Genesis tells us that man and woman are made in the image and likeness of God. Perhaps surprisingly, we read later in the same book that Adam and Eve wished to be “like” God in another way, gaining knowledge of good and evil. And this temptation to know what God knows led them to stretch out their hands to the forbidden fruit. The unhappy consequences of this action illustrate something that all of us know, that knowledge is often acquired by painful experience.
We are going through the very painful experience of relearning something that we easily forget, that there are real limitations to our knowledge. This is easy to forget because as our knowledge of the natural world has grown, we have been able to break through many barriers thought impassible.
Fifty years ago, many predicted that by 2020, we would not be able to feed everyone in the world. Yet, discoveries of high-yield technologies, better-quality fertilizers and other techniques allow us to feed almost eight billion people today more effectively than we fed three billion people in 1960.
With the click of a mouse, I can copy an electronic version of Saint Augustine’s City of God where it once took a scribe years to do the same work, at great cost to his eyesight.
But there are two dangers that accompany this increase in knowledge.
The first we all know. The human heart being what it is, any knowledge that can be used for good can almost certainly be used for destructive purposes. If we so wish, we can inflict more harm more efficiently than ever before.
The second danger is more elusive. With increased knowledge comes a sense of increased responsibility.
As we struggle to face the threat of COVID-19 together, it is tempting to point fingers. Someone should have known that this was coming, and they should have known how to stop it.
This isn’t the only example, just the one most ready to hand. We can point to other anxieties that come with increased knowledge. A hundred years ago, expecting mothers paid quite a bit less attention to diet, alcohol consumption, and other behaviors that potentially affect prenatal development. Today, mothers are sometimes reluctant to trust their own instincts and experiences when rearing a child, when there is so much literature on child development to be sifted through.
Even the doctors dealing with COVID-19 can face a similar problem. How responsible are you to stay on top of the fast-developing literature on treatment of COVID patients while dealing with the already-stressful situation of present patients? In the direction of this thinking, which is a kind of second-guessing, we start down that old path, desiring to possess the foreknowledge that only God enjoys, wanting to be like God in a way of our own desiring. However well-intentioned, however much we wish to protect ourselves, those whom we love, and our way of life, this attempt to control the world will eventually bring us to grief, a return to thorns and thistles.
Today upon the Cross, we see a different image. We see a man, but a man who is not merely the image and likeness of God, but is God. The contrast between Christ and Adam is one that continually exercised Saint Paul. In the chant that we sang just before the Passion (Christus factus est pro nobis obediens), we see Christ undoing the disobedience of Adam by his own obedience. Christ became obedient even to the point of death. This passage, from the second chapter of the letter to the Philippians points out that Jesus did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at. Instead he emptied himself and took the form of a servant.
This is what God looks like.
If we were to have the mind of Christ, if we were to consent to this self-emptying, we would become more godlike than we do with our efforts to control the world through our knowledge. In fact, we are all being invited to this today, to empty ourselves. Not only are we suffering the uncertainty of dealing with a novel disease, but we must confront this without being able to gather together as a Church, another hollowing out. If we can accept these invitations to self-emptying in faith, then we will be practicing the faith of Jesus Christ, the faith that brings true salvation—an eternal salvation.
This invitation is offered to us anew and in an especially poignant way this Pascal Triduum. It is extended to all the faithful, and to all humankind, in the example of Christ crucified. Let us then have the mind of Christ, to become truly like God, like the Son of God, in our willingness to entrust ourselves to the Father. And “let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help [Hebrews 5: 9].”