Knowledge: Forbidden and Unforbidden

Douglas P. McManaman
March 26, 2020
Reproduced with Permission

The most mysterious question I've ever had my students think about is the following: "What is it one "has" when one "has" knowledge?" We say that knowledge is "in us"; so, what is it that is in us when we claim that we know something? If knowledge is "in us", then that which we know outside of us must in some way exist within us, but in a way different from the way it exists outside of us. What we know exists in us in an immaterial way. It would seem, therefore, that knowledge is a kind of union. The knower is united to the known, that is, the object known exists in the knower not physically but immaterially. What the mind produces as a result of this union is a concept. In other words, a conception takes place; an idea is conceived. The mind is a kind of womb in which something immaterial is conceived, as the fruit of a union. And just as a woman who conceives a new life within her womb becomes more than what she is individually - she becomes two, so to speak - , knowledge brings about an enlargement of the human person. Without ceasing to be myself, I also become the object known, but in an immaterial way. Hence, the more a person knows, the greater the self-expansion.

There is, however, another kind of expansion within the human person, namely the self-expansion of love. When I know an object, that object exists in me immaterially, but when I freely choose to love another human person as another self , that is, as another me , then I exist outside myself in that 'other'. Just as I naturally will the best for myself, I now choose to will the best for the other, for his sake, not for my sake. Thus, in a real exit of self, I have become him, and it is for that reason that I am now two, or three, or four, depending on how many I choose to love like that. Having something exist in me through knowledge is only a partial self-expansion; in loving a person as another self, I complete the self-expansion that was begun in knowing the person.

This further self-expansion begets a specific kind of knowledge, very different from knowledge of the conceptual sort. For the sake of convenience, I will refer to conceptual knowledge as type I knowledge ; this latter self-expansive kind I will designate as type II knowledge . This latter sort is a kind of self-knowledge, the knowledge of an existing self that has expanded through a love that involves an exit of self. Moreover, it is a knowledge that cannot be imparted to another. Perhaps it can be described, articulated in some way, but it is a non-conceptual knowledge, and so it cannot be understood by someone who has not tasted it, or who has not expanded to the same degree as the knower in question. This knowledge is analogous to the intellectual apprehension of existence; for I can know what a thing is - albeit imperfectly, such as the nature of a thing, but over and above this knowledge I also apprehend, simultaneously, the very existence of the thing ( that it is ) through a second act of the intellect, namely existential judgment. Existential judgment is a richer knowledge, and it is a knowledge inaccessible to the first act of the intellect, which apprehends to some degree the nature of the thing known (what it is). The apprehension of a thing's existence is inaccessible to the simple apprehension of a thing's nature because the act of existing does not belong to a thing's nature. That is why existential judgment is a non-conceptual knowledge; being is not an idea; it is the act of a "what is". Similarly, type II knowledge, which is the knowledge that is the fruit of the self-expansion of love, is non-conceptual; it is much richer than conceptual knowing, for it is an offspring of genuine love; it is the knowledge of an expanded being. The knowledge that results from this self-expansion is the fruit of humility, obedience to divine and natural law, the fruit of charitable service that is genuinely self-sacrificial.

This is the knowledge man was created for - type I knowledge exists to serve this higher mode of knowing. [1] There is, however, a knowledge that is forbidden to man. We see this first in the symbolism of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in Genesis. "Fruit" symbolizes the Jewish understanding of knowledge as experience; in other words, it is more than an abstract apprehension of what things are, or a knowledge of conclusions reasoned to on the basis of principles naturally apprehended; it is a union, like eating. More importantly, however, it is a knowledge that follows upon an act, a doing, and since we determine ourselves to be a certain kind of person by the choices that we make, there is a knowledge that is forbidden because it is the fruit of an action that is not self-expansive, but self-diminishing. Disobedience, independence, and the pseudo-sophistication being one's own god brings a knowledge that is the fruit of a diminished self. [2]

The lure of forbidden knowledge is its esotericism; we feel we are in some sense separated from others, set apart from them. We are "like God" insofar as we are independent, or "set apart" (sacred), but this is a pseudo-sacredness. We may have, as a result of forbidden knowledge, an apprehension of new concepts (type I), but on the type II level we have nothing more than a knowledge of sin, which amounts to a knowledge of a diminished self, and because this is a diminishment, it is a kind of darkness. In reality, we are not like God as a result of that knowledge; for the Word who is with God and is God, is Light from Light, and we've chosen to believe a lie. If we want to be like God and possess a kind of inaccessible knowledge, we only need to obey God, act in accordance with his will, and carry out acts of charitable service. In doing so, we become larger, good, holy, more than what we are without ceasing to be what we are, and the knowledge that results from this growth in goodness is a knowledge that is good and thus permissible. It is also in a sense unique, because the expanded self is unique. There is much that can be articulated through concepts that are made possible by this type II knowledge, but the articulation of such a knowledge is not the same as the knowledge itself, just as knowing about a country by reading about it is not the same as actually visiting that country (the former is conceptual, the latter is both conceptual and nonconceptual, or essential and existential).

Since human beings carry the wounds of Original Sin, there is a tendency within us to want to possess knowledge that is forbidden. Early on in the bible, in the story of Noah, Ham looks upon his father's nakedness and tells his brothers about it. Shem and Japheth take a robe and holding it on their shoulders, walk backward and cover their father's nakedness; they walk backwards in order not to see his nakedness. Something of the character of the sons is revealed here: Shem and Japheth close their minds to a knowledge that is forbidden, while Ham opens his. Adultery is an example of forbidden knowledge; the secret knowledge that results from lying is forbidden knowledge, and since arrogance is a form of lying, the knowledge that is the fruit of putting on airs is forbidden. Reading a person's private communications that he/she has not shared with us is an example of forbidden knowledge; the knowledge that results from exercising dominion over another human being that involves his murder is forbidden knowledge. Some media sources indulge in forbidden knowledge almost always, for example, by exposing others' secrets, their fall from grace, etc., because readers often delight in forbidden knowledge.

Knowledge is a trust. What this means is that knowledge is entrusted to the knower, and so the one to whom it is entrusted ought to be equal to the trust, that is, trustworthy. The more precious that which is entrusted, the more trustworthy the person must be to whom it is entrusted. The trustworthiness of the knower will correspond to the moral integrity of the knower.

Consider fornication, which is an example of forbidden knowledge. Sexual intercourse is a knowledge, because it is a union - we speak of carnal knowledge. Sexual union is an intimate union of persons that results in an intimate knowledge of one another. The other is known in a way that is non-conceptual and intimate. Not everyone knows this person that way, that is, in a sexually intimate way. And of course, such knowledge can be abused. A person can be used, tossed aside, and forgotten, as though he or she was a sub-personal object. What was entrusted to another in sexual self-giving, namely the secret of one's intimate self, is not revered as it ought to be. Marriage is an institution that brings about a level of security, and the willingness or unwillingness to establish such a permanent context marks a level of trustworthiness. The person unwilling to establish such a permanent and secure context cannot be trusted to guard this trust as it ought to be - sexual intimacy can also generate a new life, so the sexual act demands a high level of trustworthiness. To choose to fulfill that demand through a complete and total commitment is a noble thing, a charitable act, and it is fitting that such an act be accompanied by a knowledge, which is the fruit of that action, namely the decision to marry. Marriage renders that sexual knowledge fitting, even obligatory.

Concluding thoughts

There are some interesting implications regarding these distinctions. For example, the majority of people are not academics, and some people are just too busy to study either scripture, or history, philosophy, science, economics, mathematics, etc. The knowledge coming out of these and other disciplines is beyond many people. But academic life is primarily about type I knowledge; the purpose of human life, however, at least in terms of knowledge, is that which is the fruit of the self-expansion of love, which is far richer than the knowledge of the former kind. Scientific knowledge of the world in all its diversity and levels of abstraction is inexhaustible and awe-inspiring, but the experience of "awe" and wonder runs out, for it is always a knowledge of what is less than us; but the knowledge that comes from the self-expansion of love, from a genuinely enlarged self that plunges more and more deeply into the good, is of an entirely different nature. It does not get old; it is always new, and it endures; for it is a knowledge of a self that is impregnated with God, who is Goodness Itself, who is not a concept, and who is above us. [3] Perhaps what I am describing is connatural knowledge, and perhaps the preeminent example of this knowing is the Blessed Mother herself. Mary's nature is not equal to the angelic nature, and so neither is her intelligence, but her knowledge surpasses theirs because her holiness does. She sees the world through a perspective of a person who is untouched by sin and full of grace and charity. She is indeed in a class all her own, and what such a person knows is inaccessible to the rest of us.