The longer I live, the less I know. The less I have lived, the more I think I know.
“Knowledge puffs up; but love builds up.”(I Cor. 8:1b)
These words seem strange to those of us who value education. But peeking into the internal squabble within the First Century CE Corinthian church (First Corinthians 8:1-13) may also give us an unexpected peek into ourselves in 2015.
There is a tension between knowledge and love. The better educated among us see the relation between knowledge and love as complimentary. Love and knowledge grow together into ever expanding circles of freedom, like snakes shedding their skins and lobsters shedding their shells for bigger skins and shells that can hold their more mature selves.
Yet we are sometimes scornful of the less educated, the concrete thinkers, the legalists who are certain about what little knowledge they have. We are quick to join Paul’s opinion that “Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge ….” (I Corinthians 8:2). A little knowledge is a very dangerous thing. True education leads not only to increasing knowledge but to increasing awareness of one’s own vast ignorance.
We think of Copernicus and Galileo who challenged the prevailing knowledge, and those who judged them for their unbelief, a new “knowledge” that has changed the human view of our place in a vast, expanding universe. Or we think of Darwin and the Scopes Trial – the showdown between the knowledge of evolution and the ignorance of the creationists. We think of the difference between enlightened biblical scholarship that interprets Scripture through the eyes of love’s expansion and the biblical inerrantists who insist that the Bible be taken literally, such that the book is closed on matters of human sexuality.
“‘All of us possess knowledge.’ Knowledge puffs up; but love builds up.”
Paul makes a masterful move here in the chess game of the knowers. He says that all the “knowers” know little, and that those who know more – the stronger in faith – are in greater danger than those who know less – the weaker in faith.
He is writing to the strong, the ones who are more advanced in the knowledge of the liberty to which Christ has set them free. “But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.” Knowledge itself puts us on trial, the trial of humility, the trial of love. Paul calls for the stronger to be humble lest what they assume to know become the new idolatry that places Christ’s weaker followers on the cross of educated privilege.
The Christian claim of faith is not our knowledge, no matter how great or small. The claim of the disciples of Jesus is God’s knowledge of us. It is God’s knowing us that is the heart of faith for followers of the crucified, risen Christ. It is God’s knowledge -the wisdom of love – into which we are baptized as novices. One might even say, we die to every claim but love.
We are saved by grace through faith, not by works. For the likes of me and my progressive friends and colleagues in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and for members of the church who are choosing to leave the PC(USA) because of what they regard as excessive liberty, knowledge sometimes becomes the new “works” that substitute for justification by grace.
To be justified (i.e. made “right” with God) by grace through faith, as Paul understood it, represents a 180 degree repentance, a reversal of the direction and flow of the human-divine encounter from us to God to from God to us. Paul later speaks of the practical implications of love with respect to all claims of knowledge:
“And if I ….understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” (I. Co. 13:2)
“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it his not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (I Corinthians 4-7)
I am among those who remain puzzled by what to do. It’s far from simple. Paul’s description of the Christ-like life is centered, but it’s not simple. The patience and kindness come hard when faced with what I am sure are the weaker, more homophobic folks whose view of Scripture supports their opposition to the full inclusion of LGBTQ members. I boast of a greater knowledge based on love. In the name of love, I become arrogant. I am rude. I have a short fuse. I want to separate myself and the more enlightened from the less enlightened, the weaker, as Paul might say. In their presence I quickly become irritable, resentful of their presence in the Body of Christ. I do not bear all things. I do not believe all things, hope all things, endure all things. I do not believe that if I understand all mysteries and have all knowledge but have not love, I am nothing.
Though Paul was writing his letter to the tumultuous church at Corinth in the middle of the First Century CE, his words still speak. They arrive unexpectedly like a surgeon’s scalpel removing a cancer for the sake of the Body of Christ. The gospel cuts with a knife, but it is always for the sake of healing, a dying to ego for the sake of the resurrected Body of Christ.
Gracious Lord, by your healing mercy, keep me in the knowledge of Your love.
– Gordon C. Stewart, Sunday, Feb. 1, 2015.