But How Do I Know?
Recently many readers have asked questions about knowing. The questions come in different forms, but they are all basically about the same thing. “Now that I see the Hebraic basis of Scripture, how do I know what to do? How can I be sure?” In other words, we can read the words of the text but we aren’t sure exactly what they mean. We want to know so we can apply them correctly.
This is an epistemological issue. Epistemology is the Greek term for the way we know things. For centuries, Western thinkers attempted to base their method of knowing on a mathematical structure. The reason they chose mathematical models is simple: mathematics provides certainty. 2+2 is always 4. Parallel lines never meet (in Euclidian geometry). There is no “interpretation” here. It is either True or False. And it’s all very logical. Men were looking for a way to have certainty about the world and mathematically based models seemed to be the answer. But over the course of hundreds of years, it became obvious that this doesn’t work. While there is certainty within the mathematical system (like number theory and geometry), as soon as we try to apply the same kind of logic to the world, things get very messy. Interpretation comes back into the picture and answers don’t always seem to be either True or False. Eventually, thinkers gave up on the hope of finding a way of knowing that was intuitively obvious, logically necessary and certain. They were forced to move to a different kind of certainty; a certainty based on psychological experience.
We have discussed this a bit in the last months. This kind of certainty is quite popular in religious circles. It is knowledge based on my personal experience. The strength of this way of knowing is that I can’t really doubt what I experience. If my shoulder hurts (and it does), then it hurts even if the doctor tells me that there is no reason for it to hurt. The pain is immediately obvious to me regardless of his evaluation. It is my truth. I am certain of it. You find this kind of epistemology when people claim “This is what God revealed to me,” or “I just know this is true in my heart.” In other words, they just can’t doubt what they have experienced. But there’s a big problem. The doctor who can’t find anything wrong to explain my pain can admit that I feel it, but that doesn’t mean it is real. It’s real for me, but I might be delusional or a psychosomatic. In other words, personal experience does not provide public, testable truth. We have the same problem with religious experience. God might have told you that this is what He means, but unless there is some way for me to have exactly the same psychologically certain experience, all you can really say is, “This is true for me,” and that amounts to not very much since being “true for me” can lead to all kinds of ridiculous claims. For example, I could argue that God told me the end of the world will be in 2012. I can be certain about it. But you won’t believe me unless you have something more than my word on the subject. You want outside evidence, not just my personal experience.
This problem forced philosophy to move toward inference as the way of knowing. We all use this epistemological model every day. We gather evidence, evaluate claims, look for patterns and draw conclusions. This is the popularized “scientific method.” It is knowing by experimenting. It seems to work pretty well. Everyone wants a reason to believe a claim and this method seems to be based entirely on reasoned conclusions. Just go get the facts. For most of us, this is about as far as we go. But deep thinkers about science recognized that often, far too often, what we consider evidence is already determined by prior commitments; commitments for which there is no evidence. For example, prior to the explosion of the first atomic bomb, many world-famous physicists believed that the atom was the smallest building block of matter and therefore, could not be split. The atomic bomb disproved that belief in one incredible moment, but a large number of physicists simply refused to accept the evidence because it didn’t fit the theory. They went right on teaching that the atom couldn’t be split. They denied the existence of the atomic bomb until they died. History shows that this entrenched resistance is often the case. Galileo, Copernicus, Crick and other pioneers in science faced entrenched positions that refused to accept any “new” evidence. The current political environment is a prefect example of prior commitments providing what is “evidence.” Is the economy getting better or worse? Just look at the evidence. But, of course, the “evidence” is determined by my prior political viewpoint. What we discovered is that “evidence” itself depends on prior assumptions. It doesn’t come to us “clean.” It is always part of an interpretive scheme.
This is a very big problem in religion. So many times we find theologians claiming that the “evidence” conclusively shows such-and-such. But these same theologians refuse to see anything except what fits their prior interpretive schemes. For example, if you believe in “sinful nature,” you will find all kinds of evidence for it in Scripture. But you have to come to the text with a prior commitment to total depravity in order to fit all the verses together. There are no verses that say, “Men have a sinful nature and are totally depraved.” That is a conclusion drawn for seeing the text in a certain way. The same is true for the doctrine of the Trinity. You get the idea. The reason we spend time discussing the underlying interpretive schemes (the prior commitments like “replacement theology”) is simple: these prior commitments shape Scripture to fit what we already believe. Often we translate verses based on these prior commitments, not on the actual words themselves. Translations that follow this kind of thinking disguise the prior commitment within the text. You never even know that the translation depends on an unsubstantiated belief. You become the victim of someone’s theological bias.
There are a lot of additional problems with this “evidence gathering” epistemology that would require much deeper discussion. It is sufficient now to simply realize that the hope of finding interpretive-neutral evidence has been abandoned. Everyone comes to the evidence with his or her own filter. The world isn’t a blank slate. It is already populated with “how I see things.” So, philosophers moved to another way of knowing. They were forced to concede that all knowing is theory dependent. In other words, truth depends on my interpretive scheme. I can only know what is “true” from inside my way of looking at the world.
This claim might seem harmless, but it isn’t. This model really amounts to everyone having their own view of what is true. And that, of course, means that there is no such thing as final, real truth. You will notice that this claim is logically contradictory since it claims that all interpretive schemes are like this and that itself is a final claim about truth. You can see the problem. Once we arrive at the “this is true for me” way of knowing, argument, discussion, apologetics and persuasion become impossible. The popularized version of this now dominates the culture. “It’s just my belief.” “You believe what you want to believe and I believe what I want to believe.” “You can’t force your beliefs on anyone else. All beliefs are equal.” This is “all paths lead to God” kind of thinking. Just live your own life. Do what you can. But don’t try to convert anyone else. We are all just prisoners of our own way of thinking.
After 2500 years of Western philosophy, the project of finding the truth is bankrupt. Western thought can’t think its way out of this box. It is finished. Everyone just lives in their own worldview with nothing much to say to anyone else.
Contemporary education in the West preaches this model. Most of your children are being taught that this is the only way to view truth. This is epistemological tolerance. Presenting the Bible to people who have this view of epistemology is almost a waste of time. They are happy that you have found something that works for you, but it isn’t true for them and since there is no final truth, there are no final “proofs” that you are right and they are wrong.
I hope you can appreciate the difficulty this presents for understanding the Bible. Religious people seem to be trapped in two camps. They either base their arguments on a claim about personal certainty or on claims about evidence. Now you can see why both of these models don’t work. For example, arguments about creationism are flawed because they depend on the evidence model. The same is true for the popular apologetics of “proving” Jesus is God. On the other hand, most attempts to acquaint people with a loving God follow the experience model. This approach is filled with personal testimonies and religious feelings. Christians can’t embrace the “no final truth” interpretive scheme model because they want to claim that there really is absolute truth, but when it comes to demonstrating that claim, all kinds of deeper issues emerge. In my opinion, this entire road (from mathematical certainty to private interpretive schemes) is a dead-end. There is no way out of here. We have to find another road.
That’s where the Eastern, Hebraic view seems to fit. It doesn’t begin with the idea of human reason finding the right path. It begins with divine revelation outside of human reason. That doesn’t mean that divine revelation isn’t reasonable. It just means that we can’t start with ourselves and get to truth. Our minds are not enough for this task.
So, how can we avoid the bankruptcy of reason and, at the same time, enter into a rational relationship with a reasoning God?
Let me offer some suggestions. These are only suggestions since working out a full epistemology is a very difficult task, perhaps as difficult as trying to shift from a predominately Greek-based Western view to this Hebraic, Eastern model.
First, knowledge begins with revelation. This is an a priori (assumed) commitment. There is no apology here. This seems to be the position of the entire Bible. There is no effort to prove God exists, no effort to show His truth is the truth, no attempt to justify His claims against competing philosophical positions. The Bible simply begins with God.
Of course, the implications of this beginning are powerful. God knows. We don’t. God sees the whole picture. We only see a tiny, tiny part. God is doing something we can barely understand. And, most importantly, what we do know, He must tell us. That doesn’t mean we can’t discover all sorts of things. We can discover His universe, how it works, how to do all kinds of things in it. The Bible actually shows very little interest in all this. It is about bigger questions. Not bigger science questions like the Big Bang, but bigger life-transforming questions like God’s relationship to me. In this regard, the Bible is fundamentally a relationship story, not a textbook on science or a Boy Scout manual of rule behavior. The Bible is a story about God hunting us down through a means that only He really understands. It isn’t a universal storybook. It’s a book about God’s deliberate interaction with a particular people, Israel, and God’s plan for this particular people to become an instrument to reach others. If we forget this specificity and particularity, we distort the Book.
Second, all Biblical texts depend on human situations. They come culturally loaded. Yeshua is a Jew. Abraham comes from Ur. David deals with 10th century BC politics. The Bible is clothed in human form. That means God decided to reveal Himself within the context of time, place, culture, ethnicity and language. We can’t understand who we are and what He is doing if we ignore this particularity. So, since God chose to do it this way, we need to work at seeing Him through the eyes of those who wrote His story – not through the eyes of contemporary readers of His story. The Bible is not a contemporary book. It is ancient literature and must be understood from an ancient perspective. How we get to this ancient point of view is the process of exegesis (see Walter Kaiser’s work). When we convert biblical passages into universal principles or theology, we necessarily distort the meaning. Sometimes the text itself warrants this (“for God so loved the cosmos”) but often Christians are influenced by Greek-based epistemology to look for universal applications that simply do not exist within the text itself. God is the God of Israel, not the God of Athens.
Third, there is a reason why Judaism does not have a history of systematic theology but Christianity does. The whole project of systematic theology is based in the Greek epistemology of reasoning my way to the truth. Systematic theology is an attempt to fit the biblical story into pre-conceived, compartmentalized boxes. In other words, it’s an attempt to push an Eastern, Hebraic, culturally and temporally located community into Western, rationally conceived pigeon-holes. It just doesn’t fit. But that doesn’t stop Western Christianity from making it fit. On the other hand, Jews have recognized that the Bible is about a way of life, not about a way of thinking. So, the Jews concentrate on understanding how they are to live according to God’s instructions rather than how we are to conceive of God. Systematic theology is too often a subtle reflection of arrogance. Do we really think that we can categorize God? The Jewish approach is based in awe, reverence and an admission of incomprehensibility. The Westerner wants to know! The Easterner wants to live correctly.
Fourth, finally the Bible is about community, not about individual apprehension of God. It is not a private experience of God. It is a public, communal obedience, open to others, jointly acknowledged with consequences for all. It is not about gathering external evidence to prove “scientifically” something about God. It is the external involvement of followers in each other’s lives that becomes the witness of His purposes. Biblical apologetics is very rarely arguing for the truth. Think about how infrequently you find any persuasive arguments in the text. Biblical apologetics is based in Deuteronomy 28. Live like God asks and He will insure the results. Do what He says and others will come calling on Him. Of course, in the Greek world, it’s all about “proving” our rational beliefs. What do you think would happen if Christians actually lived according to God’s instructions and stopped trying to recruit people to the Church? What do you think would occur if every Christian was a walking, talking example of the fruit of the Spirit? Would we really need arguments?
The reason we examine Jewish exegetical principles, look at rabbinic literature and devour the etymologies is not to categorize, compartmentalize and convince. It is to live according to His instructions. Without that, everything is lost. There are two roads. One is the road toward rational, cognitive certainty. The West has followed this road for 2500 years. It’s a dead end. The West is hopelessly lost in cognitive insanity. The other road leads most of us into foreign geography. It is the road of revelation and obedience before understanding. It follows the story of God and His people, not His “church.” It has a lot of stop signs that seem quite strange. But it follows the King.
Which road are you on?