Past Ways of Knowing

the cover of the book Awake to the Moment
Think about what the way we think people have to know things affects people …<

Still engaging with Awake to the Moment1 and 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 third “suggestion” on this score is “Learn from Others in History Who Have Thought about Knowing” (42-50).

The discussion here focuses on epistemology. It begins with a long review of the importance of Descartes, his method of doubting his way to “certainty,” and his “deeply embedded” assumptions – such as, “that diversity of opinion implies error” (43), that we can abstract ourselves from all aspects of our social location, and “that the human mind is distinct, separable, and in some ways independent of the human body” (44). It continues with a review of the way modern scholars have challenged each of these assumptions. Diversity of opinion need not indicate “error” in postmodern times, but points to the way social location influences what we are even able to observe, let alone know. Multiple intelligences are more accepted than the notion of a single kind of rationality, and the influence of physical embodiment on knowing is increasingly supported by research.

Descartes’ approach, however, has influenced the way we teach and learn. One way to think about this is by following scholar Diana Taylor in noticing the difference between “archives” and “repertoires.” “Archives” are repositories of texts, passing on knowledge in textual form, requiring initiation into literacy, and separation from other life activities. “Repertoires” are performances, embodied, and may involve communal learning, learning from those around us as we learn how to engage in activities they are doing along with us. The West has privileged the archival way of knowing – with the result that European colonialists found it easy to regard non-archival indigenous people as less than knowledgeable (even though they knew plenty about their own language, cultural forms, how to grow food in their local area, etc). Archival knowledge also seems to privilege those “bodies” that it’s easiest to take for granted and “abstract from” because they are seldom if ever treated as negatives or obstacles to knowledge, namely white ones, or male ones. People who are constantly being reminded that the main point about them is their bodies – like men and women of color, or women period – don’t fare as well in the Cartesian scheme of things.

Even though Christian story incorporates a lot of focus on bodies – think about Jesus, for instance, and how Jesus’ body “broken for you” and “raised again on the third day” can hardly be more central – Christians from the Enlightenment on worked pretty hard to bring Christian theology in line with Cartesian principles. This gives us a model of theology as propositions, that are true to the extent that they command rational intellectual assent. On one hand this is a departure from the even older tradition named by the slogan lex orandi, lex credendi: “the law of prayer is the law of faith,” meaning presumably that what you learn and come to know in and through worship, what you learn and come to know “in your bones” in that way, is what really informs what it means to believe, what really gives us the substance of our “theology.”

On the other hand, more recently, liberation theologians have insisted that the principle of lex orandi goes further and deeper than that. Who is praying, where they are praying, how those people are engaged in the struggle for life and freedom, that also affects what people can learn and come to know about God.

“Those on the margins of society who work to create more just societal and economic structures have in many cases a deep knowledge of God and God’s doing that more closely resembles Scripture than do reigning interpretations.” (49)

Even though we might think that Christian ways of knowing would more or less have to take human embodied life seriously, because of the centrality of Jesus’ revelation in and through human embodied life, the authors point out that Christianity has gone along with, and even supported, epistemologies that countenanced, or even required, bodily suffering. Think slavery and the slave trade and the way biblical interpretation was brought in to support it. Christian theologians can’t simply assume that their epistemologies are innocent. “Who benefits?” and “Who suffers?” are always relevant, and necessary, questions when it comes to epistemology. (50)

[Being mostly related to texts most of the time, I have a little bit of a difficult time with this. Not because I think that what we do, how we practice, what we experience, all of that, doesn’t affect what we know, and perhaps “how” we know it … I might have a hard time thinking of an example. There are things I think I know – like, that my mom loved me – that don’t have anything to do with something I read in a book, and that I wouldn’t accept “disproof” of, or at least, can’t think of much that would convince me otherwise. I think that might be something like the kind of thing the authors are talking about. Maybe. But I admit it’s hard for me to shake my idea – I’ll accept it’s a conditioned one – that theology is something we learn from books.

On the other hand, I do know darn well that “theology” is often something I actually learned from singing some particular hymn about 100 times since I first started going to church. My image of heaven, e.g., pretty much consists of “from sorrow toil and pain / and sin we shall be free / and perfect love and friendship reign” for “no less days to sing God’s praise than when we’ve first begun.” I suppose that “congregational singing” would qualify as one of those “embodied” and “communal” ways of knowing through “repertoire” that the authors are talking about. So perhaps I am not as far from “getting” what they’re talking about as I think.]

1 Laurel C. Schneider and Stephen G. Ray Jr., editors. Awake to the Moment: An Introduction to Theology Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016. (42-50)

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