Knowledge is power, but what is knowledge?
Lauren Hall, CONTRIBUTING WRITER
Scientia potentia est, more commonly known as “knowledge is power,” is an aphorism suggesting that higher forms of knowledge correlate with greater power. Though the aphorism has been uttered so frequently as to relegate it trite, it reflects humanity’s desire to establish a measure of objective truth as a means of explanation for the world around it.
One instance of this endeavor can be seen through hedonism1 in which pleasure is considered as the highest form of good, whereas pain, conversely, is to be critically avoided. Similarly, leading scholars of the Enlightenment period2 pursued refined knowledge, as they opposed ideals of established religion and elevated reason and their individual intellect to make sense of humanity and their circumstances. In more prevalent postmodernism,3 society has shifted from upholding any absolute truth to promoting often self-refuting relativistic thought, namely, that there is no truth. The perception of knowledge as power encapsulates the way humanity is drawn to seeking a sufficient, unwavering framework through which to comprehend the world.
As we consider various frameworks that have been glorified, it becomes apparent that no framework is sufficient. Though each form of knowledge prized at a given point in time bears its own legitimacy, it struggles to be a satisfactory form of knowledge that appeals to each person’s or subculture’s sensibilities. One framework is traded for another when it provides a more suitable understanding.
Perhaps a distinction can be made between two types of knowledge: intellectual knowledge and interpersonal knowledge. Though what is deemed the highest form of intellectual knowledge is perpetually reassigned to different frameworks, the value of interpersonal relations typically remains constant. We see this in Kant’s conviction of a person’s intrinsic value4 and Bentham’s utilitarian belief to seek the good of a collective community.5 The frameworks we create and adopt generally each provide an explanation for the intuitive value of people and human connections.
This instinct that people are valuable predisposes us to placing hope in human relationships. As we grant people to be valuable in and of themselves, we hope that what we receive from our relationships with these people will meet our expectations. If various forms of “knowledge” are important to us because they offer frameworks that might give our lives and world meaning, then it might be fair to consider the value of interpersonal relations a similarly esteemed framework, or a form of scientia potentia est, as well.
We see validity in this framework when we affirm acts of human selflessness, such as mentoring young girls in STEM or carving out time to support friends in discouraging circumstances. We are proponents of it when we encourage people to have faith in the “good of humanity” or to believe in “true love.” When people are generous or patient or kind, it occurs to us that perhaps there is some dependable value in human connection.
However, we are at risk of placing too lofty of expectations on human relationships and can quickly grow cynical when people fall short of our expectations. We want to believe that people are worth investing in and that the relationships we build function as building blocks to our own meaningful lives, but disillusionment in that notion is inescapable.
Given that disillusionment in relationships is inescapable, we might be tempted to do away with interpersonal relations altogether. Nonetheless, it appears that a yearning for knowledge of and connection with other humans is an intrinsic function of being human. We are seemingly hardwired for relationships, an intuition that is difficult to reason away to irrelevance. However, frustration arises at the realization that both a need for relationships and a disappointment in them are inevitable.
If we can posit the notion that we were created by a god—and perhaps that he created us for the purpose of being in relationship with him and one another—there might be value in addressing inherent desire for human connection as a framework for understanding the world.
Like the English word “knowledge,” the Hebrew word yada’ refers to both knowledge of concepts and knowledge of people.6 However, the word yada’ is more commonly used to imply a deep relational bond that cannot be dissipated nor be severed. It was first used to portray the relationship documented between Yahweh, or God, and his chosen people, the Israelites.
Yahweh’s relationship with the Israelites began with a promise that he would bring forth a multitude of nations from them, providing for and avenging them in all circumstances.7 Reciprocally, they would acknowledge him as their God and prioritize their relationship with him above all else.
While the Israelites initially tried to devote themselves to Yahweh first and foremost, they repeatedly forgot the multitude of ways he had delivered them from precarious situations. They would attempt to display their commitment to Yahweh through half-hearted completion of instated rituals, but they had no desire to know him relationally, to immerse themselves in fuller understanding of who he was as their creator who made them for deep relationship with him.8
As the Israelites fell further away from knowing who Yahweh was and dedicating themselves to him, a prophet named Hosea admonished the people: “Let us know; let us press on to know the LORD; his going out is sure as the dawn; he will come to us as the showers, as the spring rains that water the earth.”9 This “knowing” Hosea encouraged was not a merely shallow knowledge about who Yahweh was, but an experience of his love and steadfastness. Though the people continually broke their promises to commit to Yahweh and frequently forgot the number of times he demonstrated his faithfulness to him, he was no less constant; rather, he steadily continued to be good to them in provision and vindication, as “sure as the dawn” and the “spring rains.”
The irony is that Yahweh, who had perfect yada’ of the fickle Israelites, continued to pursue a relationship with them. This is not because they deserved it but because his character epitomized what it meant to know a person fully.10 As forgetful and self-seeking humans, they would never be capable of the standard of yada’ that Yahweh embodied, but that didn’t avert him from vowing himself to them wholly. These were humans he had lovingly created,11 and his perfect knowledge of them and desire for relationship with them remained vastly abundant despite their indifference12 towards him.
Among the intellectual frameworks of knowledge created to understand the world, we find they fail to be reliable. The prevailing form of intellectual knowledge continually changes because no given framework can establish meaning for us that is relevant across time and cultures. We take pause to consider the value of relationships; from an evolutionary standpoint, connections are essential for our proliferation.
When we encounter manifestations of human compassion and selflessness, there seems to be a glimpse of meaning in human relationships. Frequently, we are disillusioned by them, and subsequently are offered by the world or preach to ourselves that interpersonal relations were not valuable anyway. This disillusionment stems from falling short of knowing and loving other humans the way we were created to, which is a ramification of being incapable of knowing and loving God the way he created us to. Just as we were designed for perfect relationship with our creator, embedded in us is also an inherent longing for perfect relationships with those around us.
However, despite our inability to know God relationally in a sufficient capacity, God, as a function of his character, still has perfect knowledge of us. In his yada’, he pursues relationships with us that do not dismiss our flawed nature, but also convey that we are deeply known and loved by him. We are liberated to pursue relationships with other humans not because we are adequate in ourselves to fill the voids that people have or shoulder the weights that burden them, but because of the fullness of the relationship God has with us despite the fact that we can never actualize the standard of reciprocity he intended.
Christians whose hearts know the saving love of Christ13 can deconstruct the barriers society has imposed between them and others. They have the power to openly embrace someone they have been taught to fear or hate because the love they received from Christ eradicates all traces of fear and hate. For Christians whose minds comprehend amazing grace, they have the power to resist generalizing others based on their presidential nominee or ignorance of privilege, for the grace they have received from God has covered every one of their own despicable actions, every vile thought. For Christians, it is not an ability within themselves that affords closer emulation of the yada’ God has of them in their relations with others, but an ability that God empowers them with as they mature in their yada’ of him.14
This is a truth we can champion with confidence for its credibility is not reliant on us but rather transcends our understanding. This is a reality that is unwavering, a knowledge that, on our own, we could not attempt to attribute legitimacy to, for its power and authority does not come from us but from he himself who has all power and authority. Intellectual movements such as the Enlightenment and postmodernism differ from interpersonal knowledge because they are credible only insofar as society deems them to be valid. Subsequently, their livelihood is liable to being subjectively overwritten and no longer regarded as legitimate frameworks to understand the surrounding world. It is thus difficult to ascribe such “knowledge” as being powerful in its fluctuations and inconsistencies.
Contrastively, our predisposition for human relationships and seemingly inherent desire for and value of them finds its origins in the compelling constancy of God’s relationship with us. Though his perfect knowledge of us is beyond our comprehension, this does not change his steadiness. Since nothing we do could ever alter his pursuit of a relationship with us,15 we can be assured that the interpersonal knowledge that comes from him is powerful enough to sustain our relationships with others. It thereby functions as a framework that is not displaced as intellectual knowledge is, as well as affirms the inherent value we place on interpersonal connections. In our pursuit of an objective measure through which to perceive the world, where intellectual forms of knowledge are dispensable and therefore unreliable, we find an undeniable strength and certainty when we juxtapose it against interpersonal knowledge. The paradox of human relationship lies in its dual intuitiveness and brokenness. Our rawest selves crave profound connections with others, yet we cannot cease hurting them with our egotistical and self-preserving tendencies. Consequently, our understanding and pursuit of relationships can only be refined if we first know and experience the only perfect relationship in existence. It is solely this relational knowledge that is enduring in all circumstances and across all cultural contexts, engraved on every human heart, and thus undoubtedly mighty in its veracity.
1Moore, Andrew. “Hedonism”. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Winter 2013. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2013/entries/hedonism/.
2Bristow, William. “Enlightenment”. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Summer 2011. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2013/entries/enlightenment/.
3Aylesworth, Gary. “Postmodernism”. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Spring 2015. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/postmodernism/.
4Kant’s Formula of Humanity: So act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means. (Johnson, Robert and Adam Cureton. “Kant’s Moral Philosophy”. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Spring 2017 Edition. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2017/entries/kant-moral/.)
5Under Bentham’s “greatest happiness principle” it is considered more valuable to seek a community’s aggregate happiness versus a mere individual’s happiness. (Crimmins, James E. “Jeremy Bentham”. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Spring 2017. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2017/entries/bentham/.)
6Hegg, Tim. “The Hebrew Word (‘yada) As a Covenant Term in the Bible and the Ancient Near East.” Torah Resource. http://www.torahresource.com/EnglishArticles/Yada_as_Covenant_Term.pdf/.
7See Genesis 17:4–8.
8See Hosea 6:4-6 and Isaiah 1.
9Hosea 6:3, English Standard Version.
10See Psalm 139:1–12.
11See Psalm 139:13–16.
12See Micah 7:18–20 and Hosea 11.
13“For one will scarcely die for a righteous person […] but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). See also Romans 5:6–11.
14“We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). See also 1 John 4:7–21.
15“For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord” (Romans 8:38–39).
Lauren finds people deeply complex, yet is ironically captivated by the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. She is an ISTJ who enjoys wordplay and all things matcha.