Did You Know?

1) In our Greek Orthodox Religion, is God more important than Jesus Christ, or is the reverse true? 2) Who created God? (Interesting article: "How Man Created God," Time magazine, Sept. 27, 1993, based on the book "A History of God," by Karen Armstrong) 3) As regards the seven Ecumenical Councils accepted by the Eastern and Western Churches, why and how should 318 MAN Bishops (1st Ecumenical Council) profess the view that Jesus Christ was the "same substance" with the Father, be considered Orthodox?

A. These three questions are interrelated.  In thinking about how to respond, it would be possible to start with any one of them and then go to the others.  But before them all is the fundamental question of knowledge itself; knowledge of this world and knowledge of divine things. 

      So, today's column will address the basic question "How do we know anything?"  Then, we will begin addressing the question regarding knowledge of divine things.  Next week we will discuss divine knowledge more in detail.  In subsequent columns we can then turn to the questions above.

The Value of Knowledge

      "Knowing" is important to human beings.  To "know" is to have some idea about how things are, and consequently to be able to deal with reality appropriately and effectively.  For example, to "know" that it is raining makes it possible for us to dress appropriately.  But to "know" is also perceived by most people as good in itself, whether we can immediately use the knowledge or not.  What we "know" forms us, gives us a view on the world, influences our character, contributes to civilizing us, and is worth having for its own sake.

How Do We Know...Anything?

      But, how do we know anything?  There are several ways that we can come to some knowledge about things.  These are: intuition, deduction, inference, experiment, experience and revelation.  Intuition is the direct and unmediated perception of some condition or reality.  All of us experience intuition some times.  We feel strongly that some situation "speaks directly to us," and our "gut feeling" conveys knowledge and conviction to us.  The truths expressed by poets and artists are often arrived at intuitively.  The problem with intuitive knowledge is that it is difficult to share effectively and convincingly with others.

      Deduction is the rational (logical) process we use to move from an accepted proposition to a new affirmation on the basis of logical principles of reason, called syllogisms.  Drawing on our logical abilities we reason from one premise to another.  "A is twice the size as B; C is twice the size of B; therefore A and C are the same size."  But this form of knowledge is also difficult to apply in practice because we cannot always take into account all possible factors.

      Inference is a looser way of coming to knowledge about something by noting apparent common points, and making assumptions that are not strictly logical but carry with them a semblance of plausibility.  It is three o'clock in the morning and you drive by an appliance store.  You see the front door of the store open and you see men moving appliances from the store into an unmarked truck.  You infer that a robbery is taking place.  So you call the police.  It is a good inference, but, of course, there could also be another explanation:  the owner had to make an early morning delivery to a far-away customer, but his own business truck is needed for other deliveries first thing after opening.  We all use inferences and often they are right, but sometimes they are not.  Yet, on the basis of inferences, we function in a practical way from day to day.

      Experiment is a method by which people test ideas about how things happen or how they are in themselves.  We call these ideas "hypotheses," which are assumptions about how things work based often on the previously discussed ways to knowledge.  An experiment is a way of testing a hypothesis.  Repeatedly verified hypotheses - provided the conditions of the experiment are the same - provide us with "scientific knowledge."  But new conditions, or new hypotheses, can overturn "old scientific knowledge" and replace it with something else.  Yet, some experimentally based knowledge is (almost) universally recognized as true knowledge.  However, all scientific knowledge is held tentatively, as subject to change.

      Experience is also an important way of "knowing."  We say, "You don't really know what it means to (fill in the blank), until it has happened to you."  To "know" what it means to be a mother is to experience it.  Until then you have some idea about it, but you don't really "know" it.  Different people will "know" the experiences described by others, precisely because they too have "experienced them."  But it is also likely that their "experiences" are not exactly the same, and thus their "knowledge" is not the same either.

      Revelation is a way of knowing something when someone tells us what we could not otherwise know.  When you go to the doctor he asks you how you feel.  You "reveal" to him your aches and pains.  Or, you may reveal your innermost anxieties to a psychiatrist or your sins to a priest.  The listener depends on the accuracy of what is said on the trustworthiness of the person who reveals it.  Someone could lie to you or deceive you.  So you use some of the other means of knowledge mentioned above to assess the trustworthiness of the person who reveals something to you.

      The point is, of course, is that we can "know" many things, but our "knowledge" is never absolute, regardless of the means that we use.  We may have a working knowledge of some things without knowing them fully.  In all likelihood, most of our knowledge is precisely like that.  Absolute knowledge is probably impossible.  Yet, we have enough knowledge in most cases to understand our situation, make decisions, create new things, plan for the future, and function in a reasonably stable way.  For example, to drive a car you don't have to know all the details of how an internal combustion engine works.

How Do We Know About...God?

      We know about God pretty much in the same ways that we know about other things, but the mix and emphasis is different, precisely because some of the methods are more applicable and some are less applicable to the reality of God.

      Take the experimental method, for example.  It is an excellent method to knowledge about physical and material things.  Physics is, we say, "an exact science."  But the experimental method gets into trouble and less accurate when it seeks to deal with less measurable, tangible and experimentally controllable realities.  For example, it is impossible to verify that all the factors in a psychological experiment have been repeated in another experiment.  The repeatability of the experiment can never be verified.  As a result, the probability of accurate knowledge in a psychological experiment is much reduced.

      Similarly, it is impossible to put God into a test tube, or control "divine variables" for any kind of human experiment.  The experimental method is not as useful, yet it is not useless either.  A form of the experimental method, in a limited way is, indeed, one method we can use to come to knowledge of God.


In effort to help both our faithful and those who are curious about the faith to expand their knowledge we will be sharing a weekly passage from the book "Orthodox Christian Beliefs: Real Answers to Real Questions from Real People" by Stanley Samuel Harakas.
 
 
 

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