October 18, 2006

Pointless Knowledge

           “I have pursued, alas, philosophy,
            Jurisprudence, and medicine,
            And, help me God, theology,
            With fervent zeal through thick and thin.
            And here, poor fool, I stand once more,
            No wiser than I was before.”
2006 1530 page17 capunny, these words about how all this study had left Goethe’s Dr. Faustus with a sense of emptiness, of ignorance. Even theology didn’t do it for him (which isn’t surprising: biblical scholarship, as commonly practiced, reveals a lot about us but nothing about God). Goethe’s words remind me of Paul’s, regarding those who were “ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 3:7, KJV). Our laptops can hold more facts than whole libraries once did; and WiFi can pulse behind every air molecule in our house—and yet we still lack knowledge. Kind of ironic, isn’t it, such ignorance in the age of information?
Historian Michel Foucault presented a spin on what is, perhaps, the difference between true knowledge and facts. In his book The Hermeneutics of the Subject, based on a series of lectures he gave in the early 1980s at the College of France, Foucault explored, from historical perspective, the relationship between the knower and the things known. How did one impact the other; or, more precisely, how did knowledge change the knower? According to Foucault, in the past, truth was viewed as knowledge that changed the one who learned it, a concept that’s been lost today.
2006 1530 page17“I think,” he wrote, “the modern age of the history of truth begins when knowledge itself and knowledge alone gives access to the truth. That is to say, it is when the philosopher (or the scientist, or simply someone who seeks truth) can recognize the truth and have access to it in himself and solely through his activity of knowing, without anything else being demanded of him, and without him having to change or alter his being as subject.”
It’s a fascinating idea, the distinction between knowledge simply as a mental assent of facts and figures (“pointless knowledge” Foucault terms it), as opposed to knowledge that changes or demands a change in the one knowing it. If the former isn’t a biblical conception of truth, what is? “And ye shall know the truth,” said Jesus, “and the truth shall”—what?—“make you free” (John 8:32). The truth changes us; it has to, or it’s not really truth. It might be correct facts, correct theology, and doctrine even, but it’s not truth.
What a challenge to all Adventists, at any level, anywhere. It’s one thing to spit out facts, even with great eloquence and depth, or to disseminate knowledge, but what does that knowledge do, or what could it do, to the knower? How much of our education is designed, specifically, to change those taught, to develop their characters, to make them more into the image of their Maker?
Sure, some forms of knowledge are better suited to that goal than others (after all, how many lives are changed by learning quadratic equations, or about the court life of Louis XIV at Versailles?). But shouldn’t the whole package be geared in the direction that Foucault talked about, that of changing the student? What’s the purpose of Adventist education if not that? If, in the long run, we’re not preparing our kids for eternity, why bother with Adventist education at all? Secular schools can fill minds with facts just as well as we can—maybe, in some cases, better. The final fires at the end of time will, I’m afraid, consume hordes of educated folk who knew plenty of facts, even about theology.
There’s a great irony in that, of all people, Michel Foucault was the one who first introduced me to this idea of true knowledge changing the knower. Both a heavy drug user and a homosexual, Foucault died of AIDS in 1984, a disease he most likely contracted in the notorious gay bathhouses of San Francisco.
Which makes the point even more poignantly: if the truth doesn’t change us and how we behave, and do so for the better—then no matter how correct the facts, it’s not truth, at least not the truth that, as Jesus said, would set us free.
Clifford Goldstein is editor of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide.