Prideful Debates Can Turn People Away From The Truth

Prideful Debates Can Turn People Away From The Truth August 23, 2019
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Knowledge is good, but knowledge without wisdom and charity easily leads us astray. We tend to take pride in it, thinking that because we have studied much, because we have learned much, that makes us great. Yet, we should realize that no amount of knowledge is exhaustive; there will always be more to know, more to understand, more to systematize and put together.

Wisdom knows that we must act with prudence, and love makes sure that prudence is properly grounded. Sadly, for many, the pursuit of knowledge turns them away from wisdom and love: they rather like to show off what they know, to get into useless debates, finding ways to humiliate others by showing others what their opponents do not know. Such braggarts use their knowledge for evil; despite the good which could and should otherwise be done as a result of gaining such knowledge, they harm everyone, including themselves. In their pride, in their self-conceit, in their imprudence, they think they know everything which needs to be known; and in their vanity, they want to show others what makes them think they have superior knowledge over everyone else. Since they think they know it all, they will be unable to listen to and learn from others: even if others are not at learned as they, others might know something which they do not, and by ignoring them, by trying to bring ridicule to them, the braggart will be the one who loses out when they dialogue with others.

It’s not the study and research, nor knowledge itself, which is the problem. It is the character of the person who possesses it. They take what is good turn it into an evil. Those who think they know it all think they should be teachers of all; if people do not immediately praise them and acknowledge them for their obviously superior knowledge, this causes resentment, leading them to seek out the faults of others, trying to elevate themselves based upon how they tear apart others. Surprisingly, this becomes a marketing ploy. It’s as if they are saying, “See, you didn’t know that, but I did. You could have learned it if you had come to me sooner. Now you can. I’m here to educate you. Just acknowledge me as your teacher and be silent.”  Even if it is not always this extreme, this is a temptation that many, if not most, of the learned face: they want to be praised for their learning. To receive such praise, they think they have to make a name for themselves by refuting someone who has already been acknowledged as learned. This was, to be sure, one of the great faults of Peter Abelard: he was brilliant, but he was a show-off; he knew much which others did not, and this is what he highlighted in his theological contests. Abelard had much which he could and did share much which was good and worthy of study, but his pride got the best of him, and his moral character led him astray (it is also why he had difficulty reforming his theology in those places which needed correction). What happened to Abelard certainly serves as an example of what James was warning about: “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness” (Jas. 3:1 RSV).[1] Abelard was harshly judged – and rightfully so, because he had been given great intellectual advantages which should have been better merged with prudence and charity.

Likewise, as St. Bede explains, those who have done considerable theological study often have problems integrating themselves with those who have not. That is, they are tempted to look down upon others, incapable of appreciating or accepting those who hold a simpler faith:

Certainly when we sense that, as we are speaking, some of the simpler brothers cannot understand the hidden mysteries of the scriptures (things we do not know from all eternity [as Jesus did] but have learned with the Lord’s help as the occasion offered), we are inclined to immediately extol ourselves, disdaining them. We boast about our erudition, as though it were unique in its magnitude, as though there were not many [others] much more learned than we are; and not wishing to be disdained by the more learned, we ourselves disdain those who are less learned than we are. Moreover, we even rejoice to laugh [at them], and we do not care to call to mind that the right entry to the kingdom is open not to those who perceive the mysteries of faith or commands of their Maker only by meditating, but it is open instead to those who carry out what they have been able to learn in their deeds. [2]

St. Bede reminds us it is not what we know, but the quality of our faith, the quality of our love, which matters. Many of the greatest saints were uneducated; they might not have been able to put to words the various theological doctrines of the church, but they knew God, they loved God, and they loved their neighbor, showing they knew and understood the Gospel better than those who dedicated themselves and their lives to theological studies. What good is such study for us if we do not live out the faith and grow in love? As St. Paul said, knowledge without love makes us nothing: “And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Cor. 13:2 RSV).

Thus, while many saints were uneducated, they possessed a greater knowledge of the truth than those who were formally educated because they knew from experience what so-called theologians studied in theory. If all we focuss upon is words, and getting the words right, we will find this will not be enough. The words are useful, but they only point out the truth which lies beyond them. It is better to know without words, to know with a knowledge beyond human concepts, than it is to know the concepts and have no sense of the meaning intended by them, as St. Maximos the Confessor indicated:

On the one hand, there is relative knowledge based only on reasoning and concepts, and lacking the actual perception of what is known through experience, and it is this knowledge that we use to order our affairs in this present life. On the other hand, there is knowledge that is true and properly so called, which is gained only by actual experience – without reasoning and concepts – and provides by grace through participation, a whole perception of the One who is known. By this latter knowledge we attain, in the future rest, the supernatural divinization that is actualized unceasingly.[3]

Those who can enter theological debates, and know the right words to use, and show off that knowledge, might appear to be learned, but what actual knowledge do they have? Do they really understand what they are saying just because they can recite words others have used? They seem to be lost in human conventions and constructs; they can show off their knowledge, deriving further ideas based upon what others have handed down to them, but they easily become confused when someone explains the same doctrinal points using different words and different theological systems. If such scholars truly understood what they studied, they would know the limitation of the words used to express that knowledge and so would not rely upon them; they would look beyond them to what the words point to and use that as a way to meet others in the path towards the truth. They will not look down upon those who are less learned, less capable of expressing the truth in scholastic conventions; rather, they would be able to talk with them, share the same faith with them, and even recognize many who are their superiors in true knowledge despite such academic ignorance.

Those who truly know the truth will be able to appreciate and acknowledge that there are many different ways in which the truth can be expressed. They will affirm it wherever it is found. Obviously, this can cause confusion for some, for those who have yet to understand this point. They might look at different texts, written by different people, using different formulations of the faith which on the surface look contradictory. When theologian is pitted against theologian, like St. Thomas Aquinas with St. Gregory Palamas, this is the reason. Their disciples often get caught in the letter of what their masters taught instead of grasping after what the letter intended to reveal. But when that meaning is truly understood, then those who see that meaning being expressed by others, even if that expression comes in a different scholastic form, it will be approved, despite all appearances which might suggest there should be some form of contention.[4]

We have been told to avoid needless controversies: “But avoid stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels over the law, for they are unprofitable and futile. As for a man who is factious, after admonishing him once or twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is perverted and sinful; he is self-condemned “(Titus: 3:9-11 RSV). This admonition needs to be constantly before those who study, especially those who study theology.  It is easy to get into useless debates, debates which end up being unprofitable for those are involved in them as well as for those who listen to them, because the transcendent truth gets lost as the people in the debates try to gain glory for themselves. This is why we should not dispute over words. “Remind them of this, and charge them before the Lord to avoid disputing about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers” (2Tim. 2:14 RSV). And so, St. John Chrysostom explained, if we are overly concerned with words and word choice, disputes easily follow:

But why does he admonish them not to strive about words? He knows that it is a dainty thing, and that the human soul is ever prone to contend and to dispute about words. To guard against this, he has not only charged them “not to strive about words,” but to render his discourse more alarming, he adds, “to the subverting of the hearers.”[5]

It is, of course, a temptation for many of us who have engaged academic theological studies; indeed, the more educated we are, the more learned within a system of theological thought, the easier it is for us argue for and get stuck with a particular theological lexicology ignoring the greater truth which lies beyond it all. Those who listen to such debates likewise can find themselves diverted from the truth because they too become focused on the words themselves, limiting the truth to what is said and expressed in the subtle application of words: to be focused on the words, and word choice, is to become trapped by human conventions; the focus should not be in the words, but what is meant by them, what is being pointed to them by those who truly know and understanding their meaning.

Thus, the key is to follow the path of love which promotes humility instead of pride; if we want the truth, we must acknowledge our learned ignorance:

So be eager to serve God in humility, and do not give yourself up madly to pride; and do not exalt yourself in vain pretense over one who, if assessed justly, shines with a greater desire of eternal life than you burn within yourself, and who for his heavenly ardor is invited to the heights of blessedness by Him Who loves all lovers of truth. [6]

Study can be good. It has its uses. But we must be careful. The more we study, the more learned we might be, but such learning does not lead to the comprehension of the truth, because the truth transcends human conventions. We must acknowledge this with humility. Instead of showing off, creating unnecessary contentions with others, we must follow the path of truth which is the path of love. Knowing a way to express the truth is not good enough. We must not trust our knowledge. Rather we must live out the faith in hope and charity. Then, when we experience what our study intends to show us; we will not need debates to further refine our discourse, nor to show off what we think we know, because we will be secure in the truth itself.


[1] Not only did many of his views receive official ecclesial rebuke and condemnation, his own livelihood, as seen in the way he seduced Heloise, led to great personal loss as well.

[2] Bede, Homilies on the Gospels. Volume I. trans. Lawrence T. Martin and David Hurst, OSB (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1991), 192.

[3] St. Maximos the Confessor, On Difficulties in Sacred Scripture: The Responses to Thalassios. Trans. Fr. Maximos Constas (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 2018), 429-30.

[4] This is how and why those who do not understand the meanings of theological dogmas can become confused when looking to the way the theological dogmas were expressed at various ecumenical councils. When Nicea said there is only one hypostasis for the Trinity, that would appear to contradict later ecumenical councils which said there were three: but when the word choice is not the point, but what was meant by the word is understood, the two ways of expressing that truth can be affirmed as proclaiming the same truth

[5] St John Chrysostom, “Homilies on Second Timothy” in NPNF1(13):493 [Homily V].

[6] St. Hildegard of Bingen, Scivas. Trans. Columba Hart and Jane Bishop (New York: Paulist Press, 1990), 219.


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