Volume 13, Issue 1: Incarnatus
Knowing is Doing
So much of life revolves around our picture of what knowledge is. We educate and worship and technologize and rest and legislate and love in accord with some image or model of knowing. No one escapes this. And our different takes on it can lead us down widely diverging cultural paths.
The biggest and most relevant divide over the question of knowledge is whether knowledge is primarily a kind of thinking or a kind of doing.
By far, the largest consensus in history is that knowledge is purely a kind of thinking. To know something is to have certain ideas or beliefs in our mind arranged or set there in a special way. Commonly, we take as proof that someone knows some answer if they can simply recall it from memory for us. We ask for the capital of Spain, and they tell us Madrid. When the stakes are a little higher, we ask the person to provide an argument or reason for that belief. In other words, we gather other beliefs to shore up the belief in question. We can even ask for more beliefs for those supporting beliefs and so on. We may even ask for the process by which a belief was generated, but in the end, we still count knowledge as something mental.
With this picture of knowledge as something deposited in the head, we focus our education on getting bits of data into a student's head and having them call it up at test time. In business, we call someone a "master" (MBA), if he's very familiar with plenty of business theory. In the Church, we say a pastoral candidate or child knows a doctrine if he has the right definitions on his tongue. We call someone "smart" if he has plenty of ideas and can manipulate them quickly for us. And we even speculate about computers and artificial intelligence on the assumption that knowledge is just a super-complex movement and recall of information. This is the reigning picture of knowledge-of the mind, through the mind, to the mind.
The roots of this picture of knowledge lie deep in Western culture (probably Eastern too). Both ancient Greek philosophy and modernity ("the Enlightenment") spent centuries extending this view of knowledge into all areas of life. Plato taught us that "if we are ever to have pure knowledge of anything, we must get rid of the body and contemplate things in isolation with the soul in isolation. . . . We shall keep as close as possible to knowledge, if we avoid as much as we can all contact and association with the body" (Phaedo, 66e, ff.). Almost two millennia later, in an allegedly revolutionary "new" era, John Locke told us (along with many others) that "knowledge seems to me to be nothing but the perception of the connexion and agreement, or disagreement and repugnancy, of any of our ideas. In this alone it consists" (ECHU, IV, I, 2).
Now it's understandable why non-Christian philosophies trod down this path. The intellect is something apparently within our individual grasp, and it gives the appearance of being able to tame the world around us. If we determine to play god, then we have to try to banish as real or important all those things outside our mental control. Historically, then, everything outside the tiny, simplistic domain of the intellect was called into doubt. Both the Greeks and the modernists denigrated emotion, imagination, the body, beauty, goodness, and the whole created order. Both sought refuge within the mind alone where they could legislate at least that reality according to simplistic logic and perfectionistic algorithms.
We should at least be suspicious, then, when we unreflectively invite such assumptions about knowledge into the Christian faith. Of course, there are truths in that view, as in everything. Memorizing facts, for example, is an important step in any education. But it shouldn't be the paradigm for knowing.
In contrast to this prevailing view of knowledge as merely mental, Scripture assumes that knowledge is primarily a kind of bodily doing.
To begin with, Scripture openly derides mere head knowledge. If mere mental knowing were the worthiest kind of knowledge, then Scripture couldn't say: "You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe, and tremble!" (James 2:19), or "these people draw near with their mouths and honor Me with their lips, but have removed their hearts far from Me" (Is. 29:13; cf. Mk 7:6; Matt 15:8).
Moreover, in various places, if we were to replace Scripture's use of "know" with mental apprehension, we'd get the following oddities: "You only have I recognized facts about [known] of all the families of the earth" (Amos 3:2; cf. Rom. 8:29).
Christ Himself expresses this contrast between mere mental apprehension and doing. Christ says He'll declare to many professing believers that "I never knew you" (Matt. 7:23). But surely He won't be factually ignorant about them. He'll have plenty of knowledge (justified, true, beliefs) about them. But He won't count that as knowledge in any important sense. Instead, in the same passage, He counts doing as the basis of real knowledge: "whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock" (Matt. 7:24).
To press even further, knowing is a particular kind of doing in Scripture, namely, indwelling. When Adam knew his wife, she conceived (Gen. 4:1; Gen. 4:25; Matt. 1:25). He didn't just recognize some facts about her; he indwelt her beautifully. Such sexual union provides the brightest metaphor for knowledge in general. When we really know something, we commune with it intimately via our whole body (Dt. 6:5; Matt. 22:37).
Future installments of this column will aim to express further this incarnational or poetic view of knowing.