In English, we have an expression that goes “Knowledge is power.” When I hear that expression, I think it does a disservice to those who seek after knowledge, because most of the people I know seek knowledge not because of a desire to dominate others, but because of the desire for respect or freedom or advancement or options, or solving problems. To be sure, many people in this world seek after power for corrupt purposes, but such people generally seek political offices in institutions or governments, and do not seek knowledge directly, especially not in terms of research, unless they are blackmailers seeking to use knowledge to manipulate the behavior of others, and such people are not worth writing about or emulating anyway. Instead, I prefer the Spanish formulation of this same concept, “Saber es poder,” which literally means “to know is to be able to,” or, to put it a bit more poetically, “Knowledge is possibility.” What we know gives us awareness of the choices that we possess in a given situation, a freedom of action that is not possessed by those who do not know what is possible in a given situation.
Since I am a person who for very personal reasons feels deeply anxious and distressed in heavy traffic, where no escape is possible, and where I am hemmed in by strangers in other cars, where no friendly communication is possible and there is no progress towards my destination, I downloaded an app for my phone that shows me the traffic in Portland. Not surprisingly, it is called Portland Traffic. Today as I was getting ready to leave for church services at my local congregation at 1PM or so, I saw that the traffic was heavy on US 26 approaching the Vista tunnel, so I took an alternate way, going south on OR-217, cutting through Tigard on 99W, and then going north towards Vancouver on I-5. As I approached I-405 near downtown Portland, I saw that the sign told me it would be 28 minutes to get to WA, which would have meant that I would have arrived at services within five minutes of its starting time. So, instead, I cut across I-84 to get to I-205 and then went on WA-500 to get to services the slightly long way around. I ended up ten minutes earlier than I would have been otherwise, and a lot less stressed out because the traffic was going 50 mph instead of stopped to stare at an accident on the side of the road. Instead of being late to services despite having provided an hour to take a trip that should take 30 minutes, I ended up only taking 45 minutes to get to services, and having at least a little time before services began to chat and to set up my viola. All of this was made possible by knowledge of traffic flows through my phone and through a useful sign estimating time. Knowledge was not the power to dominate, but rather gave the possibility of choosing a wiser and more indirect path to get where I needed to go without ruining my Sabbath commute.
The possibilities that exist, and the knowledge that we have, can either be good or evil, depending on the state of our hearts, and our own desires and inclinations. I am reminded, of course, of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and evil, that tree which all of us have metaphorically eaten through our ancestor Adam, by growing up in a corrupt and fallen world possessed of free will in rebellion against the ways of our Lord and Creator. At times, the possibilities that are open to us are merely different roads to the same destination, some of which are longer in distance, but thanks to traffic may be shorter in time, which is more important when we are considering which way to go in life either while driving or on metaphorical journeys towards the destinations of our heart’s desires. Such different roads are morally equivalent, but not all options are the same. At other times knowledge may be an oppressive weight upon us, reminding us that we could choose ways that may get us what we want faster, but in the wrong way at the wrong time, which may lead to great harm for ourselves and others. Even if we choose to restrain ourselves from evil, the fact that we are aware of the evil that we could choose still torments us anyway, because we are aware that we have choices, even if not the choices we want for ourselves. Even if we choose wisely, and choose in a godly fashion, we still carry the burden of the knowledge of the sin and wickedness we could have chosen in our impatience, a weight that can crush our hearts.
In the story of the sheep, the wolf, and the shepherd, the sheep and the wolf are easy to comprehend. The sheep are preyed upon because they are weak, and the wolf is predatory because it is strong and it can oppress the weak. Yet the shepherd is a harder being to understand. The shepherd is indeed strong, stronger than the wolf, because it can beat the wolf and drive it away from the sheep. Yet the shepherd uses his strength to protect and defend the sheep from harm, and for this the sheep marvel, because the strength of the shepherd is combined with self-restraint, a strength that the wolf clearly does not possess. The shepherd clearly has the possibility of abusing the sheep, yet the sheep in long familiarity with the shepherd know the shepherds loving care and tender compassion for them. The strength of the shepherd is focused on protecting the vulnerable sheep from danger, and so the sheep grow to love and trust the shepherd, but never forget his immense power. Yet despite the fact that the shepherd chooses to protect and care, the choice is still there, and the shepherd is ever conscious of it. The wolf, driven by hungers and desires, does not realize that his behavior is a choice, as he is enslaved to his appetites. The sheep, likewise, have few options for themselves, not being strong or wise. And as much as the shepherd loves his sheep, he is on a different plane from his sheep, who simply cannot comprehend what he is about, no matter how often it is demonstrated. The shepherd, because of his knowledge and character, is on a different plane of existence from his sheep, who may only grasp dimly, if it all, what strength of character it takes to be strong and also to be gentle and tender and kind. Oh, that we would treasure such knowledge about ourselves, and about the options that we possess, and about the character of others, that we would develop such strength ourselves, and to appreciate it in others, so that our burden may be lightened by others knowing the choices we have made, and the knowledge and godliness that such choices spring from, so that we may be understood for who we are, and what we have chosen.