Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene Reformed Irenicism

There Are No Happy Christians, or: Profitable Knowledge Makes Us Sad

Once again, the title was intended to draw you in. There are obviously respects in which it is patently false. But it is not false in every respect.

I was directed to the following passage in Bernard of Clairvaux’s Commentary on the Song of Songs (36.2) by John Webster’s essay on the vice of curiosity. In it, Bernard makes the striking claim that the right kind of knowledge induces weeping. Why? Because it shows us our poverty, our pain, our weakness: our utter lack of self-sufficiency and our absolute need for God’s mercy. The wrong kind of knowledge, on the other hand, puffs up with self-importance, which has its root in pride. It makes a pretense of health, which only serves to mask its subject’s need for wellness–that is, for salvation.

We should therefore flee “inordinate thinking”–and disordered thinking–and pursue the opposite in true self-knowledge of our complete dependence upon the divine benevolence and love.

Perhaps you think that I have sullied too much the good name of knowledge, that I have cast
aspersions on the learned and proscribed the study of letters. God forbid! I am not unmindful of the
benefits its scholars conferred, and still confer, on the Church, both by refuting her opponents and
instructing the simple. And I have read the text: “As you have rejected knowledge, so do I reject you
from my priesthood;” read that the learned will shine as brightly as the vault of heaven, and those
who have instructed many in virtue as bright as stars for all eternity. But I recall reading too that
knowledge puffs up, and “the more the knowledge, the more the sorrow.” There are then different
kinds of knowledge, one contributing to self-importance, the other to sadness. Wiich of the two do
you think is more useful or necessary to salvation, the one that makes you vain or the one that
makes you weep? I feel sure you would prefer the latter to the former, for vanity but pretends to
health whereas pain expresses a need. Anyone who thus demands is on the way to being saved,
because the one who asks receives. Furthermore, Paul tells us that he who heals the
brokenhearted abhors the proud: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”
also said, “By the grace given to me I bid every one among you not to think more than he ought to
think, but to think with sober judgment.” He does not forbid thinking, but inordinate thinking. And
what is meant by thinking with sober judgment? It means taking the utmost care to discover what
are the essential and primary truths, for the time is short. All knowledge is good in itself, provided it
be founded on the truth; but since because of the brevity of time you are in a hurry to work out your
salvation in fear and trembling, take care to learn, principally and primarily, the doctrines on which
your salvation is more intimately dependent. Do not doctors of medicine hold that part of the work
of healing depends on a right choice in the taking of food, what to take first, what next, and the
amount of each kind to be eaten? For although it is clear that all the foods God made are good, if
you fail to take the right amount in due order, you obviously take them to the detriment of your
health. And what I say about foods I want you to apply to the various kinds of knowledge.


By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.

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