How Do You Know?

Blind Faith (No. 29, 2017)
Weekly Devotional for July 20, 2017
How Do You Know?

Epistemology is the word for today. It refers to the study of
knowledge itself – the origins, methods, and scope of what we know. Some
people assume their own epistemological prowess and superiority. The rest of
us just call them “know-it-alls.” But no one truly can be a know-it-all.
Even the most brilliant minds fail to understand everything. Knowledge of
interpersonal relationships often falls far short of technical knowledge.

The National Geographic series, Genius, is a dramatic portrayal
of the life of Albert Einstein, universally recognized as one of the
greatest minds in the history of the world. The series (available “on
demand” via most cable TV and other media outlets) chronicles his rise from
poor origins through his awakening to inquiry, imagination, and discovery of
physical principles that transformed human understanding of the universe. It
also tells the story of tragic failings in Einstein’s relationships with his
family, some colleagues, and various public figures. He was an affable man,
but he did not understand everything, notably how to get along with those
closest to him.

Einstein readily acknowledged that he did not know all that could be known.
He marveled at the grandeur of the universe and ultimately averred that only
God could have created such. He did, however, persistently try to find a
unified theory that would explain how all of the physical universe related
to everything in it.

In his quest for comprehensive knowledge, Albert Einstein carried on
extended debates with Niels Bohr over the nature and limits of knowledge.
Einstein favored the formulas and certainties of classical physics. He
tenaciously held that objectively quantified points of data are the highest
units of what can be known. Neils Bohr – and notably his student, Werner
Heisenberg – found that data are significantly influenced by relational
factors. The fact that an event is being observed and how it is observed
inescapably influences what can be known about the event. Einstein was
somewhat frustrated that he could not construct a theory or equation that
accounted for everything. Bohr insisted that everything simply cannot be
known, observing that the universe is “not only stranger than we think, but
stranger than we can think.” (Emphasis added.)

Theologians often are tempted to explain more than we can really
know about God. Einstein’s penchant for deterministic formulas presents a
wholly inadequate model for reporting who God is and what God can do. Bohr’s
insistence on knowing how the observer is related to what is being described
– God, for instance – may be more helpful. His notions certainly are closer
to what the Bible says about what we can know and how we can know it,
especially when we are thinking about God.

In Hebrew literature, Job emerges from his intractable suffering
and loss to confront his carefully constructed notions of God. Job’s
well-meaning associates present their best understanding of who God is and
what God requires of Job. Job responds with dogmatic pronouncements of his
own about God’s nature, the essence of God’s justice, and Job’s own claim to
righteousness. Finally, God challenges Job’s truth claims. In chapters 38-41
of the book of Job, God poetically takes Job through all of creation,
repeatedly asking Job, “Where were you when all of this was made?” God
essentially tells Job that if Job can show that he knows everything about
the wonders of the universe, how it all came to be, and what God’s
intentions are for everything, Job can have some grounds for his
self-serving judgments about God’s justice. Then God invites Job back into
faithful relationship with himself. Job finally confesses the finite limits
of his knowledge, but the transforming sufficiency of his faith in and
relationship with God.

That is the proper relationship we meet again and again in the
Bible between our knowledge of God and the cosmos and our relationship with
God. Isaiah conveyed God’s commentary on our epistemological limitations:
“‘My thoughts are completely different from yours,’ says the LORD. ‘And my
ways are far beyond anything you could imagine. {9} For just as the heavens
are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my
thoughts higher than your thoughts.'” (Isaiah 55:8-9 NLT) But this
evaluation of our limits of knowledge is immediately preceded by God’s
invitation to relationship that gives our knowledge meaning and relevance
for how we live: “Seek the LORD while you can find him. Call on him now
while he is near. {7} Let the people turn from their wicked deeds. Let them
banish from their minds the very thought of doing wrong! Let them turn to
the LORD that he may have mercy on them. Yes, turn to our God, for he will
abundantly pardon.” (Isaiah 55:6-7 NLT) We can know God and the world around
us best if we are clearly aware of our relationship with God and acknowledge
our need to relate to God in faith.

Paul offers similar conclusions about our capacity for knowledge
and the relational nature of the knowledge that matters most. He begins with
a prayer for us to be soundly rooted in the love of Christ. Next, he
comments that although we will never be able to encompass all there is to
know about God and his gracious creation, he eagerly anticipates that our
knowledge will expand. Paul concludes with a doxology for God and creation
being far greater than we can ever know. The passage of scripture is one of
my favorite affirmations of living and thinking theologically:

I pray that Christ will be more and more at home in your hearts as you trust
in him. May your roots go down deep into the soil of God’s marvelous love.
{18} And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should,
how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love really is. {19} May you
experience the love of Christ, though it is so great you will never fully
understand it. Then you will be filled with the fullness of life and power
that comes from God. {20} Now glory be to God! By his mighty power at work
within us, he is able to accomplish infinitely more than we would ever dare
to ask or hope. {21} May he be given glory in the church and in Christ Jesus
forever and ever through endless ages. Amen. (Ephesians 3:17-21 NLT)

What do you know with certainty, and how did you come to know
it? What can you confidently explain to another – especially about God?
Relationship with God is the key to knowing who God is and how our lives can
be changed by God’s grace. We can’t just observe God in a laboratory setting
and record volumes of data to compile concrete explanations of how God
works. “His ways are not our ways . he can do infinitely more than we can
think or imagine.” But still, God loves us and invites us into personal
relationship with himself through faith. The only way to know conclusively
how that works is from within such a relationship.

Knowing God is much more than an epistemological exercise. The
origins of our knowledge of God trace to scripture, inspiration by God’s
Spirit, personal relationship by faith in Jesus, and the shared witness of
the community of faith. Only God knows all there is to know! But he invites
us to imagine and to explore relationship with himself, others, and the
cosmos in order to comprehend the depth of his grace toward us in all
creation – and supremely in Jesus Christ. So . what is your theological
epistemology?

– J. Edward Culpepper

You can receive Blind Faith weekly via e-mail. Either click the
“Subscription” link on this page, or send the message “Subscribe to Blind
Faith” to eculpepper1@comcast.net.