Tuesday, April 28, 2009

How Can We Know?

How do we know what we say we know in theological matters? In philosophy, that question comes from the study of epistemology. But what makes possible our ability to understand and build on what we recognize to be the truth? Some would say we know because the “Bible tells me so” and the Bible is the Word of God. But how do we know the Bible is the Word of God? Well, because the Bible says it is. Actually, it doesn’t and that is a bit of a leap to base one’s knowledge of something solely on the subject being questioned. The Bible is so because it says it is so? That really is an exercise in dismissing a question we don’t like.

I was taught there are two ways of receiving knowledge or truth. One is by Revelation. That, by definition, made my theology a revelatory theology. There are some things I know simply because they are revealed to me. I had no part in understanding. If it had not been revealed by God, then I would not know. But again the question, how do I know? How do I know that what I believe as “truth” came to me by the sole initiative of God and to millions of others before me? Based on a lot of scrutiny and hard research, we now recognize that the Bible, with its revelatory message, has passed through a lot of hands over many, many generations and the result has been additions, deletions, changes, and all manner of work-over. So how can we really say we know that something has been revealed to us if it has been “doctored” by those out of the past?

The other way of receiving knowledge or truth is through discovery. It is that gift of our humanity where we can ask, search, examine, albeit sometimes with great difficulty, and find out. The end of that endeavor results in such things as the Salk vaccine, how to travel to the moon, or the indescribable world of cyberspace.

Now to get this all into perspective is to say that some knowledge comes to us only through revelation and some, probably the majority, comes through discovery. Or, to put it another way, revelation is primary and discovery is secondary. Revelation is ultimate and divine. Discovery is normal and human. But how are we to know?

Do we know because so many others preceding and surrounding us say they know? If that is the case, then we are just going along with everybody else without question. We may do that with our theology, but there are few other areas of consideration where we would be so open.
And as we believe that we do come to “know” something, then we have the issue of what we knew yesterday not squaring with what we learn and know today. So, something will have to go. That may seem frightening but it really doesn’t have to be. A breakthrough or a reconfiguration of our mind-sets may be the something healthy we need for right now.

I do believe this. Truth may be painful, at least for the moment, but it does not have to be frightening.

Pull your boots up higher. The riddles and resulting fall-out will continue.


  1. I definitely relate to the discovery camp.

  2. I heard a very knowledgeable young fellow on NPR the other day who was discounting global warming. He mentioned that there were new doubts about the liberal postulation of climate change blah blah blah. What bothered me was that he delivered what he thought was the coup de grace, "Science is about TRUTH", meaning that he wanted there to be no doubt about how the facts should be analyzed. Just one problem. Science, or discovery, is not about certainties, it is about probabilities.

    I have to admit that I am one of the most unspiritual people that I know. Discovery is the way I understand things. I don't get much in the way of revelation. There are things that defy probabilities. The fact that this planet can support life defies probabilities. Every act of goodwill defies probabilities. God defies the probabilities. Maybe that is the revelation part.

  3. I have been reading some David Hume lately and a great deal of his work centers on the very question posed by our esteemed provocateur, Dr. West. Hume maintained that we cannot “achieve any genuine progress by means of abstract metaphysical speculation which imposes a spurious clarity upon profound issues.” Consequently, Hume urges us to reject “all easy answers” while employing the’ negative results of philosophical skepticism as a legitimate place to start”

    I think David Hume might find a home at the Grace way of thinking and working with us on that important question “How can we know?”

    Yes, I agree the truth can be painful, but replacing it with “easy answers” as Hume says, might be more painful.