Tuesday, June 22, 2010

"Only in receiving can we know"

In Chapter 4 of The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, Wilken writes about the early Christian quest to formulate the doctrine of the Trinity. What's significant to me is what these early Christian thinkers had to say about epistemology:
Like Origen and Irenaeus, Hilary [of Poitiers] believed that God can be known only as God "has made himself known to us." The knowledge of God begins in receptivity, in openness to what is revealed and the willingness to accept what is given. Hilary singles out the word "receive" in a text from Saint Paul: "We have not received the spirit of this world, but the Spirit which is of God" (1 Cor. 2:12). When we speak of God we speak of what we know and we know what we have received and we receive what is given through the Holy Spirit. Everyone has the facility to "apprehend God," says Hilary, but it is only when one receives the gift of the Spirit in faith that the "gift of knowledge" becomes our own: "Only in receiving can we know."
One of the rare privileges I have living near family while I attend grad school is getting to watch my cousins' children, ages 1-5, grow and learn. If I were to base my understanding of how human learning works entirely on the environment of grad school, I wouldn't get anywhere close to what the early Christians were talking about. In the academy, knowledge comes through taking. It comes through skepticism, through holding things outside the mind until they're deemed worthy to enter in. Little children remind me that human learning at base level doesn't work like this. Learning comes through receiving.

My dear little cousins (once removed) have absolutely no control over what language they are being taught to use in order to communicate thoughts and feelings. The English language is, in a sense, forced upon them arbitrarily, as are a number of cultural habits that will stick with them for the rest of their lives. This is no doubt offensive to certain modern sensibilities which picture little children as blank slates with an infinite range of possibilities. Yet it is precisely by imitating the very particular customs of their parents, and by adjusting to the natural rhythms of the very particular world around them, that these children will be able to formulate their own independent thoughts and ideas. It is by receiving the very particular life we have been given that humans have a chance at that dream of universality.

How do we know what things are true? Modern secular thinkers seem to range in their answers between appealing to some sort of universal "reason," which always seems to have an elusive but ultimately impersonal meaning; and embracing some sort of relativism, which basically rejects the idea of ever conclusively evaluating something as "true." Many devout Christians have responded to these equally unappealing alternatives by asserting that Truth (with a capital "T"!) is grounded in the propositional content of Scripture as breathed by God. I suppose there is some truth (with a lowercase "t") in that, but the thought that really strikes me as more useful in developing true epistemology is that we worship God both as Sovereign Lord and as Father. We are little children. We come into a world we did not create and are shaped by its patterns, which we did not determine.

We are children. We receive knowledge. There is no one alive today with any knowledge of anything who did not first have a foundation built by a parent figure. I have heard of some extremely sad cases in which children are so abused and neglected that they utterly fail to learn any language whatsoever. After a certain age, it is simply impossible for them to learn it. It has nothing to do with IQ; after a certain point language can no longer be learned. It is unclear at this point whether ideas can genuinely be formed at all. What is clear is that without the gift of a parent's love, a child can gain no knowledge expressible in any human language. This is surely one of the most profound of all tragedies.

Yet that is precisely the condition of human thinking without a Father. We have knowledge of what is true only because we are taught. Every rhythm and pattern of nature that we notice is given to us by our Father. We learn because we receive. There is no other ground for actual knowledge. If the world around us does not exist intentionally, then neither is there any real knowledge, since knowledge is only the end result of a parent's love for his child. God our Father has sovereignly determined an order to the universe because of which we learn to speak His language back to Him. If this order is not from our Father, then we have not learned a language but mere nonsense. Without love, there can be no knowledge.

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