One of the burning theological questions down through the ages has been, “how much does God want us to know?” In Greek mythology, for example, Prometheus was punished by Zeus for giving mankind fire, and a working knowledge of useful arts and sciences. In some legends, Prometheus was the god who formed mankind from clay, and saved a remnant of humanity from the Great Flood. For these gifts of knowledge, Prometheus was bound to a mountain peak in the Caucasus.
And then there is Eve, who was tempted by the snake with the promise of knowing. “You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:4-5) For the transgression of desiring power so much they would forsake God’s truth for Satan’s lie, Adam and Eve were driven from the garden.
Their fault, and ours, has been labeled “original sin.” We share it with the first parents because we are born with a God-given desire to be like God, coupled with an innate willfulness to do it our way. We have the free will to self-destruct, and an ear for Satan’s whisperings that power comes from knowing.
Cults professing secret knowledge have thrived throughout the centuries. The ritual details of Eleusinian and Dionysian cults of ancient Greece remain secret to this day. Within a century of Jesus’ death, Gnostic sects claimed Jesus taught secret, deeper truths — but only to select disciples. Gnostic notions also included claims that Jesus didn’t die on the cross. What came to be regarded as orthodox Christian belief was thrashed out over centuries of scholarly and political debate among early church fathers, where ideas such as reincarnation were shelved, and their proponents (such as the brilliant thinker Origen) were pushed aside. What divided truth from heresy was often decided on theological rationalizations formed from the urgings of faith.
In the seventh century, Mohammad claimed that knowledge in the Bible had been passed down in error, and that God had chosen to give him the correct information — which evolved into the Quran. By the Middle Ages, European universities were being established, mystical Judaism had its Kabala, and discussions about theology were becoming more accessible. Still, peasant Christians were given little access to the scriptures (though Bible stories were caricatured in stained glass portrayals and limited lectionary readings at Mass). The Catholic Church considered the Bible too much knowledge for the common people to understand, and it wasn’t until reformers such as William Tyndale, John Huss, and Martin Luther — coupled with the invention of the printing press — that the Bible began its climb toward being the world’s most published book.
Of course, the Bible in more hands provoked further arguments about what God wants us to know — even to the sacraments. Baptism — are a few drops of water enough, or do we need total immersion? Communion — is it a remembrance of the Last Supper, or the actual transformation of bread and wine into body and blood? And what is the meaning of Trinity? Christian denominations have divided and subdivided over debates such as these, with each church claiming more knowledge than the others.
And the God-envy that dwelled in Eve’s heart lives with us still. Many groups marketing secret or higher knowledge try to convince us that they alone have the real answers, and extra-biblical materials abound. Scientologists charge you a fortune to help you go “clear,” while Mormons teach the “higher knowledge” that male members will get their own planet — and many wives to do the work — when they die. Groups such as the Masons, Rosicrucians and countless others claim inside knowledge from such sources as angels, Atlantis, ancient Egypt, the Akashic Record, spirit guides, aliens, Catholic saints, messages encoded in the Bible text, Mayan prophesy and so forth. Our tendency, when confronted by such claims, is to mock their sources while clinging to our own. Still, the allure of higher knowledge, the desire to be on the inside track, lives on in our common nature.
There is, of course, a distinct difference between wisdom and knowledge. Satan plays havoc with our morality by giving us — as did Prometheus — knowledge without wisdom. Thus, we have added such knowledge as nuclear weaponry, genetically altered foods, engineered diseases and the pollution of unbridled energy production to humanity’s ever-growing list of self-inflicted moral wounds.
In earlier times, wisdom dictated that we simply embrace Jesus’ two great commandments: to love God and love one another. And truly, everything else is dross compared to that. But today there is more reason than ever to be “wise as snakes, as well as gentle as doves.” (Matthew 10:16)
In characterizing the end times, the prophet Daniel described our day: “Many will go to and fro, and knowledge will be increased.” (Daniel 12:4). When Jesus’ disciples asked him about the end times, he advised them to look at the works of the fig tree (Israel) and all the trees (the other nations) to detect the season of the end (Luke 21:29). Finally, Revelation describes the end times in terms paralleled by today’s environmental destruction — much of which has been caused by technology run amok: dying forests, dying oceans, extinctions, wars, disease and famine on a scale never seen before. Almost all of this collective suicide has been the result of knowledge untempered by wisdom.
As science flirts with its Frankenstein future, fragmented religion must muster a collective “no” to the worst aspects of destructive technology. What’s left of our Eden depends on it — and failing that, the salvation of our souls.
Lee Witting is pastor of the Union Street Brick Church in Bangor. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Voices is a weekly commentary by Maine people who explore issues affecting spirituality and religious life.