Knowledge: A very short introduction
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Need to Know: Vocation as the heart of Christian
John G. Stackhouse
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Between Vision and Obedience: Rethinking theological
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
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
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
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
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
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.