How We Know What We Know

My favorite author, hands down, is Dallas Willard. Those familiar with popular Evangelical author John Ortberg will be familiar with Willard’s ideas as Ortberg’s books are often “Willard Light”. Willard’s latest book “Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge” offers some insight into how we obtain knowledge.

Willard states:
“Historically, three presumed sources of knowledge have dominated human life in turn, and they have been set in opposition to one another because of the political dynamics into which they have fallen. (1) Authority based on historical or social position (mainly in church and government) has mostly dominated human life and is still dominant today in many parts of the world — often where it is least suspected. In European history, the power to know by (2) thinking, by reason (by Rene Descartes and others), came to dominance in “intellectual” circles in response to the failures and breakdown of the old systems of authority. The excessive claims of reason led to revolt against it and to the emergence of (3) experience as the preferred source of knowledge (the empiricism of John Locke and David Hume, later to become naturalism).”

Willard goes on to say:
“We need to realize that the three presumed sources of knowledge — authority, reason and experience — are not inherently opposed, but are well-suited to supplement each other in the course of real life.” “John Wesley, a remarkably deep and clear thinker, held that four sources of information and truth should be brought systematically to bear in determining religious/Christian truth: scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.”

. . .

“The concrete progression toward knowledge, in real life, is always rather messy. Various aspects from the three traditional sources of knowledge are usually — probably always — involved. The attempt to avoid or simplify this “messiness” is one of the things that has driven some people to try to restrict knowledge to a very narrow range. But the result of that, when pushed, always leads to an elimination of most of the clear cases of knowledge from the domain of knowledge. (Thus arises the pervasive but utterly insincere “skepticism” of the academy and the classroom.) Usually those restrictions on knowledge themselves do not then qualify as knowledge and can be “politically” enforced only by pressure and power. This is very much the story of “epistemology” or the “theory of knowledge” in Western thought since the collapse of traditional authority.”

I really like Willard’s presentation of knowledge here and his assessment that all sources of knowledge should work together not in opposition to one another. It’s to our own determent when we prefer one source of knowledge over the others. I think this is the essence of JP Moreland’s paper “How Evangelicals Became Over-Committed to the Bible and What can be Done about It“. Though the title is provocative, I think that most Evangelicals, given a charitable reading and time to process the paper, will agree with Moreland.

I have often offered the critique that Mormons are too committed to feelings or spiritual experience in explaining how they know the Book of Mormon is true or that Thomas Monson is a prophet. It’s not that I think such experiences are categorically unreliable or prone to be false, it’s that they should be evaluated based on the testimony of authority and reason. Many Mormons (though not all) I’ve spoken to are reluctant to even entertain the question of how other sources of knowledge have informed their faith much less utilize any other source. In the same way, I think Christian fundamentalism holds to an unrealistic (and ironically unBiblical) view of Biblical inerrancy; posturing a literal reading of the Bible, even when inappropriate, as the only source of truth claims.


7 thoughts on “How We Know What We Know

  1. Speaking as a scientist, I don’t buy this statement: “Thus arises the pervasive but utterly insincere “skepticism” of the academy and the classroom.” The three sources of knowledge Willard identifies—authority, thinking, and experience—are all alive and well within my academic circles, and there is a constant cooperation and tension between them that, if Willard experienced (ha!), would apparently make him quite jealous. Is this Willard critiquing the narrow subset of academia with which he is familiar, or is he just resorting to the “science=bad” argument many religious scholars think is necessary?

    As for Mormons: I think you’re right on a certain level, Tim. If you’re going to be a (for lack of a less harsh word) lazy Mormon, one of the easiest routes is to cling to experience and ignore the other two—just as a lazy Evangelical will cling to Biblical authority. On the other hand, you often make the argument that Mormons are too beholden to their religious leaders (i.e., Authority), so I think you have to make some adjustments to your accusation: lazy Mormons cling to Authority and Experience for their truth claims, to the detriment of Thinking.

    But the reason I make the distinction lazy Mormon is that—and I’m not speaking about or against Evangelicalism here, since I don’t know how it works there—is that Mormonism allows a lot of freedom on individual thought. Now skeptic will say, “Oh c’mon, the LDS Church dictates your underwear and what you drink in the morning—how is that ‘freedom’?” And that’s true: there’s a lot of restriction on behavior. But Mormons are allowed a huge range of thought on theology—including wide-ranging views on why there is a restriction on drinking coffee, the origin of that underwear we are “forced” to wear, all the way to the nature of God himself.

  2. Just for background info: Willard is a Philosophy professor at USC. He speaks more on skepticism in other parts of the book.

    He’s by no means a “science=bad” religious scholar.

  3. I like Pascal on this subject, a bit more concise than Willard:

    “245. There are three sources of belief: reason, custom, inspiration. The Christian religion, which alone has reason, does not acknowledge as her true children those who believe without inspiration. It is not that she excludes reason and custom. On the contrary, the mind must be opened to proofs, must be confirmed by custom and offer itself in humbleness to inspirations, which alone can produce a true and saving effect. Ne evacuetur crux Christi.[I Cor. 1. 17. “Lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect.”]


  4. I don’t believe the average Mormon believes their religion for any fundamentally different reasons than does the average Evangelicals. I, with Pascal, think custom and the experience gained through customary practice is the primary factor for their continued faith as well as the inspiration received through that practice.

    Does anybody think Mormons rely on inspiration or custom more than Evangelicals in either creating or maintaining their faith?

  5. I don’t see any substantive difference either. Certainly within each of the two camps there’s a wide variation among individuals in how we approach integration of experience, reason and so on. But on average? I haven’t seen it.

  6. I think the reliance upon custom/tradition, authority/scripture, and experience is prevalent among all religious groups, not just Mormons and Evangelicals. Most folks are whatever religion their parents raised them: “cradle-to-grave, right or wrong”. I would venture to say that, for these people, knowing what they believe is sufficient for their needs.

    There are other folks who are so set against relying upon scripture, custom, and experience that they refuse to believe anything that can’t be rationalised, explained, categorised, and tagged.

    Somewhere in the middle is the happy medium. I do believe it is important to be thoughtful about your religion. To ask questions and seek answers, through logic and reasoning, as well as custom and scripture. But I also think that there are some things that we just aren’t going to quite get in this lifetime, and that is when it is totally okay to say, “Hey, you know, I don’t really know why, but I’m going to do it anyway, and when I die and talk with Jesus, I’ll ask.”

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