Each week, the Q small group meets to explore an important question about faith together through discussion. In this blog post series, Pastor Ken will sum up his views on a question that was previously discussed at Q. Feel free to respond in the comments section below!
Does God exist?
Is there an afterlife?
How can we tell good from evil?
What does it mean to be human?
All these are fantastic questions, but too often we jump right to answering them without asking the question we asked at Q the first week: "What's a good strategy for finding answers?" Logically, this is the first question we should ask, because it's foundational to everything else. So often, disagreements arise on ultimate issues because we're reasoning based on different foundations. We have to "lean" on something - put our "trust" or "faith" in something - in order to find out answers about anything. If we lose all trust, we turn into radical skeptics: and that's not a recipe for a very fulfilling life. But how do we know what to trust?
Paths to Knowledge
Philosophers and theologians over the centuries have spent a lot of time thinking about "epistemology:" how we know what we know, and whether we can trust anything or anyone to lead us to truth. There have been 4 major "paths to knowledge" that have been batted around through the centuries: some more popular in some eras than others. The 4 are listed below, with some summary thoughts on each.
1. What God says - Divine Revelation. In this category, the Divine tells us things about reality that we couldn't know ourselves: He "reveals" things that would otherwise lay hidden. For Christians, this category includes the Holy Scriptures - God's Word written - and ultimately Jesus Christ, the incarnation of the Son of God in human flesh. Interestingly, divine revelation cannot stand completely on its own: it needs to be interpreted using the other categories of tradition, reason, and experience. However, the primary question for answering any ultimate question is whether divine revelation plays a primary role, a secondary role, or doesn't even merit discussion because it's divine source is rejected. Where you stand on this issue sets you on a trajectory that strongly influences where you will arrive. For Christians, divine revelation is the primary source of our knowledge about God: not as a blind leap of faith, but as a revelation from God that is consistent with the other sources of knowledge. Scripture is therefore primary in discussions about ultimate things from a Christian perspective.
2. What Others Say - Culture & Tradition. If something is true for everyone at every time in every place, you probably won't be the first one to discover it. That's where the voice of the community (through culture & tradition) plays an important role: it protects us from overly privatized opinions. For many, though, the problem is the opposite: their beliefs simply slide uncritically into the view of the dominant culture (or their chosen sub-culture). How many conversations about morality or God's existence could, in our day, be honestly summed up as, "Well, no one I know and respect believes _____, so I don't either"? Peer pressure didn't die out in middle school. For Christians, the traditions of the church - formed over thousands of years - can either be a stabilizing root system in the high winds of an anti-Christian culture (a good use of tradition), or an excuse not to think critically about beliefs and simply accept them at face value (a bad use of tradition). Both uses exist in every branch of the church today.
3. What Logic & Science Say - Reason. Most of us put a lot of trust in the discoveries of reason: you won't find many flat-earthers around! Our minds are powerful instruments that seem to correspond well to reality and can uncover some secrets of the world that we wouldn't know otherwise. However, there is a drastic difference between a belief being founded solely on reason and a belief that is reasonable. Many people claim to use reason as their only foundation for truth (and thereby discredit the existence of God, who they claim cannot be proved from logic or science). But that position arrogantly ignores the other 3 sources of knowledge. Thorough-thinking Christians have often claimed that beliefs should be reasonable: they should be coherent, correspond to the world as we experience it, and not contradict the laws of logic. Christianity should definitely fit that bill. But if we exalt reason too highly, making it the only determiner of truth, we can force realities that might lie beyond human reason, like God, into a little box of our own understanding. And the mystery of God doesn't squish into boxes very well.
4. What Our Intuition, Feelings, and Personal Story Say - Experience. This is probably the dominant path to knowledge in our day on the really important issues. "It feels good, so it must be right." "My spirituality is really important to me: it makes me feel good." But when we base our views of ultimate reality only on what we've experienced, that's a pretty limited data set. Can we trust that our fickle feelings, our momentary glimpses of insight, can tell us everything we need to know about the world around us? But experience is certainly not a bad thing: Christianity has always claimed not only to be a set of beliefs, but to be a doorway into a new experience of God and the universe. Christianity without experience is dead dogmatism, so Christians can expect, in varying ways and over long periods of time, to have their experience confirm their beliefs. However, a Christianity (or any other spirituality) founded on experience is trouble, because our experience notoriously shifts and changes over time. And truth, if it's truly truth for everyone, shouldn't.
To summarize: none can stand alone. As people who truly desire to know truth, we have to seek to integrate each source of knowledge as we answer these questions. On any given topic, we should be asking, "What does divine revelation tell us? What wisdom does my culture or tradition have? What is reasonable? And how does my experience impact this?"
But we have to start somewhere, and we have to decide which one is most important. If we choose to start answering these questions via culture & tradition, reason, and experience, honesty will demand that we eventually acknowledge that each comes up short: they make humanity the final arbiter of truth, and it seems dangerous to make such a powerful claim about our limited viewpoint! However, if we are seeing these categories clearly, they should eventually give us hints toward the fuller truth contained in divine revelation (Rom. 1:19-20). If we start with divine revelation, we gain a gracious "shortcut" into the nature of the reality: but we still need to interpret and integrate these truths using the other categories. "All truth is God's truth," and these different sources of knowledge can work together to lead us to a more unified picture of our place in the universe...and God's.
In short, the journey toward truth should be an ever-ascending spiral. No matter where we start, we should always be seeking, always be learning, always be growing...and ideally gaining confidence that we are growing closer to the truth. Though there may be seasons of disorientation as one path to knowledge seems to chafe against another, the only way through the impasse is to integrate.
Our Desire, and God's
However, there is another major factor in this discussion that merits attention: our attitude towards seeking strongly influences what we find. In philosophical jargon, this is called "virtue epistemology." The crux of vitrue epistemology is that our posture toward seeking truth greatly determines how much of it we gain. We've all been in situations where we weren't really engaged in a class, discussion, or book; and therefore, we didn't gain much insight. Our desire to know is probably just as important, if not more so, than the paths we take to get there.
Turns out, Jesus was ahead of the curve on virtue epistemology. If you want to find, Jesus says, you have to truly seek: "For everyone who asks, receives, and everyone who searches, finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened" (Matthew 7:8). In another place, he warns those whose search for truth was eclipsed by their search for glory: "How can you believe when you accept glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the one who alone is God?" (John 5:44). Jesus' message is clear: if we really want to find the truth, we'll find it. But often, we really don't want to know, because of the what the truth might require of us: conviction, confession, repentance, or transformation! No amount of searching in the world will matter if we refuse to grasp the truth when we find it. Often, we are staring it right in the face, and simply refusing to acknowledge it.
But there's good news in the face of our ambivalence: according to Christianity, this isn't just a one-sided search. Throughout the Scriptures, God makes clear that his desire for us to find the truth far outweighs our desire to find it. No matter how much we may seek, we can only grasp God because he was first grasping us.
Luke 19:10 - For the Son of Man came to seek out and save the lost.
Romands 5:8 - But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.
John 1:14 - And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us...
Hebrews 1:1-2 - Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son...
A Good General Strategy
(1) Start with Scripture and seek to interpret and confirm what it says through tradition, reason, and experience. If you don't trust Scripture, be clear-eyed in your search through tradition, reason, and experience and honestly see if it points toward truths contained in Scripture.
(2) Commit yourself to follow the evidence wherever it leads...even if it's uncomfortable.
(3) Trust that God is seeking you far more deeply than you are seeking Him.
May your search for answers be fruitful beyond your wildest expectations!