The Proper End of Knowledge


The Proper End of Knowledge

The as-always perceptive and incisive John da Fiesole (direct link not working, scroll down and look for "Entr'acte") is studying and asking questions about "necessary universalism." More interesting than the particular question is some of the issues raised when the method of study is questioned.

I wanted to address some of these issues at greater length than a comment box permits, so I drew out a comment on which I will digress for a bit.

And why was Scripture given to us, if not for us to engage in "the monumental task of completely exploring scripture for the truth"? What, the truth in this matter of universal salvation? Yes -- albeit not directly -- since this matter is intimately bound up in the questions of Who God is and who we are, the answers to which are the purpose of Revelation.

This is a most excellent question and seems to point to a key difference in the charism of the Carmelite and Dominican Orders, or perhaps to key personality differences in an approach to God. My answer to the question of "why was Scripture give to us, if not for us to engage in 'the monumental task of completely exploring scripture for the truth'?" is very simple. It was given to us to teach us to love. For many long ages a great majority of people could not read the Scriptures. What they knew of them came in the Liturgy of the Word and perhaps at various Catecheses; however, they did not sit and study scripture to discern great truths. They listened to scripture as a lover listens to a letter from the beloved. Incarnate Love came, not to lead us into the paths of speculation and theory, but to teach us to love. Anything that does not lead directly or indirectly to this goal is a waste of our energy and resources, and very possible quite dangerous. Thomas a Kempis points out several times the dangers of seeking to know for the purposes of knowing.

So my answer is that we were given Scripture so that we would know God, not know about Him, nor know about various doctrines and dogmas related to Him, but so that we would know Him as Father and as Lover of humankind. That said, pursuit of the highest truth in doctrine and dogma is one of the paths whereby we come to know and understand Him. However, it is not the only path, nor is it necessarily the highest road. It fell to Bernadette, a unlettered, nearly ignorant French peasant girl to confirm the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, but this did not come from tremendous study and insight, but through obedience and love. St. Thomas Aquinas wrested great truths from the storehouse of divine Scripture, but in the end, he recognized that his efforts were as nothing. (Obviously they are not, but they are to one who is rapt in the motion of Divine Love.)

The key word, as you suggest, is "beginning." The process of understanding is unending, at least in this life (and possibly in the life to come); there is a rhythm to it, as our temporal intellects look first there, then there, then back here, all the time (ideally) growing in the wisdom and knowledge of the Holy Spirit.

"The process of understanding is unending,"--good so far as it goes. But understanding is not the highest goal--love is. Perhaps understanding leads to love--but again there are other routes. As St. John of the Cross points out--"To understand everything, desire to understand nothing." The via negativa the provides a poignant counterthrust to our attempts to grapple with God intellectually. We must grapple with God at the level of the heart, and for many that intellectual grappling is a fortification that keeps God away from the territory He must claim if we are to be transformed.

It is these gifts of the Holy Spirit, and the personal encounter with the Word of God that is possible when we read (or pray) Scripture, that puts a limit on your point that "no matter what you arrive at by reason, reason can readily contradict." I'm not particularly interested in arriving anywhere just by reason, but by reason enlightened by the Holy Spirit. Yes, even such reasoning can be readily contradicted by human reasoning -- and it's not always easy to tell which is which -- but that's no reason to give up on it.

These are indeed great gifts of the Holy Spirit. But I go back to La Madre and say with her--we are not called to know much but to love much. And I find it ironic that I can write those words. A few years ago I was at a meeting of the formation directors of the local Carmelite chapters and I was provoked to something akin to wrath by someone else saying almost precisely the same thing to me. I was incensed at the perceived "anti-intellectualism" that was rearing its ugly head. So perhaps my presence in the order is gradually reforming my heart to realize that it isn't anti-intellectualism, but a very careful placement of the intellect as a support function, not as the primary function in our approach to God. Will is first, and love is an act of will and more. Love may be fed by knowledge and wisdom, but we look to Solomon's case and we see that it may also be destroyed by much knowledge and wisdom. Knowledge and wisdom tend to puff us up with pride. The Figure hung upon the crucifix, arms wide open, beckoning and summoning, call us to the true Wisdom which is love of the Lord.

We could say it was providential that some things were not revealed to St. Thomas until after he had written so many of his strawlike words.

I must quickly retreat and apologize if I have given the impression that I have anything other than respect (with a good deal of puzzlement) for the words of St. Thomas Aquinas. I do not consider his words straw--it was his own statement. And I am beginning to form a picture of what he meant by it. Obviously, that picture will become a good deal clearer when I stand face-to-face with God; however, my use of his words should not be taken to mean that I consider his work futile or useless. Obviously, it could not have been because it led him to such tremendous love of God. However, that same path could just as easily lead one to the perdition of self and self-importance.

My conclusion--searching the Scriptures for doctrines, ideas, notions, and proofs can be a wonderful way to come to know God more intimately and more completely. Surely many have followed this path to divine union. On the other hand, it can be a superb path to tangling merely with the self and protecting one's intimate being from true connection with God. Meditating on the word, listening carefully to what Jesus says to each of us today, and applying that with the appropriate corrective of Spiritual Guidance and Church teaching (the result of countless years of effort searching the scripture to the greater glory of God) is also a viable and noble path toward union--laced with its own dangers of pride, self-righteousness, superciliousness, and any number of other difficulties.

But when asked, "Why were the Scriptures given us?" my answer is now and shall continue to be--"To teach us to Love God as He loves us."

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on March 25, 2003 8:16 AM.

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