I write to mark a milestone and to commend to you an old book: my first philosophy book, Longing to Know: The Philosophy of Knowledge for Ordinary People (Brazos, 2003), has reached its twentieth anniversary. Although two decades have passed, the book continues to be relevant to our affairs in ordinary life. This is a pitch for (re)reading it and sharing it with others.
Longing to Know explains how we know—how knowing works in all areas of our lives. Our lives are a tapestry of acts of coming to know: cooking, gardening, raising children, self discovery and calling, business, athletics, education, neighboring. The book considers the specific matter of whether we can know God.
Despite that life-wide tapestry of knowing, we don’t usually stop and think about the knowing itself. But there are always experiences which prompt us to do so; and at those points questions of knowing can somehow strangle us. My experience is that this inevitably happens for anyone considering Christianity (and that includes most of us). If you are being asked to believe something is true, you have to come to grips with the nature of truth. And belief. And doubt. And certainty. And this just is the domain of philosophy of knowledge, or epistemology. This is what Longing to Know addresses.
Philosophical matters shape you whether or not you have ever had a philosophy course. It only matters that you are a human. That’s why I always try to write for all of us. And it’s why I got into philosophy in the first place: it bears on and integrates every corner of life. Whether you realize it or not, you live out an implicit philosophy with everything you are and do. It deserves to be attended to.
Without your realizing it is philosophy, it can well be that you sense that something is amiss. That’s my story: around age thirteen, I found myself raising a couple of disconcerting questions. One was, how do I know that God exists? (This was a real problem for a child whose family practically lived at church.) The other was, how do I know that there is anything at all there, outside my mind?? I felt that there was one thing alone that I could be certain of, and that was my own ideas in my own mind. And just because of what they were, they directly blocked me from getting outside to see if my ideas were true.
You are welcome to laugh; how comical, for example, that this thirteen-year-old felt certain of the ideas in her own head! How sad that she doubted the real. But I venture that you resonate with this odd skepticism. You do, because you have been marked by the implicit but dominant outlook of the Modern Age.
Once I figured out that my issues were philosophical, and once I found out you could actually study philosophy, and once I did so, I found that my outlook just was the vision which forged modernity at its inception in the 16th century—that of Father of Modern Philosophy Rene Descartes. I had never actually heard it in a sermon or a class. It was in the water.
I came to realize that it is in the water for everybody. We’re all dealing with epistemological wreckage. What was in my head in some way is in everybody’s in this era. Helping people first to see it and then to heal it became my mission in life; I don’t imagine I will run out of work to do.
Marked by the modern mindset as we are, many solutions we propose only perpetuate the mindset. Our distorted presumptions about knowing remain intact, even if they don’t add up or even reflect what we are actually doing when we know.
There’s another complicating feature of our modernist legacy: it is also anti-philosophical. Modernity exalts utility, learning for its practical payoff. There’s a Christian version of the antiphilosophical as well: many believers set the spiritual in opposition to the philosophical. As a result, we moderns are particularly uninitiated with respect to the very healing we need.
The modern mindset continues to mark Christendom. Missiologist Lesslie Newbigin was famous for his service over decades in India. When he retired and returned to his home in Britain, he found that the West was no longer his home milieu. It was his profession to consider how to communicate the Gospel across cultures. Now he found he needed to do that for the modern West.
Newbigin posed that something was stopping the ears of people in the West, so that they could not even hear the Gospel. He posed that that ear stopper was defective modernist epistemology. Newbigin threw down a gauntlet: sharing the Gospel—even with ourselves!—requires healing epistemology as preevangelism. (–Not that the Holy Spirit needs help! But he does use faithful service rendered.) Longing to Know picks up that gauntlet, offering an epistemology which makes profound sense of our Christian experience, which is itself an implicit apologetic. The church remains in large measure in need of working out these matters.
Twenty years downstream, across our culture other sides of the modernist paradigm of knowledge have manifested. Readily accessible information with little or no anchorage in the real. Readily spinnable and even constructible “information.” The unreasoned exaltation of certain voices and narratives, such that others are deemed to produce “false facts.” The destructive forces of power and commodification endemic to the modernist approach to knowing run even more rampant. The tarring of Christendom with this toxic pitch. Confidence in knowing is utterly in question, at stake with fires licking at its base. Or having already engulfed it.
As is obvious, and as my childhood questions made clear, the matter of knowing has everything to do with our contact with reality. Over the intervening years since 2003, many people who had been concerned to have certainty in knowing now only wonder if the real is there at all. Or style themselves as not even caring whether it is. Many people are cut loose from any mooring—even with respect to their own identities. We moderns live out a kind of refusal to consent to the real. We distrust the real. Modernity’s defective epistemology devalues and effectively blocks the real, severing us from it.
Healing one’s epistemology is just what it takes to reconnect us to the real—and even to trust it, even to splash about in it exuberantly. For the real is that which manifests itself so abundantly that it doesn’t answer our questions so much as explode them. In the moment of integrative insight, reality walks in and takes over. The moment I pick out the copperhead against its leafy background on the woodland floor is such a moment. I submit to the pattern as a token of reality. The moment I figure out how to balance on my bike is the moment the world begins to open to me in so many possible bike paths. The moment I understand the Gospel is the moment my life is transformed. Coming to know Christ is aptly typified in the Emmaus account (Luke 23): the disciples’ eyes were opened in the breaking of the bread.
In 2003 the author of Longing to Know had herself not yet come to trust reality. But the text’s own reorienting witness to the real has gradually done its work. I now affirm with confidence: we human persons were made to be lovers of the real; we were made for communion with the lively real.
Twenty years downstream, with a modernist mindset only growing more strident, Longing to Know speaks strategically to critical philosophical matters permeating our lives: knowing and reality. Entering in to its proposals can bring philosophical healing that impacts your business, your golf game, and knowing God.
In honor of “Longing to Know Turns 20,” I invite you to (re)read it, with a friend or friends. Then sign up to join the author for a live virtual conversation.
Season of Lent
Esther L. Meek, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Geneva College, as well as a Fujimura Institute Fellow Scholar. Her books include Contact With Reality:Michael Polanyi’s Realism and Why It Matters; A Little Manual for Knowing; Loving to Know: Introducing Covenant Epistemology, and Longing to Know: The Philosophy of Knowledge for Ordinary People.
 In this Newbigin tapped the insights of scientist and philosopher Michael Polanyi, whose ideas about knowing I have incorporated into my proposals.
 Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1989). David Kettle, Newbigin’s successor in the Gospel and Our Culture Network, argued explicitly that modernist epistemology has domesticated the church. He called our time the Winter of Western Christianity. (Western Culture in Gospel Context: Towards the Conversion of the West (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2011).
 “Twenty Years of Longing to Know: Interview with Michael Gordon and Jon Dunning,” https://www.estherlightcapmeek.com/ltkturns20.html.
 Find details and contact info at www.estherlightcapmeek.com.
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