Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.
(1 Corinthians 8:1)
For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.
(1 Corinthians 13:12)
After enjoying a movie together as a family, it’s not uncommon when the credits roll for someone to pipe up, “I know I’ve seen her before. What else is she in?” After a couple of stabs at this pop trivia question, one of us inevitably has a device open and is reading aloud the actor-in-question’s bio (courtesy imdb.com).
We live in a time of unprecedented access to information. We carry around in our pockets the sum total of thousands of years of human learning. If I should happen to have an itch to know the wavelength of the colour green, the nutritional value of a kumquat (“what’s a kumquat?!”), or how to change the starter on my 2002 Honda CR-V, the answer lies in my hand. Very little in our lives needs to be held as a mystery.
If the Apostle Paul is right when he warns that “knowledge puffs up…” (1 Cor. 8:1), to what might we compare our 21st-century selves? Pufferfish? Balloons blown up to the point of bursting? Phil Gunther offers a timely reminder of the central place of humility for those of us who claim to follow Jesus. What does the hard path of humility look like when we’re talking about our knowledge?
A Matter of Trust
It’s true that a portion of my knowledge comes from direct experience. I spent many summers tree planting in Northern BC. I know, for example, what it feels like to lift bags loaded with spruce seedlings onto aching shoulders. But a much larger part of what I claim to “know” comes from others, through what I’ve read or heard. Whether it’s a Hebrew scholar explaining the grammatical usage of an ancient word or my kid’s retelling who scored the goals in their recess soccer match, these “facts” enter my possession second-hand. This means much of our knowledge is a matter of trust. Do I trust this person in what they’re saying?
We tend to imagine “knowledge” as something “out there”—“objective,” neutral, impersonal. But if trust is at the root of our knowing, then it’s not impersonal at all, but a highly interpersonal venture. What I know depends upon who I know. But knowing another person (as you may have experienced with a friend or spouse) is never simple. Humans change. They grow. They’re inconsistent. And their knowing—however trustworthy they may be—is, like mine, subject to the limits of human sin, bias and finiteness. Leaving it all like a web: beautiful, delicate and tenuous.
The Apostle Paul lived and wrote with deep confidence. But he doesn’t point to his vast Biblical and theological learning as his anchor. He’s confident because “I know the one in whom I have put my trust…” (2 Tim. 1:12). And his greatest desire? To possess yet more of the treasures of human knowledge? No: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection…” (Phil. 3:10) Who he knows matters far more than what he knows. Jesus himself lived from this grounded place of interpersonal knowing: “…just as the Father knows me and I know the Father” (John 10:15).
The fact is that in this life we inevitably “know only in part.” But proper humility is not the same as surrendering to despair and cynicism, for it remembers that, in love, “I have been fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12). From this secure place, I can in joy and freedom enter into the lifetime quest of coming to know—beginning with my Heavenly Father, Creator of all things.
Pufferfish, when threatened, inflate their bodies exposing poisonous spines. When someone challenges what I know, I tend to do the same. This is because we tend to connect what we know with who we are. Disagreement feels like a threat to my identity. That’s why conflicting claims to know can get so ugly.
But what if we realized that the difference between what I know and what they know comes down to trust? I’m trusting one person or group, and they’re trusting another. Instead of pounding out my opinion one more time, can I instead get curious? Why am I trusting my source? Who are they, in turn, trusting? What about my opponent—why am I not willing to trust them? What would it mean to grow in my knowing of other people instead of trying to build for myself a fortress of facts? Ask more questions, perhaps?
Humility’s goal is always the good of others. When I attempt to “fix” another or to “put them in their place” with my knowledge, how does that benefit them? Is it not an attempt to protect my own fragile identity? The next time my knowledge is challenged, what strategies for “de-puffing” might I employ? As Paul’s full statement goes, “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor. 8:1).
A place for mystery
Jesus’ path of humility asks us to lay down our very lives. In our knowledge-saturated times, that includes laying down any identity I’ve constructed based on what I know. I suspect that, in turn, requires clearing some space for mystery in our lives. What if, at least once a day, I said—aloud, to another person—”I don’t know”? What if I practiced resisting that compulsive twitch to google everything? What if I focused more on being present and getting to know the person I’m with? For right here in front of me is a most wonderful and endless mystery—a human being, created to be the image of the Infinite. Certainly someone worth getting to know.
Rod Schellenberg serves as lead pastor of Hepburn MB Church in Hepburn, Saskatchewan.