Walter Brueggemann: Imagine: The Apostle Paul Meets Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon (1561-1626), along with his contemporary, Rene Descartes, may be reckoned as pioneers of Enlightenment rationality. Bacon articulated the most elemental principles of modern science. Along with that, however, he concluded that “nature” was an object for study and usefulness, and that human agents are free to make of and take whatever they want of “nature” without restraint.

In Bacon’s horizon there is no restraint on human exploration or human exploitation. Thus, Bacon provided a ground for modern exploration that leads to commoditization of the earth and its vulnerable inhabitants, to colonialization that gave white Europeans access to and legitimacy about confiscation of the resources of the world, and eventually to industrialization without restraint or regulation.

All of this is nicely summed up in the aphorism attributed to Bacon, “Knowledge is power.” Bacon of course had in mind a certain kind of knowledge that was dependent upon a certain kind of reasoning that assured the advantage of white Europeans. Thus, the modern world is constituted by a quest for unrestrained knowledge that has issued in insatiable technological scientific possibility. The outcome of course has been a mixed lot; great gains on the one hand for health and wellbeing, but on the other hand huge devastation of the earth by war, by confiscation, and by pollution among other things unleashed. We are able to see that Bacon’s perspective of “knowledge as power” is intrinsically permeated with violence or at least potential violence. This Bacon could write in an appeal to the myth of Proteus:

And thus far the fable reaches of Proteus, and his flock, at liberty and unrestrained. For the universe, with the common structures and fabrics of the creatures, is the face of matter, not under constraint, or … wrought upon and tortured by human means … And that method of binding, torturing, or detaining, will prove the most effectual and expeditious, which makes use of manacles, and fetters; that is, lays hold and works upon matter in the extremist degrees. (cited by Wybrow 180, from The Wisdom of the Ancients)

Wybrow comments:

Here then, is still another feature of Baconian science. It is not merely curious about secrets, not merely violent and rapacious in probing into those secrets, but subtly, craftily, calculatingly violent, employing the torture of experimental procedures. This torture, unlike simple domination, forces natural objects not only to gratify man (as the older arts sought to do), but to reveal their inmost natures to him and hence to render themselves open to all future forms of manipulation. (180)

The Bible of course, long before Bacon, maintained a critique of such knowledge that yields autonomous, unrestrained power. In the twin triads of Jeremiah, “wisdom” is marked along with power and wealth as seductions that contradict YHWH (Jeremiah 9:23-24). In this horizon, “wisdom” clearly refers to the human capacity to penetrate the mysteries of creation for the sake of control. This “wisdom” is judged negatively not out of obscurantism, but because of awe before the wonder of creation. That seductive triad of wisdom, wealth, and power is juxtaposed by the prophet to the covenantal triad of justice, righteousness, and faithfulness. By this simple either/or (echoed by Paul in I Corinthians 1) Jeremiah mounts a critique of the kind of power he observed in royal Jerusalem that Bacon subsequently championed (see also I Kings 4:29-34, Proverbs 25:2-3).

In a quite different idiom, Israel’s wisdom teachers averred that true wisdom (unlike the Promethean wisdom of Jeremiah 9) begins with reference to YHWH:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;
fools despise wisdom and instruction. (Proverbs 1:7)

This is a very different “wisdom” that by reference to YHWH is restrained and under covenantal discipline. Thus, the capacity for human knowledge is in the presence of YHWH that makes human knowledge penultimate and challenged by the reality of YHWH who cares for justice, righteousness, and faithfulness in the practice of knowledge. This thesis of Proverbs 1:7 is further exposited in the poem of Job 28:1-28. After the poet considers the human capacity for exploration of the earth and its resources, the poem is haunted by the question:

“But where shall wisdom be found?
… Where does wisdom come from?
And where is the place of understanding?” (Job 28:12, 20).

The poem, in response to these questions, comes finally to reference to YHWH the creator:

“Truly the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom;
and to depart from evil is understanding.” (v. 28)

The second line of “depart from evil” indicates that genuine wisdom has a covenantal dimension to it, the very dimension that Bacon intended to exclude. Knowledge that is amoral is inimical to YHWH and is sure to be destructive. Thus, Bacon (and the future he has adumbrated) stand from the outset under the sharp critique of the covenantal tradition of Israel.

But then consider the Apostle Paul. When he wrote I Corinthians 13, he did not have in mind a romantic text to be used at all kinds of weddings for folk who knew and cared nothing about self-giving agape. Rather, his pastoral concern is for the church in Corinth, seemingly his most conflicted congregation. It is easy to imagine the congregation in some dispute over various gifts … apostles, prophets, teachers, a capacity for leadership, tongues, and healing (see 12:27-31). Such various gifts were divisive in the church concerning who has the best or most important gifts. If we look at the inventory of gifts they variously concern different capacities that depend on specialized skills and knowledge.

Paul counters these conflicting claims with his accent on agape love in chapter 13. He asserts that specialized knowledge of any sort is not the best gift. He reassesses these claimed advantages in the community. He refuses the divisive claims of superior knowledge of any specialized sort, making all such knowledge distinctly penultimate (see Job 28). And then he dismisses them with his stunning triad:

But do not have love … noisy gong!
But do not have love … I am nothing!
But do not have love … I gain nothing!

None of these celebrated gifts matters at all if they are not marked by agape. Paul is impatient with and dismissive of gifts of knowledge in the church that are devoid of love. What a shock it must have been in the congregation to have their best claims discounted: gong, nothing, nothing! It turns out that these gifts amount to a “gong-show” without significance or lasting importance.

So, imagine Paul meeting Bacon. Bacon is full of knowledge. He does not doubt that knowledge can and will deliver control (colonialization, industrialization, commoditization) that will lead to an indulgent life that can be embraced without restraint. And Paul counters:

Don’t count on knowledge;
Don’t count on colonialization that will prove toxic;
Don’t count on commoditization that will render all of life as a salable good to the highest bidder;
Don’t count on industrialization that will let us master the universe but deeply trouble the environment.
All of that … knowledge, colonialization, commoditization, industrialization …
noisy gong, clanging cymbal, nothing!

Unless permeated with agape. Paul joins issue, early and late, with the Promethean life that is devoid of self-giving. Love is the greatest reality because God is love and has ordered creation for the performance of self-giving love. There is no way to circumvent this elemental reality, try as we will!

We are presently in a great contest between Paul and Bacon, between love and knowledge, between neighbor and self-serving and self-seeking.

And now, as always, the church is an odd alternative community that gathers regularly to hear Paul and his ilk (and Moses before him!) yet again. We gather to remember that “the greatest of these is love.” We gather to consider what we have learned from Moses that is reiterated by Paul:

For the whole Torah is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:14)

Love is kind, love is patient, love is long-suffering, love is durable. Love is, to be sure, vulnerable and fragile, but it is nonetheless the truth. It is the truth peculiarly entrusted to us. It is the truth that defies failed power, that instructs our best learning, and that pervades our greatest hopes.

We can see the drama of knowledge and love played out in our treasured narrative of Friday and Sunday. On Friday, the efficient sure knowledge undergirding Rome prevailed. The empire with its powerful performance of legitimacy claimed ultimacy. But then on Sunday, something inscrutable happened that defied the empire. Now love — self-giving agape love — has its say. It is a drama played over and over. We are, all of us, so much excessively compelled by noisy gongs and clanging cymbals. But we know better. We know that self-giving love is the truth of God’s world. That self-giving love is the clue to peace, justice, prosperity, and wellbeing. While the world heeds the noise of the gong, we know better; for that reason we may live (and invest and organize and advocate) differently!


Walter Brueggemann

Walter Brueggemann is surely one of the most influential Bible interpreters of our time. He is the author of over one hundred books and numerous scholarly articles. He continues to be a highly sought-after speaker.


Used with permission. Originally posted on Church Anew, a ministry of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie, MN.

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