The hymn ‘St Patrick’s …

The hymn ‘St Patrick’s Breastplate’ also mentions this kind of transgressive knowledge when it asks God to protect us from the following things:
Against all Satan’s spells and whiles
Against false words of heresy
Against the knowledge that defiles
Against the hearts idolatry
Against the wizards evil craft
Against the death-wound and the burning
The choking wave the poisoned shaft
Protect me Christ till they returning.

Reflection 30-9-12

A phrase caught my attention from the wireless the other day in a talk given by professor Marcus Breen about his book ‘Uprising’. In talking about the internet, Dr Breen spoke of it as making a kind of knowledge available to us that he called ‘transgressive knowledge’. The idea is that because information can be acquired in private, behind a computer screen, some kinds of information that he calls ‘transgressive’ can be more easily acquired. He cites two cases: the knowledge about how to organise violent acts against the rest of us (bomb making, connecting with one another to organise) and pornography, which has become ever more easily available on the internet.

What struck me most of all  was the very idea of ‘transgressive knowledge’. What does this mean? To transgress is to cross a border. Previously we had censorship. The government decided what things people were or were not allowed to read or view. The liberals said ‘we are adults, we should be allowed to read ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ if we want to! The Catholic Church still has a list of ‘banned books’ and anyone wanting to publish a book as a priest must obtain a ‘no objection’ from a competent authority.

So there are some boundaries that others, who had the power to decide for us, decided were not good for us to cross.

Here, we are immediately in the territory of our foundation mythology: the book of Genesis. Remember, God says ‘You can eat of everything in the garden except the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.’ To know the difference between good and evil is to have already experienced ‘transgressive knowledge’ in so far as one now has knowledge of evil as well as good.

This is what God says: ‘You will be in a paradise so long as you remain unknowingly innocent.’ But of course, our mythology, as a ‘story that never was true, but always is true’ means that we will always step over the boundaries of what we are supposed to know if we want to remain innocent. We will always acquire ‘transgressive  knowledge’.

What is it about this knowledge that makes people want to say ‘Don’t go there?’ Well when it comes to bomb making and organising for violence, it has been the prerogative of the state to have this knowledge. We call this knowledge ‘The Army’ and ‘Defence’. The problem with this kind of knowledge is that it gets into the hands of people whom most states don’t want to have it because it ‘transgresses’ their rights, as they have enforced them, to be the holders of such knowledge.

But because history is written by the winners, we are not yet in a position to know who are the ‘right’ people to be able to control the knowledge of violence. Todays ‘statesmen’ are yesterdays ‘terrorists’. The South African situation shows us that very clearly. That is also why governments are so angry about ‘Wickileaks’. The internet has made possible the leaking of knowledge that governments would rather have hidden. This kind of knowledge is ‘transgressive’ because the leaking of it transgresses some one’s ideas of what people should know.
 
So from a Judaeo-Christian point of view, the internet is just another re-run of the story of Adam (the man) and Eve (the mother of all living) in the Garden.

But I think that there are some kinds of knowledge that do damage us as human beings. Remember the prophet Isaiah (Ch 2:4) and his longing for the days when ‘..they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.’ To ‘study war’ is to have the kind of knowledge that Isaiah thinks crosses the boundary of what makes us human.

I remember watching a programme about the SAS training, and how brutalising it was. I asked a soldier about it on A.N.Z.A.C. Day and he said ‘Well, war is a pretty brutal business. In order to prepare people for it, you have to brutalise them a bit.’

When I was chaplain to the Youth Corrections in Victoria, my fellow chaplain was a former commando in Borneo in World War 2. He sometimes spoke of the burden of carrying the knowledge of what he did in the war. Even today there are hundreds of thousands of soldiers suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of being in Iraq or Afghanistan or vietnam. Some of this ‘disorder’ is brought on by the ‘transgressive knowledge’ that being in a war initiated them into.

The same is true of violent video games and pornography. Some of these images get us used to violence and degrading attitudes against others (the enemy in the case of video games) and women.

The hymn ‘St Patrick’s Breastplate’ also mentions this kind of transgressive knowledge when it asks God to protect us from the following things:
 
Against all Satan’s spells and whiles
Against false words of heresy
Against the knowledge that defiles
Against the hearts idolatry
Against the wizards evil craft
Against the death-wound and the burning
The choking wave the poisoned shaft
Protect me Christ till they returning.

Do you notice that we need protection from the knowledge that defiles, not the truth that will set us free!

So is there any way back if we do, as we always will, have the ‘knowledge of good and evil’ or some ‘knowledge that defiles’?

The Exultet, that we sing on Easter Eve says ‘This is the night that with the brightness of the pillar hath purged away the darkness of iniquity. This is the night which doth separate those who believe in Christ from the wickedness of the age and from the darkness of transgressions, reneweth them unto grace, restoreth them to holiness…The mystery of this holy night putteth to flight the deeds of darkness, burgeth away sin: restoreth innocence to the fallen and gladness unto them that mourn: casteth out hatred, bringeth peace to all mankind, and boweth down mighty princes.’

Because ‘In Christ there is a new creation’ it is possible to come back from the ‘transgressive knowledge’  that damages our humanity. This is the meaning of living ‘the baptismal life’, where in reality, all that we have been is drowned, and we can come out of the font a new person. This is available in confession. This is also what is on offer every Sunday morning. There is transgressive knowledge that we are all exposed to. There is the possibility of renewed innocence!

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About frpaulsblog

Paul Dalzell is now a semi-retired priest living in Alexandra, Australia
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