What is the nature of knowledge? How does it work? How do people know what they know?
When we have a conversation with someone about God or the Bible, we usually ask questions about the content of our faith. People who are curious about faith typically ask content questions, as well. Someone may say, “What do you believe?” And underneath the question of belief is usually the question of knowledge, “What do you know to be fact?”
But more and more in our postmodern world, people are asking a different question.
People can believe all sorts of things that aren’t true. How do you know what is true? This is not a new search in the postmodern world. People have always asked the “big questions” about truth and knowledge. These are the questions that are addressed by the field of study known as “epistemology.”
Epistemology asks, “What is knowledge?” In other words, What is the nature of knowledge? How does it work? How do people know what they know? How does one arrive at knowledge? On the surface these may seem like simple questions, but they are not. Trying to explain theories of knowledge is like trying to define that word you use all the time and know what it means but you just can’t come up with a satisfactory definition.
The answers to these questions have not only changed over time but they actually mark historical epochs. A certain set of answers belong to a period we know as pre-modernism. Another set of answers define the era known as modernism. The relatively new questions that are being posed about knowledge and the answers now being given mark of some of the parameters of postmodernism.
To be sure, premodernity, modernity, and postmodernity are about much more than epistemology. But epistemology, the philosophy of knowledge, lies somewhere near the core. You might be wondering, What does all this have to do with teaching a Bible study? It actually has everything to do with it. If you are speaking to someone about what you hold to be “true” and they are coming from a completely different understanding of truth (knowledge), you may as well be speaking a foreign language.
The core questions: Is it possible there is a God? Is it possible to know there is a God? Many good books have been written on this subject that are worthy of your time. This reading will talk about ways of knowing that open the possibility that the person you’re talking to could offer a “Yes” to the question, “Is it possible there is a God?”
In short, there are tools to help someone say, “Yes, it is possible there is a God.” Notice, there is a big difference between saying it is possible there is a God, and there is a God. This language is carefully chosen and is part of the whole conversation about knowing. To the question, “Is it possible to know there is a God?” the answer would have to be, “It depends. It depends on what you mean by know.”
In the pre-modern era, truth was derived from authority. This was the primary source of knowledge about the world. These authorities were usually a god or gods. This knowledge was then mediated to the average person through spiritual authorities (there’s that word again) in the form of religious officials, like priests, tribal leaders, etc. The common person did not have access to the divine, except through these intermediaries. Tradition was seen as unshakable and sacred. The world as a whole was seen as static and unchanging, and the social order was strictly enforced. People had very little means to make sense of the world around them, so they explained the world they lived in largely through narrative and myth. In this way the unknown became known.
It could be said that in a pre-modern world, knowledge was controlled and dispensed by people in authority, who were almost always religious leaders of some kind, and the form of that knowledge was myth and tradition. To survive, societies must make sense out of their physical environment. This was how their world cohered. Most people acknowledge that the pre-modern period lasted for about 1,000 years, roughly the time of the Middle Ages.
So, right up to the time when modernism began, people generally “knew what they knew” because someone powerful (or supposedly in contact with the source of truth) told them what they knew. But then, suddenly, all that changed.
The next reading in this week’s study, “Knowing Jesus: Perspective 2,” looks at what is called “modernism” as a way of knowing things.*