If it is true that spiritual life is about knowing and following Jesus, living in connection with Him, then it is fundamentally about relationship.
The 20th century saw the demise of the Enlightenment project. In the postmodern world, people are no longer convinced that knowledge is certain, objective, or good. Behind the idea of the inherent good of all knowledge was a myth of inevitable progress. But after two World Wars and countless other atrocities, this myth of optimism began to wear thin. More important to this presentation, postmodernism no longer sees truth as purely rational. Rather, truth is understood more holistically. In other words, there are other valid paths to knowledge besides reason.
Finally, contrary to the modernist view of knowledge as objective, postmodern thought sees the world as much more relational and interdependent. Postmoderism is perceived by some today as a threat to Christianity, because it tends to view all truth as relative to the knowing agent’s experience. It sees truth as socially constructed. This means that an understanding of truth is a construction of the individual’s own personal experience and identity. But there is a difference between saying that there is no absolute truth and saying that absolute truth cannot be known absolutely.
When it comes to Christian theology and practice, we encounter major problems with the idea that absolute truth does not exist. Christianity, Judaism, Islam and other religions all hold that there is a God and that God is absolute. However, there is no problem for Christian theology to say that absolute truth cannot be known absolutely. In recent years some in the Christian community have realized that this “epistemological humility” is precisely the thing we need and is indeed required by the teachings of the Bible. Indeed, one key feature of a postmodern epistemology is precisely this humility. Our postmodern context today requires us to be tentative in our truth claims and rock solid in our practice of our faith. Here are some of the critical elements:
Experience: Postmodern philosophy says that the universe is profoundly interactive. Contrary to Isaac Newton, the universe is not like a machine. New developments in physics like quantum physics and chaos theory teach us that the world we inhabit is far less predictable and more beautiful than we had previously imagined. Therefore, says postmodernism, we can know things experientially. Our experience of life and the world carries real knowledge.
Faith: We now know that faith is a part of all processes of knowing. The Bible, of course, teaches that faith is a way of knowing the truth. “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for. By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible” (Heb. 11:1-3).1“In the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith’ ” (Rom. 1:17). “We live by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7).
For too long, certainty has been overrated. Oddly it is Christians who are the most concerned by the demise of the “myth of certainty.” Of all people, Christians should know that a scientific, Cartesian kind of certainty is not a part of the Christian narrative. The author of Hebrews says that faith is being sure of what we do not see. Faith is certainty. Paul says, “The just shall live by faith.” Notice also that it is not faith as an abstract principle, but something upon which one bases one’s life. We live by it. That’s a different kind of certainty.
Thomas, Jesus’ disciple, is a good example of an epistemology of faith. Like many who have been raised on empiricism, Thomas is your classic skeptic. When the other disciples say that they’ve seen the risen Lord, Thomas protests, “ ‘Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it’ ” (John 20:25). A week later, Thomas gets his wish. Jesus appears in the house where the disciples are gathered, and this time Thomas doesn’t miss out. Though Jesus grants him his empirical evidence—seeing and touching the wounds in Jesus’ hands and side—Jesus then invites Thomas to a new epistemology of faith: “ ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed’ ” (v. 29). This is not a blind leap of faith. It is rather the acknowledgement that with the death and resurrection of Jesus the world has fundamentally changed.
Hope: Hope also is a way of knowing in a Christian worldview. This is a key theme in Paul’s ministry. Notice this definitive passage: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently” (Rom. 8:22-25).
In some ways, hope is a choice; it is choosing to see the future as God’s, with us in it—as opposed to giving in to despair, as some do. Hope chooses to cling to the promise, rather than fall on the floor in sadness.
Love: In John 21 we read of the restoration of Peter after his horrible three-fold denial of Jesus. After several days of what must have been utter despair for Peter, Jesus encounters
him on the Sea of Galilee with these words, “ ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ ” (John 21:17). Just as Thomas was invited to a new kind of faith that would meet the new reality of the resurrection, Peter is invited to a new kind of love that could believe the resurrection.
This is what is meant by an epistemology of love, a knowing that involves us in new ways. You cannot truly know the truth of the resurrection without fully committing yourself to it. The truth of it opens only to those who are captured by God’s love expressed in the event itself.
It is not surprising, then, that the same John who records the remarkable post-resurrection story of Jesus and Peter on the beach later speaks of an epistemology of love in his later epistles. “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us” (1 John 4:7-12).
It would be difficult to make this any more explicit: “Everyone who loves . . . knows God.” John understands that love is knowing.
Faith, Hope, and Love: These are three new ways of knowing that are completely open and accessible to anyone who cares to risk everything on an entirely different narrative about the world. “These three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13).
If it is true that spiritual life is about knowing and following Jesus, living in connection with Him, then it is fundamentally about relationship. It’s not merely a theological understanding, or even some sort of religious contract we strike with God. It is about seeking God, entering into a relationship of faith, then trusting Him to work in our lives. It is allowing His love to permeate our lives and to make us into transformed men and women. That’s how we know God.2