Epistemology

“Nothing true can be said about God from a posture of defense.”
–Marilynne Robinson

The_Lord_Answering_Job_Out_of_the_Whirlwind_Butts_setWhen I was a young man and considering entering the ministry, I took very seriously the task of deciding my position on any of a vast number of doctrinal questions. What limits has God set on human agency, and what are the implications of those limits? What is the nature of perdition? What is the role of the Christian in the pursuit of social justice? How are we to understand the Biblical account of creation? I was terribly earnest in this as though my opinions on these timeless questions were a matter of great importance.

Some of them I was able to answer to my own satisfaction; some I was not. But the enterprise of trying my meager intellectual abilities against these great and complex inquiries, inquiries against which many a young faith has shipwrecked, showed me one thing beyond doubt: just how small I am. I learned that, although there is great value in the pursuit of truth, the life of faith is, in fact, a life of actual faith. It is a life of arriving at the end of my knowledge and casting myself on the waters of a larger divine knowledge. The life of faith is not a life of having answers. It is not even a life of seeking them. It is a life of seeking God, who controls both the dispensation and the withholding of knowledge. It is a life of hearing answers to questions I never thought to ask. And to questions that, from my limited vantage, seem to matter most, sometimes hearing only silence.

Job learned this. God lets us come before him with our questions, our objections, our rage. He is merciful in that way. He knows we are small. He lets us wrestle and rail, and sometimes he answers. Inevitably, though, when he does, we realize the poverty of our questions.

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As a Christian, there are few spectacles as discouraging to me as when one of my fellow believers stands up behind a lectern somewhere to go toe-to-toe with one or another of the prominent scientist-cum-atheists of the day. We have been doing this regularly since the Scopes trial, and I cannot watch it. It grieves me. This is not just because the Christian always seems to end up looking a little foolish, but because I admire both faith and science for their innate capacity to press upon us the sheer wonder of our existence. But in those debates, both are stripped of awe because the very nature of the enterprise demands unwavering confidence in cosmic matters. Admitting the limits of one’s own knowledge is anathema.

I do not know whether or not he knew it, but when Carl Sagan wrote so eloquently of the impossible tininess of the whole history of human endeavor and accomplishment, he was echoing the sentiment of an ancient Hebrew psalmist who asked that God “teach us to number our days/ that we may get a heart of wisdom.” It is only in realizing how small we are, how limited our knowledge and our means of knowing, that we can begin to approach anything like wisdom.

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Once a girl broke up with me because of my theology. Actually, she broke up with me because I was an ass about my theology. I was twenty and something of a theological provocateur. I was all the time adopting fringe positions for the sake of starting arguments, of being contrary. If I am being kind to my twenty-year-old self, I could say that it was an outworking of my desire to resolve difficult questions, but I was stubbornly unwilling to rely on wisdom received from others. I was unteachable, she said. And she was right. In the panic of my profound intellectual insecurity, I had somehow developed a kind of profound intellectual arrogance. Nothing could be more ill-suited—epistemologically speaking—than for a Christian to be intellectually arrogant.

When a Christian and a scientist stand up and play-act an intellectual exchange, they are beginning from entirely different epistemologies—entirely different ways of knowing the world. But for all the distance between them, they ought to arrive together at a shared conclusion of humble reverence. In science, we rely on observation, but the instruments of our observation and interpretation are finite and flawed. So science, when it is honest, ends in a posture of great humility, and when faith is honest, that is the very posture where it begins. In faith, we rely on revelation. We observe, we learn, we know, but more importantly, we are known, are taught, are shown. And so the point of intersection between faith and science is not a posture of confident assertion, but of wonder. Both epistemologies draw us toward the mystery of existence, toward the edge of our capacity to understand, and both epistemologies fail us when we refuse to recognize our limitations. Sagan and the psalmist are right. We are terribly small. We are Job before the whirlwind, struck dumb and afraid by the wonder of what we cannot know, of what we never knew to ask.

4 Comments

  • Great points, Jonathan!

    When did being a scientist and having a strong faith become mutually exclusive? In the history of science religious men and women were often the ones who discovered great things in various scientific disciplines. I don’t understand why we now put faith and learning about the world in conflict with each other.

    Ps. We were all asses in our 20s.

    • Jonathan Frey says:

      Agreed. Science and faith are epistemologically different impulses, but they needn’t be contradictory ones. Which is part of why the rhetoric of the debates I mention here is frustrating and circular.

  • Nicole says:

    Jonathan, this is beautiful.

  • Sarah Humphrey says:

    “Nothing could be more ill-suited—epistemologically speaking—than for a Christian to be intellectually arrogant.” Nice. Humbling and so true.

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