When Esther Lightcap Meek was 13 years old, she found herself wrestling with two questions: How do I know that anything exists outside my mind; and how do I know that God exists?
The first reflects a mind unusually prone to philosophising. But the second is inescapable. Answers like ‘the Bible tells me so’ only raised more questions for the girl who would become a leading figure in the philosophy of knowledge.
While Meek was raised in a Bible-believing home in the United States, these curiosities were not encouraged. She laments that Protestant Christians in general, unlike Catholic and Orthodox ones, are often philosophically unaware.
In high school, Meek encountered the work of the theologian, philosopher and pastor Francis Schaeffer. “I began to realise,” she recalls, “that my questions weren’t sin – they were philosophical. I thought that was the coolest thing ever!”
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Only after a year of college did Meek discover she could study philosophy. “I felt morally obligated to pursue it,” she explains, “because this had to do with the fundamental assumptions that shape and bring everything together. So began my quest.”
Twelve hours later, she had changed course – at college and in life – embarking on a quest that led to her current position as Professor of Philosophy emeritus at Geneva College in Western Pennsylvania.
What Meek quickly discovered was that she had been, unknowingly, a ‘baby sceptic’. Where had she learned this scepticism? “The point,” she explains, “is nobody taught me that.”
“It’s not only the truths, but the mistakes of various philosophers that play out in culture.” – Esther Meek
A hopeless heritage
Like each of us, Meek unconsciously inherited thousands of years of philosophical inquiry and controversy. Early in her seminal book Longing to Know: The Philosophy of Knowledge for Ordinary People, Meek makes a very long story short, describing the cycle of Western thought from scepticism to certainty to scepticism to … us. In the process, she illustrates how “it’s not only the truths, but the mistakes of various philosophers that play out in culture.”
Meek attributes particular impact to French thinker René Descartes, the philosophical father of the modern age. His (often misunderstood) ‘first principle’ – “I think, therefore I am” – demonstrates his emphasis on the mind as the anchor of all certain knowledge.
Descartes’ mind-over-matter approach has filtered down through the centuries. We modernists tend to think of our minds as reliable and fundamental and the rest of us as secondary.
“We all reap the rootlessness of a shattered worldview.” – Esther Meek
According to Descartes, the antidote to scepticism is certainty anchored within the mind. Perhaps, having sifted through all our information and tested that it is verifiably ‘true’, we can reach objective, certain truth. The trouble is that Descartes and his philosophical offspring’s quest for convincing grounds for anchoring certainty in the mind came up empty, leading us back to the crippling scepticism reflected in Meek’s childhood doubts.
But still, the notion of knowledge as certainty in the mind dominates. As a result, “we all reap the rootlessness of a shattered worldview,” Meek writes in Longing to Know. Perhaps scepticism will stick now that we, having been ‘enlightened’, are “up for the challenge of rootlessness, as some might say.” But Meek hopes it won’t, convinced that our defective conception of knowledge has tragic consequences in every walk of life.
A modern mess
Here’s a question to illustrate. What comes immediately to mind as a synonym for the word ‘knowledge’?
When I asked a colleague, his first two words were ‘brain’ and ‘books’. We, the inhabitants of the ‘information age’, instinctively think of knowledge as facts on a page or bits in a brain.
Meek calls this model of knowing “almost addictively attractive” because it promises to satisfy our desire for utility and power. After all, whether or not it equates to knowledge, information certainly seems useful.
No wonder we don’t value the humanities! No wonder my Year 12 students used to regularly ask me what philosophy actually was. Instead, students daydream about instantly ‘downloading’ a textbook to their brain, as though mastery of a discipline were a matter of explicit information, disconnected from reality, for us to acquire quickly and commodify.
“All you have to do is read the book of Proverbs,” Meek objects. “My grey hair is supposed to have something to do with wisdom!” Real knowing involves far more than merely utilising information.
As well as prizing utility over truth, Meek notes that our modernist assumptions lead us to overemphasise the ‘authoritative guide’, which may explain our rampant tribalism. Whether you turn to your favourite media organisation, your favourite YouTuber or your favourite pastor, we sit at home and soak up the words of our prophet of choice, having disconnected information from contact with reality.
The philosophical forces of modernity subtly form our assumptions about all knowing, including knowing God.
Meek has convinced me of the endless similarly tragic consequences of our assumptions about knowledge. Ultimately, they foster a conception of faith that American theologian and pastor Greg Boyd likens to ‘a house of cards’. One wrong move and the whole thing threatens to fall.
A fragile faith
Are you, like me, tempted to think that if you could only read enough books or learn enough facts, your doubts would disappear? Are you, like me, sometimes shaken by encounters with ‘experts’ whose objections make you less sure of the facts of Christianity?
The philosophical forces of modernity subtly form our assumptions about all-knowing, including knowing God. We are tempted to think the strength of our faith depends on the intensity of our psychological certainty; that if we can only affirm the correct doctrines with the right amount of conviction, we will reach the elusive certainty of faith.
I confess that I have sometimes measured my certainty of God’s existence as a percentage – as though I could distil life’s deepest existential question to the language of computers! To be embarrassingly honest, I’ve tried several times to systematically address every possible uncertainty in a sprawling, aesthetically awful and ultimately futile Word document. Even if I could somehow rebut every critique, would that really grant me certainty? And would wrangling the facts into a Christian conclusion constitute true biblical faith?
What enables honesty and authenticity are security and trust, neither of which can be engineered by stacking up facts.
In my obsessive efforts to gather evidence, I’m only building a house of cards with Jesus at the top. Any objection that undermines my certainty threatens the whole structure, demanding ‘fight or flight’.
It might sound like I’m criticising curiosity and advocating ‘blind faith’. But in fact, nothing kills curiosity like insecurity. As Boyd’s book Benefit of the Doubt extensively demonstrates, the pursuit of a feeling of certainty precludes genuine exploration. If feeling certain is the goal, then a winding pursuit of the (often complicated) truth is terrifying and counterproductive! What enables honesty and authenticity are security and trust, neither of which can be engineered by stacking up facts.
If certainty-based faith is like a house of cards building up to Jesus at the top of the pile, what we need is confidence-based faith built on Jesus as the foundation.
“While the certainty-seeking model of faith is psychological in nature, the biblical concept is covenantal.” – Greg Boyd
Contact with the real God
Esther Meek so clearly articulates the problems with both our subtle scepticism and our reactionary pursuit of certainty that one can’t help feeling relieved when she reveals a third way. The solution, she says, is to surrender our quest for knowledge as certainty in the mind, endeavouring instead for contact with reality.
“While the certainty-seeking model of faith is psychological in nature,” Boyd agrees with Meek, “the biblical concept is covenantal.” In fact, Meek argues in another book, Loving to Know: Covenant Epistemology, that all-knowing is profoundly personal.
How exactly can we turn from certainty-seeking faith, building a house of cards with Jesus at the top, to confidence-seeking faith, building our worldview on the foundation of contact with the real Jesus? I’m afraid that’s a question for next time.
But we might start by interrogating our assumptions. When, in your daily life and your walk with God, are you trapped by what Meek calls “the straitjacket of information collection – the whole idea of ‘certainty or bust'”?
Instead, the solution, according to Esther Meek, is contact with the real God – which she says, as we’ll explore next time, is a lot like knowing your auto-mechanic.
This is part one of a series of articles in conversation with Esther Meek. Stay tuned!