Tom Wright in his seminal "New Testament and the People of God" spends a good deal of the book writing about how we can know what we know. He describes very lucidly the dichotomy between the positivist / fundamentalist schema of "the world is just as I see it" and the sceptical / phenomenalist reaction "how can I know anything about the world when all I have are these biased and loaded impressions".
We see the same two trajectories in the world of Biblical Studies – one side asserts that the Bible is plain, readily understood and that this plain understanding corresponds precisely to reality. This view lends itself to a posture of certainty, which in previous posts we have looked at as a means of exercising power.
The other side shows that the Bible is complex, foreign, incomplete (e.g. we have the recordings of half a debate in many of Paul’s letters from which we try to infer what the question was he was answering) and difficult. In this latter view all we can hope for is a provisional understanding, lightly held which is subject to further revision.
Wright plays a neat trick with these arguments by pointing out that in both cases they portray a static one-way relationship of knowledge from the Subject (knower) to the Object (known). That relationship can be one of dominance, in the case of the positivist or fundamentalist view, or one of distance in the case of the sceptic / phenomenalist.
What if, Wright suggests, the relationship is not one way, but two way? Furthermore, what if it were not static but dynamic? What does that look like. Well this view acknowledges that in some knowledge the known is also a knower, the object of knowledge is also her own subject. And as we know the known more, and become known by the other we are transformed by that knowledge.
This is easy to think of when we consider intimate relationships. I know my wife more now than I did when we met, and part of that knowing is knowing that she knows me. In fact the flat definitions of the fundamentalists and sceptics rather break down when we try to apply them to meaningful relationships. Our knowledge of each other is not limited to the mere comprehending of facts about the other, and the acceptance that they are true.
We know each other contingently, with mystery and depths yet unexplored. Indeed we know ourselves only in part, and the journey towards self-knowledge is twisty and dark with many blind alleys.
When we come to consider God, of whom we say knows us fully and in whom we are fully known, the same logic is very helpful. If we approach God with the certainty that we know all about Him, neatly tied up with a few omni’s and some other abstract attributes or a creed (or Statement of Beliefs), then that is a move of domination, power and control, as if we really could dominate the divine. If we shy away from being able to say anything about God that is not culturally bound and biased, then although laudable in intent, that fear leaves us impoverished.
The third move is one to approach God with humility, holding lightly any gifts of understanding passed on from traditions, and to relate to God in a tender, loving way. In the tenderness of this love we find ourselves gently transformed by the Spirit and in that transformation our own love for God, for others and for ourselves blossoms. This is a knowledge of the heart, an epistemology of agape, a loving belief that knows and loves us far more than we can love ourselves, but which gives us the growing capacity to love and to be loved. In this soft and kind-hearted love we can nurture the life of God. Perhaps this is why Jesus left us no creeds, no statements of system doctrine, no definitions, just a few stories, some precious memories and a promise that He will be with us always.