Two Ways of Knowing

 ◊  Saint Charles Lwanga and Companions, pray for us

I want to record an email conversation that occurred between a friend and I back in late February. My spiritual director reminds me to listen—or rather take my own advice—to what I say to other people. This seems particularly germane to my current sense of lostness.

From David:

Epistemology is something I think about from time to time: How do we know what we know? The scientific method is pretty trusted in our world, as are the five senses. Of course, we know that neither of those avenues to knowledge are infallible; nonetheless, we have to rely on them for practical measures, and unless someone is in a philosophy class, he or she will likely never question either avenue.

My question is, do you think faith is another way to know things? I’m specifically thinking of verses like 2 Cor. 5:7, which says “live by faith, not by sight”.

My reply:


Give the following four objects to a kid and tell him to sort them into two groups: a baseball, a basketball, a bat, a hoop.

Some kids will group the baseball and basketball together and the bat and hoop together based on shape or external properties. Some kids will group the baseball with the bat and the basketball with the hoop based on functionality.

Take another group of words: religion, technology, science, magic.

[Note the two senses of the word magic. There is magic as in magic tricks, which is entertainment of illusion that attempts to deceive or misdirect the senses in believing something that is not real. And there is magic as in magic spells and potions (i.e. alchemy), which are attempts to manipulate things and people. It is this second sense of magic that is implied.]

Many people will group religion and magic together against science and technology. Maybe it is because of the culture and the media’s use of the terms. Maybe it is because of a presumption of science’s ability to solve problems and its use in developing technology. Maybe it is due to the demotion of magic to illusion or fantasy and the unprovableness of religion.

But from a functional point of view, religion and science should go together because both are forms of knowing. This makes more sense when you group technology and magic together because both are forms of control—controlling nature, controlling our environment, controlling the things (or people) we want. People easily see technology this way, but they forget that was the exact same reason people in the “old” days looked toward magic.

The big assumption made by both science and religion is that there exists patterns in the universe. The evidence is overwhelmingly obvious. Science might say that the human mind evolved and religion might say that the human mind was made, but both agree that the human mind can reason and can know (recognize) these patterns of the universe. (Technology and magic are means to manipulate that pattern for our control over it.)

Science and religion are two ways of knowing. They do not mutually exclude each other but rather compliment each other. Science is good at knowing the material world, but it is not good at answering questions of a philosophical/spiritual nature. C.S. Lewis’ devil Screwtape called us amphibians—half animal, half spirit. The material and spiritual do not exclude each other but compliment each other.

There is a short scene from the movie Red Planet that illustrates this:

Chantilas: [Suppose] we just finished poisoning the earth and everyone was dead in a hundred years. Then what was the point of anything? Art, beauty—all gone—the Greeks, the Constitution, people dying for freedom, ideas. None of it meant anything? What about religion? Do we give up on God too?

Gallagher: You didn’t just give up being a scientist one day, did you?

Chantilas: I realized science couldn’t answer any of the really interesting questions. So, I turned to philosophy. I’ve been searching for God ever since. Who knows, I may pick up a rock and it’ll say underneath, “Made by God.” The universe is full of surprises.

How can we “know” the answers to the really interesting questions, like why are we here, is there meaning to life, etc.? Are there patterns to be observed in the universe to help answer these questions? Can we know and reason about any of these questions? Well, does not posing the questions in themselves point to the fact that we can know and reason with them?

Science “sees” and explores the patterns. Religion must sense the patterns through other means. All of which might help explain the quote from Scripture, “live by faith, not by sight.” Faith is a little like a blind man seeing in the dark.

What do you think?

David again:

First of all, thank you so much for that response. It is pretty much exactly what I needed to hear.

I’ll go ahead and explain where my question came from. I was teaching the teenage bible class at my church this past Wednesday night, and we were talking about the verse I mentioned. As I was asking the kids what they thought it meant to “live by faith”, I remembered my philosophy teacher in college (brilliant man, btw: studied at Oxford, a fantastic Christian apologist) saying that the weakness of rationalism is its refusal to acknowledge that there are other ways to know things besides plain ol’ logic. The way I remember it is that the Divine has its own system of revelation and being understood.

So I told those kids that I thought the verse meant we could know things a third way. But even as I said it, I wondered if I still believed it as I had in college. …

I really like the grouping task you suggested, particularly because I like to say that magic is proof our senses are not infallible: seeing doesn’t mean believing. Lately, too, I’ve been thinking some about trying to explain why people love each other and do kind things for each other. Christianity, of course, has something to say about that, and of course some scientists do too, with their ideas on how natural selection encourages selflessness, as do anthropologists with their sociological explanations. Actually, I shouldn’t say I’ve “lately” been thinking about this—I’ve been thinking about it since I first heard the issue posed in college.

Finally, then, I must say I totally agree with you: Yes!!

And to finish, my reply:

“…weakness of rationalism is its refusal to acknowledge that there are other ways to know things besides plain ol’ logic.” — God is transcendent. If you take the idea of transcendence, then the nature of God is obviously above the nature of the material universe. Push the idea of transcendence further, then God is also above our images and words and concepts about Him. In other words, God is above our knowledge that uses images and words and concepts. But that does not mean we can not know God. You hit the nail on the head with the example of love—if one has an experience of true love, he or she “knows” the other person beyond words or images or even concepts. Poetry and literature and art are attempts to convey that knowing.

I have been listening to a series on the 12th century mystic St. John of the Cross. He calls it “dark knowledge” of God. Not that it is knowledge of darkness or evil, but rather that it lacks the light from our words and images and concepts. It is a knowing without knowing. Everything in the world says that you don’t know, but you do. St. John of the Cross is the one famous for the concept of the dark night of the soul, where as one approaches closer in union with God, your senses and your images and words become in affect blind or darkened because God is beyond your senses and images and words. It feels like a dark night.

Hmm…reminds me of what St. John of the Cross said, “God refuses to be known except by love.”