Toxic Knowledge: How to control an unwieldy weapon

baby tire

This is NOT Lucy…not that she wouldn’t try this, however…

Daily, even hourly, I hear my granddaughter exclaim, “I can do it! Let ME do it!” At which point I can anticipate hearing a howl or shriek of frustration at least 50% of the time, because in her zeal to do whatever it is she knows how to do, she has acted rashly and dropped, spilled or broken something, or she’s fallen down and hurt herself.

In Lucy’s case it is empirically true that “a little learning is a dang’rous thing.” But in her case it’s because knowledge is imperfect, and accompanied by impulsivity and lack of finesse. How is learning dangerous for adults?

I’ve always thought of that quote as referring to limited understanding of the ramifications of one’s bit of learning–the greater context, if you will.  And that seems to be the meaning Pope intended. But might there be some other danger as well?

I’m still re-reading Hidden in Plain Sight by Mark Buchanan, one of my favorite authors.  This book is his extended unpacking and study of a handful of verses at the beginning of the apostle Peter’s second letter:

“…make every effort to respond to God’s promises. Supplement your faith with a generous provision of moral excellence, and moral excellence with knowledge,  and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with patient endurance, and patient endurance with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love for everyone.”

(2 Peter 1:5-7, NLT)

2 Peter stairwayIn Chapter 6 of his book, Buchanan muses on why we are to add goodness (moral excellence) to our faith, BEFORE we add knowledge. (Chapter 5 tells us that the Greek word used for goodness is a quality of being, not just “doing good things” but participating in God’s divine nature. And yes, there are practical suggestions involved for what this might look like.)

Why would one try to add moral goodness before one adds knowledge about God and spiritual things and Scripture and theology and….?

Here’s Pastor Buchanan’s take on that (emphasis mine):

“To grow in goodness is to become Christlike.

puffer fishThat comes before knowledge for the simple reason that knowledge, like the flesh of a puffer fish, has a toxin lurking in it: pride. Knowledge wants to turn us into know-it-alls: to make us show-offs and blowhards and bullies…

Apart from goodness, knowledge is often wielded to humiliate, intimidate or alienate others, not for what God intended it to be:  a tool to build and bless and serve others. Unless knowledge is laid atop goodness–anchored to it–we grow susceptible to snobbery and smugness.

Goodness detoxifies knowledge.”


A dear friend of mine who is an educator echoed this for me when she recently wrote that the primary goal of educating our children is not to fill them with knowledge but to form their character.  She also introduced me to the writing of Andrew Kern, founder of the CiRCE Institute, who said this in a recent article:

The barrier between us and the wisdom of God (maybe “abyss” would be a better word than barrier) cannot be crossed by any amount of learning, information, data, or skill. The problem is not a lack of development. It is not that we don’t see enough. It is that the organ of perception is sick, absessed, puffed up with infection.”

 Repentance is the key, Kern says. Turning back to God–yes, that is the path of faith and goodness, isn’t it?  (The whole article, entitled “How to Judge Everything,” is excellent…take ten minutes to read the whole thing!)


jelly beansLucy loves sweets, and in her two-and-a-half-year-old brain, if she knows where the candy is, and she knows how to get to it, then it follows that she should get to it and eat as much as she can. I can’t just move the candy–then it becomes a game of hide and seek.  I have to tell her that she can’t have any jelly beans without asking me first. Now I’ve set up a moral boundary; and when she climbs on the high stool to open the cupboard anyway,  we can deal with the consequences of disobedience.

Knowledge without moral virtue cannot help but be selfish and self-serving. We need add our knowledge to a foundation of virtue in order to remove learning’s deadly edge, blunt its brute force. We think of knowledge as elegant and refined, but without goodness to temper it, it’s an unwieldy weapon, crude and heavy–without intending to, it can wound us as well as others.  

[I think of the young Davy in one of L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables books, who blurts out, “Say, Anne, did you know that Gilbert Blythe is dying?”  Davy is proud of having “news”, of knowing something that someone else doesn’t. But there is no discernment, no discretion or sensitivity as to when and how to impart that knowledge. Can you think of other literary or film examples of knowledge without goodness doing harm? Answer in the comment section!]

We spend a lot of time on this blog examining what appears to be a total disregard for truth among people who are in positions of power. In how many instances, do you suppose, does this stem from having “knowledge” without “goodness”–and pursuing a course based on that knowledge in arrogance?

Yes, that was a rhetorical question. I’m fairly sure I know the answer.

2 responses to “Toxic Knowledge: How to control an unwieldy weapon

  1. What a good Insight. You know the truth, but need to discern how to tell it.

    • Yes.Moral goodness (aka Christlikeness) becomes the filter through which we discern time, place, manner and motive for sharing our knowledge

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