From the First Book of Samuel:
Hannah prayed and said,
“There is no Holy One like the Lord,
no one besides you;
there is no Rock like our God.
Talk no more so very proudly,
let not arrogance come from your mouth;
for the Lord is a God of knowledge,
and by him actions are weighed.”
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – 1 Samuel 2:2-3 (NRSV) – May 30, 2014)
“The Lord is a God of knowledge” may be the most important assertion in Hannah’s song. Many bible scholars believe her song to be the model of Mary’s song, The Magnificat. Both are sung by pregnant women; both extol the might and power of God; both confirm God’s preference for the poor and lowly over the rich and powerful. Only Hannah’s song, however, includes this description and her accompanying admonition to her hearers to not speak arrogantly. The translation in The Complete Jewish Bible renders her words in this way: “Stop your proud boasting! Don’t let arrogance come from your mouth! For ADONAI is a God of knowledge, and he appraises actions.”
The clear import of Hannah’s words is that actions speak louder than words and that God, “a God of knowledge,” knows both our words and our actions; if our words and actions are not in accord, God will know and judge according to the former no matter what we may say.
This morning, however, the depiction of Yahweh as “a God of knowledge” appealed to me in a different way, not as a description of an attribute of God, but as a statement of what God encourages in others. This is the God who gave human beings the capacity to learn, to engage in science and research, to explore new things, and (most importantly) to reason and apply what they have learned. And this God expects us to use this capacity, to actually do these things. As Galileo Galilei said in a letter written in 1651, “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use and by some other means to give us knowledge which we can attain by them.”
We are not to remain ignorant, either of the nature of the world around us or of the nature of God. In moral theology ignorance is described as either invincible and vincible. Ignorance is considered invincible if a person cannot not overcome it by applying reasonable diligence in seeking its remedy. Ignorance is vincible if the application of reasonable diligence could remove it. (Reasonable diligence is that effort that a conscientious person would exert in seeking the correct answer to a question given (a) the gravity of the question and (b) the particular resources available.)
We seem to live in an age of pretend invincible ignorance. One of my favorite science fiction authors, the late Dr. Isaac Asimov, wrote in an essay for Newsweek magazine in 1980, “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’” In the three decades since, things have gotten worse.
Contemporary logicians, in fact, now use the term to describe what might be the simplest of all logical fallacies, the refusal to face facts, the insistence on the legitimacy of one’s position in the face of contradictory evidence. It’s a pretty good clue that someone is engaging in this fallacy if they say something like “I really don’t care what the experts say; no one is going to convince me that I’m wrong” or “Nothing you say is going to change my mind” or even “Yeah, okay, whatever!”
Children arguing with one another stick their fingers in their ears and shout, “La la la, I can’t hear you.” We live in a world when adults seem to believe this is a proper form of political or religious or scientific argument. It’s not. This is not the invincible ignorance of moral theology, but it is immoral. This is willful ignorance, and willful ignorance is sinful. As Thomas Aquinas wrote in the Summa Theologica:
It is clear that not every kind of ignorance is the cause of a sin, but that alone which removes the knowledge which would prevent the sinful act. … This may happen on the part of the ignorance itself, because, to wit, this ignorance is voluntary, either directly, as when a man wishes of set purpose to be ignorant of certain things that he may sin the more freely; or indirectly, as when a man, through stress of work or other occupations, neglects to acquire the knowledge which would restrain him from sin. For such like negligence renders the ignorance itself voluntary and sinful, provided it be about matters one is bound and able to know.” (Summa, I-II, q. 76, a. 1, a. 3)
The Lord is a God of knowledge; the Lord is not impressed with “La la la, I can’t hear you.”
A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!
Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.