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.
“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.