Early last year, I was sitting at the Matakana Village Pub, enjoying an evening drink-and-chips with my future father-in-law. Both of us were grinning – and both for the same reason. A day before, I’d asked him if I could marry his daughter.
As we were celebrating this milestone – even though I hadn’t yet popped the question to Lydia – my father-in-law-to-be decided to share his lived wisdom with me.
He said, “Jeremy – you think when you’re dating someone that you’ll date them until you know that they’re the one. You think you’ll reach 100% certainty – and then you’ll pull the trigger.”
I nodded, wisely.
He carried on, “The truth is – you’ll never be certain before hand. It’s not a decision that you can scientifically prove with certainty. But eventually, you just have to take a deep breath and get on the bus. And then once you’re on the journey, you start to know.”
These words were great. I couldn’t fully appreciate them at the time, but I understood the issue behind his advice.
He was speaking to my heart, and addressing the big question of – “How do I know?”
When you’re dating someone, you want to know if they are the right person for a bigger commitment. But how do you know that?
You can take personality quizzes to see if you’re a match. You can see relationship experts for this advice. You can go on dates, see how each of you are when you fight, and ask your friends for their input.
But at some level – you don’t know. You can’t prove that what you’re making is a decision backed with solid, empirical data.
And yet, at another deeper level, you feel that you do know. You can’t express it or articulate it – but you know that you do want to get on the bus with this person. You do want to commit to them.
You both know, and you don’t. And I think this issue of knowing ticks at the heart of many doubts and fears about life and faith.
See, many of us live within a Western worldview, which preaches that knowledge must be rational and scientific. Following in the footsteps of Descartes, anything we know must be able to fit in a logical, mental framework. Thus we get vast systematic tomes of wisdom on all kinds of areas of life – science, philosophy, theology and law.
Further, we are inheritors of the scientific method, which proclaims that anything true must be measurable and repeatable. The success of this approach is shown in our vast technological achievements, social improvements and productivity advances.
But when these two ways of knowing are held up as absolute – the only ways to know – we can sense danger in our ranks. We are paralysed in making decisions – because we want to rationally know the best possible outcome. We turn our faith into fatalistic soothsaying – repeating prayers that worked in the past, and seeking to copy patterns of language and actions to twist God’s arm into action.
Yes, the Western worldview provides us with fantastic ways to know God through study, systematic approaches and critical assessment. But if it is held up as the only way to know – as if this approach is the only path to knowledge – it is incredibly limiting.
People assume they have to rationally know more before they can accurately serve or follow Jesus. They assume that the primary way to know is sitting in a classroom. They prioritise the mind over other ways of knowing, and quickly turn away from any experience or thought that doesn’t seem to make rational sense. And we rarely have space for God to do something new – as newness does not fit in with the scientific method.
In James Smiths’ fantastic book, Thinking in Tongues, there is a discussion on widening our way of knowing. Rather than critiquing the Western model, Smith affirms its benefits – but suggests that we learn in myriad ways.
We learn from the rhythms of time and habits. We learn from eating. We learn from song. We learn from the way we use our bodies. We learn from seeing. We learn from speaking. We learn from experience.
Much of this knowledge becomes tacit – that is, we aren’t able to always explain it. Within the Western worldview, knowledge that is incommunicable is not legitimate. We believe that it must be able to be written to be actual knowledge.
And yet – we know that the deepest experiences and facts of life are not expressible. The Communist handbook desired a kiss as ‘the approach and reproach of two pairs of lips, with the reciprocal transmission of saliva and microbes.”
It’s both 100% accurate, and 100% false.
A kiss can only be known as a kiss. We can understand it through science, poetry, art and observation. But we also know what it means through experience.
Smith writes that Paul preached “was not just a constellation of ideas, a set of beliefs, or a collection of doctrines; rather, their salvation depended on affectively and imaginative absorbing a story – and seeing themselves in that story.”
Perhaps this is what Paul was talking about, when he wrote to the church in Corinth. He explains that he didn’t come speaking wisdom in the way the world expected – but taught about the knowledge that they had received.
“What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words.”
These words were taught through communities sharing the Eucharist together. These words were the words of baptism, preaching, worship, giving, generosity, caring, hospitality and song.
And this is a beautiful democratising of knowledge. It is a knowledge that says – “Bring your whole self, not just your mind!”
So, if you have sat down and thought – “I will do that when I know it more.” – perhaps your way of knowing might be in doing? Perhaps you don’t need to read another book on prayer, as much as you need to pray?
Perhaps you don’t need to read a book on worship, as much as you need to sing to God with your voice and with your body.
This isn’t a cry to anti-intellectualism – but a widening of knowledge to an understanding that our God is bigger than our way of knowing. He speaks through logic, and also prepares things for us that we can never conceive.
Really, this is a call to a loving openness. It is a call to action rather than paralysis, and an encouragement to leap into this life of faithfulness with your mind, body and heart. We know more than we can express. Let’s bring our whole selves to this life – and learn as we read, love, do, think, eat and obey – even when it doesn’t make expressible sense.
So get on the bus, try what you think you know – and learn as you go, from the gracious God who gives wisdom to all who ask, in myriad ways and places.