A couple of weeks ago, Rev. Richard Rudowske, chief operating officer of Lutheran Bible Translators as well as Doctor of Philosophy—Missiology student here at CTSFW, led a convocation on “The Curse of Knowledge.” The mission of Lutheran Bible Translators is to translate the Bible into every tongue, that all people and nations may read and hear God’s Word in their heart language. Why, then, would he lecture on knowledge as a “curse”?
First, what is this curse? It’s this: when people know information, they don’t know what it’s like not to know it. For example (a particularly poignant one for this convocation audience), a professor who knows his subject inside and out can easily forget what it was like before he learned it, accidentally leaving behind his students when he assumes a base of knowledge they don’t have. “Ignorance can be a virtue in education.” (“Tell your professors that,” Rev. Rudowske added as an aside, as he read this quote from an educational study.) “To teach effectively, you need to see things from the naive perspective of your pupil—and the more knowledge you have acquired, the harder it gets.”
It’s a problem across fields. Rev. Rudowske quoted economists, psychologists, educational experts, and an article written by a plumber: “I was an expert in my knowledge base, but not a professional in my field. The curse of knowledge must be battled daily. Know your foe: arrogance.”
This curse can be traced back to Genesis 3:4-7. “But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.”
The first thing Adam and Eve noticed was their nakedness. They immediately turned their eyes to themselves. Or, to use a Latin theological phrase: incurvatus in se. “Curved inward on oneself.” “That’s really mankind ever since,” Rev. Rudowske said. “You care more about and think about what you know and less about what someone else knows. That’s the depth of the effect of sin.”
Though he began the convocation as a typical presentation, Rev. Rudowske soon opened up the floor to comments and questions from the students, leading it more as a regular class. Theological knowledge is going to serve foundationally towards their future as teachers (an intrinsic part of both pastoral and diaconal vocations), but overwhelming knowledge can unintentionally intimidate or lose listeners, such as when they use unfamiliar jargon or allude to the Bible without attribution or context. “We’re not called to dumb down the message of the Gospel or the Law,” Rev. Rudowske said. “But be aware of your audience. That’s a key part when you’re assigned to a vocation: be intimately involved in that community.” The Word of redemption is universal, but we have relationships with people so that we can also speak personally and directly to their individual needs.
Dr. Detlev Schulz, Professor of Pastoral Ministry and Missions here at CTSFW, chimed in, speaking of how this ties into emotional intelligence, the “self-awareness—or awareness—of how you view your actions as they affect other people,” he explained. It’s also an important tool for future pastors and deaconesses. For example, your language may be theologically correct and academically impressive, but can you recognize how it may be heard or understood? Will it help and serve your neighbor, or overwhelm and lose him?
Speak to your hearers, not to your own ears. Or as 1 Corinthians 13:1-2 puts it: “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.”
And thanks be to God, we also have the promise that the Word works despite our fallen nature. We are tasked with speaking it, but we need not be driven to despair over our unworthiness. “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11). Christ Jesus works both because and despite us. We are His workmanship (Eph. 2:10).