Why Theology Is About Learning to Live and Not Living to Learn
"and this is eternal life, that they know you..." - John 17:3a
Why is theology about learning to live and not living to learn? Many make this mistake. I have heard the saying about food: eat to live, don’t live to eat. What is true with respect to food and the body is also true with respect to knowledge and living. Some people make the mistake of placing knowledge at the summit of their reason and motivation for existence. Yet the sum purpose of life is not abstract knowledge, not a mere amassing of wealth.
Even with money, we understand that having vast sums of cash isn’t the point of money. At least, it shouldn't be. Cash is a means to get what you want. Cash itself is not as important as what it makes you able to buy. Cash is about potential. So is knowledge.
The Purpose of Knowledge
Knowledge is intended to be used for something, and that something is a right relationship with God and his creation. We are called to love God with all we are: heart, soul, mind, and strength. Every fiber of our strength and capacity of the mind is intended and designed to be used in the service of knowing and relating to God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
So when Jesus says that eternal life is knowing God (specifically the Father and his son whom he sent), he is speaking of a relationship and not mere facts. It is apparent and obvious that one’s relationship with a person is more than mere facts about a person. However, the relationship is not less than real facts or despite real facts. A relationship is based on real facts and shared experiences. So when we say that theology is about learning to live and not living to learn, we are ensuring that all of our pursuit of knowledge is harnessed in pursuit of knowledge’s true end: knowing God. And knowing God is having a relationship with Him. And that relationship must include knowledge that we learn.
The point is that knowledge in the abstract is not the final end but a means to an end. Knowledge serves a greater purpose than itself. Knowledge in the abstract serves a relationship with God. Anything short of that is knowledge curtailed, cut off from its intended end. We live truly to the extent that we know God fully. And so theology cannot have living to learn as its end, because all learning serves living. Living does not serve learning.
Is it tautologous to say that life is about learning to live and not living to learn? Could this not be reduced to simply saying that life is about living? This is hardly adequate. So how can we put it positively? It may be helpful to clarify that life is not all about learning. But then, what is life all about? In the absence of a clear alternative, people will go with what they know. It feels safer to go with a meager and inadequate idea than to go with no idea at all. If we are not careful, the claim that theology is about learning to live rather than living to learn will only beg the question of what is the point of life.
Here I believe it is best to return to Jesus' words in the high priestly prayer. Life is about knowing God. Knowing God! So it does come down, we might say, to a species of learning. Yet not learning in an abstract sense. It is a knowledge of relationship. We have established already that this knowledge is more than abstract knowledge. But we have also established that it is not less.
So it is that we might construct a kind of hierarchy of knowledge and learning. Abstract and rote learning is a stage in knowledge, but it is to knowledge fully conceived what an egg is to a fully-grown chicken. It is a difference in the stage through which we must pass. But it is also the difference between what is potential life and activity as represented by the beginning form of life in the egg and the realized life and activity as represented by the life of an adult chicken.
The Value of Knowledge
I think some people will read that life is about knowing God and jump to the incorrect and hasty conclusion that most knowledge just doesn't matter, only those matters which directly relate to God himself. But this could not be further from the truth! All knowledge derives its significance from its place relative to my knowledge of God. Other knowledge not specifically about God is not unimportant for being specifically about something other than God directly. It is important insofar as you can properly orient and locate that information relative to God and his creation. Certainly, life is full of minutiae, but God made those minutiae. Knowing how many teacups are in my cupboard may be relatively less important than articulating a sound theology of the atonement, but that does not lead me to despise the teacups.
This leads to the important point that all knowledge is unified. Knowledge finds its origin and ground in God. Knowledge exists because of God. Because God made things, there are things to know. But to know the middle of something and not the beginning is at least limited knowledge if it can be called knowledge at all. Knowledge properly understood must be knowledge correctly held relative to God himself. So when we learn, we should seek to understand not only the thing in itself but also at least two other points. The first is how that knowledge connects to God, meaning his divine nature and revealed plan. The second is how that knowledge connects to the knower - that is, to me, my nature, and my calling.
There is another important caveat worth mentioning here. It is that what we have said about less important facts and the unity of knowledge should lead us to conclude that we bear an important responsibility for what we know. We can never separate our personal agency from our knowledge. While it would be wrong to despise the teacups in our cupboards because that knowledge is relatively less important than knowing how to pray, it would also be wrong to give inordinate attention to the teacups.
The Place of Knowledge
So much about the pursuit of knowledge is in proportion and disposition. By proportion, I mean we must never exalt knowledge of anything above God, nor divorce it from God as though anything that is not God loses all significance, for God is Creator, and his creation reflects him. By disposition, I mean that how we approach knowledge, with what goals and ends, determines the moral nature of that knowledge. We can never separate what we know from why and how we know it. And our disposition ought to be to learn to the glory of God and in the service of the love of God. These two things, proportion and disposition, should serve as guardrails to keep our pursuit of knowledge from veering off course.
Having knowledge for knowledge's sake is like having money for money's sake. What are you going to do with it? What is it for? Perhaps we could say that knowledge is akin to the currency of life in a way that is analogous to how money is always in some form of currency, whether in Dollars, Euros, Yen, etc.
And this is how eternal life is knowing God. It is that this knowledge is the only currency that stands forever. All others fade away. It may be useful to know about some people or things in the short term. But if all our knowledge is about and for temporal things rather than eternal things, we will find one day that our currency can no longer help us. We need a different currency, a different knowledge, a divine and eternal one. And this is what we have whenever we properly understand the connection between any bit of knowledge and how it is connected to our living for God. And this is how we experience eternal life now, because in this way we know God according to how he has revealed himself and allowed himself to be known.
The principal danger we have attempted to warn against is knowledge for knowledge's sake. But we should clarify as well that knowledge only for the sake of this life is also dangerous, The knowledge that is full and desirable is the knowledge that constitutes and/or adorns our relationship with the only true God and his Son whom he sent.