Whatever happened to theological knowledge? Somewhere along the line, “knowledge” became synonymous with certitude. The only things that can be “known” are those things that can be proven by detached rationality and sensory data, with nearly disastrous results for the theological enterprise. In declaring the primacy of “the mind,” rationally conceived, we forgot that even our senses deceive us, and objective rationality is hard to discern through the webs of culture, desire, and relationships in which we find ourselves irreducibly intertwined. It would seem even “the mind” is not so certain after all. In the meantime, we have allowed ourselves to be convinced that the many other ways in which we know—a knowing we exercise daily without even realizing it—do not deserve to have their chairs back at the table of truth. Nevertheless, the instincts of the heart, the common memory of tradition, and the eschatological imagination of the way things ought to be all factor into our own personal processes of knowing. Perhaps in the delusion of the primacy of “the mind,” we do not even realize that we know what we do not claim “to know.”
The fact of the matter is that a purely mental “knowing” has not always been the standard of knowledge in the Christian church. Thomas Groome, a preeminent Roman Catholic scholar of Christian education, has this to say on the subject:
The lectio divina of the monasteries used to be the primary way of doing theology for centuries. And then at some point in the eleventh century, theology got all dressed up and went off to university, and it left the monasteries behind. While I do not claim that the development of the university was at all a bad thing, I often wonder if we should have brought a little bit more of the monastery with us.
What Groome alludes to is the birth of the university in high medieval Europe. The universities had their origins as schools attached to local cathedrals for the training of local youth and aspiring clergy. While the university was growing out of this into entities of their own in the eleventh century (the earliest being the schools at Paris, Bologna, and Oxford), the vast bulk of “learning” in the western world was in the meantime continuing to go on the monastic rules of the countryside as it had been for centuries. A regular and disciplined analysis of texts, through copying and reading and rereading and mediating and praying, was a key part of the regulated life of the monks which went all the way back to St. Benedict and beyond. The monasteries indeed kept classical learning alive in the West for over five hundred years, when they inherited the great learning of the church Fathers, who themselves did theology in the context of the regular prayer and worship life of the Christian faithful.
What is the word for us in all of this? That the mystical life of prayer and the “divine reading” of texts, biblical and otherwise, should form the bedrock of our knowledge about God and everything else relative to him. As the fourth century monk Evagrius of Pontus put it, “if you are a theologian, you pray truly; and if you pray truly, you are a theologian” (On Prayer, 61). A meditative and prayerful analysis of texts in the context of one’s holistic assent to God is the starting point for “knowing” in the life of the Christian. The “knowledge” of this process therefore necessarily includes the yearnings of the heart and the products of imagination as well as the deductions of the mind and senses.
This brings us to the deepest kind of knowing for which human beings have potential, that of relationship to another. Relationality includes the mind as we know things about the person to which we relate, but it also includes desire, instinct, common memory, and hopeful imagination. What’s more, this kind of knowing is thoroughly biblical. The Hebrews expressed the act of mentally knowing with the same word for the intimate embrace of husband and wife, yada. It is this kind of “knowing” that God uses to metaphorically express how we “know” him, in the intimacy of spiritual communion with him through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. As God is the fount of all truth, created and uncreated, the biblical authors are right to claim that reverence for the Lord is the beginning of all knowledge.
Knowing is never simply a mental phenomenon. It is one that involves our whole beings as humans: our minds, our hearts, and most importantly our deeply wired longing to commune with our Creator. Next time we want to know something, before we hit the books we should ask God what he thinks, and see what happens.