The Crisis of Knowing How We Know: Postscript

There’s knowledge, and there’s faith.

A final salvo in my rumination about epistemology, or the study of knowledge, and knowing how we know.

Those things that require faith cannot, by definition, be proven to be true in the sense that epistemology demands if a thing is to be counted as “knowledge.”  Faith, by definition, is all about our relationship to things unseen and unmeasured.   We still use the word “know” if reference to things of faith.   By faith we say, “I know I can do it.”  (By which we mean, the outcome we want will occur, which we frankly do not “know” at all.)   By faith we say, “I know Christ.”  (Again, this is not “knowledge” in the sense we’ve been exploring.  And to say that should not cause us alarm, though I can hear people thinking, “I do TOO know that I know it.”  It’s simply acknowledging that the “knowledge” faith brings is a different sort of “knowledge” than that created by empirical data.)  By faith we say, “I know Heaven exists.”  (We have stories and clues, but like Ellie in “Cosmos”, we have no video or voice recordings from the other side.)

And then there’s the knowledge that comes from stories.   It’s a knowledge that’s delivered by one of the basic cognitive moves, that of comparison, more commonly referred as metaphor.  We constantly reference our life experience to find what this moment “is like.”   What is life “like?”  Life is “like” a “man of a social class or race that we don’t like (read Samaritan) on a road accosted by thieves.”  Life is “like” a world called Middle Earth, in which “the smallest of persons” can change the world, even if the only way to do it is to destroy the greatest of evils.   And life is “like” a Southern Civil War reenactor (my play) whose dreams are threatened by a past he’d just as soon forget.

But after we experience a good, brain-altering story telling, what do we “know.”  There is a little “explosion” inside in which a new piece of understanding (that love transcends social class and race, that evil can be overcome, that moral cowardice can have devastating consequences) enters our consciousness.   This new “knowledge” informs our choices of behavior, though of course we do not “know” the truth of the story until we live it into our experience (intentionally overcoming social class and racial prejudices with love, battling evil ourselves, and demonstrating the kind of moral courage that life demands).  And between our “knowing the lesson from the story” and our “knowing the lesson because we’ve lived it” is a bridge that must be walked in faith.

How about this little formula:  Wisdom (or understanding) is knowledge lived out (applied) by faith.

Christ valued the knowledge that comes from stories.   He valued it enough to make it his primary mode of teaching and persuasion.  He was not a Socratic method guy (or was he…someone feel free to instruct me here) nor was the scientific method the knowledge-seeking grammar of his day, nor had he been recently preceded by the Age of Enlightenment, so he did not trust the mind to solve all the riddles of things.   But without doubt, Christ believed that he knew things that no other human knew.  And if, by faith, we believe that the stories concerning the Christ are true, not the least of which is the Resurrection, then he knew something special indeed.

Paul did not say “Whatever does not proceed from knowledge is sin,” but “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.”

There is not enough time or intelligence or information to gain the knowledge that I need to make complete sense of the complex conundrums that haunt our personal and societal lives.   But somehow, the faith available to us by the gift of God must be enough to allow us to grapple responsibly and vigorously with that truth and knowledge we are able, with our limited resources, to gather.

Bottom line:  complexity and the onslaught of information coupled with the various ways in which our “knowing” anything can be called into question is no excuse for living head-0n into the dilemmas of our day.   We simply must acknowledge that knowledge is incomplete, fallible, and passing away.   But by faith, the pursuit of knowledge–and it’s failures–can be not only survived, but lived out with energy, strength, insight, and service.

This I know…

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