Knowledge For the Strong and the Weak

Knowledge For the Strong and the Weak February 15, 2012

In 1 Cor 8, Paul give some advice to the “strong” who know something that the “weak” do not know.  He argues that even though the strong are in the right, and that what they know is fully true, they should keep such knowledge to themselves.  The reason is that, “by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died might be destroyed” (1 Cor 8:11).  Paul suggests that one’s primary duty is to good of the community as a whole, not to the truth.  It even seems that Paul is saying that the liberal, more open minded people should cede ground to the more close minded precisely because they are more capable of handling the disparity.

In this specific case, Paul is talking about the knowledge that it is acceptable to consume food sacrificed to idols.  The “strong” know that other gods don’t really exist, so there is no harm in eating meat sacrificed to those gods, either at home or on the occasion of a temple festival.  (It was hard to find meat that wasn’t sacrificed to gods in the ancient marketplace).  The “weak,” however, believed that it was a sin to do so, and might be offended, or caused to stumble in some other matter for having observed a brother or sister behaving in such a way.  Paul concedes that the position of the “strong” is the correct one, but vows to never eat meat so that he might not cause anyone to fall.  After all, he argues, Christ died for them.  Should we not also be willing to sacrifice something of ourselves for their sake?  For Paul, one is certainly justified in having knowledge, but one must behave in such a way that the knowledge does not become harmful. (I once heard a CES instructor say that he wouldn’t drink root beer publicly lest someone thing it was a caffeinated drink.)

Paul makes an interesting ethical point here, thought it is one that many modern people are unconfortable with.  We tend to think that we are bound to our conscience, and that we should not be concerned with the consequences of right actions and truthful ideas.   In its most extreme form, Nietzsche famously called Paul’s the “slave morality,” where the weak set the rules and the strong were constrained by them.  He argued that this had held civilization back, and that the strong should instead say and do what must be done.  This position is tempting because it suggests that what is right should be done even if it has negative consequences for others.  Speak truth to power, etc.

The question of the obligation to others may be raised with respect to LDS scholars or others who are “in the know” about certain aspects of LDS history or teachings.  What obligations do we have toward the sensibilities of others?  There are three things that I think we should reconsider in Paul’s framework, before accepting it fully.

First, I’d like to instead question the assumption that one can know in advance how the “weak” might react.  There is a kind of paternalism in Paul’s titles of the strong and the weak, where a kind of arrogance about one’s own knowledge and the weakness of others to handle it frames the matter.  In this theory of knowledge, some are simply not capable of understanding, so one must “protect” them from such harmful things.

Second, it is not always clear who the “weak” are.  Sometimes not saying anything is to not speak on behalf of the weak, or to the weak.  Sometimes saying something “controversial” can actually benefit one’s brothers and sisters who sit quietly waiting for someone to say something.   The desire to never challenge anything because we think that it might upset someone fails to consider how not challenging something might also upset someone, sometimes even in a much more profound way.  Silence can be more damaging that speech.

Third, it is not always clear who are the “strong.”  If there is anything that should be immediately apparent, the weak minded are the most likely to think of themselves as the strong.  In this “Mormon Moment,” seeing something idiotic in the comments section of any online article is evidence enough that some people who think they know what they are talking about have no clue.  One of the benefits of Paul’s injunction is the idea that we all ought to take a self critical look about what we think we know.  We should be wary of taking strong stances on things we know little about, and consider it an ethical duty that what we say should be said with great care.

To the extent that one accepts that there are obligations to others about how knowledge is communicated, I’d like to suggest that the question has been wrongly framed by both Paul and Nietzsche.  This is not a guarantee that what one says will never upset anyone and will always enlighten others.  Rather, it is way of thinking about the ethics of speaking and writing.  Instead of worrying about the content of knowledge as that which either threatens or liberates, we should instead by worrying about the thoughtfulness and thoroughness of our own knowledge and the manner in which that knowledge is expressed.  Our ethical duty lies in being considerate in our own arguments and considerate in how we frame them.  In this way, I think that we preserve the ethical views of both Paul and Nietzsche, an awareness of the power of knowledge and the responsibility that one has to share it, while also being self-critical in what and how one shares it.

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