Tag: God

Alētheia, 2

I have said that “truth” is a person—namely, Jesus Christ. But there is more, I think, that can be said about this. Taking cues from Heidegger, I understand alētheia as denoting “disclosure.” The noun alētheia is actually the negated form of the verb lēthō, which means something along the lines of “to be hidden” or “to be outside one’s notice” (e.g., see Mk 7:24). But when “a-” is put in front of lēthō, the opposite is meant, namely, an un-hiddenness. If lēthō means “closure,” then a-lēthō (or simply, alētheia) means dis-closure. The word alētheia, or “truth,” then, means to take something that is veiled or hidden and un-veil or un-hide it. At its most fundamental level, “truth” is the uncovering of that which is covered, it is the revealing of that which is hidden. This is what truth is in everyday life. When a person “tells the truth,” they disclose reality. That is, they show what is, in fact, the case. Suppose, for example, that an archeologist comes upon an ancient, mysterious (but very beautiful) object. The scene is at first confusing, perhaps even perplexing. But after years of research, the archeologist discovers the truth—the truth about the object, who made it, where it came from, its significance, etc. When we say the archeologist “discovers the truth” about the object, what we really mean is that the archeologist un-veils the mystery; he/she reveals and un-covers the reality of the object (e.g., that it was crafted in the Bronze Age). “Truth,” therefore, is an un-veiling, an un-covering, and an un-hiding.

And this is the essence of the person of Christ. The one true God is revealed, unveiled, and disclosed in Christ. When Jesus says in Jn 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, the life,” it is in the context of showing the Father: “If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him” (v.7). Phillip begs to see the Father, and Jesus’ reply is telling, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Phillip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (vv.8-9). To know Jesus is to know God.

Moreover, Jesus is the picture “of the invisible God” (Col 1:15). As Gadamer has taught us, all pictures have the essence of presentation—i.e., they image-forth. This is their mode of being. He says, “A drama really exists only when it is played, and ultimately music must resound (T&M, 115).” I wonder if there is not a parallel here? Just as sound cannot be separated from the essence of music and just as performance cannot be separated from the essence of a drama, so also is Jesus the very real presentation and revelation of God to the world. Indeed, it is through Christ that the divine drama is being revealed, disclosed, and unveiled. Why? Because Jesus is Truth.

“We Know in Part”: On the Limits (and Comforts) of our Way of Knowing

Human beings are knowers. That is, our mode of being—i.e., the manner in which we go about life—is that we come to know things. What things? Everything—things like people, objects, TV shows, the color of that dress, what this blog post is about, etc. But in order to know these things (and anything, really), we must interpret. No matter the person, everyone is engaged in interpretation. All of life is interpretive. For example, we are always interpreting other people (“What are they saying with that facial expression?”); we are always interpreting TV shows (“What was the ending of LOST all about?”); we are even at times interpreting the color of dresses (“Is that dress gold or blue?”); you are even interpreting this blog post (“What in the world is Matthew saying?”).

Thus, you are an interpreter. Your entire life is interpretive, and through interpretation, you come to know things. But what can you know? I believe that people can have confidence that they are able to arrive at truth about the real world. You can surely know, quite reasonably, things about other people (for example, their likes and dislikes; what makes them happy or sad). Moreover, you can know that the moon exists or that there is a computer (or smartphone) screen in front of you or that there is a chair in the middle of the room (if indeed there is one). 

But it is important to say one thing about our ability to know these things: We don’t know things completely and objectively; we don’t know things as they totally are.

Now, this might be confusing, but let me explain. Let’s suppose I have an object sitting in front of me, say, a big square box. Now, since I’m sitting on the couch across from this big square box, I wonder to myself, Can I see the box in its completeness? The answer, of course, is no: I cannot see the box in its entirety. That is, I cannot see it completely. The reason is because I am only looking at the part of the box facing me at the moment (and of course part of the sides of the box since it sits a bit diagonally across from me). But make no mistake, I cannot see it completely. Moreover, by not being able to see it completely (all of the sides, including the top and bottom at the same time), I also cannot see the box objectively (at least in the purest since of the word). That is, I can’t see the entire object, which I call “the box.” How come? Because I, as the viewing subject, am looking at the box from a certain angle, namely, from the west side of the room where I am sitting on the couch. Thus, I do not, strictly speaking, see the box objectively or completely. Echoing St. Paul, I know the box only in part (1 Cor 13:9).

A further illustration is in order. Suppose I’m standing on the northwest corner of Fifth and Main. Looking across the busy intersection, I witness two cars wreck into each other. I observe, as it were, two cars collide. But I only do so from a specific angle or vantage point, namely, the vantage point of the northwest corner of Fifth and Main. Did I see the wreck completely or objectively? No, for my encounter with the object (the wreck) was actually only partial and subjective. Make no mistake about it, though: Even though I could not see the object of my observation (i.e., the wreck) completely and objectively, it doesn’t follow that there never was an actual wreck or actual cars or actual people driving the cars. Thus, I don’t think I need to say the wreck’s happening was somehow contingent upon my observing it. (Relativism is not a necessary consequence of what I’m saying here.) At any rate, I can know there was a car wreck, just not from a God’s-eye point-of-view. Rather, I witness it from a human’s-eye point-of-view. Why? Because, well, I am a human.

I happen to think that all of interpretation is like this, for we all have angles from which we interpret, whether car wrecks or biblical texts. We each have an angled-view, or rather a worldview, from which we come to know things—all things, in fact. It’s nonsensical to suggest otherwise. But let’s suppose I do suggest otherwise. Suppose I say, “I can know the big box in the middle of the room completely and objectively. After all, I can get up off my couch and walk to the other side of the room and look thusly. If I do this for every possible angle (a tiring enterprise, I suspect), then I can see the entire box as it is—completely and objectively.”

In response to this, I concede that one could perhaps do this (given enough time and perseverance), and it would appear that as a result one could “know” something objectively and completely. However, on closer analysis I’m not so sure. For at the very moment you get off of the couch and observe the box from a decidedly different angle is to, at the same time, leave your previous point-of-view and substitute it for another. It is at this point where your view of the box is still a “point-of-view.” In fact, with each and every point-of-view, you are moving as it were through space (not to mention time) and viewing the object differently in each case. This does not do violence to the realism of the object, but it does necessitate a change in how you come to know the object and in your perception of it (perhaps you discover, for example, that the other side of the box is colored pink—thus, your horizons of knowledge about the box is enhanced and broadened. That is, you learn something new). Similarly, as you go for a walk in the park, you can only see (and hence observe, interpret, and know) that which is in front of you. Your viewpoint is always angled in this way. Even if you were to turn around and look behind you, your looking behind is, once more, angled. In short: You cannot ever know things fully and completely at the same time and same place; you cannot know things without a point of view. You are not God, after all. Your knowing is always provisional in this sense because you are a humble human.

Personally, I find this whole thing frustrating (finitude is never comfortable). But never mind that, for it is the reality of what it means to be a human—that is, a human being. And this, as a result, is part and parcel of what it means to be finite—not just in regard to mortality but also our knowability. Just as I cannot be in more than one place at one time, so also I cannot know something without knowing it from just one place in one moment of time. The German philosopher, Hans-Georg Gadamer, encouraged us to take our own historicality and finitude seriously; that is, according to him we ought to allow it to come to bear upon our knowing and understanding things. Thus, while we can know truth and the real world, we can only know it partially. This, I think, accords well with traditional religious conviction, especially of the Christian sort. If one were to insist to Paul that our knowability was infinite (i.e., “God-like”), I suspect he would respond to such a proposition with a mē genoito.

As a committed theist, not to mention a Christian, this approach is arguably the humble one, for it accounts, as I have said, for our own human finitude (a fairly important aspect of Christian doctrine). The Enlightenment encouraged us to pride ourselves on reason, with some strands of the movement going so far as to say that we can know things as they are (a strong positivism, we may call it). Ever since Descartes, we don’t like anything that whispers even a hint of uncertainty. But the Christian tradition arguably takes exception to such claims. A Christian epistemology, it seems, would imply a less proud approach to what, and how, humans know—namely, that what we know, and the way we know, is only in part. (Descartes rolls in his grave at such a suggestion, but let him roll.)

Moving on, this idea I have expounded on above has, I think, ramifications for Christian belief and praxis. Perhaps there are some pastoral implications as well. As a pastor, I find myself in constant engagement with hurting people—with death, interpersonal conflict, doubt, and questions about life and life’s difficulties. Like most pastors, I sincerely want to offer hope and help people. (Seldom, though, do I ever end the day thinking I’ve done a good job on this; there is always one more person I could have visited or called or counseled or prayed with; hurt is everywhere, at least since Eden’s gates slammed shut). That said, some of the hurts that people experience are, sadly, unanswerable. Unfortunately, there is no repository of theological-pastoral answers from which I can draw and hand them to my people for a quick and easy fix (hasten the day for when Eden’s gates fling open!) Moreover, for someone who hates overly-tried and obnoxiously-tired clichés and platitudes, I find myself using them even on myself. Unfortunately, pastors are not immune to suffering. I, often enough, go through times of hurt and pain, too. Such self-inflicted clichés take the form, more or less, of the following: “I’m not sure why there is evil and suffering in my world, but I know there is a reason.”

Ugh. Psychologically, I find such words unsatisfactory.

But I wonder if I should reconsider. I mean, even though this is psychologically unsatisfactory, could it not be philosophically reasonable? There’s nothing unreasonable, after all, about the idea that just because I do not know something completely and objectively (namely the answer to why there exists evil and suffering) that it follows there is no complete and objective answer to the question itself. Personally, again, I find my limits to what I can know frustrating; but I wonder if there is not, upon closer consideration, something comforting about these limits? Let me explain.

Just as I would not want to deny that there is a box in the middle of the room merely because I cannot see it completely and objectively, so also I do not want to deny that there is an answer to the question of evil and suffering just because I cannot, completely and objectively, know it. In some ways, I reckon it’s at least possible that precisely because I can’t discern a complete and objective answer to the question of evil and suffering, that such provisionality itself grounds the idea that there is indeed an objective and complete answer out there. In much the same way, I suspect it is not unreasonable to suggest that, precisely because I can observe a square box (however partially) from a particular angle is due to the corollary fact that there does, indeed, exist a whole object in the middle of the room. Likewise, my provisional understanding of how, and why, suffering exists is, perhaps, due to the fact that there is a larger answer somewhere out there. At the very least, I don’t think this idea is outside of the realm of possibilities.

We may question the color of the dress from person to person as to whether it is gold or blue, but it seems altogether unreasonable to question whether there is a dress at all. We know in part precisely because, perhaps, there is a whole. We may not know the whole thing, but it doesn’t follow that it isn’t known or at any rate knowable by Someone. It is not unreasonable, then, to trust in the One who knows things fully and completely—whether it be the real existence of dresses or the real existence of real answers to our own very real suffering.

“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. So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

(1 Cor 13:12-13 ESV)

A Greek Word You Need to Know: θεός

The New Testament writers put to use a wonderful language, Koine Greek, for the purpose of conveying the redemptive plan and will of God in Christ. The New Testament, therefore, centers around the activities of God himself (and so does the Old Testament, obviously). So, I thought for this installment of “A Greek Word You Need to Know,” we would check out the word θεός.

1. θεός – theosYou pronounce it “theh-os.” The “o” in theos is pronounced like the “o” in “ox” (not like the “o” in the English word “over”). The word simply means “God” or “a god.”

2. The word θεός is found all over Scripture. In fact, the word (in its various forms) occurs over 1,000 times in the New Testament. Some places of note include: Matthew 1:23; John 1:1-2; Rom 3:21; 10:2-3.

3. Why should you know this word? Because it’s the word for God, who, as we said above, remains the central figure of the entire Bible. That said, it should be carefully observed that the word itself, θεός, is a generic word to describe any sort of deity (or deities if in the plural form, θεοὶ). In fact, the Bible itself does not restrict the word θεός to refer only to the God of the Bible but also to pagan gods (for example, see Acts 14:11 and Gal 4:8).

However, the θεός of the Bible, described as the One True θεός, has been revealed to us in the person of Jesus the Messiah. In other words, if you want to know the true God himself, then get to know Jesus, who is God enfleshed (John 1:1-4, 14). This is a central tenet of Christian theology, a belief which sets us Christians apart from our Jewish and Muslim friends.

Speaking of “theology,” I’m sure you were quick to notice that this English word comes from the Greek θεός, theos. Cool, eh? I guess by learning a little Greek, the English speaker gets to know their own native language a bit better!

On God, Proof, and Knowledge

by Matthew Halsted

When it comes to debating the “existence of God,” one of the preliminary questions that needs to be addressed is, What does proof look like in a debate like this? In other words, How can one display evidence or “prove” that God does (or does not) exist? Below are a few of my musings on this question.

I think we need to define what we mean by “proof.” When that word is used, there is often the implied idea that it entails a type of certainty. For instance, most people tend to think that in order to “prove” something is the case, one needs to have hard, indisputable evidence for it—maybe like empirical evidence, something a person could see or touch, maybe even video evidence or something like that. We might call this “scientific evidence”–evidence that can be tested, verified, falsified. Of course, empirical evidence like this would indeed constitute “proof” in certain situations. If, for example, I am inquiring into whether or not a man named Jones committed a crime, and there was DNA evidence found at the scene of the crime that can be linked back to Jones, then I would have some “proof”—some would say I could even be fairly certain—that he is in fact guilty of the crime in question. The problem, however, is that I don’t think the question of God’s existence needs to be narrowed down to the mere category of “scientific proof” like this. We need a broader category to work with. That is, I think we need to talk about knowledge in general.

When we say a person “knows” this or that thing, is hard evidence always entailed? Is this sort of proof always a necessary requirement? I don’t think so. Here’s why: There are many things that people claim to know (and can claim with confidence, I might add) without ever having “scientific proof” or even certainty. For example, suppose a guy named Sam was born on March 1, 1980, and suppose further that he knows this is his birthday. But how does he “know” he was born on that date? Can Sam be absolutely certain about knowing this? Well, no. After all, what if his parents were lying to him? What if his parents were part of a grand scheme to deceive him, making him think he is, in fact, two years older than he really is? At any rate, how could Sam ever discover with certainty—using scientific evidence—that he was truly born on March 1, 1980? Perhaps, he could find the doctor who delivered him, and maybe the doctor could confirm the date of his birth. But how is this “scientific proof” in the sense of certainty? Could it not be possible that the doctor, too, was part of the conspiracy? Does showing him the birth certificate help? Hardly. It could have been forged, after all. How can Sam, then, ground his knowing the date of his birthday? How can he ever claim to “know” when his birthday is? Better yet, how can you know when your birthday is? The truth is that everyone bases many of their fundamental knowledge claims not merely upon scientific-empirical evidence or even certainty, but rather upon reliability. So, you can claim to “know” that your birthday is the date it is because you presume from the outset the reliability of your parents’ testimony and of the birth certificate as an historical document. Of course, this is far from “certainty” in the proper sense of the word. (As said above, it could be the case that your parents are lying for some nefarious reason. You cannot simply appeal to a birth certificate as “empirical proof” since that document could have been fabricated.) But even though you cannot prove when you were born, this does not mean it is irrational to say you “know” when you were born. Proof, in this sense, isn’t a requirement for knowledge.

The point is that it’s quite okay to make some truth claims (e.g., “I was born on March 1, 1980”) without having to appeal to certainty or to scientific methodology as a necessary criterion. The knowing of your birth date simply resides beyond the scope of scientific considerations. Your parents’ presumed reliable testimony, your assumption that most birth certificates are accurate, your participating in the yearly celebrations, etc., are all sufficient for your knowing your birthday. More can be said here, but space does not permit.

Furthermore, people hold to other more substantial beliefs that are also not provable (in the above sense). For example, a 30-year old person can’t prove that the past three decades were not implanted into his/her consciousness a mere five minutes ago, with built in memories, feelings, etc., to create the false belief that he or she really existed the whole timeCan you “prove” that your life—or all of reality—is not the product of a mad scientist’s experiment? This is a silly question, but the point is actually fairly significant: How can you empirically and scientifically prove that this is not, in fact, the case?

But it just seems absurd to believe that all of reality is the product of a mad scientist’s experiment. Most rational people believe it isn’t, right? And too, rational people do not have to give reasons for why they are not an experiment of a malevolent scientist; it is perfectly rational to reject such beliefs—and without proof and argument. To say that a person requires “hard” proof that he or she is, in fact, not a “brain in a vat” seems absurd. We don’t have to prove our beliefs that the world, or that people in the world, are real. In fact, these beliefs are something we always assume rather than prove. These are what philosophers call “properly basic beliefs.” They are called “basic” because they are beliefs which are not argued for, but upon which all other beliefs rest. I don’t need to prove that the sum of 2 and 1 is 3. Rather, 2 and 1 being 3 is a basic belief upon which I am able to build all my other beliefs (e.g., more complex mathematical beliefs).

When I participated in a debate on the existence of God, one of the questions that got brought up was, “Can a person know that God exists?” My sparring partners (the atheists) seemed to have assumed that all knowledge must come through the scientific method. That is, in order to “know” anything at all, one must be able to test and verify it. I’ve noticed many atheists make this mistake. For them, in order to “know some thing,” the belief about the thing itself needs to be repeatable and empirically confirmed. And since God, and claims about him, cannot be physically touched, seen, or tested, belief in God cannot be anything other than just that–mere belief. One cannot say, then, that they “know” God truly exists. It seems that, for many atheists at least, unless one can scientifically test or repeat a truth claim (or belief), then one simply cannot say that the said belief is “true” or “false.” But this is clearly absurd, for we rationally and justifiably claim to know things all the time without testing them or repeating them (e.g., historical claims like our birthdays; see above). The truth, too, is that some beliefs are properly basic. The truth is that some truths can be known immediately, self-evidently, and without proof or argument. Moreover, the idea that “a thing can’t be known until it is scientifically tested” is itself not a scientific idea, for it is neither falsifiable nor empirically verifiable. The atheist’s ideas, therefore, can’t pass their own scientific test. 

Here’s the main point: Not all knowledge, then, needs to be grounded upon proof—especially scientific, empirical proof.

So, I think prior to entering discussions about “God’s existence,” one needs to discuss these issues further. A person must remember that, while science (and the scientific method) is a means to knowledge (we’ve learned a lot about the cosmos with it, after all), it is not the only means to knowledge. Sometimes we know things without “proof” or “argument” at all, as we have seen above. Perhaps knowing God is like this as well. Some philosophers (like Alvin Plantinga from the University of Notre Dame) have taught that belief in God is justified without any argument since it is a “properly basic belief.” And I think I would personally agree with that, though I would like to study more on the subject. Granted this, though, can arguments for God’s existence be helpful to show that God truly exists? Can crafting logical arguments help us see evidence for God’s existence? Can logical reasoning, from premise to conclusion, lead us to belief in God? I most definitely think it can. But that’s a subject for another time.