Knowing why we want knowledge

I have met with lots of people who have a deep need for you to know they are right. There is, of course, nothing wrong with being right. Being right is obviously a good thing. It is right, after all. Nor is there anything wrong with gently correcting people who are wrong. That is a loving thing to do. Equally, there is nothing wrong – of itself – disagreeing with somebody if we happen not to agree. There’s no point being dishonest. But there is something wrong with needing people to know we are right.

You see, you might be right. But if your being right doesn’t really do anything for the other persons to whom you are showing your rightness, why are you making it known to them? The only reason is to let them know you are right and, by virtue of your rightness, their wrongness. Some might be keen to let the other people feel small that they are definitely feeble-minded wrong-thinkers, but often I don’t think it is quite that unpleasant. More a case of wanting others to know we are right and, much like David Brent, assume when our interlocutors recognise our astounding rightness they will quiver in awe and go away thinking, ‘oh yeah, yeah, you are the best.’

Now there is nothing especially clever or interesting about that insight. Lots of people are like this and most people see it. What we perhaps don’t see is how we are partially responsible for it. By ‘we’, I don’t necessarily mean the specific people being told they’re wrong and probably stupid. I mean all of us vis- à-vis culture (I can’t get away from the Brentisms now!)

I mean, I like a good discussion/debate/argument as much as the next person. I know some people find them tiresome (and that’s OK, I get it), but for me they are a genuine part of a learning process. It is the way to test ideas and make sure I am holding to the best ones so far as I can tell. I like people throwing curve balls I’ve not thought about because they are precisely the things we do need to think about, not all the arguments that we’ve heard repeated ad nauseam that we are well acquainted with and know precisely how we answer them. So, I want to be clear, I am not getting at that sort of thing at all. Debates and discussions are fine with me and a culture of healthy, open and robust discussion is all to the good as far as I’m concerned.

But there are times when there is no discussion. People are either hammering a point with no regard for the other person at all or they have raised a topic – over which they then whip themselves into a lather – and are more interested in having a monologue about the thing they have raised. I am not talking about discussion, debate or argument with genuine back and forth, but people who just want you to know they are right. It may be in an argument where they give no room for any push back or it may be in the more subtle interjection of things, frequently, to let you know that they have thought about whatever it is (with an undertone that you probably haven’t gotten to grips with it like they have done).

But I think a lot of these people are made by the culture that we set. I have mentioned before how most young men are looking for respect and will acclimatise to a given culture in order to get it. I have highlighted this before in relation to ‘young fogey’ syndrome in the church. But, let’s be honest, the desire for respect is not limited to young men. Most of us want to be respected and, by and large, we are conditioned to seek it in particular ways based on the culture that is most dominant around us.

In reformed circles, notwithstanding the cultural stuff to do with tones of voice and clothing that we all recognise, there is also a tendency to elevate knowledge to a level that it probably doesn’t deserve. Again, don’t get me wrong, knowledge is important. But I think we can very quickly give knowledge a high level of importance whilst overlooking weightier matters of personal holiness. Let’s be honest, we don’t need PhDs to love Jesus, grow in holiness and serve him faithfully. But we so often favour those with deep knowledge of the scriptures and of Christian stuff in general (which is all good) whilst overlooking more pertinent matters of the heart. Often in reformed circles, knowledge is godliness. That, in my opinion, is a big mistake.

But, if we have a culture that says knowledge is godliness and heart issues are relegated, we can’t be that surprised when those who are seeking to be respected acclimatise to the culture that we set for them. And if knowledge is primary, how else are they to gain respect unless they let you know that they know stuff? And if heart issues are secondary, it won’t really matter all that much that they come across as total jerks in the process because nobody is overly bothered about those things. If the rightness is what matters, and the showing their knowing is all important, we can expect an awful lot of people to be seeking whatever opportunities they can to show you that they know stuff.

How does that work its way out in practice? One way this can happen is in the surreptitious sermonette. Maybe you have asked them to lead a service and rather than simply holding things together and preparing us for what will come later, it is deemed an opportunity to show that they know stuff so that they will gain your respect. Maybe it will be in their prayers. Simplicity and brevity are replaced with demi-sermons extolling their knowledge. Maybe it is in general conversations where people have to relay their knowledge about things all the time.

But it can also work its way out in the way issues are brought up. Random thoughts on things can be introduced as a vehicle for showing what they know. Often, it is some criticism of some broader thing. The unspoken overtone is that I have thought about this thing and I am now going to shoot it down in flames so that you may all be aware of how credibly I have thought about it i.e. I have knowledge and here it is. But this is just another symptom of the cultural affirmation of knowledge uber alles.

Knowledge without any culture of reflection upon one’s own heart, and why you want that knowledge at all, is a highly dangerous thing. But it is, unfortunately, the culture many of us have created. Some of us are further along the spectrum than others. Again, of course, knowledge is important. To know Christ, we have to know about him. And to know him, we have to know the scriptures that speak about him. But if our real goal is respect, and that knowledge is means of gaining it, all the knowledge in the world will not take us any closer to Christ and may even – ironically – be the thing that keeps us out of kingdom when we are stood before the Lord on the final day. We might protest that we knew all this great stuff about God and the Bible, but we will have had our reward: showing others we were right.

As much as I am sure you are thinking of all the people to whom this probably applies, I have lived in this culture and I recognise this terrible tendency in myself. I cringe at some of the things I have said because I wanted people to know that I knew and had thought about it. I will no doubt cringe at other things in time that I will say because, though I live less in that culture these days, I still want people to think that I know. And even if knowing isn’t what gets me there, I – as much as anyone else – still want to be respected on some level. Everyone wants to be treated with respect and it is an alluring prospect to try and get it when we don’t have it or seek more of it when we have any at all.

As much as I think a culture of knowledge can be a good thing, it is never good divorced from a reflective culture of personal holiness. When I talk about personal holiness, I don’t mean external cultural things like whether we go to the cinema/pub/theatre or not, I mean real questions of holiness about your heart motives. Are we chasing after respect rather than contenting ourselves with Jesus? Are we pursuing what is ungodly to fulfil some longing that we don’t believe Christ can satisfy? Why did we choose to do A rather than B? These (and lots of others) are the only questions that will keep a godly desire for greater knowledge in check. By all means lets know more of Christ, let’s just be sure we know ourselves well enough to ask honestly whether that is where our real interest lies.