Knowing: What, Why, and How (11)
For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea and for all those who have not seen me face to face, that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. Colossians 2:1-3
We’re considering the various ways that human beings come to know things. While the scientific enterprise has proven to be a reliable way of knowing, we should not make the mistake some are making at this time by thinking that only that which science either discovers or verifies counts as real knowledge. As we’ve seen in this series, knowledge comes to us in a variety of ways and flourishes within various communities, many of which have very little to do with science.
As the Apostle Paul seems to have understood our subject, knowledge exists along a spectrum, from unknowing to full knowledge, and this relates to all matters which can be known, all types of knowing, and all knowing creatures and communities. At one point on that spectrum is the fullness of knowledge, which is embodied in Jesus Christ. We might locate Him right at the center, at the heart of what may be truly and fully known, as the orienting and defining point of all true knowledge. At the extremes of that point of full knowledge, radiating out, we might suppose, in all kinds of directions – as there are many different communities of knowing – is unknowing, which, by the grace of God, describes no one except, presumably, those who are in the most vegetative state of existence. Even these, however, have some degree of consciousness and remain, regardless of that degree, the image-bearers of God.
All people, in other words, have some knowledge; we all line up on the spectrum of knowledge at some point and in some topics or ways of knowing more than others.
But true knowledge, according to Paul, is defined in relationship to Jesus Christ. We only really “know” things when we know them as they connect to Jesus. This pertains not merely to “spiritual” or “theological” knowledge, but to all knowledge, a view Paul demonstrated in his message to the Athenians on Mars Hill (Acts 17:22-31), and to which he alludes elsewhere (cf. Eph. 1:22, 23; 2 Cor. 10:3-5).
We know things truly only as we know them in relation to Jesus Christ. He is the Creator of all things (Jn. 1:1-3); He upholds and sustain all things (Heb. 1:3); He alone is able to reconcile all things, according to their unique natures, to God (2 Cor. 5:19). No matter the method of knowing we may employ or the subject of knowledge we pursue, our knowledge will only begin to be complete as all our knowing is referred to Jesus Christ and His purposes. This, at least, is the Biblical idea of knowledge and knowing, and this is the centerpiece and cornerstone of the kind of knowing and knowledge the Christian community seeks to achieve.
Further, Paul insists that even great thinkers can say at best that, for now, we know only in part (1 Cor. 13:12). We will only know fully – as fully, at least, as finite creatures are capable of knowing – when we see the Lord Jesus face to face. But even then our knowledge will be partial because we are finite beings. We will know more fully that which we have come to know, and which we continue to learn; but we shall never reach exhaustive knowledge like the knowledge God has of all things (Eccl. 3:11; Is. 55:8, 9). We will always be creatures.
But the exciting prospect is that, even in eternity, even in the presence of Him Who is all wisdom and knowledge, there will always be new things for us to learn, new delights of knowing to engage and enjoy.
Understanding the spectrum of knowledge
Because knowledge is accumulated within communities, it is important that Christians, within their own communities of knowing, understand this spectrum of knowledge as it is indicated in Scripture and reflected in the contemporary struggle between a secular and unbelieving worldview and the worldview of Christian faith. For purposes of illustration, we will consider only these two communities of learning along the spectrum of knowledge, and only “knowledge” as kind of general topic, although the diversity is very great of things we may know. We must at the same time keep in mind that many such communities exist and many different topics of knowledge which we may pursue. Understanding this spectrum of knowledge can help us in three ways.
First, it invites us to situate ourselves on that spectrum, so that we might be able to praise and honor God for what we have come to know and to press on to grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord, by all the means and subjects of knowing available to us.
Thus, understanding the spectrum of knowledge can be of immediate benefit to us in clarifying and enhancing our primary purpose in life, which is to glorify God and to make His glory known in all things (1 Cor. 10:31; Hab. 2:14).
Second, this spectrum can enable us to identify areas of overlap – and there are many – between what we in the Christian community know, and how we know it, and what those know whose knowing is dictated by the premises of unbelief. Only in some ways are we two separate communities of knowing. As Augustine explained in City of God, the community of the faithful and that of unbelief are intermingled and intertwined throughout every aspect of life in the world. This should be of help to us in seeking points of common interest or concern which we might engage and explore, even with unbelievers, for the purpose of moving toward greater knowledge, especially the knowledge of the Lord.
Finally, understanding the spectrum, and the dynamics of knowing it represents, can remind us of the sovereignty of God and His great wisdom and grace in dealing with human beings in all ages. This, in turn, should undermine any inclinations toward pride, arrogance, or aloofness from the rest of the world and, instead, reinforce our mission as ambassadors of God’s love to a world without God and without hope (Eph. 2:12).
Let’s explore this spectrum by means of a simple diagram, which I will develop in stages.
Communities of knowing
First, as we saw in our previous installment, all knowing takes place within communities. In our day, and our particular cultural context, two communities of knowing are presently striving for mastery with respect to overall understanding of truth and its implications. These are the community which embraces, to one extent or another, the Christian worldview, and the community of secular rationalism and unbelief. The illustration and perspective I intend to develop here represents a Christian view of knowledge and knowing; secularists would certainly not agree with me, but their refusal to grant the truth of the Biblical teaching on this subject in no way nullifies or invalidates that view (Rom. 3:4). Our duty as Christians, in this and every other area of life, is to exercise the mind of Christ, which we possess (1 Cor. 2:16) to understand the Word of Christ which He has given to equip us for every good work. The more diligent and faithful we are in searching out such matters, the more we may expect to realize the promise of life which comes with obedience to the Word of God (Jn. 6:63).
We may represent the two communities of learning, from the perspective of our Christian worldview, as follows:
Let’s say just a few things about each of these, in order to demonstrate the contrasting views they represent.
Each worldview presently “owns” a finite amount of knowledge. That may increase, but it will always be finite. This is in contrast to God, Whose being and knowledge are infinite.
Further, the Christian worldview is grounded in the self-revealing God and takes the Scriptures as His truth and the foundation of all knowing. The secular community is rooted in the rational human mind a se and believes that truth is not received by revelation but discovered through experience and reason.
Now immediately someone will object, But wait a second: Christians also believe that truth is discovered through experience and reason, as long as these are kept within the framework of divine revelation. Quite right.
Someone else will protest, But even within secularism, reason does not function in a vacuum; foundational beliefs, and not demonstrable facts, form the true basis for experience and reason to yield knowledge. So a kind of faith is at work even among the members of the unbelieving world. Also correct.
Yet another will opine, And there are other methods of learning – aesthetics, heuristics, and so forth – shared by members of both communities. That is also a correct observation
Finally, we will point out the obvious by saying that members of the Christian community and those in the unbelieving world share many aspects of knowledge. Both know how to use computer, read traffic signs, watch a film, carry on a meaningful conversation, make change for a dollar, and much more.
So we need to arrange our diagram to reflect these realities, positing an area of overlap to represent all that is truly known by knowing creatures within these two communities at any particular time.
Beyond the area of overlap lie matters known, and in particular ways, only to members of the different communities. And beyond the communities themselves are things yet to be known, although these will always be finite (with the exception, of course, of the infinite God).
The two communities interact and interface within the area of overlap, even though their basic understanding of what it means to know anything will ultimately be at odds:
There are, it is clear, a good many areas of knowledge and knowing where these two communities overlap. That area of overlap can increase, but only as each community increases in knowledge in common with the other community. It will never be the case that one community will totally eclipse the other, at least, not in this world. These areas of overlap should encourage us about the possibilities of dialog between members of these communities as they carry on the pursuit of knowledge and truth.
Of course, we would expect there to be many areas in which the two communities do not overlap at all, and these would not be likely to be areas where any agreement may be achieved.
Now, how shall we understand the Apostle Paul’s view of the spectrum of knowing/knowledge in relation to these two communities of knowing?
We will take up that question in our next installment.
Talk with some unbelieving friends or co-workers. As you do, make mental note of the many different kinds of “knowledge” you have in common. Jot these down later in the day. Is there any difference in the way you “know” these things and the way unbelievers do? For example, a matter of government policy?
For more insight to this subject, order the book, Loving to Know, by Esther Lightcap Meek, from our online store. You might also read the article, “How to Know When You Know, And How to Know When You Don’t Know,” by T. M. Moore