Those Who Are In The Know (A Rambling)
21 January, 2008
Early Gnostic Christians used to really annoy Bishop Irenaeus. The Bishop of Lyon longed for the days of a united Christian church, one that was truly catholic, that is, universal. In his writings ‘Against Heresies’ he railed against the Gnostics who interpreted the various Gospels in very different ways, and claimed to have special knowledge of what they really meant. In arguments with the Gnostics Irenaeus grew angry since they would treat him as a child, saying that he couldn’t have a real argument since he wasn’t in the know. Being left out of this circle, Irenaeus went on to establish much of the early church doctrine which eventually drove the Gnostics out of Christendom, and left a Church where everyone was welcome at the basic level, and there was no inner mystery, no secret knowledge that only a few could attain.
It has always been the way that Experts, Gnostics, Authorities – those In The Know – have held a double fascination. On the one hand we all long to know and if someone claims to have an esoteric secret it is tempting to keep reaching to find it. On the other, if we find we are barred from knowing then we will dismiss the knowledge as not worth having. L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, once remarked that Calculus was all but useless and didn’t work. He had never been able to understand the mathematics of it and, denied understanding, he dismissed it as a fraud. How ironic that Scientology works on an ascending scale where newcomers are told certain things but the truths are revealed in layers as they progress through the organisation. The lure of the next secret, the next power, keeps people wanting more. And to those outside, we can dismiss the knowledge they gain as foolishness, knowing that we will never take the steps to go through the rigors of the Scientology mill.
But aren’t other disciplines of knowledge like this? Do the sciences not succumb to this same reasoning? As children we are taught simple truths, and in secondary school we learn of Newton’s Laws. But then when we put childish things away we learn that Relativity changes Newton’s Laws. Were we told lies? Do we need to progress slowly along the passageway to truth, until we are finally in the know? Newton may be a bad example since his laws do still work – they are approximations and they are used when not worrying about huge distances, huge speeds, or huge gravities. Pretty much every engineering problem on the planet can cope with using them without Relativity.
What about history? How often have we heard the ‘simple’ version of a tale, only to later discover that the truth is a bit more complicated than that. The Santa/Coca Cola story would be a good example. At first you don’t know of any connection. Then on looking closer you hear that Coca Cola made the Santa suit red. But that’s not entirely true either, and the more you dig, the more uncertain things become. Are those in the know ones who become like Socrates and know only that they don’t know anything?
But if the experts know nothing, then surely we are all experts! This is not so. It simply isn’t true that there are no experts, that all knowledge is worthless simply because there is a long process in getting it. Mathematicians, musicians, sportspeople, engineers, scientists – all have a greater understanding of certain issues than those who have not had their training. What’s the difference between them and the gnostics of old? Even if we cannot do the calculus ourselves we can be pretty sure that it works, the results we see every day. While not all can become a transcendent master, the doorways to maths, science and music are wide open. Could that be the difference then? Openness and transparency?
Whatever the worries about being In The Know, Irenaeus managed to help create a Church without secret levels, and without initiation rites restricted to a special few. His universal Church survives to this day, but still the allure of the Gnostics has been seen, as throughout the history of the Church small secret groups have sprung up. Inevitably they draw the ire of those, who like Irenaeus, were left out of the loop.