January 30, 2023 A Religious and Political Commentary

How Do You Know?

Doctor to patient: “Well, I’ve got bad news and worse news. The bad news is you have 24 hours to live.”

Patient (after letting the bad news sink in): “What could be worse than that?”

Doctor: “I’ve been trying to reach you since yesterday.”

Just when you think you know what you need to know, there’s always something to learn. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently because of conversations with my son. He is in the throes of theological education. He is a verbal processor. If you’re not sure what that means, he is the exact opposite of me! I will have a thought and I stew on it. I think quietly in order to process ideas and information – I’m a bit slow. He will have a thought and he just talks. And talks. And talks.

I won’t let a hypothesis out of my mouth I haven’t totally attempted to think-out. He’ll spout off the first thing that comes to mind. Doesn’t matter, right or wrong. In fact, I sometimes think he enjoys being wrong. Because when he’s wrong, that’s when good debate happens. And that’s how he learns. Neither learning style is right or wrong … they’re just different.

Regardless of the frustration I find with half-baked ideas, I wouldn’t trade those conversations for anything. I’m convinced he’ll surpass me in understanding soon … because he listens.

I entered the world of theological education many moons ago with a solid undergraduate background in theology. But the new ideas to which I was exposed made my head spin. I read brilliant scholars, from left and right, questioning the Book and the ideas I held sacred. Who was right? Who was wrong?

On top of this, the amount of information I was consuming and the speed at which I was learning made for quite heady days. Suddenly, I was a biblical scholar.  I was a seminarian. So many people to correct … so little time! Fortunately, these were pre “blog” days and I wasn’t preaching yet, so only my wife knows what an insufferable know-it-all I was.

Age tends to humble you. So does continued study. So does 26 years of pastoring. Just when you think you know what you need to know, there’s always something to learn.

Epistemological humility is the key. Epistemology is the idea of how we know what we know. It describes the accumulation of knowledge. Epistemological humility is gaining knowledge, and at the same time remaining humble before God and our fellow man.

It sounds simple but isn’t. We can readily see it in the history of philosophy. First, we believe in a rational God who made a rational world which could be understood by rational men (rationalism). Then, all of a sudden, we no longer believe in God. Instead, everything we need to know about our world we could objectively observe (naturalism). Then we come to realize we aren’t quite as objective as we thought … so we de-emphasize the data and re-emphasize the data collector (humanism). Ultimately, knowing seems an impossible task itself, so we just give up (post-modernism) – you can have your “facts” and I’ll have mine.

What does that mean outside of the halls of Academia? Humans will continue to advance, but those world-changing advancements of the past – the ones relating to human survival and exploration – are few and far between these days. Today’s advancements tend to gravitate toward increasing affluence and ease of life. And in the arena of the exchange of ideas, data and facts are less important than ideas and emotions. Battle-lines are drawn.

Gone are the days of debating the reasonableness, morality, or ethics of something. So, too, the days of debating the merit of ideas. Now we do what we want because we can and because we want to. Opposition to said idea becomes “phobia” or “hatred,” because the idea has been moved from being intellectual to emotional. My disagreement with you becomes personal.

Historical context is removed as well because of our “idiot delusion of the exceptional Now (in the words of John Dos Passos).” This is the idea that our time is so unprecedented that it supersedes all that has come before. Who cares what the ancients thought? Why should it matter what was done in the eighteenth century?

That’s why a failed system like socialism can make a revival in our time. It is attractive because everything will be free. We’ll make everyone economic equals, which makes us feel better. And though it has never worked elsewhere in the world, these are exceptional times. It’s bound to work in the “exceptional Now.”

What is needed is a return to epistemological humility … the kind that admits that we see through a glass darkly (1 Cor. 13:12). Each of us believes we are correct in our positions. But do we hold open the possibility that we’re wrong? Even if our conclusions are correct, is there room for error in our logic, our expression of position, or, worse, our motives? If someone disagrees with us, are they automatically enemies? Haters? Phobic? Can we even talk about it?

For me, epistemological humility means “speaking the truth in love (Eph. 4:15),” with me emphasizing “love” more than “being right.” For you, epistemological humility might mean that you understand my disagreement with you doesn’t mean I am an enemy who hates you.

 

There’s room for improvement in us all. “’Come, let us reason,’ says the Lord. (Isaiah 1:18).”

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