Now the serpent was more subtle than any other wild creature that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree of the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons.
The story of the Fall is a limitless source of reflection, and many much wiser heads have tackled it. Today I make the simple observation that the story serves as a reminder that not all knowledge is unqualifiedly good. The intellect and will balk at that statement, and yet I think it becomes fairly obvious and acceptable after consideration. Wisdom is good. Truth is good. Knowledge, as merely the possession of information, may not be. We generally agree that there is knowledge to which we have no right. Thus the evil of gossip. We can also recognize that there is information we don’t need to know, or even wish to know. Thus the acronym TMI. In an age where we are inundated with information, more and more of what we learn is not serving us well, and may even be harming us. The world seems awash in anxiety and outrage at one end of the spectrum, apathy and despair at the other. Every terrible thing that happens anywhere in the world is delivered to our homes through tv and the internet. There is so much competition for our attention that media serve up increasingly shocking, salacious, and sordid material. As Adam and Eve learned to their sorrow, knowledge is a lot like food: some of it nourishes and sustains, some of it is unhealthy when consumed in large quantities, and some of it is downright poisonous.
I for one feel ill from worthless information gluttony. I’ve come up with some questions to help improve my diet:
Why am I ingesting a piece of information? Is it to be well informed so that I can make good decisions? Is it to better myself? Or is it schadenfreude, voyeurism, or compulsive curiousity about evil, pain, humiliation and so on, the kind of instinct that urges one to slow for a car accident?
Am I wasting time with fad information so that I can feel like part of a special group of in the know people who haven’t bought into The System? It’s possible to be so worried about being one of the “sheeple” that we mindlessly follow false shepherds just as surely as the majority.
Am I using the acquisition of useless knowledge as an excuse for avoiding my real responsibilities, as a way to be lazy without having to admit it? “Sure I should be cleaning or doing school but look how politically involved I’m being reading news sites and blogs.” But cleaning and doing school are parts of my job. Knowing the opinions of pundits is not. “I have my finger on the pulse of all the latest parenting trends. I research all the time.” But am I actually failing to parent, shooing the kids away while I cruise the internet?
Am I using knowing something about a problem to excuse myself from doing something about it? “I’ve done my part on this issue by sharing an article on facebook.” That’s a pretty easy out.
Perhaps the easiest rule for my diet would also be from Bible, this time from the Gospels:
Thou shalt love the Lord thy God, with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind, and with thy whole strength. This is the first commandment. And the second is like to it: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is no other commandment greater than these.
That leaves a very broad field of study. With all my mind. If knowledge helps me to live this law then it is good. Anything I learn that contributes to my awe at God and His creation, instills or deepens virtue or discourages vice. And my neighbor as myself. Anything that allows me to serve others better by nurturing my talents, helping me perform my duties, informing my vote, or encouraging me to works of charity. All of men are my neighbours. But in remembering that I shouldn’t forget that the people closest to me are most particularly my responsibility. So when information comes my way that distresses me, I should seek to render that knowledge useful. For example, we were very happy to learn the military would continue to be paid during the government shut down. We had set aside funds to keep the bills paid for a month without a paycheck but were certainly relieved not to need them. With our own future reasonably secure it was easy to start ingesting stories of government dysfunction as tasty bits of contempt, outrage, and bewilderment that are in some strange way a form of entertainment. But families on WIC, and civilian employees are gaining a whole other kind of unpleasant knowledge, the knowledge of experience. The knowledge of what it is like to try and survive with no income. The knowledge of needing help to put food on the table.
So while I’m busy eating my fill of scandal, maybe I ought to take something to the local food bank for those who know about it in a way I’m very grateful not to.