Knowledge As Trust

Everything you think you have done is an illusion. Your will is a fond figment of your imagination, your decisions, direct results of your environment. Maybe you’re part of the Matrix. Marx thought as much:

“Your very ideas are but the outgrowth of the conditions of your bourgeois production and bourgeois property, just as your jurisprudence is but the will of your class made into a law for all, a will, whose essential content is determined by the material conditions of existence of your class” (The Communist Manifesto, 21).

These words were written over a century ago, but they describe the world we live in today. The “material conditions” of our environment are the ultimate reality, according to this view. Everything real is material. So who do we turn to for reliable answers? Theologians? Pastors? Philosophers? No––we look to the guys who study materials, usually raw materials like rocks or cells or plants. Scientists are our gurus, the wise men who we seek if we want to find out the truth––they are the ones who really know things about the real world. It’s a question of knowledge primarily, and, by extension, a question of authority. Knowledge can be firsthand––observed or experienced directly by me––or secondhand––received from someone else who has gained knowledge either directly or secondhand themselves. The first we usually just call eyewitness experience or something along those lines. The second we call trust, taking something on authority.

The spread of the naturalistic worldview Marx held has long since reshaped the western conception of how we can know truth. Today, our framework is generally what his was: things discoverable by scientific research and experiment can be truly known––things not scientifically measurable are essentially subjective opinion. I think there’s a problem with this understanding of knowledge. And it’s not logical consistency that’s the problem: if there really is nothing beyond what we can see and touch and measure, then it makes sense to think that truth can only be found by studying natural phenomena directly. I think the problem is that there is something––a lot of somethings, actually––beyond what we can see and touch and measure.

But even if the natural world is not the only sphere that exists, it is still real––which means the natural sciences can give us true knowledge about reality. The question is not whether we should trust science at all, but whether it should be the only thing we trust, like Marx did. Generally speaking, it seems to be the only source of knowledge we westerners trust. If your worldview is naturalistic, this stance makes sense. But my concern is that I see Christians thinking this way––which doesn’t make sense. Or at least shouldn’t. Christianity is not a naturalistic worldview: we believe in God, the Father everlasting, a non-material, non-scientifically-measurable person. It makes no sense for us to only trust science to tell us truth about reality. We have other, some would say higher, sources of authority––other ways of apprehending truth about reality––because Christianity says reality is not limited to natural phenomena. Last year a Christian musician made some comments on authoritative sources of knowledge:

“…not too many people today are going around arguing that God is a geologic entity that lives in the sky that created a flat square of land surrounded by ocean with heaven above us and Sheol below us… Why not? BECAUSE SCIENCE SHOWED US THAT THIS IS NOT POSSIBLE. So we rightfully re-read and re-interpret the Bible, just as people have done for thousands of years.” (I’m With You, Michael Gungor, 8/6/14)

He’s arguing against a hypothetical hyper-literal hermeneutic. The interesting part is how he affirms reinterpreting Scripture based on what science reveals. This kind of thinking seems to prioritize scientific authority over Scriptural authority. Instead of arguing from Scripture we are to argue from evidence found in natural phenomena. I think to do so is to prize one too much over the other. We should certainly recognize the truth to be discovered by scientific inquiry––we believe that nature attests to the higher, deeper reality we affirm as Christians. But what is revealed in the natural world should never authoritatively trump the written words revealing truth about both the natural and the spiritual world.

The question gets complicated, though, when we’re talking about which authority we should take when it comes to knowing about natural phenomena: should we take scientific authority, whose domain it is to deal with nature, or Scriptural authority, whose domain it is to deal with… what exactly? Does Scripture deal solely with the spiritual? Ought we trust Scripture to tell us truth about the natural world more than we trust science to do so? The study of natural phenomena, while informed by Scripture, is probably not the main kind of knowledge Scripture is concerned with. So Gungor’s distinction is understandable––Scripture is not a collection of scientific data, per se, and we should interpret each book with its individual genre as well as the context of the whole Bible in mind. This can be a slippery slope, though: if we invalidate the historicity of the Genesis origins account, for instance, our theology will be thrown out of whack. Science can tell us directly and explicitly about natural phenomena, but only Scripture can tell us that directly and explicitly about God and his works. And the creation of the universe is a very special work of God, its theological significance rooted in historical facts.

It makes sense to trust that God’s explicit words to us in his special revelation will tell us more truth about reality than what we seek to discover on our own resources (granted, the resources God gave us to do so––like the ability to do scientific inquiry). Why? Because reality is not only material conditions. It makes sense to look to the author of Scripture for the most definitive, reliable knowledge about reality because he is also the author of all reality––he spoke it all into existence, speaks it all together for sustained existence, and will speak it all anew one day. It’s his direct Word we Christians should trust above all other sources of knowledge––his Word is the ultimate authority on reality.

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