Pay Attention to the Relationship between Knowing and Power

the cover of the book Awake to the Moment
Knowledge is power – in more ways than one

Slowly making my way through Awake to the Moment, here are my summary notes and comments on the next couple of sections of “What Do We Know and How? Context and Questions”:

Still looking at “what resources and ways of thinking we might bring to bear” on addressing the central questions of theological knowledge from a constructive theological point of view (26); the second “suggestion” on this score is “Attend to the Relationship Between Knowing and Power” (35). Thinking about Mary’s declaration in Luke 1, she’s clearly relying “on something other than the evidentiary approach so common to ways of knowing” (35) in making her declaration that God is lifting up the lowly and filling them with good things while sending the rich away empty. “The assumption that the lowly will always be subservient and the rich will always be in charge is linked to dominant forms of knowing and dominant ways of interpreting history” (35). The dominant form of knowing and interpreting might be called “facing facts” or “realism.”

On the other hand, it is also a fact that almost all known historical empires have ended. Those that haven’t just might not have had enough time. Yet. And then there is the approach of asking different questions to give rise to different facts, which the authors illustrate with the example of a desk. We might try to understand the desk as a discrete object, looking at its immediate properties. But we could try to understand it as something made, and ask about the processes by which it was made; who made it, under what conditions and social arrangements, who profited from its having been made, how did it get into this room, again what social arrangements made that possible, what materials were used, how were they extracted, etc. – in other words, there may be a lot more to know than the facts that immediately present themselves.

Everything, even the ideas we use, has been made, and that making has a history and a set of social arrangements that have made it possible. “One of the key insights of what we are calling constructive theology is a reminder that all of our theological ideas are also constructed – none of them fell straight from heaven without passing through the sieves of human interpretations, languages, wonderment” (38). The made-up-ness of theology doesn’t mean it has nothing to do with revelation. Still, we need to recognize “the penchant of unjust power to hide in clouds of authority” (39) and ask about the structures that make those clouds possible. Ask. Notice.

Some ideas will work better to address the needs of the moment than others. [This reminds me of something one of my past-life bosses used to say, “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” The constructive theologians seem to say here “Just because everything always looks like a nail to you doesn’t mean it is. Sometimes you need to find out that there’s something other than a hammer, and start using it to, e.g., turn hex nuts.”]

An example: “The ones who benefit the most from the message that wealth and power are distinct signs of God’s blessing … are the power brokers in the top positions in an economic and religious system that funnels the greatest profits upward while less and less trickles down” (39). Charles Wesley said in 1764 “Religion must not go from the greatest to the least, or the power would appear to be of men” (40). When the rich and powerful benefit from something, it appears to be human in origin; so it’s no surprise that the 19th century unmaskers of religion as well as 20th and 21st century atheists find a fertile field in analyses of religion that demonstrate its legitimating and social-structure-maintaining functions. [So, “prosperity gospel” theology is probably not especially useful for Christians’ discussions with atheists on the internet.] On the other hand,

What so many critics and supporters of religion overlook in their arguments is that it is possible to define divine power differently, not as absolute control at work from the top down or aloof from the intimate realities of this world. Indeed, we Christian theologians argue along with Wesley that these coercive kinds of powers are not divine at all. (41)

Instead, in light of an awareness of the relationship between knowledge and power, constructive theologians will begin looking for those alternative definitions and frameworks that might open things up, give us a different way of seeing and understanding what is going on in us and around us.

We begin to ask: What are we encouraged to know and what are we encouraged to overlook? By whom? And most importantly to us, how is knowledge that subverts oppressive power struggles discovered, learned, and shared? (42)

[I am not keen on giving up on “facts” and “evidence” as it seems was being suggested early in the section – since I feel there is altogether too much picking and choosing of alternative facts and evidence these days. But I see the point about recognizing that there is more to reality than meets the eye, and the need to look behind the surface of things to what is holding that surface in place, especially if one of the needs of the moment seems to be to make some adjustments to that surface. And so maybe looking into why these or those “facts” and “evidence” are being picked and chosen in the first place is also one of the needs of the moment … ]

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