Grace on June 22nd, 2015

knowing

How do you know?

How do you know that you know?

How do you know that you know that you know?

The bemusing yet essential questions of epistemology have been around for thousands of years. In her book, A Little Manual for Knowing, Esther Lightcap Meek addresses those questions gently and accessibly. Meant to be a guidebook for those embarking on “knowing ventures”, each short chapter culminates in a series of introspective questions to assist thought and application.

What does it mean to gain knowledge? For most of us in this age of information, knowledge is simply an accumulation of facts, but Meek spends the 100 pages of A Little Manual debunking this assumption. Although she agrees that knowledge often involves amassing information, she goes deeper into the reality of human knowing with the intention of convincing us that there is more to knowledge than data. Ultimately, she claims that knowing requires love, commitment, and creaturely gratitude in order to come full circle and bear fruit. While information-driven knowledge is about control, love-driven knowledge invites and receives reality as it is. “We must be willing to have it change us,” she urges. Unless there is an element of trust and commitment to the yet-to-be-known, we’ll miss the reality of the thing– gaining a mere cursory idea of it or projecting our own expectations onto it. We’ll be the proper hearers of T.S. Eliot’s question: “Where is the life we have lost in living? Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”

Meek borrows heavily from the philosophy of 20th century polymath Michael Polanyi, especially his theory of tacit knowing. Like Polanyi, she claims that much of our focal concentration is rooted in subsidiary awareness. Subsidiary-focal integration, or SFI, encompasses the core of a knowing endeavor. Skills like playing the piano exemplify SFI: you can’t play well if you focus entirely on your finger movements, for instance. Your fingers are part of your subsidiary awareness. When you begin to learn piano, your fingers are at the forefront of your concentration, but as you learn to control them, they take on the habit of correct posture and movement and allow you to shift your focus to the music. Similarly, as we learn in other ways, we integrate the focal and the subsidiary in a way that drives us closer to the heart of a subject. What begins as focal knowledge passes to subsidiary, where we can “indwell” it like our own bodies. Once-foreign concepts become presuppositions. “Coming to know proves to be a process of moving from looking at to looking from, in order to look beyond,” writes Meek.

She’s currently a successful writer, professor of philosophy in Pennsylvania, and Visiting Professor of Apologetics at Redeemer Seminary in Dallas, but Meek remembers being in middle school and wondering how we can know when we’ve achieved knowledge. It’s a question that has plagued epistemologists for centuries, and maybe those epistemologists all started out as confused middle-schoolers. Meek’s explanation of how we know when we’re in contact with reality involves a complex term: Independent Future Manifestations; which just means a sense of unfolding possibility. “When you learn to ride a bike,” she told Ken Myers in an interview for the Mars Hill Audio Journal, “the world opens up to you in bikish ways.” When reality points you to more reality, that’s how you know it’s real. That moment of epiphany is empowering. Meek goes beyond that first connection, though. She encourages knowers to retain the wonder of epiphany throughout life as we continue to pursue understanding.

The necessity of retaining wonder requires us to see knowing as an exercise of love and invitation of the yet-to-be-known instead of a harvest of empirical facts. The first method is a pursuit of peace and living along-side; the latter is about power. And when we’re seekers of power, we are unwilling to allow our contact with reality to transform us. We take but do not give. Meek compares healthy learning to a dance: a give-and-take relationship between knower and known. We cannot strive for dominance or we’ll never achieve virtuosity. As creatures, we live inside a reality that has much to teach us, and often our most useful tool is acknowledgement of our own ignorance. 1 Corinthians 8:2-3 points this out: “If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.” The proper focus is always on being known, rather than knowing; on approach rather than arrival. Meek speaks of reality in these terms when she says, “Rather than fitting into our sense of what makes sense, it fits us into its sense of what makes sense.”

A Little Manual for Knowing delves deep without drowning the reader. Only a centimeter thick, it’s essentially the layman’s version of Meek’s opus, Loving to Know. In that substantial work, the concepts of A Little Manual are detailed more thoroughly. But for those who don’t have time or fortitude for over 500 pages of epistemic philosophy, this thin manual delivers the core ideas. It is passionate and enthusiastic: highly unusual qualities in this field! Sometimes Meek waxes too eloquent and becomes gushy, and there are too few citations even for laymen, but I enjoyed Meek’s crash course in loving epistemology and I recommend it or Loving to Know for anyone interested in expanding his understanding of understanding.

Further reading on wisdom, tacit knowledge, and Michael Polanyi, try this post.


HannahB on May 26th, 2015
To all college graduates: There are multiple paths going different directions from which to choose from. Also, what we do after college matter just as much as what we do in college. What will you do now?
Grace on May 13th, 2015

miles and miles of rainy road
roll before me like Venetian canals

I have nothing but choices:
how to steer, how to think in the clouds.

laudate, how to praise.

highway medians and swollen plains
lie bunched and spongy, receiving all that falls.
I pause- – – to teach myself trust

in the green-soaked evening
I make my own happiness

and I become the blackbird at rest
sitting in a tree with closed wings,
dripping wet songs

receiving all that falls.

damp pines


BethM on May 9th, 2015

Linking up this week at Velvet Ashes {The Grove}, where this week’s conversation centers on re-entry.

At Kasana, there is plenty of moving. People come and go; foreign staff leave and return from furlough; houses are built and their occupants are shuffled to various locations at various times. In the Ugandan English of this place, it’s called “shifting.” I shift from one house to another, from primary site to secondary, from one living situation to a new one. And now, I am preparing to shift again—from Uganda to America.

It’s a big, scary shift. One I intended to make next year, but which now faces me a bit sooner. God is working great peace in this…peace I could never generate from myself. There’s a difficult uprooting and transplanting wrapped up in every transition; this one just happens to have many thousands of miles in between the two.

Re-entry is looming. And more than that, the inevitable exit that precedes the ability to re-enter. Already, I feel I have stepped into the no man’s land of cross-cultural work—the place in between, the world suspended between two worlds, the distinctly unglamorous stretch of time and space wherein my feet can’t quite plant themselves anywhere and truly belong.

And the unique challenge of re-entry will always be that it involves returning to a place where I am supposed to belong. I’ve got a navy blue U.S. passport, supportive friends and family stateside, and “y’all” is sprinkled liberally through my vocabulary—surely I belong there, in Austin, Texas, U.S.A. But the roots of my soul run much deeper than passports and dialects, into the earthy places of cross-cultural friendships and open markets and multilingual worship and small fingers wrapped around grubby crayons. It’s strange to think that very soon, I will arrive at a place that purports to be my home—that is, in fact, my home—and yet feel placeless.

“May Christ in our marrow carry us home,” I put at the top of my entry just a few months ago—sweet words from a song by one of my favorite artists. I fall back often on that benediction: may Christ, dwelling in the deepest part of my soul and yours, bring us safely to our true home. The home I can’t buy a plane ticket to or from; the home I am created to desire, feeling somewhat placeless in all others.

I hope that the transitory struggles of both exit and entry will be continually brought into the light of this grace. And in the meantime, I’m seeking to live deeply in these weeks—flour-covered baking with David Family ladies, crazy pot-hole bus rides with my Institute class, shared meals and movies with the staff members who have become such dear family to me, even the simple wonder of looking up under a canopy of stunning stars on a clear night or breathing the scent of fresh tropical rain on dirt roads. Large and small, these are the things I know I will miss when they are no longer part of my daily routine. I don’t want to miss them now.

And so the process of “shifting” has already begun, and will likely continue for some time. It’s not a thing that can be easily rushed. Grace abounds in these days. Jesus is present here, as he is present in Austin Texas and present in every step of my journey between, from Doha to Barcelona to New York City. And if He uses this great shifting, this exiting and re-entry, to pull me closer and more deeply into the great home of His heart…then I can’t imagine a greater journey.

“The grace of God means something like: ‘Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are…. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you.'”
(Frederick Buechner)

My support page has been updated to reflect that I am no longer seeking additional financial support for my time in Uganda. If you’d like to know more, I’d like to talk to you! Be free to shoot me an email at [email protected], or we can arrange to connect more personally when I’m back in the States.

Grace on March 14th, 2015

yellow grass curls and straggles its way to the sky
as do I.
in a way, I long to follow the hawk lifting on borrowed air
but I do not know where he is going
and I care; I have to walk very straight and narrow
because no one is flying there.

one way trail