In today’s gospel, Jesus says: “Now this is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God.” Initially, this passage is rather perplexing. The promise of eternal life is something with which all people are familiar—at least vaguely so. And even non-believers will concede that eternal life is something positive.
Eternal life, itself, is not the surprising element here. Rather, Our Lord’s definition of eternal life—that is surprising. He says that eternal life is knowing God. This definition arouses our curiosity on numerous levels. First, eternal life is directly connected to God. God is not an optional component to eternal life. Second, Jesus identifies a very specific relation to God. He says that eternal life is knowing God. He doesn’t define eternal life as feeling God, trusting God, or even loving God. Knowing God. Knowledge.
What we know shapes who we are.
Often, we in the modern world do not fully appreciate the truth about knowledge. We tend to overestimate as well as to underestimate the importance of knowledge and of our knowing power—the intellect.
We frequently overestimate knowledge by equating knowledge with the mere collection of facts and information. “Knowledge is power” is a common sentiment. We wrongly believe that whoever knows the most details about a specific topic—the one who most fully approximates a Wikipedia entry—has the upper-hand in life. Much like a computer, if we can only gather enough data about everything, we will be self-sufficient and unconquerable in our life and work.
The problem with this false understanding of knowledge is that it fails to appreciate who the human person really is—and how happiness in life is truly attained. Data, information, and facts cannot make a person happy. Why? Because the human person is not a hard drive. We are more than data reservoirs. We are made for real contact with real things—real truth and true goodness.
Facts alone can’t satisfy the deepest longings of the human heart. Only real food alone—and not information about nutrition—can satisfy physical hunger. Likewise, only the good reality that underlies facts can fulfill us.
We can also underestimate knowledge. We often forget that knowledge changes us. No one can know something without being shaped by what they know. No one is indifferent to the things that he or she knows. What we actively know shapes who we actually are. This is why it is so important to focus our thoughts—to apply our minds to things that are good, true, and wholesome. Attention to disordered things can harm the human person—frustrate our desire for happiness—even if we think that all we’re doing is “satisfying our curiosity.”
The human intellect is a precious and powerful faculty of the human soul. If we use our intellects well, we can find happiness. If we use our intellects in a disordered manner, we move ourselves further away from the happiness that lies in real truth and true goodness.
And this all brings us to Our Lord’s definition of Eternal Life. Neither does Jesus overestimate nor does he underestimate knowledge and its power.
Our Lord knows that mere “facts” cannot make the human person happy. The happiness of Eternal Life requires much more. Even the devil knows a lot of information about God. But he does not know God. Man does not live by information alone.
Additionally, Jesus knows that only God can satisfy the deepest longings of the human heart. He knows that our knowledge shapes who we are. When we know God, we are changed by God—drawn into him, united to him. Therefore, Our Lord exhorts us to devote our minds to God. Eternal Life is union with God. And when we think about God in love—when we pray—we are truly united to him. Why? Because what we know shapes who we are. And when we know God we are living in his infinitely happy presence.
And this is Eternal Life.