Knowledge versus spirituality

Gagik asked:

About 2 weeks ago in a religion class we were talking about materialism vs spirituality. The claim of my teacher was that at the end of the life materialistic goods would not matter. My reply was that knowledge is very important for people, so important that it is easily objectified and it could be materialistic in a way, for example: If someone really wants to become a doctor they have to learn for it to have a better future buy things so on and so on. So my question is this, does the knowledge of the scriptures mean that it is materialistic and it can be objectified ? forgive me for using banal words, I am working on it.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Is knowledge a ‘material good’? There is a strong tradition within Christianity that the quest for knowledge – or, at least, certain kinds of knowledge – is an expression of human vanity, and should be suppressed. ‘Credo, quia absurdum.’ (‘I believe, because it’s absurd.’). So, yes, even knowledge of the Holy Scriptures (whatever your faith happens to be) could be termed materialistic, if you are going about this as someone who is keenly interested in religion as human phenomenon, rather than someone who is devoutly religious seeking revelation.

Here’s another way of putting your question: Is knowledge for its own sake in any way better than material possessions and enjoyments, so far as the pursuit of spirituality is concerned? Aren’t they both in the same category, as things we ‘own’ and ‘enjoy’?

In the Middle Ages, the defence of anyone pursuing knowledge against religious criticism was that one is striving to ‘appreciate better God’s great works’. Learning about the world of nature, or science, can be seen as a religioius quest, up to a point. Maybe they believed this – up to a point.

Consider the story of Galileo, or Descartes. I don’t know how devout these men really were. Galileo was up against a view of the physical world derived from Aristotle that was considered at the time to immune to challenge. Anyone who questioned that view was challenging the authority of the Church. Galileo was forced to recant his view that ‘the Earth moves’ by the Inquisition. Descartes suppressed some of his own writings for fear of suffering a similar fate, presenting his radical theory of mind-body interactionism in the form of a defence of the notions of the ‘soul’ and ‘God’.

I would like to consider a view that is perhaps not that popular today, that all this impressive knowledge is a kind of human vanity. The world is in incredible place full of, wherever you look, through the lens of physics, or chemistry, or biology, and all the other sciences or indeed the humanities. Art, literature, music. Enough to make any one of these realms your whole life.

And, yet, you might still be missing something. I am talking about the sense of ‘what it all means’, the feeling that motivates religion. Can you be spiritual, without believing in a God? Is there room, in our lives, for focusing on the ultimate questions of existence, regardless of how the world may be in all its incredible variety and detail? If there is, then that is an activity that I would consider part of the enterprise of ‘metaphysics’, as I conceive it.

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