For the last post in Nick’s series on the “Syntax of Salvation,” click here.
“What counts is not so much our knowledge of God as God’s knowledge of us. That is the syntax of salvation.” (Richard Hays)
I arrive at last with my concluding reflections on being “known by God.” I note one final implication (though so many more could be adduced beyond the scope of my limited imagination!) of taking seriously the theological reality that in Christ God knows us—and moreover, that this divine recognition is more fundamental that our knowing of Him (Galatians 4:9). We know God, because He first knew us. It turns out that being known by God is spun out of the same fabric that the gospel clothes everything in:
“This observation applies not only to the verb to know, but also to the verbs to choose, to call, to love, and so on; we choose, call upon, and love God because he first chose, called, and loved us. Such constructions highlight the grace of God and promote the appropriate human response of humble gratitude.” (Brian Rosner, “Known By God,” p. 223)
In this last post I want to consider the epistemological implications of human beings being known by God. Western culture has bequeathed us—ever since the Enlightenment—a tragic heritage of what I will label “bottom up” epistemology. That is, we take as our default mode the assumption that all real, genuine knowledge of the world, of reality, and (perhaps) of God must begin with our experience or reason. “I think, therefore I am” (Descartes) has morphed into a holistic worldview that has inflicted spectacular consequences–spiritually, socially, pyschologically–upon those of us who have grown up in the modern West. The resulting reinterpretation of human cognition and existence has been so catastrophic that very few people even pause to consider whether an alternative way of knowing is even possible, let alone preferable.
One irony of the postmodern reaction to modernism is that, at the end of the day, the two idealogies are found to be kissing cousins who just pose as enemies for the cameras. In spite of all their radical (surface) differences and disagreements, both operate from the foundational premise that any and all genuine human knowledge—if it exists—must start with our subjective awareness and individual perception of the world we find ourselves in. All “truth” must subsequently be built upon that initial foundation. Modernism and postmodernism are thus both examples of pure, unadulterated “bottom up” epistemologies. Postmodernism is just more consistent, in the same way that laying down despairingly and waiting to die of dehydration when hopelessly secluded in a massive desert is more consistent than futilely digging for a drink of water under the layers of hot sand. Either way, you come to the same end. It’s just that the postmodernist didn’t have to endure all that bothersome existential angst to get there. Plus, there were all those cool, trivial movies to watch along the way on Netflix.
It is my passionate conviction that a truly Christian epistemology is antithetical to both modernistic certainty (i.e. foundationalism in academic parlance) and postmodernistic skepticism. Both are essentially atheistic and inevitably godless, and they bear their fruit accordingly. And such were some of us—but we were washed, we were sanctified, we were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God, who opened our eyes to truth and beauty not through our cleverness but through His mercy. A full-blown, worthy-of-the-name Christian epistemology is an unapologetically “top down” way of knowing that begins with God’s revelation, not human reason. It takes its cues first and foremost from what God speaks, not what fallen humans think. And given an epistemological starting point not in the world but in trinitarian communication, it makes sense that such a state of affairs would exist, for in the wisdom of God the world has not known God through wisdom. Given the existence of the Christian God, it is reasonable that reason is not supreme. As Leslie Newbigin prophetically pointed out over and over again in his life and writings, consistent Christians must begin with the gospel story, and look at reality through Jesus—not vice-versa, as our cultural intuitions are so prone to do:
“The affirmation that the One by whom and through whom and for whom all creation exists is to be identified with a man who was crucified and rose bodily from the dead cannot possibly be accommodated within any plausibility structure except one of which it is the cornerstone. In any other place in the structure it can only be a stone of stumbling.” (Lesslie Newbign, Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt and Certainty in Christian Discipleship)
At the end of the day, this Christ-centered story of creation, fall, redemption and consummation makes far better and more satisfying sense of the universe we find ourselves in—and our conflicting experience of it—than any other rival competitor on tap. The gospel has, as J. B. Phillips mused, that unmistakeable ring of truth to it. If you’re curious for more on this, go read Newbigin…and follow up with Calvin (Institutes) and Edwards (Religious Affections or “A Divine and Supernatural Light”) on the role of the Holy Spirit in a thoroughly Christian conviction and knowledge of reality.
As for being “known by God,” what if in place of our Cartesian foolishness we substituted this: “I am known by God, therefore I am”? One seemingly devastating objection the enlightened may bring to my suggestion (inspired by Rosner’s work) is that such a view can never be empirically, infallibly established or known. Of course, that only holds true if one has already accepted as valid modern presuppositions about what conditions must be met for certainty or how true knowledge is attained. And my point is that we shouldn’t even accept those rules for playing the game. Let’s take our ball and go to another field and play by the real rules–no cheating over here. Oh, and the postmodernists are right: nothing can be known with absolute empirical, indubitable certainty anyway within the confines of a “bottom up” epistemology. So there’s that, too.
Rosner draws out a further implication of being “known by God”, in view of the intense contemporary debates over what constitutes human identity and personhood. As many of you are familiar with, a number of influential ethicists today try to define “being human” with reference to varying levels or degrees of self-awareness or personal consciousness. This is why, of course, abortion can continue to be morally justified in the public square, even in the face of mounting scientific evidence that there is no essential, inherent difference between fully-grown adult human beings and an embryo at its earliest stages. In fact, the best pro-choice proponents no longer argue on biological grounds that fetuses are not human; rather, they argue on philosophical grounds that they are not “persons”—which follows logically once “persons” are defined primarily with reference to their own subjective awareness. This is “bottom up” epistemology with a vengeance.
How would a “top down” Christian epistemology deal with the endless complexities of personhood in the womb, with severe disabilities such as Down’s Syndrome, with those elderly who are in the worst throes of Alzheimer’s? Listen to Rosner’s wisdom:
“…the notion of being known, ultimately by God, may have something to contribute to modern debates about the status of a person in various conditions. If being human means having the capacity to know, then the embryo, the severely mentally-disabled and the person in a persistent vegetative state, for example, fail the test…[there are] a growing number of Christian ethicists who lament the modern tendency to define personhood in terms of concsciousness and self-awareness. If being human is fundamentally to be known, a case for the human status of the aforementioned may more readily be mounted. To illustrate, I have two friends whose twelve-year old son is profoundly disabled. The boy is deaf and blind and, to put it bluntly, by Descarte’s standard we can only make a marginal case for his status as a person. To those who have met him, however, it is obvious that his being depends not on what he knows, but rather on the fact that he is known by his parents. Their loving interaction with him, attending to his needs and drawing out his responses, give him a secure and meaningful identity.” (Brian Rosner, “Known By God,” pp. 228-29)
St. Paul, of course, gets the last word in this series:
“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…Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.”
God be praised for His indescribable gift in Christ.