What is Knowledge?

Description:

Do we, the disciples of Jesus, possess through Scripture and other means a reliable source of knowledge of reality or do we not?  We have seen that this is an important question. The possession of knowledge—especially religious and moral knowledge—is essential for a life of flourishing.  To answer this question we must, first, answer another question:  What exactly is knowledge and what does it mean to say Christian teaching provides it?  Let’s begin in earnest and see if we can find an answer to this second query.

Knowledge Defined

Here’s a simple definition of knowledge:  It is 

to represent reality in thought or experience the way it really is on the basis of adequate grounds

.  To know something (the nature of cancer, forgiveness, God) is to think of or experience it as it really is on a solid basis of evidence, experience, intuition, and so forth.  Little can be said in general about what counts as “adequate grounds.”  The best one can do is to start with specific cases of knowledge and its absence in art, chemistry, memory, scripture, logic, and formulate helpful descriptions of “adequate grounds” accordingly.

Three Important Clarifications about Knowledge

Please note three important things.  First, 

knowledge has nothing to do with certainty or an anxious quest for it

.  One can know something without being certain about it and in the presence of doubt or the admission that one might be wrong.  Recently, I know that God spoke to me about a specific matter but I admit it is possible I am wrong about this (though, so far, I have no good reason to think I am wrong).  When Paul says, “This you know with certainty” (Ephesians 5:5), he clearly implies that one can know without certainty; otherwise, the statement would be redundant.  Why?  If I say, “Give me a burger with pickles on it,” I imply that it is possible to have a burger without pickles.  If, contrary to fact, pickles were simply essential ingredients of burgers, it would be redundant to ask for burgers with pickles.  The parallel to “knowledge with certainty” should be easy to see.  When Christians claim to have knowledge of this or that, for example, that God is real, that Jesus rose from the dead, that the Bible is the word of God, they are not saying that there is no possibility that they could be wrong, that they have no doubts, or that they have answers to every question raised against them.  They are simply saying that these and other claims satisfy the definition given above.

Second, 

one can know something without knowing 

how

 one knows it

.  If one always has to know how one knows something before one can know it, one would also have to know how one knows how one knows something, and so on to infinity.  Life is too short for such lengthy regresses and, thankfully, we often just know things without having any idea how we do.  Thus, a person could know he or she has experienced the presence of God without being able to tell a skeptic how he/she knows this.  When Christians claim to know this or that, they are not saying that they always know how they know the things they do.  For example, many Christians have had experiences in which they 

knew

 that God was guiding them in a certain way, but they may not have been able to say exactly how they knew this.  Now, it is often the case that some in the Christian community—for example, experts in New Testament studies or philosophy—do, in fact, know how we Christians know certain things.  But it is not necessary for the average believer to have this information before they are within their rights to claim to know God is real and so forth.

Finally, 

one can know without knowing

 tha

t one knows

.  Consider Joe, an insecure yet dedicated high school student, who is about to take his history final.  He has studied thoroughly and knows the material, but when a friend asks him if he is prepared for the test, he says, “no.”  In this case, Joe actually knows the material, but he doesn’t know he knows it.  Thus, he lacks confidence.  Today, cultural elites in the media and university tell us that we cannot know that God is real, etc.  As a result, while many Christians actually do know various things relevant to Christianity, they lack confidence because they do not know that they have this knowledge.

Three Kinds of Knowledge

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