As we have seen, Scripture warns repeatedly of separating knowledge from the love of God and neighbor. But that is not because knowledge is bad. It’s because knowledge, like all powerful and good things such as fire, must be wielded with love or it will destroy. The good news is that, wielded with love, knowledge can be a huge and potent force for good.
So again and again, Scripture urges us to “know the Lord” and promises us that the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea (Habakkuk 2:14). We find that Solomon in the Book of Proverbs and elsewhere is interested in not only “religious” or “spiritual” knowledge but in knowledge about everything. So Proverbs is filled, not only with observations about God and man, but also with advice about balancing your checkbook, dealing with that rambunctious child, having a happy marriage, handling jerks, trying legal cases, learning diligence from watching ants, not being like Wile E. Coyote (“He who digs a pit will fall into it, and a stone will come back upon him who starts it rolling” (26:27) and all the other elements that go into life’s colorful pageant.
In the Jewish tradition, there is a strong resistance to the idea that knowledge is supposed to be ethereal. Long before the incarnation of Jesus, Jewish sages are training Israel to use knowledge for practical ends and seeing no contradiction between that and the knowledge of God. As the rabbi Saul of Tarsus (aka St. Paul) will sum it up, “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17).
Not that knowledge is to be sought solely, or even primarily, for the purpose of earthly use of course. Jesus tells us the great Law of Rightly Ordered Priorities when he says, “Therefore, do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his Kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well” (Matthew 6:31-33).
The Catholic pursuit of knowledge that gave rise to both the university and the sciences was impelled by two things: a desire to know God through his creatures and a desire to understand creatures for their own sake.
This is one of the keys to grasping the gift of knowledge: that it is both sacramental and practical. The gift of knowledge glorifies God in the first place as the Creator of all of reality. It sees creation first as a sacrament, not as a competitor to God. That’s why Catholics could invent the university: because they believe there is nothing in the universe that has not been created by God, and, therefore, everything exists for his glory. So they believed it honored God to learn about Euclidean geometry or invent a recipe for pickled herring or write a fine poem as much as it honored him to compose a hymn or say a prayer. They believed, along with Proverbs 25:2, that “It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out.”
Consequently, they had the conviction that the universe was a universe — a coherent whole that was knowable and that had its own built-in integrity that we could understand. We, standing on their shoulders, take all that as a given, but it wasn’t until Latin Christendom, trusting God, realized it was.
And so the medieval Church fostered what one scholar has called a “culture of poking around” for its own sake, resulting in the birth of science — of which, more next time.
Mark Shea is a Register blogger and columnist.