Our world is obsessed with information. We need only to look to Wikipedia’s mission to accumulate all human-generated content or to the celebritization of men like Julian Assange and Edward Snowden to demonstrate this point. The old adage “knowledge is power” is alive and well today, and no longer does it apply merely to those who are fortunate enough to receive a traditional education; for the Internet has torn asunder the idea that ivory towers of academia hold the only keys to wealth, power, and influence. It is no longer only the academically pedigreed and credentialed that can wield the power of the pen—now, anyone with an ethernet cable and a little sense has the means to shape and influence some sector of society. Those with a taste of what information can do, have, in some sense, an unending world at their fingertips. One might even say that the whole World Wide Web experiment is an attempt to satisfy that insatiable thirst for knowledge.

If we can foster a safe place to accept our intellectual finitude, then perhaps others will feel free to confess their own limits and struggles with grasping information when it is laid before them.In this information age, the ability to collect and synthesize data becomes a prized skill and a leveraging point, especially in small subcultures that are formed on the Internet, where “experts” emerge as kinds of celebrities or authority figures. And in the age of web forums, Reddit, and YouTube channels, you can really be an expert on anything. You can be an expert on Game of Thrones (the books obviously). You can be an expert on “raw” denim. One could even become a “coffee professional” like so many in my industry call themselves, where they are seen as the key holders of knowledge for the perfect cup. The possibilities are endless because information is endless. You can spend your entire life collecting and cataloging data, and there is a place somewhere in the dark crevices of the Internet where it will mean something to someone. This is illustrated powerfully in Max Brooks’s World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War where an interviewer comes to Kyoto, Japan, to speak with a survivor who is part of an ostracised group known as the “otaku.” He begins by explaining the Japanese educational system as one of pure fact retention with no practical application in life. In elaborating on the effects of this he says:

“You can understand how this education would easily lend itself to an existence in cyberspace. In a world of information without context, where status was determined on its acquisition and possession, those of my generation could rule like gods. I was a sensei, master over all I surveyed, be it discovering the blood type of the prime minister’s cabinet, or the tax returns of Matsumoto and Hamada, or the location and condition of all shin-gunto swords of the Pacific War. I didn’t have to worry about my appearance, or my social etiquette, my grades, or my prospects for the future. No one could judge me, no one could hurt me. In this world I was powerful, and more importantly, I was safe!”

This fictional account demonstrates exactly the kind of “experts” that are showing up in sub-reddits and blog comments everywhere. They are kings of their domain, the ephemeral world of cyberspace, where they rule by dispensing the information they have devoured for their fellow cyberlings. Many have found that all you need is to find a group of easily impressed people and you can be crowned their expert to whom they look for wisdom and revelation. Like a gnostic priest mediating between you and the cosmos with secret knowledge pulled from the pools of the World Wide Web, they disseminate their precious information for one more high off the praises of digitized strangers. But the truth is, we’ve all been there. Whether we were the overeager kid in class hoping to impress the teacher or comic book enthusiast rattling off characters to the cute girl at the bookstore, we’ve all felt that need to be acknowledged for our impressive memory or our intellectual prowess.

Sadly, this situation is all too common in seminaries across the country, where the most common word you hear is, “Actually…”, which is the segue of choice among knowledge experts, allowing them to shift the balance of power in their favor. It may not be entirely the student’s fault though, for the very nature of many theological institutions inevitably leads down this path. After all, if you’re being graded on how correct your theology is, then it only seems logical that this is how one would react. Many of us while studying the glory and grace of the gospel of Christ really believe, not in justification by faith but by intellectual assent. It seems like it’s impossible to escape from; we live in a Wiki world and we serve a Wiki god. In this way, we all like to play God, acting as power brokers with information. Knowledge is power, and power is control, and nothing screams playing God like the quest for control. But what if knowledge wasn’t just the collection of information?

Building off of Hungarian polymath Michael Polanyi’s idea of knowledge as personal interactions, or “knowing acts,” Esther Lightcap Meek changes the conversation about knowledge and information in her wonderful treatise, A Little Manual for Knowing. In the book, she contrasts the idea of knowledge-as-information-collection with what she terms “covenant epistemology,” which deals with the relational dimension of knowing. She writes,

“We tend to think knowledge is information, facts, bits of data, “content,” true statements––true statements justified by other true statements. And while this isn’t exactly false, we tend to have a vision of knowledge as being only this. We conclude that gaining knowledge is collecting information––and we’re done––educated, trained, expert, certain.”

For Esther Meek, if knowledge isn’t personal, than it’s open to be manipulated and abused, and used against others in the same way. She proposes that we take a step back and evaluate our epistemic motivations and come to a better conclusion about the reality of knowledge. She replies to the statement above with:

“I have come to believe we should think of knower and known as persons in relationship, where knowing is the relationship. This relationship has covenantal dimensions. By that I mean that the knower pledges her- or himself to the yet-to-be-known, the way a groom pledges himself to a bride.”

This is a radically different approach to knowledge than information collection because it means that you cannot possess and own any particular “bits of data” and use this for your own purposes. Like a dance, you must move with knowledge, anticipating and compensating instead of commanding and displaying. This is a completely foreign idea to our Wiki world, to be possessed by knowledge rather than to possess it. Like the otaku said in World War Z, the Internet is not a place you go to be known.

Much of the time, the way playing God manifests itself is with the use of knowledge to justify oneself by trying to control the things around us. Information becomes a way to try to control the chaos of life by always knowing the right paths to take and the right decisions to make. The idea is if you know everything, then you’ll never have to make a mistake again. You never have to look like a fool, you never have to admit you were wrong, and you can look down on everyone else for not being “in the know.” The irony here is that in playing God, we are acting very un-godlike. The God revealed in Jesus doesn’t play that game. The Scriptures actually have shocking statements about Jesus like, “he learned obedience…” (Heb. 5:8, emphasis mine) and records Him asking painful questions like, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 17:46). Jesus, the eternal, omniscient God thought it wise to empty Himself and enter into human history without all the facts in front of Him, and he decided it was best to not have all the answers, although the very mysteries and foundations of the universe are his very right to claim. Now the questions remain: What does it look like to conform to the image of Christ, who though he was in the form of God didn’t try to “play God” by being a power broker with information? And how can His church be an alternative society where expert culture is replaced with a safe place not to have all the answers and a faith lived out in trusting a God who condescend to our place of understanding instead of lording information over us?

Even in asking questions like this we can see that there is a better way to live in an information world than that of using our data-collecting skills to gain power and control over others. If we can foster a safe place to accept our intellectual finitude, then perhaps others will feel free to confess their own limits and struggles with grasping information when it is laid before them. Recently, musician and former poster boy for indie evangelicalism David Bazan spoke candidly to comedian and podcaster Pete Holmes about his upbringing, history with the church, and why he ultimately left the Christian faith. He spoke in a sincere, but painful tone about growing up in a Christian home, going off to Bible College, and not having his doubts about the Bible and Jesus answered in a real or helpful way, which led to him “breaking up with God” (see his fantastic album Curse Your Branches for more).

One must wonder, what does it mean for those of us who have honest and sincere doubts to have the church walk with us, with grace and clarity, through our struggles to a place of confidence (not certainty, which any freshman philosophy student will tell you is impossible) in our faith. This can seem like a pipe dream, for many in the culture believe that knowledge equals right standing. This is devastating for the scores of people that can’t just put on a smile and tell people, “You just gotta have more faith.” Instead, the church of Jesus should be a place where we are given permission not to have to be experts, but are eager and willing to learn, to synthesize all that we are learning, and to teach others not to play God, but instead to play along with Him, trusting Him for His work, and relying on His power to do our own.

Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne. Check out his graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad.

[button link=”http://read.christandpopculture.com/issue/541c6aa6c873d916ac2a1f84/playing_god” size=”medium”]Read more in CAPC Mag Volume 2, Issue 19: Playing God[/button]