Friday, January 2, 2009
A Little Knowledge
My 7th grade History teacher assigned the class an unusual project.
He gave us a little background about a man we had never heard of, named Rube Goldberg. He explained how Mr. Goldberg was known for inventing ridiculously complicated machines to perform simple tasks, and then revealed what our project would be: Each one of us would design and actually construct a device along the lines of what Rube Goldberg might have designed. We were to create a Rube Goldberg machine.
Thanks in large part to my dad, I managed to complete the project, and demonstrated my contraption for the class: a golf ball rolled through a tube, setting off a series of movements, eventually resulting in an egg being cracked over a frying pan.
Neat stuff, but not the point.
It so happened that, during the period of time I was working on this project, my family had dinner with a couple we didn't see very often. We were enjoying getting caught up, and the husband asked me how school was going. I told him it was fine, and thought I would let him in on my project.
But just as I began my story, in a split-second, I reasoned that our family friend, a man in his forties, surely would not be familiar with the name "Rube Goldberg". After all, I had never heard of Rube Goldberg until my teacher brought him up. So, in an effort to spare this poor man the embarrassment of having his ignorance exposed, I launched off into a Rube Goldberg-style explanation of my project, but without actually naming Mr. Goldberg's name. I explained that I was working on a project where I had to create a complicated machine to do a simple job, and so on, and so forth.
Imagine my shock at the man's response:
"Oh, so it's kind of a 'Rube Goldberg' type of thing, eh?"
What?!? How on earth did he know that?
Simple answer: He had lived on planet Earth a lot longer than I had, and he knew a lot of things I knew, and a lot of things I didn't know. Despite my perception, I was, in fact, not in possession of a rare secret with my newfound but shallow knowledge of Rube Goldberg.
Oh, what a little knowledge can do. A measure of knowledge, mixed with pride rather than humility and perspective, can be a dangerous recipe.
About six years later, during my freshman year in college, I had the misfortune of seeing the ugliest form of the arrogance of knowledge. This time, I was on the receiving end.
I was working my job at the circulation desk in the library, when a graduate student approached to check out some books. (Gasp in awe...) What I assumed would be a routine transaction turned out to be a bizarre encounter. The student accepted my greeting, passed over his books and his ID card as usual, but proceeded to say, without any prompt whatsoever, "I was up here earlier, and heard you and that other guy talking, and I want you to know that neither one of you said anything intelligent."
Yes, that's really what he said. Honestly, I don't remember what "that other guy" and I had been talking about, but apparently this man had overheard us, and was not impressed. Why he chose to say what he said, I'll never know.
He may have been right. It's possible my co-worker and I were making no sense at all, especially as judged by the "superior intellect". But what kind of arrogance does it take to say what this guy said to me?
Possibly just a more complete version of the attitude I had toward my friend, when I assumed he wouldn't know something just because it was new to me?
Just as Rube Goldberg wasn't new to my friend, the arrogance of knowledge isn't a new issue in the family of God.
"We know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies. And if anyone thinks that he knows anything, he knows nothing yet as he ought to know." -- I Corinthians 8:1-2
"Because of your knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died?" -- I Corinthians 8:11
These passages are taken from Paul's discussion of a divisive issue facing the early church in Corinth: Whether or not a Christian could, with a clear conscience, acquire and eat meat that had been previously used in idol worship.
This issue might seem foreign to a Christian living in western culture today, but there are still many lessons to learn.
Paul makes clear in his letter that idols are nothing, and whether or not a Christian eats the meat in question is immaterial. But the interesting thing about Paul's discussion is that he focuses less attention on this question than he gives to the attitude of the people asking it. His primary focus is not on those who don't understand the meat issue; his focus is on those who do.
It's safe to assume that Paul's first choice would have been for everyone to have a perfect understanding of the issue. But short of that, it seems clear that Paul would prefer to see a sincere Christian live with the limited understanding that would lead him to think the meat in question was sinful, rather than to see the same Christian grasp this issue and become scornful of those who didn't.
The worst outcome Paul can see is not for a Christian to live with imperfect understanding; the worst thing would be for the Christian with the greater understanding to offend or alienate the one with less. Or worse yet, to embolden that Christian to violate his conscience.
Many a schoolteacher has quoted the mantra: "Knowledge is power". And there is ample truth to that statement. Knowledge is better than ignorance any day. But there is much more than mere knowledge to a Christ-like spirit and a Godly life.
We will learn much in this new year. Let us pray for the humility and perspective that will allow our knowledge to be a blessing rather than a curse.