what they see as the gross errors of the other side's views while asserting the surety of their own.

As an evangelical Christian, I am particularly interested in the way that many Christians will argue in this fashion, asserting the certainty of their Christian beliefs based on some logical argument, or an appeal to scientific or historical evidence. While I definitely believe there is a place for logical argumentation and looking at scientific and historical evidence, there is something about assertions of certainty that are based on these "proofs," that leaves me feeling uneasy. This is what I mean when I refer to the saying about "a little knowledge . . ." Too many times, I think, when we Christians, especially we evangelicals, discover the intellectual life and the possibility of the use of logic and evidence to back up our Christian faith, we then rush forward making grand assertions about the irrefutable truth of Christianity based on some particular argument, only to have our argument seriously critiqued or demolished by someone who is smarter, or more learned, or who just sees the evidence from a different point of view than we do. In the past, I have often found myself feeling confident about the surety of my faith based on some argument or assertion made by some Christian thinker that I have read only to find that, latter on, someone who disagrees comes along and offers a critique of that argument that shows it is wanting in some way and destroys my confidence.

My point here is not that we should therefore abandon the intellectual life or making arguments of any kind about the credibility of Christian faith, but rather that when we enter into the world of the intellect and argumentation, we should be aware of the vastness of our ignorance and remember the Socratic wisdom that says that true wisdom is in realizing how little one knows. My feeling is that the more we learn, the more we realize how much we don't know, and how it is possible for perfectly intelligent people to credibly hold to views other than our own. We should remember that Christian faith is not primarily a matter of intellectual truth (though it certainly has an important intellectual component), but of being invited into a way of life in Christian community. It is only when we first enter into this way of life that the truth of what we have chosen becomes real to us and makes real sense. I think this is exactly what Saint Paul is getting at in his letter to the Corinthian church when he says that he determined not to come to them with "persuasive words of human wisdom" (1 Cor 2: 1-5) but only to know Christ and Him crucified. One can't argue with Christ and Him crucified. It is what it is. You either accept it and enter into the life it offers, or you don't.

I think every Christian is responsible before God for developing his or her intellect to the extent that their abilities and circumstances permit, but, having gained a little knowledge, we should resist the temptation to think that we have arrived intellectually and to make grand, triumphalistic claims about the certainty of our position. A little knowledge really can be a dangerous thing.


thekid said...

Amen brother! If the knowledge we have doesn't develop in us the ability to be gracious to others (have agape) then it is of no value. Let us Christians not miss the point of 1 Corinthians 13 Saint Paul made about love when we are entering into logic/knowledge based arguments. How does the song go, "...and they'll know we are Christians by our love, by our love..."

Gordon Hackman said...

Hey! Thanks for your comment. A great recontextualization of 1 Corinthians 13. 1 Corinthians is a great book for subverting our obsession with purely intellectual knowledge. As you and I discussed recently, truth spoken in a spirit of violence/domination tends to be self negating and uneffective. Francis Schaeffer called love "the mark of the Christian," and actually went so far as to say that if we Christians do not show love for one another, then the world has the right to conclude that what we believe is false.