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Omaha, Nebraska, United States
I am more and more convinced that most congregations die from a staggering lack of imagination. Let's change that. Drop me a line on email or leave a comment if you have thoughts on God, Jesus, congregations, the church or whatever.... I look forward to our conversations.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

How Do I Know? (Whitney Houston and our Epistemological Crisis)

Credo ut intellegam        St. Anselm of Canterbury

"I believe in order to understand." This is the basic order of things for the early Christians. Probably also for Jesus. Believing takes precedence before understanding or even knowing.
 Most of us, born after Rene Descartes  take the opposite view of St. Anselm. We often say something like, "I understand in order to believe." Here's a test to see if you are more of a Anselmian or a Cartesian type thinker:
You have told your 12 year-old child you are going to buy her shoes, and she can spend only $25. She agrees. (You can see by this statement that clearly this is a false story, but go with it.) She comes back and says, "Mom, these are the shoes I want, and they are only $22." What's the next thing you would do?

Well, if you are Anselm, since this is your daughter, she has met the rules of the arrangement, and you do not yet know how your daughter will turn out, or who your daughter really is, you believe in her in order to discover the answers to these questions. You probably give her the money, no further questions asked.

If you are more inclined to Cartesian patterns of thought, you might ask: Have you done enough research? Is this really the best deal? Have you understood enough to make the best decision? I want you to learn how to be strong, to not be vulnerable to the tricks of advertisers, or the allure of your peers. I want you to understand what this means! Depending upon how far you wish to travel down this road, you may or may not give her the money right away. (Being a good Cartesian, however, you will give her the money at some point because she has met the criteria of the bargain. You just want her to be sure she wants "those" shoes.)

For us these days, believing is so hard to do. (As a funny aside, Journey's Don't Stop Believin'" just came on Pandora as I wrote the above paragraph.) The smart folks of the world will give us lots of reasons why believing is so hard these days, but it can come from anywhere: fear, lack of authentic authority, mass communication, or the demands of rational-choice theory (my favorite). But note this: believing was as hard for Anselm as it is for us. The difference for Anselm is that until he believed something he knew he never really understood all of it. He might have understood a lot of it, even the most important parts, but he never imagined he grasped all of whatever he was trying to understand.

We often replace that kind of total grasping with hurried attempts at understanding without even bothering to believe. We fall into the "Cartesian anxiety" (a great phrase from philosopher Richard Bernstein) if we cannot find a place in which to make all our understanding seem to make sense. We MUST have foundations upon which to build the thoughts we have buzzing around us. Else, how will we know?

Neither Anselm nor DesCartes would have us bail-out into some kind of pie-eyed "faith." They would encourage us to stand amidst the confusion, the maelstrom of conflicting accounts, the noise of hatred and fear, and to listen. Listen to what you are not hearing right now. What are you missing? What do I believe? Who do I believe? What do I know? What do I not know?

You see, Anselm and DesCartes knew that answers were few and far between in this world...it was the questions that mattered. Surprisingly, they both learned this questioning for the same guy...Jesus of Nazareth. The one guy in history, aside from perhaps  the Greek Socrates, who asked more questions than anybody. And he was the Son of God. Go figure.

May your tables be full, and your conversations be true.

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