Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Is what we know who we are?

But how do I know?*

Or is who we are what we know?

This post from 12 years ago is suddenly, according to my stats reader, a hot topic.  I daresay I was more clear headed then than I am now; but I was also as prone then as now to let my readers work out their own salvation in fear and trembling.  Or at least confront ideas and reach their own conclusions (the two comments indicate this is still a source of frustration; but the source is intentional about it, to this day):

Which brings us back to Yourgrau: is it a question of being, or a question of knowing? Most criticism of religion in the Western world focusses on the question of knowing. If we don't know God exists, or don't know exactly what God wants, or don't know for sure which rules of God apply, or how to interpret them, how then do we claim as Christians to know anything at all? Likewise, if we do know these things, how do we restrain from imposing them on everyone else, from defining our truth as the truth absolute and even if we are tolerant of other truths, of not measuring them against ours and finding them, inevitably and if we are honest, wanting?

But what if it is a question of being, instead?

The conflict of the thesis is between Continental and Anglo-American schools of philosophy, described as fundamentally divided over the issue of epistemology v. ontology, and which is paramount.  I liked this concluding paragraph in part because I wrote it (let's be honest, and clear false modesty away now), but that's no recommendation for what it says.  I return to it because, 12 years later, I'm still picking the bones of the philosophical position of God's existence, and this puts that question in perspective (well, I think it does).

If knowledge is what being human is all about, then these are legitimate questions and, as well, legitimate stumbling blocks.  But if I don't think they are the foundation of being human (I was going to say "human being," but I'd be misinterpreted as referring to the species, not to being as regards the class of humans, which is what I'd mean), then am I guilty of violating Wittgenstein's "language games"?  Or just playing a language game, which most people think means playing fast and loose with the rules of the discussion.  (And is this particular concern, with engaging jargon, a consequence of our very Anglo resistance to speaking a language other than English?  The Brits and the Americans have that much in common:  we expect the Continent (at least; Mexico and the rest of the Americas, in our case) to speak English.  When people speak another language here in America, we typically grow uncomfortable that they don't speak in a way we can understand.  Jargon is as opaque as a language I don't speak, so....).  It is a language game, in one sense (though not, I think, in Wittgenstein's sense; he wasn't that slow, and besides, he spoke and wrote in at least two languages); but in another, it's simply a requirement that we reset our perspective; which is, admittedly, equally hard to do.

Challenging your assumptions, seeing your perspective as a choice, not an absolute of the universe, was one of the lessons taught in seminary.  We had to learn that our preferences, our assumptions, our theology, was not the only one available; was not the position of wisdom and superiority against which all others should be judged; was not the point of view aligned with God's.  It's tougher than you might think because it requires you to subsume your own ideas and listen carefully to those of others.  Good liberals like this when it involves issues of race, as it did for my seminary class.  There was a student, an African American woman, who wore her grievances about American society and white people, on her sleeve.  She came in prickly and we prickled right back, most of us being whites with the privileges of both our race and our class behind us.  In the end she taught us, and we taught her, because we both came to see each other as human beings, not as "others" impinging on "us."  That is the default setting of human beings, my Christianity teaches me:  the base selfishness of "I" and "not-I" that is how the world divides (and children, presumably, learn to overcome, though never wholly).  It isn't that self-abnegation is the goal, but overcoming selfishness surely is.

But is to be, to do?  Or is to do, to be?

There's not a real consistent thread in the scriptures for the idea that knowledge is fundamental to being human.  Abraham is told by God in Genesis 12 to go where God will lead him.  There is purposefully nothing in the story to indicate Abram (as he is in Gen. 12) knows God, has a relationship with God, is familiar and knowledgeable about God.  God just says "Go," and Abram without a word of demurrer, goes.  It echoes the beginning of the akedeh, the story of the binding of Isaac for sacrifice.  God says "Abraham," and Abraham responds "Here I am."  Abraham says the same thing when Isaac asks where they are going, and why.  "Here I am" is not a question, not a seeking of knowledge, not an acknowledgment (in every possible meaning of that word).  It is simply, as Jonathan Froer explained it in an interview recently, being present.   Abraham doesn't declare even a need to know; Abraham simply declares himself present, available, in the moment.

"Of the making of books there is no end, and much study is a vexation."  One of my favorite verses from Ecclesiastes, and one I used whenever I could to send high school and college graduates on their way in a special recognition in a worship service (and you wonder why I don't have a pulpit today.  More and more I wonder that I ever had one.)  Ecclesiastes, often attributed to Solomon (who probably didn't write anything, but purchased his wisdom by hiring scholars to make him look smart), is not a book to look to for confirmation that knowledge is the be all and end all of human existence.  Indeed, the final advice of the Preacher almost predicts that of Paul to the Thessalonians (where he advises them to work out their salvation with fear and trembling):  fear God.  Fear, need I point out, is not a position of knowledge.  If anything, it is the position of ignorance, or a lack of knowledge that cannot be filled.  Is our fundamental humanity to be found in fear ("I will show you fear in a handful of dust," Eliot says in "The Wasteland.")?  No, of course not.  But our fundamental humanity is certainly not found in knowledge.

Jesus mocks our preference for knowing:  Consider the lilies of the field; they neither spin nor sow.  Consider the birds of the air.  If your child ask for bread, would you give them a stone?  All aimed at the one thing his audience needs to know:  God loves you.  What knowing is needed in love?

Then there is the lesson in James, that what we do is what matters, not what we profess.  Consider there, again, the remonstrance of Jesus against the person who prays loudly in public, so all will know his piety.  Better to do good in secret, so that only God knows what you have done.  Knowing is not a waste of time; but knowing is not the purpose of being.

This is something of a facile contrast, but it's the difference between discovery and revelation.  Traditional Western thought rests on the importance of discovery, especially since the Renaissance.  One of the distinctly valid differences between "medieval" thought and post-Renaissance thought (there are many invalid ones) is that the former rested heavily on revelation (think of the Shewings of Julian of Norwich as a single example.  The visions came from God, not from human insight.), the latter of human effort at "uncovering" what nature hides.  Nature, of course, hides nothing; it is the nature of our knowledge that makes understanding nature complicated and difficult.

It's at this point I realize I'm not running a philosophical seminar, and not writing a theological treatise, and that I promised to say more about the thoughts raised by "Wonder Woman."

Maybe I need another cup of coffee first....

*also my Father's Day gift.  I am so proud.


  1. Isn't it interesting how that happens, that an old blog post suddenly starts getting lots of hits. I generally find it's not the ones I expected that do.

    I've got to finish planting my beans today, I will read both posts more fully, later.

  2. Very thought-provoking frame. The Sufis agree with you that intellectual knowledge is not the purpose of nor a necessary feature of the individual. To wit, I've seen a Sufi cartoon depicting an intellectual as an ill-tempered donkey carrying a load of books in satchels on its back to illustrate their view. And while they do value intellectual knowledge they know that without refining the morals and behavior of the human person, intellectual knowledge is just so much baggage.

    Legend has it that toward the end of his life Thomas Aquinas had a vision of the Divine, the awesome totality of which so outshone his intellectualizing that it caused him to refer to his opus, the "Summa Theologica," as just "so much straw."

    He would seem to agree with your premise as well.

  3. I remember that story about Aquinas. I'm surprised I didn't think of it earlier.