The cost of knowledge


Noblesse Oblige. Itís a statement of responsibility that has its origins deep in our history. It implies that nobility carries with it, certain obligations. To have much, at one time, didnít imply that one could shirk responsibility, but rather that it required responsibility. Over the years, we seem to have lost that. Most people in America have a great deal, but many believe that a life of leisure is the goal to be attained.


Noblesse Oblige is not a concept which should apply to nobility alone. In fact, today, our ďnoble classesĒ are all but vanished. In the United States, we do have well-respected families, but we have no monarchs to confer such titles of distinction upon anyone. And while they exist in practice in some countries, they certainly donít bear the same authority which they once did. If Noblesse Oblige means anything today, it is something beyond the responsibilities of noble rank.


Noblesse Oblige is a valid principle. It tells us that we are responsible for what we have. Christ said ďTo whom is given much, much shall be requiredĒ. This is, in my opinion, the universal truth behind Noblesse Oblige. And if we accept that weíve all been given much, then much is required of us all.


So, what do we all have? We all have life, we all have creative ability. Weíre all gaining in knowledge. And tonight, I want to talk about knowledge.


What is the cost of knowledge? We might be tempted to think of the cost of education, but education is not knowledge. We can all spend countless thousands of dollars on our educations, but the number of facts we retain, the knowledge we accrue is not determined by the school or classes we take. One can learn a great deal without ever stepping foot in a university classroom.


Knowledge can be gained by anyone. The systematic processes of modern universities make it easier for teachers and professors to convey their knowledge to large groups of students at one time, but they are not the sole source of knowledge. The cost of an education is not the price of knowledge of which Iím talking.


The cost of knowledge is a personal cost. It is the responsibility, the obligation that comes with knowledge. When we know something, we are responsible for that knowledge, and for what that knowledge implies. If we know of a crime that is taking place, itís our responsibility to report it or prevent it, if possible. If we know of an injustice, we ought to seek a way to remedy it.


But knowledge brings on other responsibilities than justice. Weíve all heard the saying ďThe more I know, the more I realize I donít knowĒ in some form or other. Learning brings on as many questions as it does knowledge.


In every case though, the cost of knowledge is responsibility. If we learn something that raises questions, itís our responsibility to investigate these questions. If our learning brings an injustice to our eyes, itís our responsibility to address, in some way, that injustice.


I donít think that weíre called to be vigilantes. We arenít supposed to police the world, but we are called to know what our part in it is, and to take our share of responsibility.


What are some of the specific costs of knowledge?

I think the first is to decide whether what we know, or what we think we know, is in fact truth. There have been many scientific theories that have been later put down, there have been people convicted of crimes which they did not commit, and there are rumors aplenty that have no basis in fact, which can be quite damaging.


As people of reason, itís important for us to understand the limits of what we know, and to determine what level of proof we will accept as justification for the things we claim to know.


Through the ages, science has relied on a number of hypotheses for which the only validation has been the recognition that a particular hypothesis seemed to fit the observable evidence. The trouble was that for many of these, there was no known way, at the time, to test them. The idea of an ether, through which electromagnetic waves propagated seemed to fit; after all, we know that sound waves need the medium of air, or some substance, in which to move. The trouble was that electromagnetism doesnít behave as sound, and eventually, the ether was disproved.


Many people have been convicted of crimes for which the actual evidence was scant, only later, after having spent many years in prison, to have those cases reversed. At times, it seems that our legal system is so embarrassed by such cases, that they wonít permit a retrial, or will have the innocent person plead guilty of a lesser crime in order to be set free.


Lots of us listen to rumors, and even pass them along, thinking the word of a good friend, who heard from a good friend, about some salacious act of another is sufficient proof. Reputations are destroyed, all because we accept what we hear as evidence.


How to combat this?


First, I think that we all need to exercise critical thinking. Iím glad that some schools are working on critical thinking. But the trouble is that while itís taught in schools, itís not applied often outside of an academic environment. We can dissect a story in a classroom and recognize where a writer might be trying to imply something without actually saying it. If they are successful, theyíll have other people saying what they wanted to say, but can deny it themselves. But when it comes to rumor, we fall prey simply because we donít wish to exercise our minds when itís a friend talking.


In science and engineering, we might have a spark of insight, and instinctively ďknowĒ something to be the right answer. The feeling is so strong, that we accept it as true as a mathematical fact. We donít see the need to test it. But this results in faulty bridges, O-rings in spacecraft, fires because of high oxygen environments and other disasters.


A failure to think critically about those things we believe we know results in cocky attitudes. It permits us to think weíre above or beyond fault.


I think that one of the concepts that is too seldom explored critically is the idea that if we are right, that an opposing view must be wrong. Itís the failure to recognize that two different viewpoints CAN be correct. Perhaps nothing creates hard feelings between people more than the idea that disagreement implies that someone is wrong.


I remember some years ago, when my ex and I were divorcing. We had the benefit of a wise counselor. My ex and I are extremely different, and on different paths I our lives. We were together for a time, and are still friends. But I think weíre friends because of the wisdom of this one counselor, who one day looked at us and remarked that itís sad when two people love each other, but have such different viewpoints, and both of those viewpoints are right.


There are simply times when people are at loggerheads, and both are right.


So part of our responsibility with knowledge is to recognize that itís seldom absolute.


Many of us run into this problem when dealing with radical fundamentalism Ö whether it be Christian, Islam, or even some pagans. They become so convinced that because they believe (know) that they are right, everyone else must be wrong.


I used to be under the impression among other pagans, that in our faiths, it wasnít that way. The sad truth is that there are some pagans who are just as rabidly radical as some of the Christians. I suppose that it works for them, and thatís fine. I canít say that what they have is wrong. If it helps them get through life, then great. But this all gets dangerous when these groups become so large that they can exercise control over others.


In our country, weíre seeing a great many laws that are trying to codify Christian belief and impose it on others. This is identical to what happened in the past in countries where Islam is the dominant religion, and what happened to the Holy Roman Empire.


For us, who donít believe in such fundamentalism, we need to be responsible for our knowledge about it. We need to remain active and aware, informing our representatives about such dangers, and striving to maintain our liberty.


In our personal relations, the same principle applies. We need to be aware and accepting of other views, but we need to resist our own efforts to dominate others, or to be dominated.


When weíre presented with arguments, sometimes we need to simply say ďwaitĒ. We need to gather the facts for ourselves and make our own decisions.


One of the best examples of this is missionaries. So many of us are so afraid to open the door when we see a pair of people, dressed conservatively, perhaps wearing badges, and carrying books.


We donít want to engage Ö often it seems that they have an answer for everything. The truth is that they donít. They have an answer for the most common objections to what theyíre promoting, but they donít have all of the answers.


Personally, I donít mind talking to these people. Itís seldom that I get someone to willingly come to me and talk religion, and frankly, I enjoy it. Itís not so much that I want to poke holes in what they believe, but I do look at it as an opportunity to maybe shed some light on some things that they might not understand. I want them to know that there are pagans out there, and that we arenít what they think we are.


To do this effectively though requires one more thing of knowledge. It requires that we have personally worked out our own beliefs. There are so many of us, pagans, Christians, Muslims, Jews Ö it doesnít matter the religion Ö who simply donít know what it is that we believe. Some of us come in and get fed some doctrine, and accept it, but havenít really worked out what it means for ourselves.


If we donít know what it is that we believe, itís very difficult to explain it to someone else.


If weíre going to take it to that next step, and discuss it with others though, there is one further step thatís needed. We need to understand THEIR beliefs. We canít take it for granted that they are any more prepared than the average person. They may know the answers to specific things, but not every missionary is a theologian.


One of the best examples of this is the idea of homosexuality in the Bible. Most everyone knows that the Bible condemns homosexuality. The trouble is that it does so ONLY in modern translations. Weíll see preacher after preacher and ex-gay after ex-gay (another term which I wholly disagree with) who point to Leviticus and the writings of Paul. There it is in plain English, Homosexual. But we forget that the Bible wasnít written in English, and if we look back a bit, itís not so clear.


In any case, arguments are made and countered. But to debate, we need to know what the other person is saying.


And this brings another responsibility of knowledge Ö listening and understanding. It doesnít work to simply counter volley for volley with barrages of facts. Knowledge is never (or rarely) imparted when people are angrily shouting facts at each other. We need to listen to, and understand what the other person is saying. If weíre getting angry, itís quite likely that there is something we donít know.

Letís listen to the contrary viewpoint. Take time to understand it. We might find that weíll learn something in the process, and perhaps that other viewpoint isnít that silly. Maybe that other position can co-exist with ours.


Some people think that Christianity canít co-exist with paganism. Hereís a bit of truth though:

For as much as Christianity tries to impose itself as the law of the land, maybe we canít. If, as centuries ago, it becomes illegal to worship other gods, then itís impossible. But the founding of the United States made clear that no single religion should rule. As long as that fertile ground of religious liberty exists and is embraced though, we can coexist.


We need to believe that our faith is right for us. We can believe that itís right for all, if thatís what our faith tells us, but we need to be willing to let others co-exist and flourish.


For at least now, the poison of a theocracy canít be permitted to stand. There isnít one common voice on Earth at the moment, and a single god would need to speak with a single voice. Even the Bible elicits controversy Ö there are few groups and few individuals, even among fundamentalists, who agree on everything the Bible states. There is no single voice for God on the planet, and there are many who believe there is no single god.


Knowledge requires that we take a position. Itís fine to remain in the dark, and not have a position, if thatís what you want, but the moment you gain knowledge, it canít but affect you. I think that the discomfort of taking a stand is often, if not always less than the discomfort of permitting something evil to happen that we could have prevented. Taking a stand and failing is even better than not trying.


Yeah, you need to pick your battles, but to stand up for nothing, at least for me, would be a tragedy. John Greenleaf Whittier, who also took a stand as an abolitionist, once wrote these words in one of his poems :Ē For of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these: "It might have been!"Ē


Taking a stand often requires the paying of a price. But, I think, thatís just whatís implied in Nobless Oblige.


© 2000, Deirdre A. Hebert