Tag Archives: knowledge

Knowledge of God

“And eternal life is this: to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (John 17:3)

Is it possible to know the depths of the sea? 70% of the surface of our planet is covered by the oceans and every time we trawl the depths, we encounter new species of animals.

Even those that we know exist, such as the giant squid, we know little about due to the depths which they inhabit.

If we cannot even know much about the life and habits of just one sea creature, what more about the only true God, Who is infinitely more than the oceans and seas?

Thankfully, Jesus gives us Himself as a more accessible Way to eternal life.

For though we will never completely know Christ, we can at least know more about Him through the Church He established and the teachings that we have received from the Apostles.

We can know what He commands of us to do if we choose to respond and be His friends.

The question is; what do I know of Jesus? Do I want to know more about Him or the world?

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Image: PD-US

On Sloth and Wonder

Every Christian shares in the universal call to partake in the Beatific Vision.  His baptism gives him this vocation.  The Gospel calls all men to be contemplatives.

Sloth and dissipation distort modern connotations of leisure, which formerly meant contemplation in rest.  The Greeks called leisure schole, whence we derive “school.”  School provides the place where teachers invite students to contemplate, to enjoy, to wonder.  It trains the heart to love aright.

We can take this meditative disposition into all of life.  A person who enjoys a sunset for its own sake participates in contemplation.  A parent delighting in the mere sight of his child partakes of wonder.  This principle helps to distinguish between drinking to get drunk and loving the taste of wine.  One tends toward gluttony, the other toward a love of beauty.  Rest for Christians should aim not at amusement but at musing.

The vision of beauty has elements of both fear and joy in it.  James S. Taylor writes of “the precise moment suspended between wonder (fear) and possession (joy), for the be-hold is to possess, to hold with the cognitive sense of the sensory-emotional response of near-simultaneous, fear-joy: the sensation of one’s heart leaping up in the chest” (Poetic Knowledge, 50).  He speaks of a knowledge which sees the essence of a thing and delights in its existence.  This vision of the world draws the gazer into union with the things which he sees and loves.  When the wonderer glimpses the gratuitousness of the universe, the fact that God did not have to create, but He did, his soul leaps in appreciation.  The one who muses walks a fine line between poetry and philosophy, as Josef Pieper observes: “The philosopher, [Aquinas] . . . says, is related to the poet in that both are concerned with mirandum, with wonder, with marveling and with that which makes us marvel” (qtd. in Poetic Knowledge, 79).  The eyes of the poet-philosopher see the world “as a vibrant arena of visible and invisible reality” (35).  Through faith we glimpse the spiritual meaning of the material world.

St Thomas Aquinas 2

When we make “linking earth to heaven” the goal of our thoughts, we transcend time (40).  Taylor points to “the time lost in childhood play; the time that seems to vanish when lovers are together, alone; the hours that have simply slipped away during a meal where there was wine and lively conversation” (76).  When we approach life from a place of rest and gratitude, we will be able to see the truth, beauty, and goodness of everyday life.  Taylor observes that “we learn to love what is beautiful and in this way know also the true and the good” (75).  Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.  Where charity and love are, God is there.

Curiosity, Wonder, and Wisdom

In a short but provocative reflection, Prof. J. Budziszewski calls curiosity the enemy of wonder. In so doing, he is drawing a distinction between the desire for knowledge—itself a good thing—and the elevation of that desire to the highest good, one which can then seek fulfillment at all costs:

The problem is that the curiosity-as-holiness line is carelessly undiscriminating, and at best half-true.

Here is the true half: In itself, the knowledge of truth is good. Aristotle says philosophy begins in wonder. John Paul II says everyone wonders, and in that sense everyone is a philosopher. Thomas Aquinas says it is man’s natural vocation to seek truth, especially the truth about God. We are made, among other things, to know, as no other animal is made to know.

But the way one goes about pursuing knowledge may be right or wrong….

Mere curiosity is to the tender love of truth as voyeurism is to marital love. That is why the ancients made distinctions. They accounted wonder a natural inclination, and the humble pursuit of knowledge to be a high virtue. But they reserved the word curiositas for seeking knowledge in ways it never should be sought.

At most universities—and especially in most science departments—the party line is that education should be about awakening a person’s natural curiosity, that is, their desire for knowledge []. There is not, in principle, anything wrong with awakening a desire to know in a person, and indeed, the actual desire to know itself is a good thing. Indeed, knowing may be counted among the highest human goods (along with loving).

However, although knowing itself is among the highest goods of man, it cannot be the final end of education. Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of knowledge, one which is theoretical and one which is practical. The former should lead to understanding and then to contemplation and at last to loving; the latter should lead to right action. Therefore, inculcation of virtue is an important part of a true education, yet this is at best ignored entirely, but more often outright contradicted (as being old fashioned, or as forcing morality on others) or otherwise undermined (e.g. by being replaced with some other moral system) in many of the hallowed halls of education.

Curiosity itself cannot therefore form a sound basis for education, since it elevates the search for knowledge above the actual ends of knowledge. Worse still, knowledge can be sought licitly or illicitly, morally or immorally: it may be sought through good means or evil.

A few extreme examples should suffice. The experiments of the Nazis on their prisoners are fairly well known and documented. Closer to home, it is well known that there are “enhanced interrogation techniques” (torture) which have been in use by the US against Islamic militants as an attempt to gain knowledge about possible future terrorist attacks (or even to attempt to find other militants); if this is not sufficient as an example of “badly gained” knowledge, then one could easily imagine such techniques being used by a more corrupt regime to obtain less vital information, that is, to gain knowledge which is frivolous as a military matter: torturing men to learn answers to less pressing questions []. Finally, there are the various nuclear bomb tests which were conducted during the Cold War without concern as to the . All of this is to show that there is, in other words, such a thing as “morbid curiosity” in a very literal sense.

What, then, is the cure to curiosity, that is, the antidote to the desire to seek knowledge at all costs? Professor Budziszewski calls curiosity the enemy of wonder, and states that wonder—which leads to “the humble pursuit of knowledge”—is a high virtue. In his discussion of wonder as the basis for philosophy [], Josef Pieper wrote that

In wonder, there is something negative and something positive. The negative aspect is that the person who feels wonder does not know something, does not grasp something–he does not know, “What is behind it all”; as Thomas puts it, “The cause of our wonder is hidden to us.” He who feels wonder does not know, or does not know completely, does not comprehend. He who knows does not feel wonder. It could not be said that God experiences wonder, for God knows in the most absolute and perfect way. And, further: the one who wonders not only does not know, he is intimately sure that he does not know, and he understands himself as being in a position of not-knowing. But this un-knowing is not the kind that brings resignation. The one who wonders is one who sets out on a journey, and this journey goes along with the wonder: not only that he stops short for a moment, and is silent, but also that he persists in searching. Wonder is defined by Thomas in the Summa Theologiae, as the desiderium sciendi, the desire for knowledge, active longing to know.

But along with not-knowing, and not-giving-up, wonder is also… joy, as Aristotle said, and the Middle Ages agreed with him: omnia admirabilia sunt delectabilia–the source of joy and the source of wonder are the same thing. One might even venture to say that wherever spiritual joy is to be met with, the wonderful is also there, and where there is a capacity to feel joy, there is also a capacity to feel wonder. The joy of one who is astounded is the joy of a soul that is beginning something, of a soul that is always ready and alert for something new, for something unheard of.

Pieper continues by noting that the one who wonders and does philosophy has hope and so is superior the the one who doubts all knowledge, but yet he is inferior to the one who finally knows (or “understands”). Wonder is thus a counter to both curiosity—the insatiable desire for knowledge at all costs—and to doubt of all knowledge, which the epistemological despair which likewise ruins philosophy [].

So far, I have limited my discussion to the merely secular considerations of wonder or curiosity as opposing bases for the pursuit of knowledge. By this I mean that everything which has been said so far can be accessed by the light of human reasoning alone. However, as Catholics we can go a step further and look to the light of revelation. A good Catholic education will include a beginning with wonder, just as a good secular education would—but we must go beyond only wonder at not knowing. The end of a good secular education must be increase in knowledge and understanding, and hopefully the development of virtue. A good Catholic education also means a growth in wisdom with the hope of developing saintliness.

Therefore, a good Catholic education has an additional basis, a theological basis which aims it towards wisdom. Wisdom is ultimately a gift of the Holy Spirit (as are knowledge and understanding in the theological sense), and means desiring heaven and heavenly things above earth and earthly things. We are told, moreover, that the beginning of wisdom is another of the gifts of the Holy Spirit; we read in Sirach [] that

“All wisdom comes from the Lord and is with him for ever….The fear of the Lord delights the heart, and gives gladness and joy and long life. With him who fears the Lord it will go well at the end; on the day of his death he will be blessed. To fear the Lord is the beginning of wisdom…To fear the Lord is wisdom’s full measure…The fear of the Lord is the crown of wisdom” (Sirach 1:1, 12-14, 16, 18).

This, then, is a basis for the specifically Christian mode of education. If it is the more difficult basis, it is also the more important. Curiosity might be excited and wonder inspired, but fear of the Lord is a gift which can only be inculcated with the help of grace. Still, we must try and we must pray, and in the meantime we might wait in wonder.

 

—-Footnotes—-
[] Prof. Budziszewski has apparently observed this “curiosity as the highest aim of education” in the liberal arts (he is a professor of government and philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin). I have likewise noticed its prevalence in the various physics departments of which I have been a member as student, instructor, or guest, and have heard it in conversations with other instructors.

[] Perhaps this latter scenario is not too far-fetched, as it is debatable whether “enhanced interrogation” has been used with much success. On the other hand, one could easily imagine a criminal torturing an innocent person to gain access to something of value.

[] From Leisure: The Basis of Culture, pp. 106-107, translated by Gerald Malsbary. Italics and ellipsis both appear in the original.

[] The main discussion of wonder is in Leisure: The Basis of Culture, pp. 100-110, but he follows this up with a brief discussion of the specifically Christian mode (or modes) of philosophy as opposed to non-Christian philosophy. He counters the claim that Christian philosophy is content with simple (and therefore implicitly dismissable) answers to philosophical questions. He notes that good Christian philosophy possesses mysteries, which are in turn both true and yet not fully knowable by man, and which are hence a uniquely Christian source of wonder.

[] We read something similar in Proverbs: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction….The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” (Proverbs 1:7 and 9:10).

In Defense of “Marriage is Work”

Simcha Fisher responded to my article.

Simcha Fisher.

I was thrilled to hear that I’d gotten the attention of Mrs. Fisher and that she had not only read my piece, but had decided that it was good enough – or bad enough – to merit a response on her part.

After reading her response and the responses of others in the comments, I reread my original post and decided that a couple of things needed to happen on my end.

I need to rectify, clarify, and apologize for a couple of things, in the hope that the meaning and intention of my words might not be forever lost in the web of the internet.

First, I must admit, that when I wrote my article I did so with the humble intention of sharing a reflection I had. I never once meant it to be a prideful suggestion that I and my fiancé are perfect. Yet, rereading it, I can see where a certain amount of hubris came across. I was – and am – definitely mortified at the idea that the vast world wide web read my piece with any ere of pride or conceit. I ask your apology if it came off that way, and I thank you, wonderful readers, commenters, Simcha Fisher, for bringing to light the idea that I may have come off as prideful of my own abilities and those of my soon-to-be husband.

Thank you.

However, with the suggested – though wholly unintended – hubris aside, I have to address an issue which has arisen from my previous post. Most, if not all, of the critiques were in the form of “you can’t know that your husband will never cheat.”

My mom tells a story of a conversation she once had with my uncle as my sister and I were approaching our teenage and high school years. My uncle, meaning well, and having gone through this before my mom, told my mom to expect that my sister and I would somehow become involved in drinking, drugs, or promiscuity. It would happen. It just does. That’s what happens in the teenage years. My mother responded that her daughters would never have those issues.

My uncle replied that my mom could not know that, she didn’t know what trials we would face in the future, and that she ought to be prepared. She could hope that wouldn’t be our problem, but she couldn’t know it. My mother disagreed. She knew her daughters. She knew how they’d been raised. She knew our relationship and our family and she knew that those problems were not coming our way.

Oh, doubtless other problems would come our way, and they did. But not those problems. We struggled with depression, loneliness, anger, disobedience, and disrespect. But my sister and I never became entangled in the web of promiscuity, drinking, and drugs which my uncle seemed to believe were so unavoidable for teenagers. My mom knew that ahead of time and she knew it in the deepest recesses of her soul where reason doesn’t touch, but isn’t needed. And she was right.

Likewise, I have no doubt that my husband and I will have plenty of problems. We will hurt one another, abuse one another, sin against one another, and of this I have no doubt. We will face trials, we won’t like each other very much at times, we won’t always get along, and occasionally I will flat out wish he lived in a different state. I understand this. We’ve already let each other down, hurt, and sinned against one another too many times to count. How many confessions have I gone to and cried over the hurt I’ve inflicted on him and in his life?

Of course one cannot know the future, in the sense of having 100 percent certainty. I suppose there is even some infinitesimal chance that the sun will not rise tomorrow, and it is certainly much more dicey to predict human behavior.  However, sometimes there are things that people can know, in the sense of having tremendous confidence in others. We express such confidence when we say, for example, “I would trust him with my life.” People can know things about their life, spouse, children, careers, friends, and family without a crystal ball. Sometimes people know themselves, they know their family, and they know God well enough to trust in complete confidence when something is or is not coming their way. Sometimes Christ can plant firmly in our souls knowledge or understanding of the character of another person that can give you such confidence.  Is it naïve for me to have this faith – this knowledge – in my future husband? No. Naïve to share it in the way that I did? Yes. That is probably knowledge that is better left between God, my husband, and me and should only come up when someone prompts it or asks. My apologies that I was rash in sharing it, but I am not rash in believing it.

I would like to address the original purpose of my article, which I fear was lost. My original purpose was to share a reflection and a deeper understanding I came to, which was prompted by my co-workers’ conversation. I wanted to grapple with and disprove the cultural notion that marriage is a sort of lottery. As Catholics, we believe that marriage is a sacrament. If it is a sacrament, then there must be some sort of promise or guarantee in it, for Christ makes promises to the world through the sacraments and we know that our God always keeps His promises. We also know that marriage is a vocation, one of three ways that people are meant to make it to Heaven. This means that humans can be called to it as a lifestyle in a unique way.

My point in bringing up the idea that marriage is an institution of work and prayer was the idea that it is in the exercise of these two faculties that we attain the promise of Christ in the sacrament. If God calls you to marriage, then He will not abandon you in your effort to live a joy-filled, love-filled, faith-filled marriage. This is what He wants for you. Thus, if we ascribe to the teachings of the Church, if we practice the sacrament and allow the grace of it to permeate our lives, then we can rest in confidence that God will not abandon us in our undertaking. That is what I meant when I said that we have a “faith that can make these promises.” The love of spouses was gifted to them by God at their baptism, and when acted out faithfully and continually, it is meant to bring a fullness of Christ’s love into the world. It was instilled at baptism, and man has a duty to nurture this love every day so that it can reflect Christ’s love fully.

I emphasized the importance of a return to God every day. I understand that people are weak and sinful creatures, but I here failed in communicating this understanding. I tried in my last paragraph when I referenced Pope John Paul II. The idea that we must return to God the gift of love He gave us was meant to be taken as a daily undertaking. The promises of marriage can only be met and fulfilled when we daily turn to God in our weakness and ask for His strength and grace. Christ knows how to nourish your heart better than you do, and if He placed into your heart a love that was meant solely for your spouse, then if you daily return your heart to Him, you will grow closer to your spouse because God will be hands-on nurturing the love you two share.

Finally, it is here that my reflection was prompted by my co-workers’ conversation. Their dialogue honestly made me sad, and I mourned for them that they cannot know the joy that is a faith-filled marriage based in The One who created the world. They do not have this experience with faith, nor do they have the idea of returning their hearts to Christ. Consequently, their marriages were based in the world and not in The One greater and stronger than them who could carry them through the rough times and nurture their love when they didn’t know how to. This honestly burdened me for several days before I wrote my article, and my article was meant, finally, to be a response of praise and thanksgiving to our Lord who gave me this faith, this love, this knowledge. My article was meant to be a challenge to Catholics to embrace the promise Christ gives us in the sacrament of marriage, and to respond whole-heartedly to the calling He has given you and the love He has instilled in you.

Why Bother to Learn Anything At All, Anyway?

There are way more things to know in this Universe than you have the brain cells to record, and any one field of human study has probably by this point generated more data than a human mind, with a lifetime of study, could internalize.

We should feel small standing up against the ocean of numbers, names, dates, vocabulary words, genealogies, and scientific observations that human minds have recorded and passed down from the beginning of history. And that is just the bare facts. We should feel even smaller standing before the Frankensteinian behemoth of secondary sources, of analyses, theses, syntheses,  hypotheses, of theories and theora, of postulates and conjectures, the half-living, half-dead piecemeal that makes up all of our sciences. Enter the meta-philosophers, the cross-disciplinary geniuses, the historiographers, and the historians of ideas, and we have an even more imposing edifice before which the deflated individual mind may shrink.

But all of the above comprises merely those facts that humans have been able to accumulate over our few thousand years of history and our rational response to them. More than by all of this knowledge, we are dwarfed by our ignorance, by all of the facts that are still beyond our reach, and by all of the theories that would be necessary for us to make sense of them.

If we were supposed to come to know and understand all of reality in our 80 years, if knowledge as such was the purpose for which we were born, we would be utterly doomed to failure. The scientist, the philosopher, the mathematician, the literary critic, the historian, for all of their efforts, can only ever end their inquiries with yet more questions.

It is right, then, to suppose that the man who thinks himself bright has little to offer. There won’t be an intelligentsia in heaven, but the dimmest light in the Kingdom will know more than all the snobs of this age put together. Stephen Hawking knows very little in comparison to the knowledge a baptized, drooling, screaming infant would receive at the moment of death.

If such knowledge is to be ours, then why the search for mere facts here and now? Why the itching, burning desire to discover more and more? It’s a reasonable question for a Christian to ask.

There is, after all, a kind of gnawing doubt that is characteristic of this age, a prurient interest in all things contrary to our position, an addiction to polemic, the never-ending need for the rush of dialectical victory, the sweet sensation of a belief successfully defended, of re-affirmation. Do we claw after knowledge so as to cling to a faith whose substance is constant doubt deferred?

Do we learn merely so as to be of use, to learn new ways to suppress the vices and encourage the virtues, more effective ways to practice charity?

Rather, reality is of a piece, and everything is interesting. Everything we learn, at a minimum, gives us new ways to glorify God in the here and now, more opportunities to respond to His grace with thanksgiving, and so to remain on the path that will take us to full knowledge of and with Him in heaven. As long as we retain the hunger to learn, the yearning to know–and in large part we retain this by continuing to learn–we retain the hunger for the fullness of knowledge, for the Beatific Vision, and this hunger helps bend our recalcitrant wills heavenward.

Beyond this, knowledge is a good in itself, something whose full value we cannot appreciate until we possess it, and perhaps not even for some time after we have come into possession of it. Someday we, like Stargate’s Daniel Jackson, may find such arcane and apparently useless knowledge as fluency in Egyptian hieroglyphics critical to a matter of life and death, of national security. Or, indeed, in our case, critical to the salvation of souls.