What you know doesn’t matter!

My opening reflection/homily for the new academic year at The Presbyterian College.

________________________

Let me begin today with what might seem a provocative statement. Let me begin by saying this:

What you know, doesn’t matter.

If this isn’t a provocative statement, it’s at least an unusual thing to say – particularly given where we find ourselves in this moment. Here we are in a theological college, on the edge of major Canadian university. Here you are, either beginning a new academic program or continuing for another year in an academic program. Over the coming months, much of your energy is going to be put into acquiring knowledge. And your knowledge is going to be tested. The entire premise of this enterprise called theological education is that knowledge matters. But this morning I still want to say this unusual and perhaps provocative thing.

What you know, doesn’t matter.

Now this statement might be somewhat palatable if I’m only referring to certain kinds of knowledge – if it’s only certain kinds of knowledge that don’t matter. For example, knowledge just for sake of knowledge, or information without wisdom, or knowledge that isn’t integrated into life.

Certainly, that kind of knowledge is the worst kind – we aren’t here on University Street to learn facts for the sake of facts. We aren’t here in seminary learning historical dates for the sake of knowing dates. We aren’t here to learn trinitarian theology just for the sake of trinitarian theology. That kind of knowledge doesn’t matter to life and faith.

But when I say “what you know doesn’t matter” I’m not just setting myself in opposition to abstract knowledge – I’m not just opposing knowledge for the sake of knowledge, or facts for the sake of facts. No, even in relation to knowledge that is integrated with life and wisdom, I want to say:

What you know, doesn’t matter.

We can get closer to the point I really want to make if we think about those in our families or community who have a very limited capacity for “knowledge” as we generally think of it. This could be an elderly person suffering from advanced dementia, or a person with some other profound intellectual disability. Those with advanced dementia or who live with a profound intellectual disability may have little or no capacity for rational reflection – little or no capacity for following logical processes of deduction – no interest in or capacity for integrating knowledge with life.

However, whatever the particular form a significant intellectual disability might take, we rightly want to ask: Is a young woman with a profound intellectual disability incapable of trust or gentleness? Incapable of receiving love? Giving love? Is an elderly man with advanced dementia less of a person because he can’t remember his birth date, or his children’s faces, or what his baptism means? Because he can’t name the books of the bible or trace the history of Jesus?

Historically, so many definitions of the human, and understandings of the imago dei, have focused precisely on the capacity for rational reflection. On this point, of course, Aristotle has a lot to answer for – insisting as he did that the human function – the key to human identity – is found in rational activity. And of course so many Christian theologians and writers have followed this same path, insisting that a fulfilled human life requires the careful exercise of reason. In this tradition it is knowing well, it is knowledge, and especially knowledge of God, perhaps, that makes you human.

Well let me insist again today, like a broken record.

What you know, doesn’t matter.

Well then what does matter? What is important to our identity? What does matter for the identity and being of the human? What does matter to who you are at the beginning of another academic year?

Let me give direction to our thoughts by turning our attention to Psalm 139. We can receive this Psalm today as a reminder that what matters, fundamentally, is not what you know – but that you are known.

What you know doesn’t matter.

What matters is that you are known.

This is a profoundly important reminder for us simply in terms of who we are, in Christ, but also in terms of who we are at the beginning of another academic year.

Psalm 139 includes a litany of the knowledge of God. It is a litany that declares God’s loving knowledge of his people. We could paraphrase the Psalm with the following declarations that we say to God:

You know me.

You know where I am.

You know what I’m thinking.

You know what I’m thinking before I think it.

You know what I’ll say before I say it.

You are everywhere I am.

You are all around me.

Wherever I go, you are there alongside me.

If I go beyond the edge of the map, where there be dragons, you are with me.

In the darkness, where I see nothing, you see me; you know me.

In the broad light of day, where identity is faded out by the brightness, you know me.

Before I was, you knew me.

In everything you know me.

Even if I don’t know myself, you know me, O God.

A litany of the knowledge of God – God’s knowledge of the Psalmist – God’s knowledge of you – God’s knowledge of me.  It is a comprehensive knowledge – God knows us beyond what we know of ourselves. God’s knowledge of us makes us who we are. God’s knowledge of us gives us being.

There is something about our cultural context, I think, that will make us bristle at this Psalm. In our culture, knowledge and learning are elevated in general terms, as we’ve already said – and especially in this particular context of academic study. But ours is also a cultural moment in which each person is presumed to know herself or himself – I know myself the best – you know yourself the best. Each of us is presumed to be best positioned to understand and define ourselves. We will bristle at the idea that there is One who knows us more decisively than we know ourselves – that God’s knowledge of us could be more decisive for our identity and for our being than our knowledge of ourselves.

The Apostle Paul picks up on these questions in his own way in his first letter to the Corinthians, in his hymn to love. He says: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” According to Paul, all of our knowledge today about God and self, is only partial and stumbling. Yes, one day we will know fully who we are and know fully who God is – we will discover and live the full truth of who we are in Christ Jesus – but today our knowledge of God and of self is partial and stumbling. And this partial and stumbling knowledge of ours is contrasted with God’s knowledge of us – as Paul says, we are fully known. Today we are fully known. God knows us.

When our kids were younger, my wife and I would often hear this question asked: “Where was I when that happened?” We’d be telling some story about past events, and inevitably one of the kids would ask “Where was I when that happened?” At first we’d answer by saying: “Well, you weren’t born yet. You weren’t around then that happened.” But after a while that response didn’t seem theologically adequate, and so when they’d ask “Where was I?” we’d answer – “Well, you were in the mind of God.” You weren’t born yet, but the living God knew you. The same God who knows and loves you today.

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it.

In the deepest and most profound sense: What you know doesn’t matter.

What you know isn’t the source of your value.

What you know isn’t the source of your identity.

What you know is not the source of your self.

What you know isn’t the basis of your past or your future.

What you know doesn’t define your spiritual life or relationship to God.

What matters is that you are known – by the God who has created and redeemed us in Christ Jesus. What matters is that you are loved – by the God who has created and redeemed us in Christ Jesus. All of your knowledge is as nothing beside God’s knowledge and love you.

In the coming weeks, knowledge is going to be at the centre of life for many of us – in some cases teaching, and in some cases learning. There will be Greek declensions to memorize, prophetic literature to examine, theological texts to wrestle with, pastoral care practices to master, preaching paradigms to understand, ethical frameworks to consider. And yes, all of this matters to our vocation of service in the way of Christ and among his people.

But in a deeper sense it remains true to say that what you know doesn’t matter.

What matters for your life,

What matters for your self,

What matters for your past and future,

What matters for you in your clarity or confusion,

What matters in your intelligence or failing mind and memory

What matters is that you are known.

What matters is that you are loved.

By the God who has created and redeemed us in Christ Jesus.

 Thanks be to God. Amen.

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4 thoughts on “What you know doesn’t matter!

  1. This is great, Roland. And I’m totally stealing some of it for our upcoming series on Genesis. I might not even give you any credit. Now that you know that, let me remind you that what you know doesn’t matter! 🙂

  2. Pingback: Roland DeVries: What you know doesn’t matter – Dandelionfluff.ca

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