KNOWLEDGE


Robert Dabney once argued for a classically educated ministry on the basis that …

‘…the modes of thought, the opinions, which constituted the human environment of the New Testament writers, the accurate understanding of which is so necessary to grasp the real scope of what they wrote, all these were the familiar, popular, contemporaneous knowledge of (an) intelligent mechanic in Ephesus. He had imbibed it in his daily observation, reading, and talk, as easily and naturally as the mechanic in Charleston has imbibed the daily facts about current politics, cotton shipments, familiar modern machinery, or domestic usages. But to us now all this expository knowledge is archaeological! It is gained accurately only by learned researches into antiquity.’

Understanding the conventions of the ancient world as well as the average illiterate laborer of the time would have, requires hard work, and when this sort of contextual knowledge is absent, it is almost inevitable that scripture will be misunderstood. In traditions that encourage everyman to recreate the ancient (!!) faith whole clothe from the bible, using only their own limited understanding, all sorts of screwy ideas end up binding consciences.

I came across some arguments for the house church movement; and they reminded me of Dabney’s point.

Apparently, traditional sacred architecture is the result of Constantine’s sinister influence. This is asserted not with historical evidence (which would require some degree of historical knowledge), but on the basis that it necessarily follows because the primitive church met in homes, and worshiping in homes means gathering around a coffee table or with a group small enough to fit in a living room.

Clearly traditional church buildings and their use are an obvious departure from this straightforward, domestic and intimate ideal.

There are a lot of anachronisms on display here. Chief among them is the conflation of the modern nuclear family with a household of the ancient world. Today’s homes are designed to house Dad, Mom and their 2.5 kids. In contrast a Roman household included extended family and many servants.

Roman houses followed a standard layout. We have many, many examples.

A small vestibule (for that is what it was called) led to a large rectangular room that was open to the sky. In the center of this courtyard-like room (known as the Atrium ), a shallow pool collected rain water. Around the perimeter were doorways leading directly into smaller rooms, but across from the outside entrance to the Atrium was an extended square shaped, raised area that was named the Tablinum. There was no wall between the Atrium and the raised Tablinum, and the latter served as the Head of the Household’s study and the formal reception area for visitors.

There is a virtual tour here, but if you wish to experience this sort of architecture, there is really nothing like it in modern America… except for a traditional church.

The Eastern Church keeps the ‘Atrium’ clear to this day, and the saints stand in worship as they did when the Apostles first ministered from the raised Tablinum many centuries ago; the West has added pews.

I’m not pointing out the misconceptions so as to show up the one who introduced them. I know he is sincere, and zealous for the truth. Nor am I making some point about how churches ought to be arranged. Rather, I’m interested in showing that the anachronisms are simply there, that the proponent is blind to them. I’m pointing out that if this happens with something as mundane as houses, then what of all those ideas, metaphors and rituals that are removed from us by a few thousand years?

Setting aside the question of whether or not such a thing matters (it doesn’t too much), which tradition ends up with a place of worship that would look familiar to the apostles?

‘Wisdom and virtue are not found in mastering desire, but in the maturing of desire.’

Carey Ellen Walsh (Exquisite Desire) points to the difference between classical responses to desire and the account of desire in the Song of Songs.  Using Odysseus and the Sirens as an illustration, she notes how this scene reveals the Greek instinct that desire “harbors danger by rendering its victim under its spell.”  To counter desire, one needed to (more…)

Ran across this helpful quote from Walter R. Thorson of the Dept of Chemistry at the University of Alberta. He brought Polanyi’s thinking  to bear on Hebrews 11:1: Good stuff.

“Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11: 1). Familiar as this verse is, we tend to let it roll smoothly off our tongues rather than think carefully about what it says, which at first seems either very surprising or else nonsensical. To retranslate: “Faith brings to substantial, actual realization things that are at first only hoped for; it creates a clear and convincing focus on things we cannot yet see.”

The first half of the sentence sounds perilously close to the view of some five year-olds that “if you believe in something hard enough it will come true,” and the second half sounds like “if you believe in something long enough, after awhile you will be quite sure about it.” We laugh at this-because we all know just how silly we should be to trust such naive maxims. Cheer up; the writer of the letter to the Hebrews is no five year-old. Yet I never really felt intellectually satisfied about this text until Michael Polanyi showed me what it really means by describing just how this principle functions as the dynamic element in scientific discovery (oddly enough, he never seems to have referred explicitly to this remarkably appropriate text.)

To make it clearer for all us academics, here is a third, technical rendering: “the indwelling of a true theory by persons responsibly committed to it leads functionally to the eventual manifestation and confirmation of realities which at first are only vaguely intimated, or but poorly perceived.” If you read Personal Knowledge, you will find a thoroughly fascinating account of precisely this remarkable phenomenon. I referred in an earlier talk to the story of the Copernican revolution, which illustrates the principle very well. For those who were committed to it, the Copernican hypothesis provided an integrating vision of the heavens; it was only within the framework of such commitment that previously unanticipated elements could be brought into clear focus, and the relevant activities conceived and sustained, which ultimately brought the truth of that vision to its full manifestation. For more than 150 years until Newton’s laws of motion were discovered-it could not be said convincingly that the factual evidence confirmed the Copernican, and refuted the Ptolemaic, view. Yet during that long period faith in the validity of the Copernican hypothesis sustained a chain of labors which finally vindicated it.

The point, of course-one to which the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews is very sensitive-is that manifesting a hidden truth in hostile or indifferent circumstances is a laborious, time-consuming, and costly business, and one will not be able to sustain the effort required, unless he really is committed to a serious belief that the reality in question exists. In my own career as a theoretician I have experienced the validity of this principle in several specific problems, where belief in the existence of a certain type of solution to a physical or mathematical problem provoked imaginative responses or new insights, and sustained long periods of laborious and often fruitless search until at length one line of work ended in success. I am sure many others of you have also had similar experiences.

Of course, our Scripture text about faith takes it for granted that what is being believed in is true. It is certainly not saying (as the five-year-old does) that faith as such produces results, but that it is faith which sustains fruitful activities, when it is directed toward valid objects-and, without such faith, even a true theory remains barren and ineffectual. Again, it is partly for this reason that we must entertain of any serious theory that it is potentially true. In science, as in religion, I hope there is none among us who really believes that “to travel hopefully is better than to arrive;'” as C.S. Lewis acutely said, “If that were true, and were known to be true, who would ever start out upon a journey?”

It would be very fascinating if we had time to think a bit about spiritual and intellectual hope. According to our text, “things hoped for” are antecedent to faith, and perhaps we could infer they are in some manner stimulants to faith.

“Hope” in the New Testament does not mean wishful thinking, but a strong sense of anticipation of unheralded and certainly unspecifiable possibilities. Spiritual hope is not ultimately directed toward a seen object (“hope that is seen is not hope”); it is properly and ultimately hope in God.