Is the spirit of the Bible anti-intellectual?
Editorial Note: This posting forms the second part of a two-part reflection. To follow the full flow of my thoughts, please read “The Serpent’s Seduction, Part 1” (posted on May 18) first.
In the ancient Mesopotamian myths the supreme gift humanity desires is the one gift denied them. It is the gift of immortality. The hero Gilgamesh discovers the plant of immortality in the depths of the sea and picks it. But he places it on the grass while he bathes in a pool. A snake slithers up and snatches it.
By contrast in the Genesis creation story (Genesis 2-3), God does not deny humans access to the tree of life. Presumably they can eat of its fruit and be constantly rejuvenated. Instead God prohibits eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Knowledge is the forbidden fruit, not immortality.
Faced with this oddity, we are left to wonder: What is so dangerous about knowledge?
In my last posting, I suggest that when Adam and Eve grasp at this fruit, they are seeking to gain omniscience. Once they know everything, they can be truly independent. They will be masters of their own lives. God will be pushed to the fringes of life. He becomes a needless hypothesis.
This, I think, carries us to the heart of the author’s concern. The grasping for omniscience is a delusional act. Human beings are not gods. Instead the grasping for omniscience severs their relationship of trust in God. It cuts the spiritual artery of life.
Are faith and knowledge in eternal conflict?
This raises another question. Does the author then see a fundamental conflict between faith and knowledge? Is his attitude deeply anti-intellectual? In fact, is the spirit of the Bible itself anti-intellectual?
Some Christians today certainly hold this position. They worry that too much intellectual study will undermine a person’s faith. Instead “give me that old-time religion” simple and emotional as it is, even if it is an ignorant faith.
Many non-believers assume the same. I find it a common prejudice among scientists. Religion and science are inherently incompatible, they contend. Many Christians also seem to confirm that prejudice. In field after field, they set themselves in opposition to the scientific consensus.
But that is not a fair reading of the Bible. The Biblical writers place great value in knowledge, especially knowledge that advances human well-being (wisdom). There are many places where the Biblical authors praise wisdom. The opening chapters of the Book of Proverbs are one classic exposition. There not only are humans exhorted to pursue wisdom, but wisdom is praised as God’s partner in the creation and ordering of the world (see Proverbs 8). One can hardly exalt knowledge and wisdom to a higher status.
There is one striking feature, however, of how the Bible, especially the Book of Proverbs, understands its lauded pursuit of knowledge. That pursuit begins—and must begin–with a foundational reverence for God as God. This is stated explicitly in the opening verses of Proverbs.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge;
fools despise wisdom and knowledge. (Proverbs 1:7)
Psalm 111 repeats this conviction:
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;
all those who practice it have a good understanding. (Psalm 111:10)
The Biblical writers do not use the word fear to stand for terror in the presence of God. Rather it stands for a basic reverence for God. That reverence is grounded in trust, trust in the power and the goodness of God.
The pursuit of knowledge is not dangerous as long as it is united with a basic reverence for and trust in God. When Adam and Eve grab the forbidden fruit, they seek knowledge at the expense of that relationship to their Maker.
The contrast between the Greek and Hebrew attitudes towards knowledge
The Garden of Eden story highlights, I believe, a fundamental contrast between ancient Greek and ancient Hebrew attitudes towards life. If I understand the Greek philosophical tradition correctly, the fundamental assumption of that tradition is that the source of humanity’s many frustrations and problems is ignorance. Therefore our salvation is closely tied to the pursuit of the truth. Knowledge will save.
In his dialogues around Athens, Socrates, for example, seems to assume that if human beings can come to know the truth, they will do the truth. I have never been quite sure why. Maybe it’s because once we recognize the truth, it will be so attractive that we will want instinctively to live by it. We will not be able not to want to live by it. Truth attracts us by its beauty. So as knowledge advances and ignorance recedes, life will become better for everyone.
The Biblical authors operate on a different assumption. Ignorance is not the fundamental source of humanity’s problems. Humanity’s distorted will is. Humanity has sought to live in independence from its Maker. Therefore mankind’s salvation is closely tied to repentance, understood as a total reorientation to life. In repentance we return to a foundational trusting in God.
Until that happens, the pursuit of knowledge will always be an ambivalent affair. We have seen how science, for example, has done great good in advancing the welfare of human beings, especially in the field of medicine. But scientific knowledge has also given us the ability to annihilate life and civilization on this planet.
The question is: How will humans use the knowledge that science and other intellectual endeavors have given us? That involves choices made by the human will. And knowledge does not infallibly govern the human will. Attitudes, emotions, and desires play an important role as well. In fact, in my opinion, the more decisive role.
When Adam and Eve grasped at the forbidden fruit, they introduced a fatal separation between the head and the heart. Instead of working in harmony, reason and human desires work at cross purposes a lot of the time. We see this separation continued in the tension between science and religion in our own day. This is what makes the Genesis myth so insightful for understanding the human dilemma.