What is knowledge? Is it a dry, mechanical, one-to-one correspondence between a statement and the reality it represents?
If you have OCD or have recently left a controlling religion, you may be wondering, "Can anything be known?"
In her book, Longing to Know, Esther Lightcap Meek explores the possibility that knowledge is more than propositional facts that match reality. Perhaps knowledge is more like a 3-D stereogram puzzle of the 1990s.
As a child, I often patiently stared at Magic Eye puzzles, a collection of lines and dots that supposedly contained a 3-D picture. To see the image, I had to follow the words of an authoritative guide, the puzzle directions. Over time, these words taught me how recognize the body sensations and miniscule eye muscle focus changes that would lead seeing the picture. Finally, I succeeded in encountering a reality greater than words can describe, a 3-D picture. Eventually, my eyes learned how to follow the instructions naturally and to access the knowledge more quickly and automatically.
The puzzle’s dots and patterns are absolutely integral to the image itself. Preserving the pattern is critical, since changing the pattern of the dots changes my ability to see the image.
At the same time, reducing knowledge to the dots themselves shortchanges the viewer. A theory of knowledge that eliminates the possibility of knowing God in anything but a verbal way shortchanges the believer.
Scripture is essential to understanding Jesus. But if all you know of God is a logical, literal reading of the morphemes and graphemes, you have lost a large part of reality.
Words are critically important, and we must maintain accurate words of doctrine in order to be faithful to who Jesus is. But Jesus himself acknowledged that the words of Scripture point toward a living reality. In John 5:39-40, Jesus rebuked the leaders who reduced reality to words on a page: “You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me! Yet you refuse to come to me to receive this life.” NLT
Jesus wants us to use the words of Scripture to encounter His Reality. The word for “knowledge” in Colossians 2:2 indicates a rich synthesis of varied factors of our lives. Jesus supports us as we reach across the range of our varied experiences, emotions, facts, and Scriptural truths, seeking to synthesize them into a coherent and understandable whole.
In the process, we approach reality and knowledge like a 3-D Puzzle.
Jesus is our wise guide. We need wise guides to help us interpret reality. Esther explains that an X-Ray technician teaches us how to interpret splotches of light and darkness, and an experienced music teacher helps us learn how to move our muscles to produce a clear tone. Without these guides, we would be left to our own devices. At best, we’d be like a toddler trying to spot shapes in the clouds. We would not truly know the meaning of what we see, hear, feel, or read.
Trust grows as our guides consistently interpret knowledge in helpful ways. Ultrasound technicians who know how to treat our symptoms generate confidence. Auto mechanics who repeatedly fix our cars help us believe that they are interpreting reality correctly.
In the same way, God’s track record over history shows that he is a trustworthy guide. His view of reality has safely guided many saints to fulfillment and success (see Hebrews 11). He has been accurate in his predictions throughout Biblical history. We can trust that when we struggle to interpret life, our Wise Guide can provide accurate answers about reality.
He trains our senses to interpret reality.
Like an X-Ray technician who trains the medical intern to understand what she’s seeing, God trains our feelings, senses, and minds to understand and access truth.
Some branches of Christianity repeatedly discard feelings as a valid reflection of sensed reality, and others dismiss the mind as a valid tool for accessing truth. In reality, both need to be trained by Christ to accurately perceive the world.
The poetry of Scripture demonstrates that logic alone is not enough to convey a 3-D view of God’s reality. God uses words as powerful tools that work in concert with emotions and feelings to truly depict reality.
In Leo Tolstoy’s philosophical experiment, “A History of Yesterday,” the author attempted to write down every single thing that happened the previous day. But he soon discovered that it was impossible. In the process of describing a single 24-hour period, he got waylaid. He tried to give context, explain relevant facts, and detail each event that happened to him. After twenty-four hours of writing, he had only recorded the events of yesterday morning. Eventually, he gave up the endeavor.
A dry, blow-by-blow account of a day’s detailed events can’t truly convey what it was like to live through that day. It’s philosophically impossible to create a comprehensive account of even one hour. Even a blow-by-blow, unedited video can’t truly replicate lived experience.
True artists use videography, words, painting, and poetry to capture the thoughts, feelings, body sensations, aromas, memories, and embodied reality of a lived moment. Words can evoke reality, and artistic words do the best job of communicating a 3-D reality.
When writing the Bible, God employed artistic forms to communicate his reality. Poetry and song are featured into God’s self-expression. Knowledge is more than verbal, mental assent.
Just as emotions factor into God’s expression of knowledge, they also factor into our reception of knowledge. Our mind, will, and emotions work together to create a rich, 3-D understanding of reality. We need God to train our emotional sensors, just like we need a music teacher to train our perception of pitch and timbre.
We don’t throw out our mind as an avenue of knowledge, just because we made a mistake with our minds. We don’t eliminate the will just because we made an error in judgment. In the same way, we don’t need to eliminate emotions just because they sometimes lead us astray. Instead, God needs to inform our mind, will, and emotions so that we can sense a rich understanding of reality.
We embody his words. As we obey Jesus’ commands, we repeatedly live out his words. As we do, we sense how real they are. Living in his commands, we perceive that they truly align with reality.
Jesus himself said, “Anyone who wants to do the will of God will know whether my teaching is from God or is merely my own.” (John 7:17, NLT) If we live in and embody his commands, we will sense that they are true. Doing God’s word “works” in a deeply satisfying way.
Arrive at a knowledge even greater than words can describe. However, knowing God doesn’t stop at dry, methodical adherence to his commands. Playing the piano does not stop at plunking out each note correctly. And learning a language is more than parsing every word accurately.
I remember a Biblical Greek course that I took in college. The instructor was ruthless in requiring memorization of every verb tense and every definition of a word—in order. We learned to define every word in a text. Yet we came away with no synthesized view of how to speak or understand a Greek friend. Our knowledge was limited to rote knowledge, not a flowing, 3-D understanding of the language.
We could look at the words, but we couldn’t look through them to a holistic familiarity with the language itself or the people who spoke it.
We’ve all experienced times when we forget the big picture as we focus on details. A pianist whose body knows the essence of the music freezes up when their mind hyper-focused on the notes in the middle of a concert. Google Translate can understand every word in a string of foreign words without understanding the sentence.
In the same way, knowing God is more than reciting every doctrine about him. Details are important, but they’re not the whole picture. Like seeing a 3-D puzzle, knowing a language, or learning an instrument, we must see through the particulars to the reality beyond them. As we do, we will see the beauty of a powerful, patient Father who loves us more than words can tell.