Knowledge That Blinds

The Breastplate of Saint Patrick contains a curious prayer invoking God’s power “against every knowledge that blinds the soul of man.” Sometimes it’s called the knowledge that “corrupts,” “binds,” or “defiles.” Whatever the translation, the point remains the same and runs contrary to our culture’s way of thinking. We live by the silly, simplistic notion that “Knowledge is power.” We can’t imagine a bad kind of knowledge.

Saint Patrick knew better. He knew our need to be defended against that kind of “knowledge” that not only fails to help but in fact threatens us. It is a knowledge that promises sight but delivers blindness.

Blind Bartimaeus at least knew that he was blind. It was that knowledge that prompted him to cry out, “Jesus, son of David, have pity on me.” His was a salutary blindness inasmuch as it caused him to seek healing. To be blinded by one’s own knowledge is another matter. It blinds even as it claims to give sight and thus renders us blind to our own blindness.

Take, for example, the contraceptive mentality. With the widespread acceptance and use of contraception, we thought we had obtained a knowledge and know-how better than anyone before. In fact, the contraceptive mentality has blinded us to what our ancestors knew well: the truth of man, woman, sexuality, and marriage.

For if procreation can be eliminated from the marital act, why does the act have to remain within marriage? Why the need for marriage at all? Indeed, why restrict it to a man and woman? And since contraception rejects what is distinctive about man and woman (their ability to procreate), why should we think that to be a man or to be a woman means anything – or is even a reality? Thus we have been blinded to truths once well known.

The contraceptive mentality is connected to another blinding knowledge, the modern understanding of freedom as the ability to do whatever I want. Thus understood, freedom requires the rejection of all limits. Of course, once you remove limits you remove meaning. Something has meaning only to the degree that it has limits. Limitlessness isn’t freedom; it’s meaninglessness. When we insist on such freedom, we blind ourselves to our own meaning and thus invite the very dissolution we’re witnessing.

Then there’s blinding knowledge of “Scientism.” Science in its proper place is a useful tool. Scientism, on the other hand, is authoritarian. “Science is real,” the yard sign announces. What it actually means is that no other kind of knowledge will be accepted as real. It’s as much a threat as a statement. Scientism gives us the narrative that man was in darkness and ignorance until the scientific revolution delivered him. Since that salvific event, we all know better. We have mastered the world (pandemics notwithstanding).

*

Of course, all that Scientism really does is truncate knowledge itself. Our ancestors pondered the physical and the spiritual, the temporal and the eternal. Scientism confines us to the physical and temporal. The only real knowledge (Science is real!) is what we can measure, gauge, and quantify. Far from enlightening, this has blinded us to an entire field of knowledge. Its dualistic narrative (old bad/new good) creates a bias in our minds, rendering us hostile to any wisdom or truth that came before.

Worst of all, the “knowledge” of Scientism blinds us to the truth of our very selves. As embodied souls, we are more than Scientism allows to be studied. It reduces our purpose and meaning to this world only. We become just another physical object to be studied, manipulated, and engineered. Thus has it rendered us incomprehensible to ourselves.

Blind Bartimaeus shows the way out of blindness. First and most importantly, he demonstrates that faith leads to sight. “Your faith has saved you,” our Lord tells him. His faith enabled him to see. Contrary to modern myth, faith enables us to know. As John Paul II put it, “Faith purifies reason and opens up horizons that, of itself, reason could never consider.”

Bartimaeus also shows that sight requires a kind of poverty. When he heard that the Lord was calling him, “he threw aside his cloak, sprang up, and came to Jesus.” That cloak represented the entirety of his possessions. It kept him warm in cold weather and perhaps served as a cushion as he sat begging. But the cloak wasn’t as important as sight. He was willing to throw it aside to run unhindered for healing.

Freedom from blindness requires poverty, the willingness to lose our wealth and supposed control. In the 19thcentury South, the financial benefits of slavery blinded men to the grave evil of that institution. Similarly, we have arranged comfortable, autonomous lives around Scientism, a false notion of freedom, and the contraceptive mentality.

We wear a heavy cloak, not easily thrown aside. We will regain our sight only when we are willing to divest ourselves of all that our “knowledge” has gained us. In short, our problem is not only one of the intellect but of the will. We must be willing to change our lives radically in order to see clearly.

We need to see. We need to be healed of our blindness. Taking our cue from Bartimaeus, let us throw aside our false autonomy and wealth, run to our Lord, and pray that simple prayer, “Lord, that I may see.”

 

*Image: Christ Giving Sight to Bartimaeus by William Blake, c. 1799-1800 [Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT]

You may also enjoy:

St. John Paul II’s The Blindness of Pride (from Fides et Ratio)

Fr. Paul D. Scalia

Fr. Paul Scalia is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington, VA, where he serves as Episcopal Vicar for Clergy and Pastor of Saint James in Falls Church. He is the author of That Nothing May Be Lost: Reflections on Catholic Doctrine and Devotion and the editor of Sermons in Times of Crisis: Twelve Homilies to Stir Your Soul.

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