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What you think and what you know

09 January 2015

John Saxbee considers a philosophical debate relevant to theology

Knowledge: A very short introduction
Jennifer Nagel
OUP £7.99
Church Times Bookshop £7.20 (Use code CT251 )

Need to Know: Vocation as the heart of Christian epistemology
John G. Stackhouse
OUP £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £18 (Use code CT251 )

Between Vision and Obedience: Rethinking theological epistemology
George Ille
James Clarke £25

IF YOU want to know about knowing or to think about thinking, you are an aspiring epistemologist. Here is a trio of books to help you on your way.

The first is a recent addition to Oxford University Press's burgeoning list of Very Short Introductions. Jennifer Nagel is an established Canadian philosopher who is in obvious command of her subject, and writes with admirable lucidity.

What is the difference between just thinking that something is true and actually knowing that it is? How are we able to know anything at all? These are the kind of questions she addresses, and, beginning with the ancient Greeks, she traces a wide range of options on offer. Sometimes philosophers seem to be deliberately making difficulties, and in such cases she makes a pitch for common sense. But, overall, she scouts the territory as a neutral who leaves us to decide for ourselves what it is that we can and cannot justly claim to be knowledge, truth, or right belief.

One of Nagel's conclusions is particularly relevant to those for whom scripture is fundamental to their faith: "whilst testimony is an important topic in epistemology, it is doubtful that it will work as our starting point."

Another Canadian academic, John Stackhouse, addresses these issues from a specifically Christian perspective. His fundamental premise is that if God calls us to certain tasks, e.g. caring for creation, tending orphans and widows, spreading the gospel, and winning converts, then God also equips us with the knowledge that we need to fulfil that vocation - but on a strictly need-to-know basis.

We are, indeed, to love God "with all our mind", but that does not mean that, if we do, our minds will therefore encompass all that there is to know. Knowledge has an instrumental function geared to what God is asking of us, and is God's gift to us accordingly.

The opening chapters cover many of the issues identified by Nagel as central to epistemology, but with an emphasis on tradition and revelation as resourcing our knowledge, alongside experience, scholarship, and art. Intuition, imagination, and reason are means whereby we have access to knowledge. Christians are to use them alongside the above "pentalectic" of resources to ensure that we do, indeed, know what we need to know in order to fulfil our vocation.

Stackhouse's Evangelical perspective ensures that what we think we know remains "a decidedly uncertain foundation for faith". If, however, we make the right choices about how to interpret scripture, weigh plausibility versus credibility, assess insights from our social context, and evaluate so-called "authorities". we can "improve our situation for better Christian thinking".

A final case-study recounts how Stackhouse came to support equality of the sexes in church-leadership positions by applying these principles. When society treats patriarchy as normative, it is difficult to commend a gospel predicated on equality. So God kept Christians in the dark about his equality agenda, because it was better for them not to know that if they were to fulfil their evangelistic vocation. But now that social norms have moved the other way, we need to know God's non-patriarchal preference so as to ensure a hearing for the gospel in today's world.

This has the merit of allowing what some call "the spirit of the age" to inform Christian thinking, and so avoids obscurantism when it comes to revelation and tradition. But it does so at the expense of God, who knows the truth, and yet selectively conceals it from the faithful, thereby inhibiting their prophetic challenge to unjust structures and prejudices. Surely God should and does know better!

George Ille's book is a much more demanding read. He describes it as "a unique take at tracing the contours of a theological rationality freed from both modern and post-modern hermeneutical anxieties". Those anxieties basically amount to modern reductionism and post-modern relativism when it comes to knowing what is really real. People are being destroyed from lack of knowledge of both God and the world, and it crucial to Ille's thesis is that "the two cannot be really separated". This is a key observation, because it means that true philosophy (i.e. love of wisdom) must take account of creation, redemption, and pneumatology, lest epistemology be reduced to a merely human construct.

If this point is conceded, then knowledge is not just a matter of accumulating information. It is also about obedience to God's will as revealed in the words of scripture and in the Word made flesh in Jesus Christ.

The book is in three parts. The first follows Paul Ricoeur's hermeneutical journey, and the second Hegel's speculative one. The final part engages with a wide range of philosophers and theologians from both the Continental and the analytic traditions. The overall aim is "to bring hermeneutical philosophy/theology in direct confrontation with Trinitarian theology with the specific purpose of evaluating the present state of theological rationality".

Ille attempts to bring together the philosophical and theological dimensions of Ricoeur's writing, even though he acknowledges that this goes against Ricouer's own intentions. But it is necessary, because without a proper vision of God a genuine re-enchantment of the world remains unconvincing. Philosophy entails "duties of the mind", which have to be radically informed by God's Trinitarian action in and towards the world. Unsurprisingly, Ille finds Hegel more amenable in this respect.

While this juxtaposition of Ricoeur and Hegel is innovative and intriguing, Ille's emphasis on the "unrelenting presence of divine agency in the world in both its ethical and epistemic dimensions" feels more like a presupposition than a conclusion.

Both Stackhouse and Ille have been influenced by Alvin Plantinga and the approach known as Reformed epistemology. It may be significant that this approach emphasises the epistemic value of religious experience as the antidote to the sterile stand-off between rationalism and empiricism which Nagel instances as characteristic of so much modern and post-modern epistemology.

Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.

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