|Feast of St. Scholastica
Psalms 90:2, 3-4, 5-6, 12-13
On this feast of Saint Scholastica (A.D. 480-543), a woman of powerful learning and great wisdom whose name means “she who has the time to devote to study,” it seems important to ask, “Are there any things we should not know?” Is there any such thing as “forbidden knowledge?” In other words, as Roger Shattuck puts it, “Can anyone or any institution, in this culture of unfettered enterprise and growth, seriously propose limits on knowledge? Have we lost the capacity to perceive and honor the moral dimensions of such questions?”
Now, from where I sit in my office overlooking the pedestrian mall at Creighton University and seeing students and professors actively in pursuit of knowledge and it is hoped wisdom, the question does not seem so abstract. After all, in our State of Nebraska, there is an on-going debate about the appropriation and use of human fetal brain tissue. Such research would certainly expand our desired knowledge, help treat, and ultimately, perhaps, cure dread afflictions like Alzheimer’s Disease. There is no arguing about the goodness of that kind of knowledge; rather the real debate is over the method of acquisition of such brain tissue.
Such questions are clearly dangerous in a university or so it would seem. And yet, the history of human literature is rife with familiar myths that warn us about “forbidden knowledge.” These include the story of Prometheus giving humanity fire against the will of the Olympian gods and Pandora opening her gift box against stern warnings. But the scriptures today give the careful, believing reader insight into the way God acts toward humanity and what might be a good limit or boundary in the human pursuit of knowledge.
From Genesis (3:9-24) we hear our culture’s ultimate “forbidden knowledge” story. Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And, of course, there follows a fall of cosmic proportions.
In the gospel reading today from Mark (8:1-10), the dilemma is also posed, at least in part, by a lack of knowledge. After all, the crowd is large and hungry not just for the word Jesus preaches but for honest-to-goodness food! How are the disciples to feed the crowd? Never mind that this is the second time Jesus has posed this problem in terms of the disciples’ self-perceived lack of knowledge and limitations!
The point here, I think, is very simple. God responds to human need with compassion and empowerment. The compassion is fairly easy to see. Recall in today’s Genesis reading that it is God who weaves Eve and Adam clothing when they notice their nakedness. Shame is a powerful and horrible form of knowledge but God does not mention their vulnerability. Instead, God reaches out to protect even while angry.
The empowerment is more easily seen in the gospel story of the feeding of the crowd. In Jesus, God nourishes and helps the famished and desperate. Moreover, the disciples are once again empowered to feed the listeners; thus knitting together the nourishment that sustains bodies with the nourishment that sustains hearts.
As a limit to the unbridled or irresponsible pursuit of knowledge
and its consequences, perhaps questions about who is shown compassion and
who is empowered by this knowledge are in order.
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