We “know” by doing

Those who study philosophy and theology today often talk about the importance of the Christian “world view”. The general idea behind this is that first and foremost we are thinking things – walking brains that know things and then act on them with our bodies. First the thought, then the act. If our thinking is ordered, then we will act orderly. If we “know” God, then we will act Godly. If we know the difference between good and evil then we will not be deceived when we make decisions. If we have an understanding of how God made the world, then we will not despair when someone tells us He did not make it or does not love us.

But this kind of “knowing” is not what Abraham had. Hebrews 11 tells us that when he left his home to follow God, he DID NOT KNOW where he was going. He didn’t know what he was doing. He had no creed. He had no scripture. He had no written anything. He had a pagan world view with perhaps a distant memory of Babel. His “knowing” was ridiculously thin by our standards today. In a recent talk I heard by Bishop Todd Hunter, he talked about how Abraham’s knowing was “governed by his conversational relationship and trust in God.” He didn’t know anything that God didn’t tell him and of that there was no way to confirm it with other authorities or sources or with any sort of historical precedent. In this sense, Abraham is the father of our faith because he is our model. He had no model – nobody to follow or look to. He made the hard jump. Our jump is easier – be just be like him. Still easier than that, we have a model in Paul when he said “follow me as I follow Christ”.

But do you “know” what Paul knew? Even if you have pre-ordered N.T. Wright’s new 1700-page volume on Paul coming out in November, even if you’ve fully digested every word of it by Christmas, can you follow Paul? And even if you could, would you? Paul’s following of Christ was governed by his encounter with him on the road to Damascus and in the years he spent afterwards in the desert before beginning his apostolic work. Even more than that, he “knew” the God of the Hebrews from his youth in his daily memorization of the word and his worship activities in the temple. He was formed by these disciplines and rituals as a young Pharisee. His meeting with Christ didn’t negate his past, but rather fulfilled it. He realized that the God he worshiped was the God of the gentiles too.

It says that Adam “knew” his wife Eve and we know that doesn’t mean he read a book about her or even had an in-depth interview with her. It means he had sex with her. But the writer of Genesis is not using “know” as some kind of code-word because he’s shy and doesn’t want to talk about sex. He’s using it because it’s the best word for the situation. That today we only use it to describe things that go on inside our heads is a newer self-induced miscommunication as we interact with scripture and with pre-modern people.

This mind-body disconnect works it’s way into our concepts of faith and discipleship as well. If belief is a clicking that happens in your head, then the way to duplicate your belief in others is to write books, teach, and fill people’s heads with the necessary ingredients for that click to take place. It’s a conception of evangelist as rhetorical neuro-chemist. Whatever bodily redirection that may come later as a result of that is chiefly secondary and, when push comes to shove, can technically be eliminated. That’s sola fide, right?

But I think a better definition of belief is “to act as if you believe it is true”. I know that is self-referential, but it gets to the heart of a key property of our humanity – that we don’t always know what the heck we are doing. Our knowing occurs not just as a mental pre-action, but something that continues to form as we take action and live our lives. The best way to learn to love someone is to “act as if you love them”, and then you will find that love growing in your heart where you swore there was none before. This is the value of form and ritual in devotion and worship. We aren’t just “going through the motions”. The motions form who we are. They change our minds. They enable us to “know” more fully in a way that we can never know through filling up on words or teaching. What is more worshipful to God? To sit down and read, “Let us kneel before the Lord our God, our maker” (Psalm 95), or to actually get out of your seat, bend those joints that are part of your legs, and kneel and say, addressed to Him, “Lord, I worship you, my creator.” The enlightened modern would say that reading the psalm happened in your head and then you acted on it with your body. But the person who wrote the psalms would say the two are one thing – tied together in a way that makes them indistinguishable. To just read about it is not to “know”. You do it and THEN you know. We don’t know what we are doing, but we do, and then we know, or know more fully. Toby Sumpter said it best I think in a homily he wrote for Easter about 3 years ago: “We say, “I love you.” And we don’t understand what we are saying. I say, I love you, honey. I love you, son. I love you, dear. And I am quite literally out of my mind.” But here we are, still loving, even while confused.

In his book, Desiring the Kingdom, Jamie Smith pushes against the “I think, therefore I am”, not with the minor Reformation-era improvement (“I believe in order to understand.”), but with the full body, full being, “I am what I love.” And our loves, what drives our kardia (the Greek word for this), is formed not just by what knowledge is poured into us, but by the sum total of all our actions and the ways we “go through the motions” every day from infancy. I think that part of following Christ and returning to the faith of the apostles is to throw out some of our reliance on modern epistemology and get back to a more holistic “knowing”.

(I apologize if this post is poor and disjointed. It’s just an early pass at working through some of these issues.)