HOW WE KNOW WHAT WE KNOW
Written by Doug Ponder on September 27, 2015
How We Know What We Know
In a pamphlet published in 1642, shortly after Harvard was established, the founders of the college wrote a “mission statement” for their new school. The spelling is now archaic, but its wisdom is everlasting: “Let every Student be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed to consider well [that] the maine end of his life and studies is to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternall life, John 17. 3, and therefore to lay Christ in the bottome, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and Learning.”
The founders of Harvard knew something that most professors there today—along with many Christians—have tragically forgotten, namely, that knowing Jesus the goal of all learning and Jesus himself is the foundation of all knowledge.
Much can be said about knowing Jesus as the goal of all learning. For the Christian who pursues math or music or medicine, without a strong sense of loyalty to Christ and a desire to honor him through their vocation, is completely missing the point no matter how much good they might do (Rom. 11:36). But space will not permit me to say more, so that will have to wait for another article.
In this article I hope to show that Jesus himself is the foundation of all knowledge. Jesus makes learning possible, and he is proper the starting place for discovering the world as it truly is. In other words, Jesus is how we know what we know, which is one way of talking about “epistemology.” Epistemology is one of those words that almost nobody uses, but absolutely everyone has one. That’s because the word “epistemology” simply refers to how we go about learning, or how we think we come to know things.
Faith Seeking Understanding
A deeply Christian epistemology was set forth most clearly by a man named Anselm, who famously spoke of “faith seeking understanding” (fides quaerens intellectum). Some have misunderstand his ‘motto’ to mean that people take something on blind faith, and then just try to grow in their knowledge of what they already believe, never testing, never doubting, never questioning.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Anselm was simply pointing out the inevitability of having a starting place. Everyone has to start somewhere. Where do you start? Do you start with the belief that what you can learn through your senses is the most accurate source of knowledge? Many people do this, but they are reluctant to call it faith. “I don’t have faith,” they say. “I only believe in what I can prove by taste, touch, sight, etc.”
But such people fail to realize that is a kind of faith; it’s faith in your senses to be accurate sources of knowledge. The senses are generally reliable, of course, but they let us down from time to time. For example, a mirage makes us think we’re seeing one thing when we’re actually seeing another. At other times we swear we hear something, only to find out that we were wrong. Our senses can let us down. They are not infallible guides to truth.
What’s more, our senses cannot perceive certain types of objects (those without mass or movement). From the outset, therefore, our senses prevent us from the possibility of ever discovering the existence of things like God, souls, consciousness, mental images, personal agency, and first-person identity. These things may or may not exist—but if they do, our five senses could never be the source of knowledge to discover them. We need another source of knowledge, something “outside” of ourselves that can reach us where we are, while pointing us far beyond what we can see and hear or taste and touch.
That is precisely why the founders of Harvard rightly said we must “lay Christ in the bottome, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and Learning.” They understood that beginning with Jesus as our starting place is the only way to make sense of everything we experience in this world. No other ‘starting place’ can explain the world as we experience it as well as Jesus does.
When we experience powerful feelings of love, for example, we don’t doubt that these are real. They are not merely chemical reactions in our brains. They mean something. They matter. But science claims the opposite. Yet when your life is filled with stabs of hopeless joy, when you long to “get back” or “get in” a memory so real and powerful that you wish you could make your home there, or when you try to sift through the myriad ways in which, in spite of everything, you feel compelled to hope in the face of the brokenness of the world—when you feel all of this, you begin to wonder how all these “feelings” could possibly be leftover fragments of evolution and mere figments of our collective imagination. But how can we know what’s going on?
Most people simply say, “Well, I just feel like this or that is true.” And maybe you do feel a certain way, but who’s to say that your feelings can be trusted? “I just feel like I can trust my feelings,” you say again in response. Simply trusting our feelings about our feelings is to enter into a vicious cul-de-sac of circular reasoning.
The Only Foundation for Knowledge
So, if science is inadequate and trusting our feelings is circular, how can we move forward? Jesus.
Jesus is the way out of the endless circle. He is the voice from the outside that speaks to us where we are, in order to point us far beyond what we could discover on our own. Jesus is the starting place of all knowledge, and he has made us knowers, people created to know God (John 17:3) and to discover the world that God made (Gen. 1:28).
Because of the identity we have as knowers, we are able to know things. This sounds so basic, but it’s very significant. Jesus is end of circularity. We begin in faith—a simple trust that maybe Jesus really is who he said he was, and that he really did what he said he would do—and that faith enables us to move forward into greater and greater understanding. Faith seeking understanding, fides quaerens intellectum.
Jesus confirms that there is a world “out there” that can be explored. It’s full of order and consistency (the kind that enables it to be studied by good scientists), because the world’s order reflects the wise design of its Creator. Not only does Jesus enable us to know about the world, but he also enables us to know who we are, too. He tells us that we are people created by God and for God, made in his likeness with certain abilities and capacities, and made with purpose and with unending love.
The truth is that everyone has a starting place, everyone has some epistemology that tells them ‘how they can know what they know.’ But only Jesus sufficiently explains the world as we find it without the endless cul-de-sac of circular reasoning.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.