I wrote this reflection more than a month ago for “The Geneva Courier” and recently realized I needed to post it on the blog. It does get around to Christmas too. Enjoy!
This fall my recreational reading has included Peter Kreeft’s book The Philosophy of Tolkien: The Worldview Behind The Lord of the Rings. In this enjoyably readable book, Kreeft (who teaches philosophy at Boston College) gives an understandable introduction to philosophy using Tolkien’s epic to demonstrate how areas of philosophy can be seen in life and story. And, since Kreeft also loves C.S. Lewis, the reader is treated to almost as many examples from Lewis as from Tolkien. Can it get much better?
Just before Thanksgiving I read his chapter on “Epistemology” and almost immediately decided I needed to borrow liberally from his thoughts as I write this column.
Even though Kreeft deals with epistemology in the middle of his book, it is often the opening subject in philosophical studies. Derived from the Greek word ἐπιστήμη (meaning “certain knowledge”), “epistemology” considers not the content of knowledge, but more fundamentally how we know. Thus, before we can talk about the things we know (metaphysics, theology, anthropology, etc.), we have to talk about how we know.
A couple of major schools of thought have dominated Western culture with respect to how we know. “Rationalism” focuses our knowing on the realm of the human mind and reason. Descartes’ “Cogito ergo sum” (“I think, therefore, I am”) perhaps best captures this concept. He is joined by other important rationalists like Spinoza, Leibniz, and Hegel. The other school is Empiricism which holds that knowing derives primarily from our human sensory experience. We associate Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, and Hume with this movement. Some have said that Rationalism places emphasis on the “eye of the mind” (again, we know by thinking about the world) and Empiricism emphasizes the “eye of the body” (we know through the world through our physical eyes and other senses).
Kreeft points out that both of these Western approaches to knowing “ignore a more ancient organ of knowing: intuition” (p. 122). This “third eye” – the “eye of the heart” – takes a more subjective, intuitive perspective of our world, akin to the biblical eye of faith. We see this perspective articulated by Pascal when he said, “The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of.”
Intuition is not merely sentimentalism. And we all know how foolhardy it can be to “follow your heart”! The Scriptures are replete with warnings about the nature of our hearts: e.g., “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death” (Prov. 14: 12) and “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9). Just as our minds may misinterpret data or err in reasoning; just as we can be fooled by our feelings or err by thinking our sinful experience must be right; so also, our intuition, our heart, can lead us to ruin.
Again, Kreeft summarizes this well. “For this ‘third eye,’ unlike reason and sense experience, depends on moral goodness; it is trustworthy only in the virtuous. So virtue is part of epistemology! Epistemology depends on ethics; knowledge (of the highest and most important things) depends on goodness” (p. 123). And this is where the redeemed heart of faith comes in.
Biblical faith is more than knowing certain information (rationalism); it is more than what we see and agree with from our senses (empiricism). Biblical faith demands a deeper level of trusting and surrendering. Classically these three phases of faith have been called “notitia” (the data and information), “assensus” (acknowledging or agreeing with the truth of the data), and “fiducia” (trusting). Too many people think they have faith when all they possess is either some knowledge or perhaps even assent to the truth of some knowledge. But the letter of James tells us that even the demons believe, and they shudder (James 2:19). They know the information of God’s story and they know it’s true. But they do not surrender to it nor do they trust it. They rebel. Biblical faith demands that third eye of the heart to believe most fully and savingly.
Kreeft agrees (happily!), when he says, “Jesus makes childlike trust the prerequisite for entering His kingdom: ‘Unless you turn an become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’ (Mat. 18:3) . . . . Faith is not foolish or irrational” (p. 126). And again, we must be careful at this point. Jesus commends “childlike” faith. To be “childlike” is not the same as to be “childish” – the first assumes a degree of innocence, the latter a degree of willful stubbornness.
With childlike faith, we are called to know (with our minds), to understand (which requires an element of experience), but more, to trust (which requires redeemed intuition), that God seeks a relationship with us through Christ as Savior. C.S. Lewis said, “You are no longer faced with an argument which demands your assent, but with a Person who demands your confidence . . . the assent, of necessity, moves us from the logic of speculative thought into what might perhaps be called the logic of personal relations” (“On Obstinacy in Belief” in World’s Last Night).
Of course the goal of knowledge is the apprehension of Truth. Lest I be misunderstood, I am not one who condemns the rational mind. It’s a gift of God. Nor do I say experience is solely bad. In God’s providence, even sinful experience can teach us of God’s goodness and grace. Aristotle said it quite simply, “When one says of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, he speaks the truth.” But in the realm of faith, there are times when we say that something is true, and the world’s rationalism and empiricism say we are fools to believe. Consider Christmas.
As we celebrate Christmas, we see in Mary (in Luke 1:37-38) such a demonstration of biblical faith, seeing with the eyes of the heart. When an angel appears (irrational to the rationalist) she is told she will conceive a child though she is a virgin (against all sensory experiential evidence to the empiricist). But the angel tells her it would be so saying, “For nothing will be impossible with God.” Mary’s response is biblical faith: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” She accepted God’s word to her.
She was called by God, as are we, to see with that third eye of the heart things that are true, despite what the mind and the experience of the world would affirm as true. Israel looked for a conquering king; instead God gave them a fragile baby. They wanted existential salvation from the slavery and oppression of Rome; instead this baby brought them (and us!) the prospect of salvation not from merely a temporal worldly power but from the eternal condemnation of our own enslavement to sin and death.
God hardly ever does things the way we expect. And this is the call of faith in Christ. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). So, as we give and receive gifts at Christmas, we can be thankful for His indescribable gift to us – even Christ, our hope and salvation. Foolishness to the world, but the wisdom and goodness of God to us. Thanks be to God!