Do We Really Want to Know?
Over the weekend I became embroiled in an argument of sorts with one of those “friend of a friend of a friend” things that often occurs on Facebook. Someone had posted something about the National Anthem and posed a question: Who knew it had four verses? AS a musician, I have lost count of the hundreds of times I have played this national treasure. Its complexity often belies the tune’s origin, supposedly as a drinking song. I responded that I knew all the verses and that knowledge apparently made me both expert and target.
If you’ve been reading any of my blog posts over the almost three years this particular blog has been in existence, then you know that mankind took the leap to discover knowledge at the dawn of man. In the creation stories of the Torah and the Bible, it was curiosity that led to sin and evil. For many belief systems, education is still a privilege granted only to a select few or group. Last year the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the youngest recipient ever, a young girl who dared to follow her dream to learn. Education is both the key that unlocks life’s mysteries and also puts a target on one’s back at times.
Many things seem to defy basic knowledge. The Christian tradition tells the story of a loving God, a virgin birth, the crucifixion of the child of that virgin birth, and his bodily ascension into heaven. In a world with the philosophies of Anaximander, Aristotle, Boethus, Diogenes, Empedocles, Heraclitus, Leucippus, Parmenides, Plato, and Socrates, how, you might be asking, could anyone believe that a man could be born from a woman and some Creator spirit, live, be crucified, buried, supposedly return from the dead to walk among people for forty days, and then ascend to the afterworld? After all, Leucippus came up with the theory of atoms. How did people think those atoms could be destroyed, rejuvenate themselves, and then vanish into thin air?
As it gained momentum, the Christian Church, the Roman Church of the time, became the vessel for all learning. Scholasticism became the method of teaching and it used strict dialectical reasoning to teach Christian theology and to interpret the ancient classical texts of learning. Using Aristotle’s approach of determining knowledge through our senses proved too down-to-earth for church leaders who felt it took away from the mystery of faith.
Nicholas of Cusa proposed something he termed “learned ignorance”. According to Nicholas who was also known as Nicolaus von Kues, all knowledge came from “the One”, “the Good’. God, according to Nicholas came before that so it was impossible for a mere human to truly know God. Nicholas believed that one should use reason to understand this ignorance and that we only knew of God what we could through the “learned ignorance”.
Dutch philosopher Desiderius Erasmus took exception with the Roman Catholic doctrine and felt one’s personal relationship with God was much more important that the doctrine of the Roman Church. The knowledge of philosophy he saw as a hindrance to the basic human traits emphasized in scripture and preached by Jesus.
Knowledge had not been seen as evil by all belief systems, however. Mohammed founded Islam and by the seventh century it had spread from Arabia to Asia and Africa and then to parts of Spain. Rivaling the empire of Christian Europe, Islam entered into what is known as its “Golden Age” around 750 ACE. This period lasted for more than five centuries as learning and discovery was encouraged in the field of math, sciences, and scholarship. Major advances were made in astronomy, alchemy, medicine, and mathematics and Aristotle’s philosophy was smoothly integrated with Islamic tenets of faith.
The Islamic philosopher Avicenna proposed a “flying man” theory which married knowledge gained from our senses and reason. He offered that a man flying blindfolded and floating in the air would still know he had a soul or self, even though his senses were not giving him any information. According to Avicenna, one’s mind and body coexist but as distinct entities. He also suggested that if this is true, then the mind or soul existed in a different realm than the body and did not die when the physical body did.
Not surprisingly, Avicenna’s theories were not accepted by all. Al-Ghazali was an Islamic philosopher who felt such beliefs were contrary to the Qur’an. The Iberian Islamic philosopher Averroes or Ibn Rushd disagreed. He argued that the Qur’an presented metaphorical truths and that, instead of any incompatibility between religion and philosophy, philosophy could be used to interpret religion. This way of thinking was similar to the paradoxes of Plato. They also greatly influenced Christian philosophy of the period.
The conquests by Christian crusaders in the eleventh century are seen by many as an unjust invasion, a feeling easily and perhaps understood. These invasions introduced Europe to the knowledge of the Islamic world, though, and soon the influence of such spread throughout Europe, leading to the Renaissance and the losing of control over scholarship and knowledge previously held by the Roman Church.
Whether you believe in the ascension of a man who previously presented as a mere mortal or whether you fail to believe in any religion, one cannot deny basic principles of life and our living. We all need air to breath. Plants use photosynthesis to convert light energy into chemical energy and then into carbon dioxide which is released into the atmosphere and creates the air we breathe. The plants in my garden in one hemisphere are not the same plants I had when living in another. Yet, they still follow the same basic processes in their growth, their blossoms or fruits, their harvest, their period of dormancy, and their value.
For one day a year, the Christian Church celebrates the ascension of the central figure in its teachings. yet, don’t we all live every other day in dissension and the descent of knowledge? Certainly my stating a few facts about the National Anthem led to great dissension by one “friend”. What I do or do not do today affects my tomorrow. The Hindu mystic Swami Vivekananda says “The will is not free; it is a phenomenon bound by cause and effect, but there is something behind the will which is free.” American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson once said: “Shallow men believe in luck. Strong men believe in cause and effect. Cause and effect, means and ends, seed and fruit cannot be severed; for the effect already blooms in the cause, the end preexists in the means, the fruit in the seed.”
Mankind has always been curious and that curiosity has fueled a quest for knowledge that continues today. Regardless of the period of history or location on the planet or even in space, we are constantly learning as we live. Francis Scott Keys penned the verses to the National Anthem of the U.S.A. while actually a prisoner aboard an enemy ship, a ship he had boarded to broker peace and hopefully, a cessation of the fighting. “Oh, say; can you see?” Knowledge is out there for us to discern but only if we are willing to see. Knowledge takes us out of our comfort zone. Do we really want to know or are we too willing to stay comfortable in our ignorance? Is that truly living?
Living in the northwest part of the USA, young adult author Richelle Goodrich sums up our ascent into living and the subsequent knowledge gained from it this way: “You are here to make a difference, to either improve the world or worsen it. And whether or not you consciously choose to, you will accomplish one or the other.”