In Scripture, knowledge and knowing have connotations that don’t make knowledge seem like a promising gift of the Holy Spirit.
One thing that makes knowledge an unlikely gift in the eyes of some in our sex-obsessed culture is the fact that “to know” has, in Scripture, a distinctly intimate connotation, as in “Adam knew his wife.” So, to some, it seems at first blush like somebody made a mistake somewhere in listing it as a gift of confirmation, since it might more fittingly be attributed to the sacrament of marriage.
Beyond this are more sinister associations of “knowledge” with something bad. Paul tells us, for instance, that “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1). In other words, one of the side effects of stuffing your head with knowledge can be and often is a fat head. A hazard of the academic profession — or of book learning in general — can be intellectual arrogance. It was, after all, the learned class of chief priests and Pharisees who demanded the crucifixion of Jesus, and since then it has been those in seats of power who have put their collective intellects together to create highly sophisticated hellholes like Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and our very own Planned Parenthood.
And small wonder knowledge has such a bad rep in Scripture, since divine Revelation tells us that the sin of pride whereby our sad race fell was committed in the quest for knowledge without love:
“But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate” (Genesis 3:4-6).
Indeed, one of the most sinister and creepy statements in the New Testament comes from a demon-possessed man. The evil spirit cries out, “I know who you are” (Mark 1:24). That is, significantly, something Jesus (who really does know us through and through) never says. Because that claim of “knowledge” — to be able to see right through somebody and sound the depth of their inmost being — is designed to pin another person against the wall like a bug pinned to a card.
It is more like an act of aggression or violation than of anything remotely approaching love. It is “knowledge” used in the attempt to reduce another person to a thing, to place one under a microscope, to dissect — not to love. It is the polar opposite of the gift of knowledge that comes from the Holy Spirit.
Not surprisingly then, one of the first enemies the Church faced was gnosticism (from the Greek gnosis, meaning “knowledge”). “Knowledgism” is one way to translate it. And the basic idea behind it was, to parody St. John of the Cross, that “in the evening of our lives, we will be judged by how much smarter we are than losers.”
Knowledge of that kind is a satanic parody of the spiritual gift of knowledge and is deadly to the soul because it is about the pursuit of pride, not love. Indeed, so deadly is it that it can kill even if — indeed, especially because — the knowledge is of holy things.
Here again, the scholars of the law who sought to murder Jesus are instructive. So also is the bishop of Rouen — who engineered the murder of St. Joan of Arc. Being a Catholic is no guarantee that we are immune to pride about our knowledge.
And yet, despite all these hazards, Scripture urges us to seek knowledge. So how do we do that wisely and well? On that, more next time.
Mark Shea is a Register blogger and columnist.