Knowing and Seeing
Knowing and Seeing
Do you recall the first time you learned a particular skill, such as long division or playing the piano, or a particular sport—say, skiing? You once labored to stand in your skis without falling over and then to balance while inching ever so slowly down a ten-foot bunny slope. You watched in awe as your gorgeous ski instructor demonstrated a turn and how to stop. But soon your body becomes aware of your instructor’s kind advice (“shift your weight”), the feel of your skis moving over snow, your growing sense of ease. Before long “you get it” and you’re flying down a run with the freedom of a five-year-old!
Or, do you remember when you first really took notice of your spouse-to-be or a dear friend? Once, they were a name, a face, and shared information, but seemingly overnight their smile brings you a delight you had not known in their company before, and their eyes disclose a part of you that you had not seen. They are significant because they are made in God’s image, but now you assign a particular value to them. Suddenly you see them in a different light, and you yourself are different in the light of this awareness.
The Scriptures reveal to us such a view of knowledge as well: Our knowledge of God, our world, and ourselves is relational and very human. We do not know mere propositions “out there”—for example, “God exists”—for to know this truth necessarily implies some sort of relationship with the subject. We are persons in relation to other persons, and we know subjects in relation to other subjects. Christian philosopher Esther Lightcap Meek explains, “Knowing involves statements, but it doesn’t mistakenly divorce those statements from the knower who is affirming them…. Knowing is, at its heart, an act. To act is to live, embody, knowledge. The act of knowing is a profoundly human one. And it is a struggle toward coherence.” 1
For instance, the thermostat in my office controls the temperature in a few of my colleagues’ offices. Typically sometime after noon my colleague Peggy buzzes me, “Miz Danielle (yes, she’s from Georgia), it’s hot down here.” Normally this knowledge would elicit a certain response in me, but today I smiled to myself and simply responded, “Yeah?” So after a few moments Peggy filled in the blank: “Uh, could you turn the thermostat down a bit?” I replied, “You just showed me how knowledge is relational…and yes, I’ll go take care of it.” Do you see the point? When Peggy communicated, “It’s hot down here,” she assumed that this statement of fact would have a direct bearing on me: knowing this will cause me to get up and turn down the thermostat. When I merely mused, “Yeah?” she sensed that I “didn’t get it,” so she spelled it out for me—“Could you turn down the thermostat?” She assumed that such knowledge would engage me and move me to action.
God speaks through Hosea to make this very point: “My people are destroyed from lack of knowledge. Because you have rejected knowledge, I also reject you as my priests; because you have ignored the law of your God, I also will ignore your children” (Hosea 4: 6). What is this knowledge that they lack? God tells us in verse one, “There is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgment of God in the land.” Certainly the Israelites believed that God existed, that He was their sovereign and their provider. However, their beings belied a different reality, for the Scriptures demonstrate that such knowledge of God should properly lead to loving, obeying, and entrusting ourselves to him. We respond in this manner when we assign a particular value to a relationship. Indeed, it is interesting that the Hebrew word for “knowledge” is identical in both verses, but the NIV renders it as “acknowledgment” in verse one, suggesting that though the people may have had some knowledge of God, they didn’t recognize the significance of his relationship for their lives. If you will, they didn’t quite “get it.”
Jesus’ comments on the knowledge of God are equally sobering. He declares in the Sermon on the Mount, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matthew 7: 21-23, emphasis mine). This is a difficult passage, yet clearly Jesus warns us that cognitive ascent to a true statement—“You are Lord”—or an ability to perform miracles does not constitute truly knowing him.
Moreover, several chapters later Jesus underscores that knowledge of him involves an intimate relationship; in the parable of the ten virgins he is the bridegroom coming for his bride (see Mt. 25: 1-13; cf. 9:15). Five virgins were wise, yet five were foolish because their awareness of the bridegroom’s return did not move them to act upon this knowledge until it was too late. They are shut out of the wedding feast. Significantly, Jesus’ response through the bridegroom’s voice is almost identical to his remarks in Mt. 7: 23: “I tell you the truth, I don’t know you” (Mt. 25:12, emphasis mine).
“Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves,” writes John Calvin in the opening chapter of his Institutes. He argues that we know only as we know God, and we come to know God as we in turn gain knowledge of ourselves through his Word and the work of his Holy Spirit in us. Such knowledge is relational and reciprocal. Do you see? It’s not just that we know, but that we are known and live in the light of this awareness. And one day, “we shall see face to face;” we will know fully, even as we are fully known (1 Cor. 13: 12).
Danielle DuRant is research assistant at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries
1 Esther Lightcap Meek, Longing to Know: The Philosophy of Knowledge for Ordinary People (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2003), 57, 73. She makes this argument relying partly upon the work of philosopher Michael Polanyi and John Calvin. My descriptions of someone learning to ski and assigning value are drawn upon her similar illustrations of knowledge—what she calls “human acts of knowing”—as being relational and integrative.