A little knowledge is a dangerous thing

We don’t consider knowledge that comes through reasoning and syllogisms to be true knowledge. True knowledge is that which is witnessed in the lives of saints, it is not only true, but certain and also immutable. In that every word is set against another word. Who wrestles against a life? Indeed, we think that one cannot even know oneself through divisive, syllogistic and analytical methods if one does not first make the nous simple and humble (literally “free of guile” and “free of arrogance”   through painstaking repentance and intense ascesis. Whoever does not fashion his nous in this way, he will never even recognize his own poverty of knowledge something which is a beneficial start to knowing oneself.”   St. Gregory Palamas

So often on the Internet, on Facebook, and Twitter, we see “theological spats” people arguing for their “rightness”, their “correctness”. One Christian puts the other Christian down to win an argument or to make their point. Often, this is done with out regard for the other person’s feelings or with any charity at all. We say things on the internet that we would not dare say in person, and definitely not in public.  On Twitter, in particular, we see a forum where immature young men,  in particular, sometimes barely teenagers, feel that this is a free forum to make rude and abusive comments to women, who disagree with them, or whose arguments are too nuanced or intricate for them to understand. But is it just a teenage boy thing? I mean we might not be crude, but one only has to scroll down the pages of Facebook groups like Ask an Orthodox Priest to see that they are ripe for trolls and the more-Orthodox-than-thou. (Although, it seems to be going through a quiet patch at the moment).
I myself, am guilty of this approach, especially in my younger days. There is something of a thrill about being right and being able to prove it, eloquently and articulately .This power of argument  boosts our fallen egos, and gives us the illusion that we are crusaders for Truth and for Christ. When in fact nothing could be farther away from it. Blessed Father Seraphim Rose was known for saying, “when you are right, you are wrong”.
There is a delight in showing off our “knowledge” and proving others wrong. But this is not knowledge according to God. How many of these armchair theologians, cyberdefenders of Orthodoxy, bandwidth zealots imagine themselves to be St. Nicholas slapping Arius,  Athanasius confounding the heretics,  St. John Chrysostom battling against the establishment, St. Cyril fighting Hypatia or St. Gregory Palamas against Barlaam the Calabrian?
How many of these internet saints live the lives of their heroes? The long hours of prayer, the deep study of Scripture, the persecution, beatings, imprisonments, exiles, the great works of charity and social justice, their humility, love of poverty – the list goes on.
St. Gregory Palamas is saying that true knowledge comes from the experience of repentance, from ascesis and carrying out God’s will. True knowledge does not come about through academic study, reading, dialogue etc. Although, I guess, these things can contribute if pursued with the right mind-set.
In this sense, true knowledge, that is, knowledge of God is an action of Divine Grace, which is given to man to help him and to reward his good intentions and efforts. It cannot be acquired without these two things, however much human knowledge one acquires relying solely on one’s own abilities.
Unless we start to live in this way we are but clanging cymbals.

We have many great examples in our Church of people who had limited secular learning in the conventional sense, but they lived lives of love and repentance, ascesis and humility; yet God bestowed on them such great learning that they conversed freely with university professors and many of them were, for all intents and purposes, were their spiritual children. Elder Paisios and St. Porphyrios of Kavsokalyvia immediately spring to mind.

Of course, we are not saying that studying our faith and the scriptures is not necessary. However, we should not be using the Bible and the Fathers to win arguments, we should be taking their words and putting them into practice in our lives. This comes, first and foremost, through participation in the life-giving mysteries of the Church.
Fr. Andrew Phillips   clearly describes a wrong-headed in shift in emphasis within the Church explaining that we have moved:

“From God to Man.
From Knowledge of the Creator to Knowledge of the Creation.

From Knowledge of God to Knowledge about God.
From Theology to Philosophy.

From Grace to Law.
From Prayer to God to Conversation with Man.

From Monasteries to Universities.
From Living Experience to Academic Scholasticism.

From Wisdom to Science.
From the Heart to the Reason.”

[The Culture of the Heart and the Culture of Reason]

However, this kind of physical knowledge can clearly be a first step as  Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos says, “When a person rises from bodily knowledge to the soul’s knowledge and from that to spiritual knowledge, then he sees God and possesses knowledge of God, which is his salvation.” It is one gained through experiencing the sacraments of the Church.

For a more academic study on the two kinds of knowledge see:

Fr. George Metallinos on Gnoselogy

Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos on Two kinds of Knowledge

Anita Strezova on Knowledge and Vision of God in Cappadocian Fathers.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s