Knowledge Versus Love
September 18, 2011
Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.
Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “no idol in the world really exists,” and that “there is no God but one.” Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. “Food will not bring us close to God.” We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall. (1 Corinthians 8:1-13)
True story: there were once some missionaries in the Philippines who set up a croquet game in their front yard. Several of their Agta Negrito neighbors became interested and wanted to join the fun. The missionaries explained the game and started them each out with a mallet and a ball. As the game progressed, opportunity came for one of the players to take advantage of another by knocking that person’s ball out of the court. A missionary explained the procedure, but his advice only puzzled his Negrito friend.
“Why would I want to knock his ball out of the court?” he asked.
“So you will be the one to win!” a missionary said. The short-statured man, clad only in a loincloth, shook his head in bewilderment. His “civilized” neighbor was suggesting something absurdly uncivil. Competition is generally ruled out in a hunting gathering society, where people survive not by competing with one another but by working together. The game continued, but nobody followed the missionaries’ advice. When a player successfully got through all the wickets, the game was not over for him. He went back and gave aid and advice to his fellows. As the final player moved toward the last wicket, the affair was still very much a team effort. And finally, when the last wicket was played, the “team” shouted happily, “We won!” “We won!” (Illustrations Unlimited, p. 123).
I think the apostle Paul would have appreciated this story. Today we read from his first letter to the Corinthians, one of the earliest Christian communities. In fact, back when this letter was written, I don’t think the term “Christian” had even come into use. Paul had his work cut out for him with this group. They believed that Jesus was God incarnate and that he had lived and died that they might be saved, but beyond this, there was a lot of groundwork that needed to be laid before the people of Corinth would understand how best to live as a Christ-like community. In this first letter, Paul covers a number of practical situations: everything from what to do about a man who is living with his stepmother to how best to arrange one’s hair when prophesying in church.
But in our passage Paul is trying to bring an end to the confusion around what they ought to do with food that had been sacrificed to idols. Back in first-century Corinth, religions abounded, and a traditional rite of most faiths involved the sacrifice of animals and other foods to the various gods and goddesses. But food sacrificed to idols was still food that could be eaten. Rules varied, and most likely the person who offered the sacrifice at a temple would not partake of the food, but after the rite, the officials of the temple might eat it—for in most traditions, including the Israelite one, the food offered to God was the food the priests lived on—but that food could also be sold in the general market to raise money to support the temple itself.
Apparently there were people in this young community who believed that food sacrificed to an idol was defiled and should not be touched. But Paul argues in this passage that idols cannot defile food because idols represent gods that do not exist. There is only one God in Paul’s mind, and that is the Lord. Therefore this food that is being sacrificed to idols is really food being sacrificed to nothing.
So Paul thinks the food can be eaten just like any other food. Nothing magical has taken place, no change has occurred; it is still just food. But, Paul stresses that just because he is enlightened enough to understand this, that doesn’t mean everyone else is; and if a brother or sister in Christ were to see him eat such food and still in some way believed in the power or reality of these other gods, their conscience would become defiled. They would be confused. They would feel conflict that could become damaging to their faith. And Paul says that it is simply not worth the risk. He says, “Look, when it comes down to it, food will not bring us close to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat and no better off if we do. But,” he says, “take care that this liberty of yours does not become a stumbling block to the weak.”
Which is to say: just because you know the truth, that doesn’t mean you can act with impunity. Paul stresses to his friends in Corinth that they need to be very careful. His criterion for personal behavior is its effect on others. Determining how we should act in a given situation is not just a matter of knowing what is right or true or customary. We must always take into account how our actions will affect the life and growth of other people.
In the story I read about the missionaries and their croquet game, we see something of this rule in action. The missionaries knew the correct rules of croquet, but thankfully they did not impose them on their indigenous neighbors. They told them once, but then stepped back and observed their new friends acting in accordance with their understanding. The missionaries didn’t take the mallets away and insist that they “play right or not at all.” To do so would have been offensive; it would have subverted the cultural values of the Agta Negritos, and even though the missionaries might have properly understood the rules of croquet, the question would have hung in the air, “Right at what cost?” Our knowledge of food will not bring us any closer to God, nor will our knowledge of the rules of croquet. But how we use our knowledge in such situations, whether it is with an eye to being right or an eye to being considerate, will.
It is hard to think of really good modern examples that directly correspond to this dilemma, because we are talking about an act or belief that some people consider anathema but others regard as completely benign. We will see what you think of my examples, some of which are more convincing than others, but my hope is that the basic principle will still be clear. And that principle is this: we need to respect each other and take others into account before we act, even if we already know we are right.
So, for example, if you were to visit a traditional Amish community, you wouldn’t offer the kids in town a ride in your car. I don’t believe there is anything inherently immoral about owning a car or utilizing modern technology in general, but the Amish do. They have built up and maintained a community dedicated to the worship of God, a community grounded in simplicity. They have deliberately chosen to avoid the use of electricity and other modern conveniences for theological reasons that I might not understand but should respect. To offer an Amish child a ride in my car would be disrespectful of the life that child’s parents are striving to maintain, not to mention needlessly confusing for the young person.
Or we could look at the example of alcohol. Again, there is nothing inherently evil about alcohol, but for some people it can become a real problem that places their health at risk. If I am going to host a gathering at church, or even at home, I personally feel that I need to consider carefully whether having alcohol available puts others at risk. And I would certainly make sure there were other drinks available. The same principle is at work here in our church when we celebrate communion. For some people who have grown up taking wine as part of their communion celebration, grape juice just doesn’t fit into their experience. In other churches, on the other hand, they refrain from using wine at all and stick solely to grape juice. Here at our church we offer white grape juice and red wine so people have an option. For me it is quite simply an issue of respect, a way that we as a church make room for one another’s needs and experiences.
My favorite verse in this chapter reads, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. Knowledge is good, important, and something to strive for. I am as strong a proponent of good education as the next person, but knowledge without compassion is dangerous. Brilliant people who completely ignore the needs of those around them can be extremely harmful. Swedenborg, who himself is objectively recognized as one of the most intelligent men in the history of the world, said, “It is no mark of intelligence to be able to prove whatever one pleases. But to be able to discern what is true as true and what is false as false—this is the mark and character of intelligence” (True Christian Religion 334). And he says elsewhere in his writings, “Teaching what is true without teaching what is good is like walking blind, since the good is what teaches and leads and the true is what is taught and led” (Arcana Coelestia 4844.4).
Knowledge will only get you so far, and knowledge can most certainly get you into trouble if you do not use it with an eye toward the welfare of others. It takes a brilliant mind to construct a nuclear weapon. It takes a loving mind to keep from using it. It takes equally skilled scientists to create biological weapons that can destroy a person and vaccines that can save a person, equally skilled politicians to draft foreign policy that will lead to peace or war. But in each of these cases, the question that ought to be asked is this: is the knowledge being used to puff up the individual or build up all the people? Is knowledge being used for purely selfish reasons, or is it being used with respect for the needs of others?
If we bring it down to a more personal level we realize that we as individuals know a lot. We walk around every day loaded with information. But will we let our knowledge determine how we use our love, or will we let our love determine how we use our knowledge? Swedenborg says that, “As God’s creation, we have been formed in such a way that we can be more closely joined with him, [but] we are joined not by knowledge alone, or intelligence alone, or even wisdom alone, but by living according to these” (Divine Providence 32-33). And we live by truth, knowledge, and wisdom, by filtering the information they provide through our love and willing it into being through acts of goodness.
Our lives here in twenty-first-century America may seem worlds away from first-century Corinth, but in our world today, just as in Corinth, we find ourselves working with people who have ideas and values very different from our own.
Our culture has become remarkably diverse, and there will always be people we disagree with, people we have trouble understanding, people who conduct themselves in ways that seem downright strange and unnecessary. But the fact that we don’t think the same way about things as others do doesn’t mean we can’t find ways to conduct our own affairs in a respectful manner. So even though I drink wine, I wouldn’t drink it in front of my grandmother because, having lived all her life as a Conservative Baptist and teetotaler, she would find it offensive. I wouldn’t offer a Jewish or Muslim friend bacon, nor would I push coffee on a Latter-Day Saint or meat on a vegetarian. Paul’s message to his brothers and sisters in Corinth was simply this: let love and respect guide your actions and interactions, for ultimately love in the context of diversity will help us build a stronger foundation for our community than the pursuit of complete uniformity of belief.
We will never live in a world where we all agree, and that’s a good thing. But it also provides us with a challenge to let love inform our knowledge before we act, to let respect for our neighbor be a factor in our decision making, and to exercise some humility and peace-making skills by letting others act in accordance with their conscience, even if we don’t quite understand where they are coming from. Rather than puff ourselves up with that feeling of once again being right, let us build one another up with a love that is willing to take the ways of others into account.
Rev. Sarah Buteux