Sunday, March 13, 2011

Two Types of Knowing And Why You Need Both

One of the dangers of focusing a blog on the "Christian Intellect" is that people will assume that I am, in some way, spurring people to  "ivory tower" scholasticism or a new generation of monks. That is to misunderstand what I mean by intellect.

There are two types of knowledge: 

1. Cerebral knowledge--typically learned through secondary sources like books. This is where we know things like philosophy, theoretic structures, history outside of our life time, etc. 

2. Experiential knowledge. For instance, you may read a book that informs you that many people think chocolate tastes delicious, and, therefore at some level, you know that chocolate is sweet (or bitter depending on how it's made) and wonderful. However, it is a different type of knowing to actually go to the store, buy a Lindt or Godiva chocolate bar (I mean...if you've never eaten chocolate before, you may as well go big) and eat it for yourself.

This understanding of knowledge is consistent with Biblical Christianity. " You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder" (James 2:19). There is a difference between knowing facts about Jesus the Messiah, the Father, the Holy Spirit, or even the Church and between experiencing them in a real way for ourselves.

 The problem, as I see it, is that many Christians have a hard time balancing the two types of knowing. At many points, certain traditions have emphasized one to the neglect of the other. Orthodoxy ("Right belief") takes precedence over Orthopraxy ("Right practice"), or vice versa. While this is not the place for a discussion on the balance between faith and deeds per se, there is a certain strong link between the two ideas.

What I am talking about is what theologians and philosophers call "epistomology"--the study of belief/knowledge. What is knowledge? How do we acquire knowledge? These are the questions of epistomology. Everyone has their own theory of epistomology whether they use that terminology or not, or whether they have thought about it in explicit terms or not. We all have some idea of the subject.

 I am particularly interested in the importance of the balance of study and experience.  Let me use a concrete example from my own struggles in this area. It is easy to read the Bible, secondary literature, or even listen to sermons on the subject of loving neighbor through helping the poor. I can know all kind of verses on the subject. I can know theories and statistics. I can even know what other people are doing in this area and how it is working or failing for them. However, I know love of neighbor at a deeper level when I actually do it for myself. This fact has led many churches to scrap the emphasis on study in favor of mobilizing their people to acts of service. 

You may have heard someone say at some point: "We don't need another sermon on...we just need to get out there and do it." There is some truth in that, but by and large the church in America is not overly academic or overly studied. The danger I see in this over-reaction is that people receive a new epistomology from the Church that emphasizes action to the detriment of learning and reflection. It is the equivalent of going into a medical school and saying, "The important thing about medicine is that you get in there and treat patients, operate, prescribe medications, etc. So quit studying this stuff and just get in that hospital and start working."

How many of us would want to be patients in that place? Some of my doctor friends could tell you, that after years in the field of medicine, they still have to study the secondary literature and go to conferences. 

Both careful study of the Bible and reflective engagement with the world are important for our knowledge of life in Christ. We need to have careful balance in this area. In part two, I will reflect on how study can illuminate experience and vice versa, but in the mean time it may be helpful for us all to reflect on an area in which we need to learn better balance between study and experience.

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