I want to tell you about a phrase that has been rolling around in my head for a long time. It's an odd one that mostly academic types would use, but I think it is apt for people outside the academy to know. I call it "epistemic healing." Let me explain.
"Epistemic" comes from a Greek word, episteme, which means "science" or "knowledge." ("Science" comes from a Latin word, scientia, which also means "knowledge.) Epistemology is the field of philosophy that carefully examines how we know what we think we know.
We use the term "know" in several ways. If I say, "I know you," I mean that I am personally acquainted with you. I recognize your appearance and your mannerisms. I can pick you out of a crowd. If I know you well, I can read your facial expressions and body language and tone of voice and know to some degree what you're thinking even before you say it. Good friends know each other at this level, as do spouses and near family members.
I can also say that I know history. In this case I am saying that I have a degree of cognitive mastery over a body of facts, personalities, events, conditions, and circumstances. I can make reasoned judgments about why something happened on the basis of my knowledge. For example, I know the history of Methodism fairly well. I have a decent grasp of European intellectual history. I can bore you with minutiae. This sort of knowledge goes under the banner "academic" or even "theoretical," because it doesn't seem to have much practical usage or application. We historians disagree, but that is another matter.
I can also say that I know how to speak Italian (I would be fudging a little). Knowing how to speak Italian means that I can manipulate, with understanding, words and phrases in the Italian language. I have a skill. Here we see knowledge related to practical application. There are lots of ways that people can show that they have how to knowledge. You may know how to play the piano, the guitar, or some other instrument. You may be really good at tennis. And you who can fix my computer and other technology problems, you have magical knowledge that frightens me, but I'm so glad you have it.
In what I've described so far, most of it goes as unquestioned knowledge. We don't stop to think about how we know what we know. But in philosophy and in life, actually, with some very basic and important topics, that question, "How do you know?" looms large.
The "How do you know?" question has been around for millennia, but it became particularly dominant in Western and American history starting in the middle of the 17th century. Here I resist the temptation to bore you with too much information and try to get to my point, which is that all of us have been shaped by a degree of skepticism that turns out to be sick. "How do you know?" seems to have no final, reliable answer, which has produced some truly dreadful consequences, for all its perceived advantages. Hence the need for epistemic healing.
"How do you know?" mind you, is a good question to ask. The problem is not the question. It is the extreme skepticism. We have all been schooled to doubt until something is proven. The problem is, how do you know when something is finally proven? Philosophers will tell you that the topic of proof is itself fraught with all kinds of questions.
The skeptical attitude is especially prominent with what we might call religious knowledge. How do we know, for example, that what the Bible says about Jesus accurately reflects who Jesus was and is? This question is too blunt in itself and needs focus, but it does the job for us at the moment. In the future, I might try to offer little vignettes of ideas and movements to give you a glimpse of the problem, but for now I simply want to share a bit of my own testimony in this regard.
I've always been a little bit philosophically wired. I've been interested in a rational defense of the Christian faith since early in my college years. I was a Freshman , I think, when a fraternity brother arranged for me to come to his sociology class to talk about my Christian faith and to answer questions. I remember feeling slightly like a lab rat or, perhaps more humanely, like someone from a foreign country. The mood was not exactly hostile, but I did sense that my questioners thought me not only odd, but out of touch with reality.
I've had many of these experiences across the years, conversing with people who find orthodox faith (that is, believing, e.g. that Jesus actually was born of a virgin and actually did rise bodily from the grave and that he actually is the world's Savior) not only strange but unbelievable. We have an ostensibly safe way of dealing with this matter, thanks to the academic study of religion. We separate "faith" from "knowledge." We Christians can believe any fool thing we want, as long as we recognize that it's not "knowledge," only "faith."
And here I get to my main task. It has taken me a long time to realize that this split between faith and knowledge is not only bogus, it is positively destructive. Some of you have heard me talk about my epistemic healing and it started here, with realizing that this split is false, misleading, and damaging. The healing continues as I find deeper layers of thinking wherein the sickness remains.
We all learn not to put too much epistemic weight on our religious beliefs. This "learning" is extremely corrosive not only to our faith, but to the well-being of the world. (Alongside this "learning" is the powerful narrative that religious differences produce virtually nothing but conflict. [Cue John Lennon's "Imagine."]) Virtually all of us, I am convinced, need epistemic healing.
I'm asking you, therefore, to think about two questions. First, when it comes to the scripture's description of Jesus Christ and the Gospel he embodies, where lie your doubts? What are your questions? Where do you feel a noticeable lack of confidence in what the scriptures say? If you don't feel this is a problem for you, I'm certainly not trying to create one, but, in my experience, many people have doubts and questions that they feel afraid to verbalize. God loves honest questions. In fact, I'm convinced that, when we start asking honest questions, the very fact of asking is a sign of God's prevenient grace.
Second, do you find yourself settling for "take it on faith" responses that leave gaps in your knowledge? Again, I'm not trying to turn everyone into an academic researcher. I am trying to challenge the reliance on a sandy foundation that believes the lie and separates "faith" from real knowledge. This will not do for growing to maturity.
We need epistemic healing. We're hoping, praying, and working to make the Spiritual Maturity Project a vehicle for healing. I have more thoughts that I will share with you in due time. Stay tuned.