Grace to you and peace from our loving God, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
At a conference I attended, a brief play introduced one of the themes:
Two players come on stage, a man and a woman. And the woman begins questioning the man:
"Who are you?"
He responds by giving the woman his name, "I'm John Smith."
The woman asks the question again, "Yes, but who are you?"
"I'm a journalist."
"Well, so far you've given me your name and your occupation, but I want to know who you are."
"I'm a human being who likes to be left alone."
"That's not who you are, that's what you are: Who are you?"
The vignette continues along that line until finally the young man, as exasperated as he is confused, blurts out, "I don't know who I am."
Smiling, the young woman then says to him, "Now we can begin."
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes:
Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; (or, as in another translation, "they do not yet know as they ought to know")
Paul points here to a problem that plagues anyone who begins to sense the power of learning. The pen, as we know, is mightier than the sword. (Edward Bulwer-Lytton, "Richlieu," 1839)
The love of and the exaltation of knowledge has a long history. I think of Plato, whose works I studied at some length in college. Philosophy is a lot of fun, but I'm also reminded that it isn't particularly appreciated. Witness this joke I came across this week:
Question: How do you get a philosopher off your porch? --- Answer: Pay for the pizza.
Sorry about that tangent. But hopefully it will help you hear some of this serious talk about knowledge.
In the writings of Plato, Socrates is depicted as one whose purpose is to elicit the truth. And his technique is to reduce his disciples to the point at which they had to admit their own ignorance, just as the young woman does to the man in the dramatic vignette.
Paul's line betrays a similar purpose. "Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge." That sounds to me much like something that Socrates might have said. He too acknowledged that knowledge without a purpose—without a reference to something beyond ourselves—is useless.
Here.s a quote from Plato's Republic reflects that idea:
"The idea of good is the highest knowledge, and...all other things become useful and advantageous only by their use of this. You can hardly be ignorant that of this I was about to speak, concerning which, as you have often heard me say, we know so little; and, without which, any other knowledge or possession of any kind will profit us nothing. Do you think that the possession of all other things is of any value if we do not possess the good? Or the knowledge of all other things if we have no knowledge of beauty and goodness?" (Dolphin books, pp. 196-7)
Paul's point is the same, although he emphasizes the quality of love, rather than its results—goodness and beauty. Knowledge is limited, indeed useless, without values. Perhaps even evil. "Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up."
As we know well in this college town, knowledge is a source of pride and prestige. There is a status that comes with knowledge. Cultures and standards of behavior grow where knowledge is valued highly.
Okay, here.s another related joke just to temper the seriousness of this topic. It speaks to our over-valuing of learning over common sense:
Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson go on a camping trip. Holmes wakes up and nudges his faithful friend. "Watson, look up at the sky and tell me what you see."
"I see millions and millions of stars, Holmes," replies Watson.
"And what do you deduce from that?"
Watson ponders for a minute. "Well, astronomically, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Astrologically, I observe that Saturn is in Leo. Horologically, I deduce that the time is approximately a quarter past three. Meteorologically, I suspect that we will have a beautiful day tomorrow. Theologically, I can see that God is all powerful and that we are a small and insignificant part of the universe. What does it tell you, Holmes?"
"Watson, you idiot, someone has stolen our tent!"
Knowledge puffs up (and sometimes overpowers common sense). It is love, however, that defines human beings. Knowledge is often used as a basis for making distinctions among persons. Love binds us together.
One of the most impressive—or, better, instructive—aspects of my experiences of theological education was being confronted with so many people who were learned beyond my capacities and yet who understood to the depths of their being the importance of faith—of values—of love. The people to whom Paul addressed today's letter share with all who enter into the joys of learning.the temptation to make of knowledge an idol, to see in knowledge an end to a deeper pilgrimage, to make of knowledge an end in itself.
Knowledge most certainly has its place, but its importance is too often exaggerated. Knowledge is a wonderful thing—in so many ways. But it is worthy of something less than our ultimate efforts.
Paul reminds us of its limitations. It is not the master, but the slave. Knowledge is not worthy of primary devotion. And yet, it must be sought so that it may be placed in the service of love. Then it can do great things.
The question of the young woman in the opening story should never be allowed to rest in answers like the ones the young man gave initially. Those are the answers of knowledge—knowledge of heritage, occupation, or other "data." The quest for and the responsibilities of identity extend far beyond such answers, even if we don't always realize it.
The truth is that we all hunger "to know that life makes sense." Psychiatrist and author Rollo May speaks to this need:
"It may sound surprising when I say, on the basis of my own clinical practice, as well as that of my psychological and psychiatric colleagues, that the chief problem of people is "emptiness." By that I mean not only that many people do not know what they want; they often do not have any clear idea of what they feel. When they talk about lack of autonomy, or lament their inability to make decisions—difficulties which are present in all decades—it soon becomes evident that their underlying problem is that they have no definite experience of their own desires or wants. They feel swayed this way and that, with painful feelings of powerlessness, because they feel vacuous, empty." ("Man's Search for Himself")
Do you need another joke yet? Okay. Question: Why is an elephant big, grey, and wrinkled? Answer: Because if he were small, white, and round he'd be an aspirin.
As I.ve said before, I believe absolutely that there is a God-shaped void within the heart and soul of every person (Maybe humor resides there too). It is that void which is so often covered over or ignored or denied as people attempt to answer the question, "Who am I?" It's the place where we, who recognize the void for what it is, latch onto a quest for the truth of the answer offered in the gospel. Where knowledge is tempered with love, we discover something of the heart of the good news.
The story of a boy and his kite may serve as an illustration. A boy was flying his kite so high that the clouds hid it from view. Someone asked him, "How do you know that your kite is still there?" "Because," he said, "I can still feel a tug on the string."
Who among us does not feel the tug of that place within ourselves that only God can fill?
Malcolm Muggeridge puts it well:
"I may, I suppose, regard myself as or pass for being, a relatively successful man. People occasionally stare at me in the streets—that's fame. I can fairly easily earn enough to quality for admission to the higher slopes of the Internal Revenue—that's success. Furnished with money and a little fame even the elderly, if they care to, may partake of trendy diversions—that's pleasure. it might happen once in a while that something I said or wrote was sufficiently heeded for me to persuade myself that it represented a serious impact on our time—that's fulfillment. Yet, I say to you—and I beg you to believe me—multiply these tiny triumphs by a million, add them all together, and they are nothing—less than nothing, a positive impediment—measured against one drink of that living water Christ offers to the spiritually thirsty, irrespective of who or what they are." ("Jesus Rediscovered," Doubleday, 1969)
There is an emptiness that no one but Christ can fill, and a part of our identities is incomplete without God.
Knowledge puffs up; but love builds up. Knowledge by itself results in a false sense of sufficiency; it's an ego trip. It's concerned with personal rights and privileges and insists on dominating everything and everyone. By contrast, the concern of love is for the other person, moving the focus from self to community, from idolatry to love.
Knowledge brings freedom, but love binds.
When faced with the question of who we are, we so often are given to answering with details of what it is that makes us different and unique. We focus on matters of knowledge that make us separate. But the gospel that Paul is so intent on conveying to the Corinthians and to us is that we are not separate. We are not many; we are one.
In the ultimate answer to the question: "Who are you?" the truth is that in God, we have our being. In sinning against members of our family or community, we sin against God. In lording it over others, we sin against our Lord and ourselves. Knowledge puffs up. Knowledge may destroy. But it is love that builds, as it joins us all to that deepest place of need where we become one. Amen.
May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus our Lord, unto eternal life. Amen.