Knowledge is the fifth of the seven sanctifying gifts of the Holy Spirit. As we have discussed previously, all the sanctifying gifts are ordered toward conforming us to the image and likeness of Jesus Christ and making us participants in his life.
Because we are all called to be fully conformed to Jesus, all the sanctifying gifts are available to all the baptized and confirmed. In this, they are different from charismatic gifts, which are distributed by the Holy Spirit in such a way that nobody has all the gifts but everybody has some of them.
We receive the gift of knowledge, as we receive all the sanctifying gifts, when we are infused with sanctifying grace. And, as with all gifts of grace, they build on nature.
So it is not the case that those who are not in a state of grace are incapable of desiring and having knowledge. The witness of the great pagan philosophers such as Aristotle demonstrates this. And, indeed, the Church has often made use of knowledge accrued by pagans, as when St. Thomas Aquinas made use of the thought of Aristotle. St. Augustine compared this to the time that the departing Hebrews took with them gold — from which they fashioned the golden calf — from the pagan Egyptians.
Augustine’s reasoning, like that of Catholic Tradition throughout history, was simple: All truth is God’s truth, since God is the author of all reality.
So it cannot be the case that there is “pagan truth” and “Christian truth” and “scientific truth” and “my truth” and “your truth.” There is simply truth — and it comes from him who is Truth. Two plus two equals four for everybody, not just mathematicians.
So when a pagan philosopher formulates the Law of Non-Contradiction or a pagan mathematician formulates Euclidean geometry or a non-believing scientist makes a discovery about how genes code for proteins, that is not something separate from the Catholic revelation of God in Jesus Christ.
In fact, nothing can be separate from the Catholic revelation of God in Jesus Christ, since “Catholic” means “universal”; and, therefore, the universe — the creation of the God whom Catholics worship — is a fit and proper subject for study and understanding.
That is because “heaven and earth are full of God’s glory,” and all creation bears witness to the glory of its Creator. So the Christian tradition, like the Jewish tradition before it, looks forward to the day when “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14).
What is central to the gift of knowledge, then, is thinking. And thinking means making connections. What the gift of knowledge is ordered toward is making complete connections, not merely between one earthly thing and another (as anyone can do), but between earthly and heavenly things (which only Christ can do).
To exercise the gift of knowledge is to be a complete thinker, a thinker who refuses to truncate thought, a thinker who is interested in all the truth God gives us.
This is what lies behind one of the greatest inventions of the Catholic intellectual tradition: the university. As its name suggests, the university was dedicated to the study of the universe. And in medieval times that meant not only the study of nature via the natural sciences, but of God via theology, the “Queen of the Sciences.”
Moderns tend to think that we can focus entirely on the natural sciences while ignoring God. Meanwhile, in reaction, some Christian fundamentalists and New Age folk argue that the spiritual is all that matters. Both are engaged in the project of rejecting the connections between heaven and earth that the gift of knowledge is ordered toward helping us see.
Why make those connections? Because, in taking flesh in Jesus Christ, God has hallowed time, space, matter and energy and made them sacramentals of his life. Of which, more next time.
Mark Shea is a Register blogger and columnist.