Years ago, when I worked at a small publishing company outside Portland, I’d get together every couple days with a former seminary professor named Ross Tunnell. Ross had left seminary work and was doing graphic design, but was widely considered to be one of the smarter Old Testament teachers in Portland. I made a deal with Ross, saying that if I bought lunch, he’d teach me the Old Testament. And Ross took me up on that offer. We probably met more than fifty times over two years. It was a terrific arrangement.
Ross passed away only a few months ago and I’ve been thinking about those lunches, of all that I learned. But last night I remembered the greatest lesson Ross ever taught me. I was thinking about this lesson because while surfing around on the internet, I saw a minister somewhere speaking very arrogantly about how he had some bit of theology figured out and somebody else didn’t. I think maybe it was a moment of weakness for said minister, but nevertheless it helped me remember something Ross once said.
We were driving back from a conference in Salem and I was going off about some bit of scripture, explaining it to Ross as though he’d never come to the same revelation. I must have talked for about ten minutes, perhaps condescendingly (a way of speaking that prevents true dialogue, and also prevents anybody from disagreeing with you, at least in public) and Ross just sat there and listened. I don’t even recall what scripture I was talking about, but when I was done, and when I looked over at Ross to give an affirmation to my unparalleled intellect, he sat quiet. Finally, I asked what he thought. And Ross just stared straight ahead and said “I think knowledge puffs up.”
I was embarrassed, to say the least. There have been a thousand times since, though, that I wish Ross was standing next to me when I’ve made equally as embarrassing tirades.
Of our fifty or more meetings, that’s the lesson I remember best:
And I think this is the thing that ruins many a seminary student. Knowledge. It’s not that knowledge is bad, it isn’t, it’s good, very good according to Solomon. It’s just that knowledge is incredibly powerful and dangerous. It has to be handled with care, like a radioactive material. It can easily explode and kill many, pushing people away from the church (unless of course they agree with you.)
A good test for me is to come back to the fruits of the spirit. Is my knowledge producing these characteristics: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness and Self Control?
If we acquire knowledge before we are emotionally healthy, that is if we are insecure, we are going to use it to boost our own ego and compare ourselves to others. The desire for knowledge will be like a need for a drug, then, pacifying a wounded spirit through comparative associations. Entire theological camps have been built and bolstered by this needy, angry, gluttonous desire for knowledge. But if we have confidence, if we are secure, knowledge humbles us. We realize that we did not invent truth, we simply stumbled upon it like food on a long journey. Knowledge will then produce the fruits of the spirit.
Seeking knowledge, then, is like tending a vineyard. It’s just farming. But you aren’t the one who produced the fruit, God is. You’re just a farmer, just a guy who makes and distributes wine. It’s blue-collar work.
Ross was one of the most humble men I’ve ever met. And he was also one of the most intelligent. Those two combinations are sadly rare. These days I’m wishing I knew what he knew, in more ways than one. Goodbye old friend. And thanks for the lesson.
(a repost from the archives)