The Pain of Pretended Omniscience

There can be little doubt that in the present day most of us are awash with knowledge and parched for wisdom. We have rationalised the processes for understanding until we assume answers, are impatient with the process of learning, and struggle to confess genuine ignorance. We are constantly consuming unfiltered and mostly insignificant information, and are fearful of moments and movements escaping our attention. In this post I want to explore one element of this phenomenon – the pain of pretended omniscience when it comes to social media, the sense of knowing too much about matters we can do nothing to change, and some of the anxieties and problems this can present us with emotionally and spiritually.

Cruising above Babel

According to a biblical understanding of human nature, we are builders by birth. There is a raw ingenuity in the human soul which can marshal and quantify resources, and then bend them to our will and for our benefit. We first saw our Father perform this feat in the great workshop of the cosmos, speaking reality into being and then sculpting and forming it according to his pleasure. We trace his handiwork in the delicate form of a petal, and in the towering cathedrals of nebula and planetary systems, and somewhere within we long to either follow his example or take his place. 

Our earliest ancestors were commissioned to subdue the earth, and to cultivate it in a way that its capacity to accommodate us multiplied under our hands. After the Fall, when the grain of things ran against our palms, when soil would be watered by our sweat as well as rainfall, humankind’s instinct to construct continued unabated. Villages gave way to towns and then to cities, culminating in the sky-reaching endeavours of the Babel builders whose belief in brick in mortar jumped from what they could construct to what they could become.

Confused as our languages are post-Babel, as a global community we have transcended even the loftiest ambitions of those who worked to rear up a tower to the sky. We now cruise with ease above Babel, capturing drone footage of the heights that our forbears could only ever have dreamed of. We have raised technology to the heavens, and have begun to explore our new powers in ways which would have been inconceivable a century ago. We are, all of us, demigods now, our pockets full of magic, and our minds alive to any possibility. We live in exultation and dread of this fact at all times. 

The people who know too much

One of our powers as newly minted deities is a pretended omniscience. Our gaze can now penetrate beyond public into private, our thinking can readily access the minds of millennia, no field is beyond our reach logistically if not intellectually. We idolise knowing and sharing, and we willingly bombard our limited brains with more data than they can hold, or than our emotions can process. We can hover above the cosmos, seated on the circle of the earth, and from there skip from atrocity to fecundity, from tragedy to celebration, from science to arts to literature with breathtaking force. We edit reality, and command support for our statements of fact, forming societies of fellow-gods who no longer observe reality but form it.

The problem with all of this is that we were never designed to live at this level, and like all self-exaltation our fall before the face of God will be heavy. We pay a price for connecting our minds to the hum of the universe, and that is the disruption of our peace, and a keen awareness of the finitude of our powers. We watch the lives of others but cannot intervene to help, we observe dispute and controversy, but find ourselves unable to arbitrate, we establish ourselves in the pantheon of social media only to find that there is continual conflict and hatred and angst and pain. We are loosened from the local world we were designed to inhabit, and have globalised our intake of knowledge, finding ourselves constantly spinning away from the orbit of our certainties and joys, and real longings. Where the concerns of our home and hearth, of our village and town, of our wider family and friends were the realm in which God granted us heavy stewardship we find ourselves neglecting these very things to reach for stars which we have not formed and whose paths we cannot manipulate. The upshot is a sense of expansion and decline, of growth and atrophy, of insight and obscurity. The centre of our being cannot hold the scrap of omniscience we have claimed.

Coming home again

The outcome of our venture into the divine can only end in one of two ways – a fresh humility before the face of God, or the destruction of our true identity as his image bearers. In his Institutes of the Christian Religion John Calvin famously summed up human understanding in terms of our knowledge of God and of ourselves. The latter is contingent on the former, and without it our rise is meteoric and tragic. For readers who are Christians, our calling is not to know everything, but to know the One from whom all knowledge comes. The gospel perpetually fixes us in our place as creatures relative to our Creator, and insists that wisdom is to fear and follow him first. From this springs a contentment to come home in our knowledge, both in terms of submission to him and stewardship of the true realms he has given us to cultivate. The omniscience to which social media invites us is not only contrary to his, but a denial of the limits which make us mere mortals. 

For readers who do not know Christ, the sense of shortage that social media evokes in us as human beings points not to our mere weakness, but our inherent limits as creatures. Our first parents, Adam and Eve, reached for knowledge away from the submissive joy of living before God’s face. It could be that the pain of pretended omniscience, the malaise and disquietude of sensing our emotional and intellectual capacity to process our world will be your first step towards the primary point of wisdom – fearing and following the Lord in faith. 

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