Musings of a Grateful Convert– Things That Don’t Matter Anymore, Episode 2: Epistemological Consternations

In our second installment of this series, I am addressing a topic that is near and dear to certain of us Western-Civilization-dwellers who are given to an incessant compulsion to worry about “whether we really know” something. Know “what”? Anything, really; but especially things that are concerns of the mind, which is where we seem to dwell.

I am referring to “Epistemology”, a branch of philosophy that investigates the origin, nature, methods, and limits of human knowledge (cf. OnlineDictionary.com). In other words, what can be known and how do we know it?; and, how do we know that we know it; and, how do we know that we know that we know it; and, how do we ….? OK, I know what you’re thinking–”What a head trip”.

Nonetheless, typical “Western” thinking obsessed with “knowing” things, analyzing, exhaustively understanding, solving mysteries, wrapping our brains around concepts, and whatever other endeavors we can torture ourselves with. Of course, and again in the typical Western approach, we are accustomed to assuming this can be accomplished via our mental faculties, with perhaps a little help from available philosophies (and maybe yoga, brain food, and some self-help videos).

The problem with all this as I see it is that our minds can bounce around from one viewpoint to another and never really be sure of what we “know”; plus, our mental capabilities can be really fickle. I used to wrestle with the wondering of “What does God think of me?” During this epoch of my life, I was suspicious of Christianity’s apparent pat answers, since so much of the doctrine I was brought up with seemed “fuzzy” and indeed open to multiple interpretations based on the scholar at hand. I had no basis for believing even myself.

Eventually, I found out there are other ways of “knowing”. In his remarkable book, The Mountain of Silence: A Search for Orthodox Spirituality, Kyriacos Markides puts forth the idea that there are three ways of “knowing”: a) through scientific or logical undertaking; b) through philosophical contemplation, and c) through spiritual enlightenment. This last one is difficult if not impossible to define or describe, but it can be seen in a number of examples ranging from shamanism to the Christian understanding of the Greek NT word referred to as the nous, or the “eye of the soul”.

In my study of the English word for “knowledge” or “knowing”, I found not less than eleven Greek words that deal with this topic. This reminds me of the dearth of English words for “Love”, so here’s the scoreboard:

Word — Number of words: Greeks/American English
Love — 3/1
Knowledge — 11/1

Hmmm… Little wonder a bunch of those guys excelled in Philosophy!

Anyway, it would be far to voluminous and ambitious an undertaking to exhaustively go through this topic, but suffice it to say that the Christian religion emphasizes the importance of connecting the concept of “knowing” with two major things: 1) Obedience to God and 2) Participating in the Sacraments (The Holy Mysteries).

On the first point, Obedience to God, Christ Himself said that “If anyone is willing to do His will, he will know of the teaching, whether it is of God or whether I speak from Myself.” (John 7:17, New American Standard Bible),’

On the second point, Participating in the Sacraments, we get a glimpse into this from the account in Luke where, after the Resurrection of Christ, Antipas and Cleopas were walking on the road to Emmaus and were unwittingly accompanied by Christ, who explained a whole lot about the Scriptures’ pointing to the Christ who was to suffer and subsequently be raised from the dead.

But they didn’t realize the significance of all this — they didn’t know — until they got to Emmaus and Christ broke the bread and gave thanks (evcharistia in Greek): “He was recognized by them in the breaking of the bread.” Luke 24:35.

And so it is in the Church from the time of the Apostles to this very day, when after the Holy Mystery of Communion is served, the Church sings the hymn with these words, “We have seen the True Light, We have received the Heavenly Spirit, We have found the true Faith….”

This hymn gives us the opportunity to truly remember — re-enact (anamnesis) — that holy encounter on the road to Emmaus. And more to the point of this blog, it gives us a foothold — a knowledge — of Christ, through the participation in this Holy Mystery where we have a physical contact with the Eternal.

No more head trips. This is how I explain the disappearance of the ancient (for me anyway) contemplation: “ I wonder what God thinks of me”. As I participate in the life of The Church and in the Holy Mysteries, I am Strengthened and encouraged in my Faith, and the epistemological consternations and other mental acrobatics have receded into that realm of the unimportant.

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