Monday, March 29, 2010

A Review of "Longing to Know" by Dr. Esther Meek

Dr. Esther Meek in her book "Longing to Know" has sought to formulate a Christian epistemology devoid of any foundationalist presuppositions. I read this book when trying to figure out exactly how a Christian "knows." How do I explain to an unbeliever why and how I believe? How do I know that I can trust God's word and Christ's death on the cross?

In this book, Dr. Meek argues that knowing God is like knowing one's auto mechanic. One hears of the auto mechanic. One hears that this auto mechanic is reliable. One then brings their car to this auto mechanic and sees that his work is reliable. Whether or not one sees this auto mechanic, he has no reason to doubt this mechanic's existence or his faithfulness to his vocation.

Dr. Meek sees all knowing as relational. To know is to be in a subjective process with the object of knowledge. Knowledge is not "justified belief." One follows a series of "clues" and comes to the conclusion that he can have trust, and confidence in truth. This is like a "magic eye" puzzle wherein one puts the clues together and eventually comes to see the whole picture. This is the same with our knowledge of God. Knowledge is a skill which needs to be practiced. There is however, no certainty. Certainty is not possible, nor should it be sought for. For one to assume that he can be certain is to assume that his knowledge is inerrant. Doubt is good and necessary.

I have several problems with the epistemology Dr. Meek espouses in this volume. While several of the ideas she proposes are relevant to every day knowing, they are inadequate when coming to the subject of God.

Dr. Meek assumes, first of all, that man is an active subject when it comes to the knowledge of God. However, I would argue that man's pure passivity in justification and conversion is applicable to man's knowledge as well. This is why old dogmaticians used the term "illumination" as one of the steps of the ordo salutis. Man does not know God because he has "put the clues together" or had an epistemic experience, but because God, as the active subject, has freely illumined the mind of man, the passive subject.

Dr. Meek seems to have adopted something similar to the I-Thou epistemology of Martin Buber. Knowledge is personal and existential. It comes through an experience between two subjects. This is in opposition to the I-it relationship which has been promoted in modernism wherein man is an active subject who knows an abstract object. While I do affirm that there certainly is a relational aspect to our knowledge of God, it is not the whole picture. There is an objective gospel, objective doctrine which is the object of faith. Perhaps this could be described as an I-it-thou relationship, wherein one has a relational knowledge of God which comes through objective means, namely, the gospel (which includes certain doctrinal propositions) as delivered through word and sacrament.

The problem with the illustration of the auto mechanic is that the analogy does not completely work. Man is not born with a mind with hatred and utter blindness to the truth of the auto mechanic. However, this is his natural state with God.
The main problem with the epistemology espoused by Dr. Meek is its starting point. The subject is ultimately the starting point of his own knowledge of the divine. However, if the word of God is the ultimate source of truth it should be our starting point. The starting assumption should be that God's word is infallible and inerrant truth. Truth, as from a personal being contained in a book, should approach us. We cannot attempt to approach it. We should be that which is acted upon by truth. We cannot try to reach truth through our perceived truthfulness and reliability of God. His truthfulness and reliability should reach us and penetrate our minds and hearts.
If it is an infallible God working knowledge within us, there is no problem in our having certainty. The certainty then does not lie in our own epistemic efforts, but in the truth itself.

Ultimately, the book gives a good explanation of how knowledge of ordinary life works, however, it is inadequate to explain our knowledge of God. It is essentially an epistemology of glory, wherein our knowledge of God depends upon our own experience and perception of truth. We should adapt an epistemology of the cross, wherein we must admit our inadequacy to know at all and become passive receivers of the revelation which is in the person of Christ.

5 comments:

Eucharisted said...

Though I haven't read the book, I would like to ask the author how it is we can know that God is triune, for example. If I only know God via my experience of him, I cannot deduce the doctrine of the trinity as it has been historically articulated. I fail to see how her epistemology, practically speaking, leads to modalism. Good post.

Jordan Cooper said...

She believes in the inspiration of scripture, thus something like the Trinity is true. Her epistemology is dealing more-so with knowledge of God in general.

Eucharisted said...

I see. That is the primary problem with discovering truth about God, since the God of Aristotle and the rational Aquinas is quite different from the God of scripture and the Church. The "Unmoved Mover" is not the same thing as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Jordan Cooper said...

I agree. If one does not come to God directly through Christ, one has a false God.

Eucharisted said...

I first got interested in theology by philosophy of religion. As I have studied confessional Lutheran theology and the theology of the catholic tradition in general, I have been rather well convinced of moderate fideism.