Loving to Know

In a recent public lecture, NT Wright canvassed a wide terrain with clarity and grace and humor, all to zero in on the epistemology of love. It’s a good piece, which you can access at the link below, but I swiped a few memorable paragraphs.


NT Wright:

In part this was, as I said, a reaction to a church that had become dogmatic and out of touch. But the Epicurean revival of the Enlightenment was, more importantly, in the service of political agendas. It produced, of course, the French Revolution; but, more insidiously perhaps, by kicking God upstairs and insisting that the downstairs world of ‘facts’ could get on by itself, it paved the way for massive exploitation both of natural resources and of the conquered lands and peoples of the European empires. The split between science and religion is one aspect of a larger split between God and the world, affecting equally the question of faith and public life. We can’t understand the roots of the science/religion split unless we map it on to the much larger split and take into account the other areas where the same problem has taken hold, particularly in the political sphere. That is why the same rhetoric that Richard Dawkins uses about science and faith is found in those who are desperate to keep the church out of public life. And the language of this movement has been, again and again, about modes of knowing: the science studied, and the technology developed, were about ‘objective’ knowledge, whereas the world of faith and religion was seen as quintessentially ‘subjective’ (‘true for you but not for me’, and so on). And since the western world had all these ‘facts’, including of course better weapons of war, it made sense to create new facts on the ground that would serve the interests of that same western world. And my case to you tonight is that this objective/subjective split must be, and can be, transcended when we realise that the highest form of knowledge is love….

And the whole point of the Enlightenment was that history reached its climax and turning-point in – the Enlightenment itself. There cannot be two decisive moments. What we today perceive as the science/religion split, or the faith-and-public-life split, is the long outworking of the Enlightenment’s self-serving and elitist claim that world history had turned its decisive corner, that humankind had come of age, when Europe and America suddenly opened their eyes. Subsequent history shows what this has meant: wonderful advances in medicine, technology, and travel; terrible disasters in warfare, genocide, and new forms of slavery. I do not want to be operated on by a pre-modern dentist (or a postmodern one, for that matter); but I do not trust world leaders who have swallowed the enlightenment’s agendas wholesale, as most of them have. …

The other myth which has haunted our culture, and still reappears in movies, is Frankenstein. Once you cut science loose from its earlier context within faith and culture it can and will produce rampaging monsters. If ever there was a story for the twentieth century, there it is; and our question, a question even more urgent for western governments than that of Brexit or the refugee crisis, is: how to stop our home-made monsters pulling down the house on top of us. Once again there’s more that could be said about that, but let me just comment that if I were devising an education programme for teenagers, trying to get them to think into our current global dilemmas, I would love to show them Faust and Frankenstein in the movies and get them to discuss not only the Holocaust but 9/11, nuclear weapons, multinational tax arrangements and so on with those myths in their minds. And then, with all those questions and resources still resonating, I would have them read the stories which have a radically different twist: Joseph in Egypt; Daniel in Babylon; and on to plays like Measure for Measure, poems like Eliot’s The Waste Land, or indeed Coleridge’s The Ancient Mariner; always circling back, with all aesthetic antennae fully operative, to the book of Revelation and ultimately to the gospels themselves. (We have allowed the Bible to be locked into a sanitized space called ‘religious studies’; that is a classic post-Enlightenment way of making sure they can’t come out and challenge the received folly.) There is a different story. We do not have to stay trapped in the Faust and Frankenstein myths. Once we realise how deeply we have sunk into the split-level universe, so that our current surface noise about science and religion is seen to be part of a much larger problem, we might be able to see ways in which the next generation may find its way into a wiser, more complete way of being human….

And now the question of knowledge finally comes into focus. The secular revolution has separated out knowledge into objective and subjective. The scientist, in this paradigm, has ‘objective’ knowledge, tested in laboratories, universally true. The artist, the poet, the theologian, has ‘subjective’ knowledge – dreams, fantasies, unprovable ideas – which are to be set aside when we (metaphorically and literally) get ‘down to business’. You can see this in education: when the school budget is stretched, the head teacher is tempted to cut down on music, drama, art and so on. They are ‘the pretty bit around the edge’, a luxury we may not be able to afford. That is dangerous nonsense. Look at the Venezuelan Children’s Orchestra. Look what happens when they take drama into prisons. Look at the way J. K. Rowling has taught a generation to read, to imagine, to dream. If you want true knowledge you have to love. And to learn about true love you have to hear, to smell, to imagine the story of the crucified Nazarene….

The point about love, at this level, is that it transcends the object/subject distinction. Of course it does: when I truly love, whether the object of my love is a planet or a person, a symphony or a sunset, I am celebrating the otherness of the beloved, wanting the beloved to be what it really is, greater than my imagining or perception, stranger, more mysterious. Love celebrates that mystery: in that sense, it is truly ‘objective’; but it is also of course delightedly ‘subjective’. Without the subjective pole, it becomes mere cool appraisal or ‘tolerance’. Without the objective pole, the celebration of the other as other, it is simply lust, cutting the beloved down to the size of my desires and projects, whether it be sexual lust exploiting another human being or industrial lust exploiting raw materials for profit despite the consequences. A colleague of mine put his finger on the first of these, speaking of ‘the decline of sex’, and explaining, ‘We all know how to do it but we’ve all forgotten why.’ That is exactly the same as the second, the Frankensteinian scientism of our day: we can do it, so why not and who’s to stop us? And this is where Jonathan Sacks’s aphorism comes in again: science takes things apart to see how they work; religion puts things together to see what they mean. And sometimes the meaning tells you to stop pulling them apart. It’s a crisis of meaning that we face in our day, and a crisis of knowledge that brings that into focus; and the answer to the false antithesis of objective and subjective, which has been throttling our culture for too long, is a full-on reawakening of an epistemology of love. We have had enough of the Faustian pact in which we merely ‘tolerate’ one another; ‘toleration’ is an Enlightenment parody of love. It is time for the dangerous gospel notion of love to make a comeback in our culture….

Historians have focused on the so-called ‘axial age’ of the last centuries BC, but the truly remarkable story is not about the pre-Christian transformation of ideas but the Christian-initiated transformation of society in the first centuries AD. Against much misinformation, we must tell and teach that story as if our lives depend upon it, because actually they do. It is not simply a knowledge-story, a history-of-ideas project. It is a love-story, the story of ordinary, often frightened, but faithful men and women who went out to bring healing, education, freedom and hope to a world where such things had before only been available to a tiny minority, and who did so because they were following Jesus. And in that love-story new knowledge emerged, not simply because of the great thinkers, though they matter as well, but because the followers of Jesus were opening up new ways to be human, were loving in order to know and then finding that deeper knowledge led to deeper love.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.