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The Forbidden Fruit (originally written Oct 8, 2022)

What if the love of knowledge was the source of all sorts of evil?

I’m specifically thinking about the way that our pursuit of knowledge often seems to lead us to an arrogant judgement of others, damaging hubris, and an overall unloving attitude.

Most often I think I see this in the way our personal online research about politics, or science, or medicine can so quickly turn into social media debates revolving around human rights, ethical boundaries, and even morality. That’s not the only place, though, the same theme is also seen in more academic/literary settings but posed as more of a treatise. Michael Crichton’s fictional works (he’s the author of Jurassic Park and The Andromeda Strain) so frequently highlight the danger of knowledge left untempered by wisdom.

I have a favourite comparison about knowledge and wisdom. Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is knowing it would be terrible in your fruit salad.

In today’s society, there’s absolutely no question that the striving of the rich and powerful to grow or maintain the wealth and influence they have accumulated are a very great source of evil in our world. Especially when there is so much disregard for the value of other humans. Please don’t misunderstand — that is also evil. I’m just wondering if knowledge might be a stealthy evil, and at least equally as devastating.

For those with enough religious background to be familiar with the biblical account of The Fall (referring to humankind deviating from our intended experience of life after eating the forbidden fruit in the garden of Eden), you’ll remember that the serpent tempted the woman to take and eat fruit from the “Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil." That tree was quite specifically named, as was a second important tree in that garden (not forbidden to them) called the “Tree of Life.” After Adam and Eve ate from that forbidden tree and developed shame, the Creator banished them from the garden intending to protect them from living eternally in this state of having knowledge and shame. All of this is in Genesis, chapters 2 and 3.

Now, add to that Jesus' own words recorded in the books written by disciples Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In the particular teaching I’m concerned with, Jesus talks about needing to “turn around” and receive the kingdom of God with childlike faith, and we’re given a very clear picture of humility. Here we see Jesus advocating a lack of knowledge but willingness to question with the full trust that God has the answer, even if we don’t understand it. Anyone who has spent much time with small curious humans is very familiar with the questioning (or even demanding) as a child looks for an answer. As kind adults, we try to supply these curious souls with an answer that’s as age-appropriate as possible — even when we think they won’t understand. But they love hearing it anyway, there’s something deeply reassuring about having your adult explain that light passing through a prism will become rainbows.

Now we get into the impetus for this thought-train of mine. CS Lewis, in his Space Trilogy, staged two separate scenes which percolated long on the back burner of my mind: one in book two, Perelandra, and one in book three, That Hideous Strength. Here, finally, is where my thinking began. Do keep in mind that these books were written in the world war climate and the political nature of war were an influence to the setting.

In Perelandra, the innocent world of the same name is invaded by a malevolent spirit inhabiting a highly intelligent physicist and who is bent on corrupting this world in the same way as it has already corrupted Tellus (the Latin for Earth). Our protagonist, a native of Tellus who was sent to Perelandra “to help” but was not given any instructions, first engages this malevolent spirit as an academic. Long, drawn out (and highly intelligent/philosophical) arguments with convoluted interpretations eventually wear him (and the Perelandrian-equivalent to Eve) down. Despite their clear statement of what they truly want to believe, eventually our protagonist realises that the real battle to protect one’s beliefs actually lies in denying or limiting the opportunity for debate in the first place.

In That Hideous Strength, a young up-and-coming sociologist is brought into the confidences of an organization which considers itself above politics, above humanism, and ultra progressive. It’s goal is to “progress” the human race to it’s best end, regardless of the cost, and throughout the book you quickly begin to see themes of the racist and classist propaganda being subtly promoted by this organization in order to slowly and intentionally shift society into a divided position of confusion and eventual compliance. In this one, there’s a very particular conversation between characters that really stood out to me. A long-term active member of this organization begins educating a newer adherent (our sociologist) on how effective manipulation of society works. She comments that the educated are the most gullible because they eat up the latest from the news, compare information, do further research of their own, and eventually get so wrapped up in what they know that they overlook the human-ness of “the other.” In fact, she points out, it’s the uneducated “common folk” who cause the most trouble for their organization and progress as a whole because these folks are honest, earnest, don’t bother with the latest research, and (ultimately) are more difficult to manipulate into taking a divisive stance against another people group. They’re too loving. Too simple. Too humble. And this is problematic for “progress.”

There was so much in that fictional conversation that sounded just like us. Our social media debates. Our covid-related debates. Our abortion-related debates. Our gender-related debates. Great writers have a habit of seeing truths in society and handing them to us in a more palatable format. I’ve always admired writers for their willingness to point at what is really weighing on them about our current society. We find it easy to point at the rich and powerful for their exploitation of others — their clear lack of value for other humans. But, what about this stealthy evil?

How often do we, with our treasured opinions and online debates, display just as clear a lack of value for other humans?

How often do we accidently engage in wearing the other person down from what they have stated they want to believe (sometimes thinking, in our arrogance, that we’re “educating” them)?

How often are we engaging in “finding truth” by pursuing knowledge past the point of retaining wisdom’s support?

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