Teach me your way, O LORD, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere your name. --Psalm 86:11

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

On Coming to Know

It’s been a while since I’ve posted, mostly because of a busy school and family schedule, but spring break has come, and with it a bit more time to reflect and write.

I am not a philosopher and this is not a blog about philosophy. But I am a learner and a teacher, so I occasionally ponder on the process of how we come to know things (what philosophers call epistemology). I woke up way too early Friday morning, thinking about how we move from knowing what other people know and tell us, to knowing for ourselves.

My students and I are have been exploring some faith traditions with which we share a largely common worldview, but also have divergent belief and practice. For the last few weeks, we’ve been engaging Catholicism. I’ve been doing my best to represent a Catholic view of the Eucharist, drawing largely on Brant Pitre’s stimulating book, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist. Pitre argues that when we view Jesus words and deeds in light of ancient Jewish history and custom, and first-century messianic expectation, we see him teaching that his real presence would be conveyed through the Eucharistic bread and wine.

As we process these unfamiliar ideas, both from Pitre and the guest speakers who have shared with us, I get a number of responses. Some say, “I don’t like that” and basically check out. Others listen and process, but respond that it doesn’t make sense to them. This is an honest response because it truly doesn’t fit into the plausibility structure they have inherited and developed; its strangeness makes it sound senseless. These students often make counterarguments, which rest on prior assumptions about what the Bible says. But they are listening and thinking, and this is great! Still others listen, weigh, question, dialogue and seek to understand and evaluate whether the position presented is what Jesus actually meant. I received an encouraging email from one of these students. He said:
One point that you made that made an impact on me was that the Passover lamb was sacrificed and then consumed. . . I was not completely sold on what you were saying about the spiritual presence of God in the element, but the fact that Jesus is our Passover lamb seemed to be a very convincing argument for a more literal point [of] view. . . As I was pondering this on my own I thought about the Passover lamb that Jesus is compared to. . . Were not the sacrificial lambs merely symbols, representations, and placeholders for the real sacrifice that was to come in Jesus? When the Jews would eat the lamb they would not be eating the real sacrifice but a symbol for that true sacrifice. That would then imply that we are as well eating a symbol for our Passover Lamb. 
I am by no means convinced one way or the other and our discussion have opened my mind to the issue. . . I thank you for having these days in class.
I was so encouraged to hear how this student was not disparaging or dismissing, but processing and evaluating what he was hearing. I wrote back sharing my own process of thinking through these concepts, which has been going on for some time and stimulated by our current study:
You bring up a good point about OT sacrifices being symbolic pointers to the Reality that was to come. Your line of thought makes sense: that because they were eating a symbol, we are too when we eat the bread and wine/juice. Another way to think of it is that because lambs/animals were symbolic foreshadows and Christ is the greater reality, so they consumed a symbol and we consume the reality. That reality, in my provisional view at this point, is the spiritual presence of Christ (i.e. the Holy Spirit; though I appreciated what Father Barnett said about the Trinity all acting together and the HS being like the leading point of the triune triangle). Thus, we feed on Christ’s presence by receiving His Spirit.
Granted, I have not thought through this with respect to every text that might be brought to bear on the question, nor in dialogue with systematic theology. That’s why I used the word provisional above. I think I’m at a point where I want this to be true, because I want Communion to be more meaningful and mysterious than it has been for me in the past, and there seems to be some solid scriptural basis for at least the idea of a spiritual presence, so, in light of this recent engagement with the [biblical] text [i.e., John 6] and Catholic theology, I’ll let that simmer in my mental stew pot and see if it continues to ring true as I keep studying and growing.
This kind of discussion is why I love teaching biblical studies. Thanks again for taking the time to share your thoughts.
This exchange, I think, is what prompted my early morning musing about epistemology and the following insight. (For those who really are philosophers, this insight is obviously nothing new; I’ve just seen it play out recently and so “discovered” is personally.)

When we’re young, we know because we’re told. This knowledge comes largely from our parents and teachers. Right or wrong, we’ll die on the hill saying, “My dad said so!” Some never really move beyond this point. Adults often live on a basically borrowed belief system. Many blindly believe what reporters say. Academics often accept the ungrounded claims of scholarly “experts” without considering their arguments or their bias. Similarly, grown-up Christians regularly appeal to what “the Bible says,” which is really nothing more than what their pastor or teacher says; they never consider the complexities of interpreting and applying ancient texts or recognize that there are credible alternative readings.

Now, I should admit that all knowledge is in some sense inherited. We will never escape learning from others, nor should we try. But the hope is that people learn to choose their teachers wisely and honestly evaluate both messengers and their claims. We want to seek the truth, not just what confirms our prior beliefs. And one goal of education (at least one of my goals as an educator) is to help people move from knowing because they’re told to knowing because they know, that is, because they’ve come to “own” a belief. We own a belief when we understand its ins and outs, its whys and wherefores. Ownership comes through reasoned thought, experience and engagement with opposing viewpoints.

When we come out the other side of this long and arduous process, our knowledge is, paradoxically, both more and less certain. On the one hand, we know the reasons beneath our beliefs and, therefore, why they’re worth holding. On the other hand, we see a bigger picture and gain a deeper understanding of alternate beliefs. If these beliefs are groundless, our own are confirmed. But if they are reasonable, we may discover some value to be appreciated and learned from them. We may find, as I have with the Catholic view of the Eucharist, that they add more to the beliefs we have, without diminishing what we already knew. We, therefore, gain respect for alternate ideas and those who hold them. We have learned to listen and to learn. We emerge with a more personal knowledge and with humility – a combination which amounts to wisdom.

Although, as I said above, I’m not a philosopher in the professional sense, I hope I still am in the etymological sense. For the philosopher is a “lover of wisdom.” He knows how much he doesn’t know and therefore invites new and challenging ideas. He listens and ponders, and processes and evaluates, develops and strengthens his personal knowledge. I hope my students see me doing this kind of philosophy, under the authority of Christ, and that they too will come to “own” their knowledge, so they can live the truth wisely in the world.

What ideas are you currently processing? What beliefs are you coming to own? Do you have insight on how we move from inherited knowing to personal knowing?