Ephesians 6.10-12 – “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
Francis Bacon once summed up an attitude that has defined the Western world and, through the influence of the West, the whole of the world: “Knowledge is power.” Similarly, but with a negative view, St. Paul observes that “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” While Paul does not tightly connect knowledge with power, as Paul recognizes the importance of God’s power in the life of believers, there is the recognition of two different orientations for power: towards the self and towards the other. We might say that knowledge is power to build oneself up, whereas love is the power to build up others.
Of course, it is relevant to observe that Bacon and Paul have subtly different conceptions of knowledge. Bacon saw knowledge as a form of science about the world, whereas Paul understood knowledge in 1 Corinthians 8 with a cosmological focus. Nevertheless, the connection between knowledge and power is rooted in the ultimately pragmatic purpose of knowledge, to direct our actions, influence others, and modify our environments for the achievement of specific desires, goals, and purposes.
Knowledge and power then are expressions of our desires, goals, and purposes. Our desires, include the desires motivated by specific fears, determine what we pay attention to, our goals give us specific directions to go, and our purposes give us an overarching sense of meaning to life. All of these things frame what we are willing to come to know and how we are willing to use that knowledge and the concomitant power.
However, as is often the truth, our desires, goals, and purposes are not always in perfect accord with each other. For instance, Paul observes that the desires of the Spirit and flesh stand against each other (Gal. 5.17). Consequently, the bodies of knowledge and the uses of power in our individual lives and our society is of an irreducibly ambivalent, if not even ambiguous moral quality. From the perspective of the individual moral thinker, it makes justification of our knowledge and power to be quite a morally perilous task whenever we begin to step into the realm of the ambiguous, uncertain, debated, and controversial. However, from the perspective of the individual biological organism that does not so readily answer to the dictates of ‘rationality,’ it leaves us living in contradictions within our lives to various degrees. The Bible refers to these contradictions from God’s righteousness as sin as those things that live in contradiction to God’s expression instructions and purposes for His creation. Our knowledges and forms of power get used for desires, goals, and purposes that we may not even be consciously aware and reflect upon until they are brought to our attention.
This leaves us in a very ambiguous places when it comes to knowledge and power. When we live in world where there are where the boundaries between right and wrong, good and bad and where the knowledge of ourselves is hazy, piecemeal, and uncertain, we are caught up in a place where we call up down, left right, good bad, right wrong, etc. God’s instruction to His People and the leading of the Spirit gave people the boundaries and purposes that kept people far from what is unrighteous. God’s Torah frames who we are not to be (“the knowledge of sin comes through the Torah;” Rom. 3.20) and the revelation of God’s righteousness in Jesus Christ shows us how to become the people God calls us and leads us to be through His Spirit.
All this is to say that the line between the divine purposes and the plans of Satan are hazy when we look at it from the angle of knowledge and power, but they become clear and unambiguous when we look at it from the perspective of Christian, agape love. Pursue power, pursue knowledge and you set yourself up on a journey that you may know where you are going in the short run but do not know where it will take you in the long run. Pursue God’s type of love, pursue God’s type of peace and you will be on a journey that one can not predict from moment to moment, but it will point you on the long journey to the promises of God.
Unfortunately, with the emergence of the Enlightenment, the West and the world through the influence of the West became inundated with the plans of the devil. It was the knowledge of good and evil that tempted Adam and Eve from their sustained life with God and unleashed a series of powers in the world that culminated into widespread violence that God washed away and the arrogant achievements of collective human power that God brought confusion to reverse. The story of the West in the 20th and 21st centuries under the historical tutelage of the Enlightenment is the antedilvuian story: the propagation of widespread brutality, violence, and genocide and the eventual confusion of Western power in post-modernity. The racisms, sexisms, nationalisms, etc. of this era can all find their origins within the Enlightenment worldview as it took its scientific methodology for studying the natural world and directed towards understanding people, falsely offering a promise that there was some clearly definable and unalterable ‘nature’ of who people were and that these ‘natures’ demand specific types of relations between people of similar and different ‘natures.’ Once these social relations became defined by specific types of power-relations, both in their habitual, cultural practice and the formal rationalizations of these power-relations, the Enlightenment made room for the devil to bring his evil into the world.
In this vein, post-modernity is to the Enlightenment what the confusion of the languages was to Babel. Post-modernity sought to fight the oppression and evil built into modernity, but in the confusion it has simply replaced a singular, normative form of knowledge and power with a pluralistic conceptions of knowledges and powers that live in constant conflict with each other. This is nothing to the devil, however, as the devil fights against God’s good intentions and purposes and is not concerned with the world being in constant conflict with itself.
I would compare the story of the West and its worldview influence from the Enlightenment onward as the story of Satan deceiving the nations from the four corners of the earth, surrounding God’s saints who seek God’s good will with perseverance in following Christ (Rev. 20.7-9). As we live in this world of various knowledges and powers, the pursuit of power and knowledge is the ever-present primeval temptation.
Not that God can not work in the midst of knowledge and power. Zerubabbel, the governor of Judah, the chosen by God, and whose name means the diffusion of confusion, is the one who the prophet Zechariah speaks of building the foundation and completing God’s temple. Yet, this is accomplished not by human might or power, but by God’s Spirit (Zech 4.6-10). It is in the time of Zerubabbel that God dramatically shakes everything up with human power and strength (Hag. 2.20-23). God’s Spirit can reorient people to live out God’s purposes for humanity in the image of God with the specific ‘powers’ that God gives to accomplish new creation for people by uniting with and building them up in Christ.
How shall we seek this? It doesn’t come through any clearly discernable knowledge or clear form of power. If it did, Satan, who can masquerade as an agent of light, could reproduce and mislead God’s People from God’s purposes. Satan, however, is ignorant of how God achieves His purposes, or the devil would have prevented the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. God veils his purposes from Satan as Satan seeks to outwit God’s people. It comes by pursuing love for others. Not as an end towards powers, but as the products of love being the ends we seek ourselves. Just as a love of a husband and wife produces a love for a family, so God’s type of love produces the blessings that we seek to enjoy. It is God’s love that produces the blessings of Abraham that reverses the cursed antideluvian world, and it is God’s love in Christ that will produce the blessings that will tear down the powers of the devil and casts the evils of the present age into a fire.
Seek God’s power and it might take you off track, even if you think it is for God’s purposes. This is part of the problem that is happening in 1 Corinthians 12-14. Instead, seek God’s loving purposes and seek for God to empower you for those purposes.