Knowing and Being Known: Introductory Thoughts

I did not begin studying philosophy until I was 4 years into my Masters degree (which took me 8 years and 11 months to complete). For the longest time I viewed philosophy as a discipline for really smart people. However, as I look back on my life, I believe I didn’t give philosophy the time of day because I thought it was boring — a musty relic of academic disciplines. I was spontaneous (or so I thought)—I didn’t want to be “stuck” in one place; rather, I wanted to travel, to see the world, and to be invested in something bigger than myself. Philosophy did not fit the bill.

Little did I know at this time, though, that the questions and longings I had were (in part) philosophical in nature. The last two years of my college career was a period of deep anxiety and, at times, depression.[1] I recall a prayer that I repeated rather often during this time of my life—that I would know God. I longed to know God beyond the mere intellect; however, I didn’t know how else to say what I longed for other than stressing the word ‘know’ to entail a fuller, substantive, and deeper sense of knowing God.

This cry to know God has remained with me for over 20 years, even as I have come to understand my proclivity toward and how to address my anxiety.  Honestly, I did not know how I could know God—I tried it through prayer and attempts at deeper Bible study. I expected to eventually experience some sort of religious experience where God made himself more known to me.[2] Yet through cycles of close fellowship with God and spiritual dryness, I never had a sense of knowing God as I longed for.

Closely related to my desire to know God was my hesitance to share my faith. I was saved when I was 10 years old, and I wanted to take my faith seriously. My youth pastor was intentional in teaching the youth about evangelism and missions, as well as scheduling a youth mission trip every summer. I wanted to be faithful in sharing the Gospel, yet what I remember most is my reluctance and timidity. What if I didn’t know what to say? What if they asked a question I could not answer? How do I answer challenges to the faith? Such questions flooded my mind, and rather than driving me to gain more understanding, these questions muzzled me in the presence of unbelievers. I did not know everything, so I was silent.

The two threads of longing to know and the fear of not knowing enough began to come together in clarity midway through my M.Div.  In 2005, I met the man who would eventually be my doctoral supervisor, Dr. Ted Cabal. I distinctly remember one afternoon, as we sat over coffee, I came to realize that philosophy was more than I’d thought it to be—that my question to know (my epistemological journey) was in part philosophical. Through his encouragement and mentoring, I began to study philosophy as a means to understand epistemology—how we know, and how faith and reason relate.

[Before I go on, I am compelled to explain that I do not see philosophy as a means to know God. Nor did philosophy drive me closer to God. God is known first through faith in Jesus Christ, and through his Word, prayer, and participation in the fellowship of his saints. As you will see, my studies in philosophy has corrected my understanding of what it means to know.]

For the longest time, I’ve viewed the act of knowing as merely an intellectual act. Fostering this understanding of mine is my own proclivity toward learning and all things related to academics. When I sought to know God, I expected to do so by learning more about him through his word. Note my emphasis on the word “about”; I had this implicit view that the more I knew of God intellectually, the more I would know God.[3]

On the other hand, I allowed my lacking of knowing how to answer questions about and challenges to Christianity to silence me. I felt that I had to know more answers, more arguments, and more information before I could confidently answer Peter’s call in 1 Peter 3:15 to give an answer for my faith.[4]

As I progressed through my philosophical studies, I intentionally focused on epistemology (i.e. how we know what we know). I wanted to understand how it is we know what we know, and how we know our beliefs to be true or false. Without going into the details of four years of study and research subsequent to graduating with my PhD, let it be said that I grew in confidence in my belief of Christian truths and grew confident in how to answer the challenges to Christianity. However, though I was confident in the existence of universal truth, I could not ground—or explain—how it is that we have universal truth (as opposed to having only relative truth).

It was not until I’d begun teaching as an adjunct in philosophy that my view of epistemology began to take on shape and form. I had been studying the Gospel of John when the first eighteen verses of Chapter 1 “clicked.” We know truth because Truth encountered us.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men (John 1:1-4).

Truth is not something we attain through abstraction—separating an issue from culture and tradition in order to arrive at what is universal for all. Rather, Truth came in the Person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. And we know Truth not just because we obtained it through reason and thinking (though this is an important part of knowing). Rather, we ultimately know Truth because Truth is a Person—Jesus Christ—by whom we are confronted. To believe in Truth is to have a personal relationship with Christ through faith in him, obedience to the Father’s commands, and living in the power of the Holy Spirit. Truth, then, is not something “out there” we search for in hope to one day “have it.”

To take this point around to my own story, knowing God is not attained through the intellect alone; one need not wait for the day when they have an epiphany. Rather, we can know God because we know the Person of God the Son, Jesus Christ. Here, “know” is more comprehensive and it is active. We know by obeying, trusting, listening, loving, honoring, and fearing our Lord God. Knowing is an active walking in and living out what God has given us in his Word (as opposed to a passive gathering of information).

More importantly, though, is that we know because we are known. Too often the act of knowing is made out to be an individual endeavor. That is, “How do I know?”, “What do I know?”, and “Why do I know?” (The emphasis is on the subject “I”.) Modern philosophy has sought to demonstrate how an individual can know with certainty what they know. Yet, in doing so, the individual is abstracted out of the nitty gritty of life, out of the world in which they live and breathe, and is made to stand apart from what Descartes derisively called “culture and tradition.” Yet, despite modern philosophy’s abstracted view of truth, we cannot divorce our knowing from the world in which we live. More importantly, we cannot divorce our knowing from the fact that we are known – by family, friends, community, and (most importantly) God.

What does this mean? It is my hope to begin a series where I reflect on my studies and provide my own “thinking-through” what is involved in our act of knowing. I’ve recently had to face the reality of possibly moving for a new job (it did not work out), and in thinking through the idea of leaving my home of 18 years, it struck me just how much my 18 years in Louisville has shaped me – particularly in what I know of myself and the world in which I live. To uproot to another town is no simple matter.

So, here are some questions that I hope to explore in regard to knowing (in no particular order, and with no deadline):

  • What role does place have in the act of knowing?
  • What role does identity play in the act of knowing?
  • A related question: What is the relationship between race and philosophy?
  • What questions has analytic philosophy (particularly Christian analytic philosophy) ignored regarding the act of knowing?
  • What is reason?
  • Is the faith/reason debate missing the point?

While these questions seem quasi-related or not related at all, I have this unshakeable feeling that they are indeed related—somehow. I don’t know how, but they must be.

Thankfully, I am not alone in asking these questions. Here are a list of names and/or books that I’ll be exploring (with more to follow in the future):

  • Esther Meek, PhD – Dr. Meek is a philosopher at Geneva College who is widely known as a Michael Polanyi expert. Dr. Meek has used Polanyi’s epistemology to develop what she calls covenant epistemology. Her books are:
    • Loving to Know
    • Longing to Know
    • Contact with Reality
  • Dru Johnson, PhD
    • Epistemology and Biblical Theology
    • Scripture’s Knowing
  • George YancyAfrican-American Philosophers: 17 Conversations, among others.
  • Cornel West
  • James Baldwin
  • Michael Polanyi
  • Yoram HazonyThe Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture

Again, this is not an exhaustive list, but it’s where I am beginning. I want this to be a interdisciplinary venture as well, so I’ll be working with works from other disciplines as well as works of fiction (see my article on the role of literature in apologetics; this idea carries over to philosophy as well).

[1] Little did I know then that I did indeed struggle with anxiety and some depression. I’m not sure how I understood these issues back then, but I do recall thinking that anxiety and depression were issues that only a few dealt with. 

[2] Somewhat like the experience Aquinas had that led him to quit writing (and therefore leaving his Summa Theologica unfinished). 

[3]What I’m not saying here is that learning “about” is not a part of knowing God. It is indeed. What I am saying is that this is only a part of knowing; intellectual knowing just a part of a more robust process and act of knowing. More on this soon. 

[4] Ironically, despite my search for answers,  this silence of mine could have continued without end, for when do you really have all of the information you need to answer Christianity’s challengers? When do you know enough to no longer be silent? Fear of not knowing enough can keep one perpetually silent. 

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