Volume 13, Issue 2: Incarnatus
Knowing is Haiku
The incarnation should provide the main model for a Christian understanding of the nature of knowledge and meaning. Hellenistic and Enlightenment accounts of knowledge pretty constantly fear the body and mirror the anemic. Each installment of this column aims to show how the Incarnation shapes some aspect of knowledge. The prior installment sketched knowing as primarily a kind of bodily doing rather than mere thinking as commonly held.
Doing immediately gets us into the realm of flesh and blood, into the world of concrete objects—coffee mugs, oak doors, and barking dogs. At least, creaturely knowing begins in the concrete. By interacting with physical stuffs we absorb their limits and patterns and dynamics. And we walk away with habits of swimming, bike riding, and woodworking that we could never put into words. This, as Michael Polanyi and others have explained is the pattern of tacit knowledge in which we move naturally from the physical to nonphysical, from the particulars to a unity, from the visible to the invisible:
For such an act [knowing] relies on interiorizing particulars to which we are not attending . . . and relies further on our attending from these particulars to a comprehensive entity connecting them in a way we cannot define. . . . [In contrast] scrutinize closely the particulars of a comprehensive entity and their meaning is effaced. Repeat a word several times, attending carefully to the motion of your tongue and lips, and to the sound you make, and soon the word will sound hollow and eventually lose its meaning. By concentrating attention on his fingers, a pianist can temporarily paralyze his movement.
By "doing" or indwelling the concrete world, we know it. The concrete reveals the deeper realities in and around and through it. The visible lights up the invisible. We regularly talk about symbols working in this way. The upheld-hand means stop; rolling eyes mean unbelief; bread means His Body; and little black linguistic squiggles like these lead us to their invisible, concrete meanings. Knowing and meaning, then, share common paths.
But a scientific mode of looking at the world can strangle this incarnational or poetic mode, as natural as it is. The scientific mode, especially in its Enlightenment voice, just wants to trace the most surface-level physical properties as they knock about the pool table. It pretends that it canít neatly process the world of meaning and symbol. And so it turns hostile to it and refuses to count as knowledge anything that canít be quantified. That immediately silences the most human part of life; after all, a scientific reduction can make anything look silly on its narrow terms: kisses are just labial compressions; a salute is just certain muscular contractions; Bach is just ordered sound waves; baptism is just H2O on skin; and the World Series is just guys standing around with sticks and leather. Nothing holy and beautiful could survive the scientific decapitation of meaning (though in truth, the scientific mode itself can only survive on certain root metaphors).
But unlike scientism, we donít walk by sight alone (2 Cor. 5:7). The Incarnation bursts through scientistic wine skins. God has designed the world so that concrete things connect us to the broader world of meaning and spirit and intention. The Incarnation itself is the manifestation of a concrete human body which points us to the invisible: "He who has seen Me has seen the Father" (Jn. 14:9). God "has in these last days spoken to us by His Son" who is "the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person" (Heb. 1:2,3). The Body points us to the Invisible One.
This same pattern of embracing the invisible through the visible is pervasive in Scripture itself. Not only does God reveal Himself literarily through eagles, lambs, wind, and doors, but the whole "heavens declare the glory of God; And the firmament shows His handiwork. Day unto day utters speech" (Ps. 19:1,2). "For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made" (Rom. 1:20). As James Jordan summarizes, "the universe and everything in it symbolizes God. . . . The world does not exist for its own sake, but as a revelation of God."
Interestingly, this same pattern of knowing is captured nicely in the structure of most haiku poetry. Haiku doesnít involve metaphor. It lays down before the mind a pair of concrete objects or events, and from these apparently disconnected items it somehow points the mind to a third invisible thing, a very unique but universal species of human experience that is usually inexpressible in words. When a scientistic mind sees haiku, it can only giggle like the paralyzed pianist above; it only sees two disconnected physical events. It isnít able to connect to the invisible species sitting behind them. Thatís also a reason why haiku probably shouldnít be written by anyone under forty years old, preferably fifty. Younger folks, especially teens, havenít been around long enough to be able to identify discrete patterns of experience, let alone use two concrete things to pick out a specific kind. But still, if we can never appreciate whatís going on in haiku, we will also have a hard time understanding whatís going on in Scripture, the Incarnation, and the world around us. All of them use the same pattern of knowing: the concrete unveils the invisible.