the cover of the book Awake to the Moment
One of the elements of this theology is epistemology – what do we know and how do we know it?

Here’s another tiny bite of theology – my summary notes and comments on the next few pages of Awake to the Moment, which include the first couple of sections of the chapter on epistemology, “What Do We Know and How? Context and Questions” (19-34):

Summary Notes: The authors start out talking about the end of the world “as we know it.” This might mean the material world, or it might [maybe more likely] mean the world whose social arrangements and phenomena are familiar and “well known” to us. The end of the known world signals the “horizon beyond which we can’t see” (21). That horizon raises existential questions that touch on the nature of creation itself, so that “creation” and “what and how we know” are related. Gaining knowledge of the unknown seems to require an openness to “mystery,” a willingness to encounter the limits of knowledge and to step into what is beyond us, trusting that investigation and new knowledge are possible. “The theological challenge of understanding creation then is, first of all, the challenge of knowing in a way that allows for the limits of knowledge but offers hope and trust in life itself.” (22)

One of the particular “endings” in view today is the ending of “modernity” as the way of knowing of Enlightenment rationalism along with its related assumptions about human progress led by reason, prosperity led by an “invisible hand,” and certainty as a property of real knowledge. Constructive theologians try to find ways of knowing that do not rely on these modern assumptions for their validity. This may seem particularly challenging for theologians, since theology has historically relied on knowledge that would be true for all times and places. The world in which that kind of knowledge seemed possible, and desirable, is coming to an end. Constructive theologians are working to understand and value the different ways of knowing that are available in this emerging world.

Some of the “big questions of life” that arise in this shifting epistemological situation and that become focal points for constructive theology are:

  • What do we do when it seems the world in which we live is changing so fast that the wisdom of our forebears means little and their traditions even less?
  • What can we know about truth when everything in our culture and media seems to be no more than opinion?
  • Must recognizing that there are things that cannot be known for certain lead us to do nothing because of uncertainty?
  • What can we learn from not knowing? Does recognizing that certain things are mysteries actually help us to understand our lives and our world better?
  • Of what can people of faith be certain such that we can live lives of hope and act out of compassion, regardless? (26)

They offer three “suggestions” for how to approach this issue of what and how we know, and the first of these is to “make room for skepticism” (26). By this they mean a specific kind of skepticism, that permits “wonder” and an openness to learning new and unexpected things. This incorporation of skepticism entails revising our view of doubt. Historically, theologians viewed doubt as a threat to faith. Today, constructive theologians treat it more as a part or companion of faith (28). But skepticism goes even further than doubt. Skepticism involves delay and interrogation, examining things before accepting them as “known.” An example of this kind of skepticism might be Mary’s question to the angel Gabriel in Luke 1. Her initial skepticism “positions her to know differently” (29) – literally in a creative way. Skepticism like this differs from apathy. Apathy describes an indifference to the unknown, an acceptance of the limits of knowledge that dispenses with wondering what lies beyond those limits. It also differs from a kind of principled, but despairing, refusal to act in the face of uncertainty – for instance, staying uncommitted because in the past people’s commitments have led them to hurt people.

From this perspective, knowledge seems to arise from creative activity, and to be found within it or by means of it. By way of illustration they offer an analysis of Chaim Potok’s novel My Name is Asher Lev and what it demonstrates about knowing. The protagonist, an Hassidic Jew with a profound artistic talent, outrages his community with his art, which finally incorporates the scandalous image of a cross. In the process, his creative work makes it possible for him and others to become aware of and begin to comprehend hitherto unknown connections between historic and contemporary forms of suffering. “Including doubt and skepticism as forms of knowing opens us to wondering, creating, and experiencing life and our world in ways much richer, ironically, than certainty alone would allow.” (34)

Comment and Questions: I have to go along with the value of doubt and skepticism. I’m reading a book about Martin Luther now, too, and it’s clear that Luther’s theology owes a lot to the kind of skepticism that drove him to consult sources other than the “generally accepted” ones of his day, and to question whether the way those sources had been interpreted was the only way to understand them. I’m periodically reminded that I appreciate that Old-Reformation-Time religion. What one of my professors called “that deep hermeneutic of suspicion” probably comes second-naturally to Protestants.

I have to admit, though, it was hard getting to this distillation of the work, and I am not entirely sure what I’ve come up with is fair. Something about the way this text says what it says makes me have to work a lot harder than usual to make sense of what’s being said. Maybe that’s on purpose, I don’t know. What I do know is that I don’t know what some of the things the authors are saying mean, exactly. Take, for instance

Mystery, then, is not a problem to solve but an ocean to sail. Uncertainty, bewilderment, doubt, skepticism, curiosity, and wonder, although they draw us to the edge of the known world, are not the end of knowing. They are the winds on which we search the universe. (25)

Or perhaps it’s just my allergy to lyricism flaring up.

Lyricism, it seems to me, leads to loose talk, or constitutes it. Loose talk, it seems to me, is untrustworthy. Like saying “All building is rebuilding; all meaning is created among the ruins of what we used to believe but now doubt” (24). I don’t see how that can be true.

If it were the case that all building is rebuilding, even metaphorically, we’d have to think that we already have detailed cognitive maps of literally everything, so that we always have to unlearn stuff in order to learn new stuff. And sometimes we do have to unlearn things to learn new things. But sometimes, we find ourselves filling in spaces that used to be blank with greater detail. Entering new territory. That seems more like “adding on” than “rebuilding.”

And if it were true that all meaning is created among the ruins of what we used to believe, I don’t see how liturgy, for instance, could give rise to the experiences of meaning people have in its performance. Liturgy, it seems to me, can create a lot of meaning for people precisely when it is not ruined, and not doubted, but rather is experienced as something like an ancient well of symbols. I wouldn’t deny that meaning can rise up phoenix-like from the ruination of our webs of belief. I just doubt that all of it comes to us that way.