This week I’m reading an interesting book called Plauges of the Mind, by Bruce Thornton. In this book, Thornton seeks to expose common intellectual fallacies that are enormously influential in modern culture. One such myth is, in his term, the myth that knowledge is virtue. He summarizes the myth, saying, “We think every problem in our society can be solved if only an effective regime of knowledge can be devised and communicated to people, particularly impressionable children.”
The myth has its origins, according to Thornton, in Socrates, and can be traced throughout intellectual history. It really flourished, however, in the so-called “Enlightenment” of the 18th century, when human reason was virtually deified and visions of perfecting humanity through reason abounded. The key to forward progress, to alleviating all that ails the world and the human condition, then, is to be found in education. More and better education.
The debates over sex and AIDS education illustrate this trend. Problems with rampant teen sexuality, pregnancy, STDs, and whatnot are best cured through a thorough revision of curriculum, one that starts early. Problems with drug abuse are best solved through educational programs that detail the negative effects of drugs. I could go on, but you get the point. And there is no room in such programs for moral instruction or reference to Natural Law. Unfettered human reason, taught properly, will always choose what is best. Thornton sums up the position thus: “We will be good if we rationally know the good… the corruption and debasement of our society are not the expression of the fundamental mystery of good and evil in the human heart, but rather are merely the consequences of ignorance, problems for technicians to solve with the appropriate knowledge and technology.” (Note the automatic appeal to authority of anything called a “study.”)
And we in the Church are not immune to this myth! We are often guilty of declaring that the key to spiritual transformation and godly living is to be found in gaining more knowledge, more information. We often think that we will grow spiritually, grow in our relationship with Christ, necessarily by reading more, taking a class, hammering out our doctrine with a fine-toothed comb. We may not say it quite so overtly, but that idea is often present. Obviously knowledge is important and we should strive to know the Scriptures! But listen when Peter urges his readers to “grow in grace and knowledge” (emphasis mine). Knowledge, when not coupled with grace, is not a panacea to all that ails us. Indeed it can be destructive.
So is knowledge virtue? Not necessarily. It surely can be an aid to virtue, but we must be wary of relying on knowledge (information) alone for growth in Christ-likeness.