Epistemology is a fancy word for how we know things. As one of Redeemer’s profs loves to say, it’s how to go about knowing things in order that you can trust the results of the knowing process. I have a few ideas about what this should look like:
1. The knowing process is fundamentally characterized as caritative attention.
“Caritative” here is from the Latin caritas, which is where we get our word “charity” from. In other words, then, we go about knowing by paying charitable attention to the things or people we wish to know (about). There are some possible synonyms for this phrase, then, that could shed some helpful light: we could also call this posture careful listening, concerned attunement, compassionate attending to, or charitable attending. I have all of these broad ideas in mind when I use the phrase “caritative attention.”
2. Caritative attention is a focused activity and always has a content.
There are really two points here: first, paying attention involves focusing upon a particular thing or person in our experience. In listening carefully to a friend’s sorrow or the close argument of a text, we are both heightening our awareness of the focus of our attention and screening out much of the rest of the world. Second, caritative attention is intentional (Husserl), meaning it is always attending to something, consciousness of something. It is never empty.
3. The tentativeness or incompleteness of our knowledge must be acknowledged.
Humility in our knowing is a fundamental element of the posture of caritative attention. We know in part, and our judgments of understanding should stand always open to correction from new insights or other persons. The communal process of knowing the world in which we find ourselves is a generations-long task that must be continually reopened. This involves the difficult work of clarifying others’ positions in conversations or fresh rereadings of old texts—particularly Scripture.
4. The criterion of true knowledge is not “objectivity” but rather “charitableness.”
While especially true of our knowledge of others, since knowledge is attitude-forming and formed, this criterion is also true of the non-human creation. In regards to the animals and plants, the other living creations of God, our investigations should attend to their health and well-being. With regards to all, the creation is an ordered but vivified, overflowing gift of the one crucified and risen God.
5. All knowledge has the formal structure of revelation.
The world is not encapsulated in our consciousness, not even latently, but really exists out there and appears to us. This means that knowledge is not acquired or grasped fundamentally—not, in other words, comprehended—but instead received as gift. Knowledge comes to us, gives itself to us in moments of appearing or “revelation,” in a structural sense. Of course, here, the world’s appearing is not divine revelation, but only like it in the sense of being given (Marion).
6. Various structures and impulses shape our perceptions of the world.
Knowledge is not neutral or objective and rationality is not universal. “Structures,” very broadly speaking, constrict and inform our understanding of the world. These include, for example, the structures of our perceiving and judging faculties, textual-cultural traditions, social institutions and the nature of time. “Impulses” push our attention in various directions. Examples include curiosity, disgust, stress, peer pressure, the Spirit, compassion and love.
7. Knowledge is communal, and properly located in the Church.
The site of knowledge is not the knowing, conscious self, but rather the communities of which that self is a part. Knowledge is properly participation in, a sharing in the accumulated understanding of a traditioned community. The practices of a community produce its knowledge: in the academy, this includes laboratory testing or close reading; in the Church, this includes attending to God’s Word and Spirit, baptism and the Eucharist. The proper communal site of all human knowing is the Church gathered and scattered, as that community that has received from God the truth about the world and its state.
8. Our knowledge is situated by founding stories.
In relation to our self-understanding, this includes, for example, the stories of our birth and baptism, our family histories, and our childhood. For the Church, these founding stories are contained in the “grand reçit” (Lyotard) or broad narrative of Scripture. The understanding of Scripture has been shaped by the unfolding of the Church’s life under the guidance and gifts of the Spirit.
9. Embodied persons or spirited bodies are the “subjects” (or the “what comes after the subject” [Nancy]) of knowledge.
Perception of the world around us is not aimed at lifting out abstracted ideas, but properly continues to be an embodied presence. Thus sight is not the primary or only mode of attending to the world, but the process involves also listening to a stranger’s sigh, receiving a friend’s encouraging touch and the scent of incense. There are also necessary physiological limits to knowing, then, which means that the ability to exercise caritative attention is limited by energy and the need for sleep, which is properly a rest in God.
Growing in knowledge is not an end-in-itself nor a self-aggrandizing project, but rather has as its aim the return to the gathered body of the Church in worship. The same hands that comfort the brokenhearted are lifted in praise to the God who cares deeply for them. The same tongues that speak cultural goods into being are employed to utter the thousand languages of God’s glory. All our embodied lives are returned to the God who made them, as recognition of the revelation that all is gift. And then we return to the world around us for a kind of worship: a faithful, loving action in the world that rests in God’s preemptive grace and brings about the earth’s healing. This is done in hopeful attention to the Day when we shall see him as he is (1 John 3:2) and when we shall know fully just as we are fully known by God (1 Cor. 13:12).