Conviviality: Why the Polanyi Society May Be the Best Scholarly Meeting to AttendRead Now
I wrote this blog for the now-defunct Uncommongrounds Online. First published in November 2010, it tells of a regular part of my professional life—and invites you to attend! This year (November, 2015) in Atlanta!
Many professions have an annual convention or conference to attend. Academics have scholarly conferences and societies, meetings whose sole agenda is to read papers, hear papers, and talk about papers. “Ugh!”—I can hear some of you cry! I agree that it’s pretty weird. But it’s the way scholarship moves forward. Scholars grow by proposing and defending theses and eliciting helpful critique. Plus, it’s an amazing benefit to be on the faculty of a college or university that actually picks up the tab for your trip.
I finished a dissertation on Michael Polanyi years before I ever was able to attend the Polanyi Society. Actually they came after me, finally, graciously roping me in by asking me to present a paper. I cannot tell you the joy it was for me to meet people whose work I had used in my own, whose names were well-known to me. It was astounding to realize that they were referencing my work as if it were an old friend. That was 1999 or so; I don’t think I have missed a meeting since.
They are a motley crew, mostly males older than I am. Some knew Polanyi when he was alive, and refer to him as Michael. Most are authors. One Jesuit who looks like Jesus. A couple Catholic theologians. One Montanan who looks the part. A head of a great books program at a private university. Other people from religion departments. One blackbelt in karate (maybe)—ok, he’s younger than I am. One retired business consultant from the Napa Valley, who offers me his wisdom generously, and who once taxied me wildly to O’Hare in a desperate effort to get me on my flight—talking Polanyi and business all the while. If we’re lucky, one Netherlander with twinkling eyes, scarf and mustache. One editor of our journal who remembers every article and every name on the mailing list. One retired political philosopher/Methodist minister/bachelor who drives a red sports car and loves to stand on the ocean beach and sing the verse of the hymn, “O Worship the King,” that says, “and round it hath cast like a mantle the sea.” One theologically conservative female philosophy professor (that’s me). And then others, including some wonderful young people, to whom we hope to pass another sort of mantle.
We gather every November in some new city, finding each other somehow, often in the dark. We do indeed hear and give papers, often having read them en route. We also talk Polanyi nonstop, walking city blocks to find places to eat, over every meal, and into the night. And then we disperse one-by-one to return to our lives, until another year. But at some point, during our time together, we will have left the papers behind and launched together into creative, collaborative, fresh, probing conversation about Polanyi’s work and its far-reaching implications.
This year I took one of my students, who gave a paper. Even before she presented it, a few of them warmly encouraged her about its quality. Why are these people so welcoming to all comers, so intrigued to embrace new thoughts and the people who have them?
I think it’s because all of us have been formed in the tradition of Michael Polanyi. Polanyi’s epistemology (philosophy of knowledge) is distinct in its humble openness to listen beyond categories for the sake of finding creatively fresh insight, and to do that convivially.
Polanyi the man modeled conviviality par excellence. In Personal Knowledge, Polanyi wrote it into his epistemology. All knowledge is rooted in “tacit coefficients.” Tacit coefficients of knowledge are communally held and nourished. Conviviality involves a real communication on the inarticulate level, and shared intellectual passion. Pure conviviality is the cultivation of good fellowship, especially in small groups, in joint activities. Language, culture, and understanding move forward in the context of conviviality. My Polanyi Society buddies always sign their letters, “Convivially, So-and-so.”
Polanyian epistemology stands out radically from other epistemology, Western, modern, or postmodern, by characterizing knowing, not as individualist, isolationist, competition to prevail in one’s expertise, but as an adventure of navigating by clues to a profound insight; something involving people humbly together in humbly listening to the real; with the hope of yet profounder truth.
I think it’s Polanyian epistemology that makes the Polanyi Society distinctively inviting and exciting to attend. Why am I telling you all this? Because I think conviviality is also profoundly Christian. Convivium is Latin for a feast—for communion.
Perhaps you might join us next November. Maybe you can dip into a little Polanyi in the interim. You will be delightfully surprised at the conviviality.
Some years ago I wrote several blogs for Glenn Lucke’s Uncommongrounds Online. That online presence is no more. So I am putting them here on my website.
This one appeared first on September 20, 2010, just after this website’s Webmaster, Stacey, married Evan. Now they approach their fifth anniversary. And I am more and more intrigued by the “let there be”s of God—the stuff of reality. –Especially as I finish reading Oliver Davies’ The Creativity of God: World, Eucharist, Reason (Cambridge Univeristy Press, 2004) in preparation for an upcoming talk for the American Scientific Affiliation, as well as my current book project, Contact With Reality. More to come…in many ways!
On September 4, I participated as a parent in the wedding of my daughter. In an enchanting, tall- and clear-windowed chapel in the heart of Missouri, festooned with baskets of chrysanthemums beginning to burst into riotous color, drenched with the sun and a suddenly, miraculously, cool breeze, filled with caring witnesses, an exquisitely lace-bedecked bride and handsome groom flanked by their attendants arrayed gloriously, with smiles and tears, in a service rich with Scripture texts from the Song of Songs and the book of 1 John, “Be Thou My Vision” and “In Christ Alone,”—a place and moment Spirit-blessed to endure as a now—I witnessed Stacey and Evan say their vows, and I said one of my own to give her away. “I do.” “I will.” “I do.”
Never having been the mother of the bride before, I was in for a shock regarding how momentous it would be. It was a tectonic shift, a good passing bright with future prospects which nevertheless has its sorrow, as any end of an era does. I ponder deeply the significance of my vow to give her away. The familiar landscape has fled. I now live in the quiet darkness of a dawn, the yet-to-be-known of a new reality.
And I watched the pair come toward each other with fearless love and trust to make vows with no qualifications. Two beautiful wholes became a more beautiful, different, whole. A family was born.
If things are real, then things that make things are more real. (Ancient and medieval philosophers’ unquestioningly presumed that every effect has a greater cause.) Words of covenanting promise make real things. Words of covenanting promise are more real.
This is not to be wondered at. God “let there be’d” all things into existence. He spoke, and they came to be. The worlds are formed and sustained by the word of his mouth. He gives himself to His people in his Word, his Name, and the Word made flesh. In our redemption, he speaks a word effectually. In church this morning the worship team introduced a new Getty-Townend hymn, “By Faith,” whose climactic words are, “We will stand as children of the promise.” The promise renders the future sure. And when Christ comes, it will be as bridegroom coming for bride, lover for beloved, a prospect—a reality!—so precious that you cannot keep back the tears.
He has conferred on his image bearers a derivative capacity to covenant into reality. We say let there be, and there is. We say I do, and there is. In the reality forged in the promise, a home and children come to be, and to stand.
Words unmake reality also. Words of attack destroy a home. In this broken world, what may be needed is to unmake a reality turned destructive. We may need to say, I don’t. But this too may be God-like. Jesus came “to destroy the works of evil.”
But there is something more real than covenanting promise. Where there is “I do” or “let there be,” one person covenants with another. Most real, then, is the persons who covenant together in the promised word. Promise makes reality, and promise requires person to promise to person. The covenanting vows are made good in the context of interpersonal relationship of trust, a person who loves and a person beloved. The word made real is as good, as real, as the steadfast covenant love of the person who speaks it. Most real is the Lover who says, “Arise, my darling, and come with me,” and the beloved who says, “Place me like a seal over your heart.”
We sensed the blessed presence of the Holy Spirit in that sun-drenched, breeze-caressed, event, in part because persons made vows of love to each other, and thus made reality. In that moment we caught a glimpse deep into the heart of the real, into the heart of God.
God’s deep blessing on your marriage, Stacey and Evan Smith. “Here in the love of Christ we stand.”
Last month I participated, as a Fellow of the Fujimura Institute, in artist Makoto Fujimura’s Culture Care Summit. It was held on the beautiful campus of Cairn University, a room adjacent to a tiny but winsome gallery of art work—including Mako’s massive Walking on Water: Banquo’s Dream.
I had little idea, in advance, what the Summit would be. I rightly imagined that it would be a time of serious strategizing to live into Mako’s vision of Culture Care, as announced in his 2014 book, Culture Care: Reconnecting with Beauty for Our Common Life (Fujimura Institute). As it turned out, I feel that I was offered a golden chalice brimming over with gems. I, along with Institute Fellow Dr. Pete Candler, contributed a portion to the chalice stem. I am grateful to have been so placed.
The major portion of programming for 2 days was given over to 15-minute presentations by people from around the world who have been living out the vision of culture care from long before Mako designated it. “Artists and other creatives,” they were all both working artistically, and creatively connecting with others beyond their discipline or way of seeing the world, to create cultural gestures and foster cultural estuaries (Mako’s spectacular metaphor), committed to Dostoyevsky’s claim that “beauty will save the world.”
A 3-week artistic event in Hong Kong; multiple artistic outreaches in Beijing, including a Chinese American fusion band with Chinese dulcimer embellishment having entirely too much fun with the pentatonic scale, and a Japanese ensemble dancing out repentance and seeking forgiveness and reconciliation in the distant wake of World War II’s ravages; a Julliard-trained organist offering musical concerts for grieving and healing in the aftermath of Japan’s 2011 tsunami and nuclear catastrophe; an Australian artist traveling the world to encourage culture care, including in India: people in Bangalore, and in Delhi doing just that—including a “Walking Gallery” on the streets of Delhi to display art that Delhi citizens ordinarily would never enter a gallery to consider, and fostering an ever-growing, massive biker club; an opera singer in Kansas City instituting an annual Restoration Arts conference, and an Iowa artist designing conversation installations, including for us in the Cairn Gallery; a Grand Rapids installation artist annually showing in that city’s massive ArtPrize event, contributing pieces that visitors storm in droves to grieve and process losses such as cancer, PTSD, and sexual violence, as they add notes to her installation; a poet who gathers artists in Rock Hill, South Carolina, promoting discussions and producing artistic events, leading to an artistic restoration of the city’s old courthouse and downtown spaces; a movement in Charlotte to create beautiful books and other artistic ventures for children, including refugee children—and Mako told me that this is not even half of the culture care ventures he knows of. These are Christian believers.
And then there were artist performances and contributions among the gems: the organist from Japan; the opera singer from Kansas City; a Gregory Hines protege tap-dancer extraordinaire, performing with a dulcimer player; a rapper; a world-famous folk band; a blues singer/photography artist; a poet and novelist who is 13 volumes into publication; the conversation installation artist, who also worked with beeswax. Oh—and the great artist, Makoto Fujimura, talking about his work, talking about and sharing his friends, in a conference that was his own vision and his own creative venture. He’s used to painting with precious stones.
And the thing about an arts conference, I found, as opposed to, say, some scholarly conferences: it doesn’t take you apart; it puts you together. You leave feeling whole.
All of this is, worldwide, “reconnecting with beauty for the common life”—the subtitle of Mako’s book. Culture care is a concept designed to replace what has been a prevailing motif of culture wars, adversely impacting especially Christian believers’ involvement in culture. The culture war mindset has not helped matters. It has rendered fragmentation adversarial. It has not fostered the common good. Culture care, by contrast, runs, not away from, but toward the rubble, as Mako wrote in the wake of the 9/11 attack near his Tribeca studio. Of all people, Christians, who are what they are only through extravagant, sacrificial, boundary-crossing, other-embracing, beauteous grace, should get this and live it.
It’s not just culture wars which have rendered our culture toxic for artists and all of us; modernity has too. Actually, the culture war mindset itself is rooted in the modern mindset. The modern mindset, beginning in the 1600s and continuing prominently through and past whatever might have been called post-modern, up to the present, is a way of seeing the world that sacrifices just about all that is human and all that is real, to leverage progress, utility, power and control, through breaking things down into 2-dimensional, manageable bits. To be born into the West is to be born into modernity. All dimensions of life bear its debilitating mark. Oh, modernity has been wildly successful; the question is, at what cost to the things that matter, including ourselves?
What this means for even a great and successful artist such as Mako is marginalization and a continual fight for sustainability. What’s more, artists themselves often succumb to modern toxicity, esp. with respect to their relationship to reality and to beauty. Their art and their lives display more profoundly the ravages of fragmentation. Artists are an endangered species, Mako says. He wants others to join him in strategizing to protect their existence and foster their flourishing. For artists, so nourished, hold a critical key to culture care. They can be “mearcstapas,” people who help us and culture because they move easily from one tribe to another, understanding their ways and communicating them to others. They can offer leadership from the margins.
As a freshly designated Fellow of the Fujimura Institute, I see that covenant epistemology offers and connects with culture care. Here are the touchpoints I noted in my talk at the Summit:
Modernity is modernity by virtue of its underlying epistemology. So cultural healing must attend to epistemological therapy. Epistemological therapy is my mission in life, and I feel that covenant epistemology offers it. Covenant epistemology, I believe, holds a key to cultural change.
At the Summit there was no time to explore the joyous and juicy components of covenant epistemology, apart from its anchoring thesis of Michael Polanyi’s claim that all knowing is subsidiary-focal integration. All knowing has a two-level structure: we integrate from particulars-turned clues-turned subsidiaries we rely on, to shape and attend to a creative, integrative, focal pattern that we then submit to as a token of reality, and that transforms us and our world. Recognizing how SFI describes how knowing works everywhere is key to epistemological therapy, to reorienting our epistemic default from something diseased and defective to something healing and true. Where coming to know is going well in our lives, and we are not deceived about what we are doing, what we are doing is always SFI. It’s freeing to see it.
Why is SFI so therapeutic for modernity? Just to take one key implication. Knowledge simply cannot be exhaustively articulated and “certain.” The things we rely on we can’t therein express, even though they are palpable and foundational—just think of what it is to balance on a bike. SFI accredits and helps us become more intentional about the subsidiaries we rely on and therein cannot articulate. SFI describes all knowing, in every area. SFI successfully redraws modernist epistemology.
When you see what goes on in SFI, you see that every such act of knowing, often typified by an aha! moment of inbreaking insight that changes everything, intrinsically involves things that Fujimura’s Culture Care and personal vision call us to: Genesis moments. Generativity. Integration. Imaginative creativity. Boundary crossing. Being a mearcstapa. Openness to the Other. Listening. Sacrifice. Beauty. Taking ashes and making beauty. Enriching the cultural soil.
Places of absence and failure can prove to be genesis moments. All subsidiary-focal integrations are preceded by the emptiness of futile focusing on what needs to become subsidiary in order for you to understand. If I were trying to learn to read Chinese, for example, staring at the beautiful characters would be more and more frustratingly futile until the moment of breakthrough arrived, and I was able to shift from staring at them to relying on and attending from them to their meaning. There is no linear way to get from Point A to Point B. The “failure” of Point A must give way to the gracious inbreaking of Point B. And that aha! of insight is a fresh beginning. SFI is, at its core, a genesis moment.
It is also inherently generative, birthing a fresh way of seeing things that is transformative of self and world, and that is pregnant with future prospects that we sense but cannot yet even name. Covenant epistemology renders the redemptive encounter—the Christian believer’s having been graciously and transformatively known by Jesus Christ—the paradigm of all acts of coming to know.
SFI just is imaginative creativity. It just is integration. SFI is both the act of scientific discovery and also the creative act. It makes for superb entrepreneurial ventures, library cataloguing, and athletics. This accords dignity to all of these, and for fostering creative and integrative connections among disciplines, as Culture Care enjoins.
SFI involves a logical leap between the particulars you first focus on and are trying to make sense of, that then become clues, signposting a farther pattern, and then become subsidiaries embedded in the pattern as parts in a transformative whole. That means that SFI inherently requires boundary crossing.
For that reason, all coming to know what you do not yet know requires openness to the other. In a sense, aspiring to know what you do not yet know requires you to be a mearcstapa, a border stalker. The better you are at it, the more understanding will graciously come to you.
In covenant epistemology, I talk about inviting the real. We should see knower and yet-to-be-known as persons in relationship, and knowing as cultivating an interpersonal relationship. So best practices are those which invite the real. Mearcstapic openness to the other itself invites the real, as do a host of other practices of “epistemological etiquette”—including listening. This is not listening as some passive procedure, a not-so-patient letting another take their turn so that you can take yours. Listening itself actually evokes reality’s self-disclosure. Loving to Know identifies a plethora of such practices, grouped loosely in the five loci of love, composure, comportment, strategy and communion.
SFI inherently calls for surrender or sacrifice. As Mako’s precious minerals give themselves as he pulverizes them, liquefies them, and spills them across a gently self-giving paper that receives them and honors them, so all the particulars we are trying to make sense of must yield their limelight focus to become subsidiary to the larger integrative pattern. And it is a sacrifice fraught both with freeing humility and with heightened dignity: the minerals and paper become themselves in a grander way, as does Mako himself, for the sacrifice.
Also you can easily see SFI as taking ashes and making beauty (God’s own signature move—Isaiah 65). Or a seed falling into the ground and dying, sacrificing itself for the plant or tree that comes to be. Thus it enriches the soil of life and culture in the process: as things become subsidiary, connected creatively in more and deeper patterns, they become more and more freighted with meaning.
Finally, beauty attends SFI throughout. The pilgrimage that is coming to know (as per The Little Manual for Knowing) begins with a wonder, a puzzlement, something beautiful that beckons and woos. It culminates in an elegantly integrative reconfiguration that is itself beautiful, gleaming with a generative splendor of prospects of future implications. And because it involves self-giving pledge and sacrifice throughout, SFI is intrinsically a beautiful act, and a beauty-making act.
So covenant epistemology’s subsidiary-focal integration itself engenders healing culture care for Western modernity. I offer it as epistemological therapy in hope of cultural healing. I’d love nothing better than for it to support artists and other creatives in their work, as a chalice’s stem the overflowing gems it contains. May it be as Summit attendee, youthful composer Dr. Kyle Werner said: “This changes everything!”
Thank you, Makoto Fujimura, for casting this vision and inviting us into it. Thank you for inviting the real.
I first published this piece on Glenn Lucke’s Uncommongrounds Online, May 16, 2010. The Aliquippa story has more recent chapters! I’ll fill you in at the end.
When I moved to Western PA the summer of 2004, I thought I was settling in Center Township. I didn’t realize that I was also settling in Aliquippa. Had I known this at the time, I might have been off-put; as it is, I feel that God was locating me here to be part of his unfolding mission of love for this little corner of his world.
The first I heard of Aliquippa was the common refrain around Beaver County: “Don’t go to Aliquippa; you’ll get shot!” Indeed, the county paper chronicles more shootings in Aliquippa, and fewer positive stories, than for any other town here. Also, as I learned my way about my new locale, I found it full of quaint towns with main streets and park gazebos. But Center didn’t seem to have such a main street. Brodhead Road is the closest thing—a curving 40 mph 2-way named for Fort Pitt’s horseback courier to the French-and-Indian-War era Fort McIntosh outpost on the Ohio River a mile from my house.
It took me a year to make it down to Aliquippa, even though my post office is there. What I saw was the cutest little main street/ghost town ever. And I realized it was MY main street. But what had been its former glory? And what went wrong? My heart started longing for healing and restoration.
I learned Aliquippa’s story: Jones and Laughlin Steel Mill, whose works sprawled seven miles along the Ohio, had built this company town. Franklin Avenue cuts down through a steep-sided valley to the mill; company housing plans still crest the surrounding bluffs. Some-teen-thousands—Italians, Serbians, Polish, and African Americans, found lucrative employment at J&L…until the summer of 1985. Overnight the company disappeared, leaving the city with the mess and with no pensions. In the interim, races clashed, and white people fled up the hill…to Center Township. In the wake of J&L’s disappearance, poverty and despair fueled the devil of a drug trade. Now city residents number far fewer than the mill’s employees, and a sizeable percentage lives below the poverty line. It’s as if the county has consigned this forlorn town to the dustheap.
A couple years later I met two remarkable people who were already doing what my heart was longing for. One is the colorful Australian, Captain John Stanley, of the Church Army USA’s baseplant outreach to the poor, the equally colorful Uncommongrounds Café. (www.uncommongroundscafe.org) When the Stanleys came in 2000, they realized that Aliquippa didn’t need a 49th church, but rather a safe community space in which stories could be heard and healing take place. “How do you help a city grieve?” says John. “Aliquippa needs to honor its past, but let go and take responsibility for its future.”
He also asks, “What would it look like if the kingdom of heaven we pray repeatedly will come actually comes to Franklin Avenue?” One thing it definitely looks like is several grass roots organizations webbing together in solidarity in incarnational ministry. The other remarkable person I have in mind is Joel Repic, Copastor of Crestmont Alliance Church, and Executive Director of Aliquippa Impact Ministries. (www.aliquippaimpact.org) AIM is a youth development organization that targets at-risk youth, furnishing mentors for individual students, and running a top-notch summer program emphasizing literacy, global awareness, and the arts. Growing out of daily street presence, AIM staff have gained respect and welcome and are able to be involved strategically in Aliquippans’ lives.
But that web, the evident working of the Holy Spirit, continues to grow. I have mentioned only two of its key players; there are others. Plus, for a year now, every Saturday morning at 6:30, members of the white ministerium and of the black ministerium have met together for prayer at the Café! And also now, people who love the Lord and the prospects of his work in Aliquippa are moving back down the hill. Some AIM summer staff have chosen Aliquippa as their permanent home. Another young couple, 2010 Geneva College graduates, are buying their first home there, to be part of what God is doing. And another couple my age, already AIM mentors, are moving down to Franklin Avenue to manage AIM’s residential properties.
I’ve been able to house three spring break mission teams from Geneva College to work at and around the Café. Also, I now serve on AIM’s Board and as a writer of “stories that tell the story.”
There was a day I learned that Joel, then a college student, had started AIM in 2004. My spine literally tingled: that was the summer I had moved…to Aliquippa. I pray, write, and watch for the Spirit from my front doorstep. And I invite you: come to Aliquippa! The Lord is there.
John Stanley and family returned to their home in Australia, and many feared the end of the Café. Not so! God has brought Herb (and Angel) Bailey as Ministry Director, and Scott (and Sue) Branderhorst, as Operations Director. Herb is too large a man to give the teddybear hugs he does. He has dreds that are ten years old. He rides a Harley. He paints amazing art all over his house. Angel is from the Ragu family (as in spaghetti sauce). Together they pursue racial reconciliation, throwing “’Erb’N Angel” dinners. New supervised homes for people recovering from addiction are about to open.
My own church, elsewhere in Beaver County, and other churches, send mission teams to help repair homes and farm in the city garden.
Aliquippa Impact has expanded to offer in-school mentoring, and now after-school programming. AI’s first cohort of kids graduated from high school; some are pursuing their dreams to go to college.
The Lord IS there in Aliquippa. AI’s most recent board meeting met a month ago, in gathering room of the Community of Celebration. I remarked to the board about the deep blessing of the Lord on AI. Joel reminded me of the story of the Community of Celebration. Back in the hippie era, there was a movement of the Holy Spirit in Houston, Texas. Among joy and healing and miracle, and prolific song-writing, a community was born. They chose to formalize as the Community of Celebration, adopting an Episcopal, Benedictine Rule of life. Celebration had cells around the world. One cell settled on an island off the coast of Scotland, until the Lord called them to urban ministry. That call led them to relocate to Aliquippa! In 1985!—just as J & L was abandoning the town. They settled into a row of houses on the “elbow” of Franklin Avenue, added an elegant little octagonal chapel, started growing flowers, opened their doors in hospitality, and prayed the hours—in the heart of Aliquippa—for Aliquippa. Of course there is no pinning down the movement of the Spirit, but Joel is right to postulate that that blessing on Celebration is now flowing out in Aliquippa.
If you want to know more, or want to come and see, check out these websites:
Philosophy MattersRead Now
Christianity and philosophy
How do philosophy and Christianity interface?
The Apostle Paul says, “Avoid vain philosophy…” (Colossians 2:8) Only an irresponsibly subpar reading of that phrase in its context could support the idea that Christians should, or could, stay away from philosophy! The text has to do with avoiding bad philosophy, specifically, legalism. Further, one has to be philosophically aware in order to avoid vain philosophy. Third, people given oversight for church and Scripture should be philosophically aware.
It’s actually our untrained and defective epistemology that misleads us to conclude that our only two options with regard to truth claims are to agree or to disagree. This pressures us always hold proposals critically at arm’s length, and to fear that otherwise we will be drawn in and succumb. It presumes mistakenly that we aren’t already “sucked in” to something we can’t see. And the tension between agree and “critique” is an unstable dynamic that actually does draw us in.
A third, freeing, option is possible and commendable: we can listen deeply without threat of being “sucked in,” because we can listen empathetically in order to understand. Just as a mother-to-be harbors within her an entirely other person, we can permit ourselves to be “mentally pregnant” with the thought of an other, without feeling compelled to resist or be drawn in. This is not suspending judgment; this is care and respect. It is proper and healthy “responsibility to,” instead of inappropriate “responsibility for.”
And this third approach is actually greatly supported when we are Christian believers. We know and trust Him who is Faithful and True. This frees us to attend to everything else respectfully and truly, for what it is, not for what it isn’t, without threat.
God is Lord of every corner of this world; he spoke and continually speaks it into being. There is no corner of the world which is not his voice, his self-revealing. Yes, Christians confess that human rejection of God has warped our knowing. But seriously, can we think that we could ever pull off such total rebellion that his revelation could not still triumph? If we could, he would not be Lord.
So we trust Him, and we can and must trust his world. We can be confident that we may trust and explore reality. Truth happens everywhere in God’s world, even in the thought of philosophers who are atheists. Plenty of wrongheadedness happens, too, even in the thought of committed Christian believers.
Christians, I believe, can make the best philosophers. One reason is that Christians are schooled in wonder, and we continually ponder ultimate realities. We’re primed to be wondering lovers of wisdom. At least, we ought to be, through our worship and meditation.
And Christianity makes for superior philosophy. The older I get, the more I appreciate this. There is no reality more philosophically profound than the Holy Trinity. No pagan philosophy holds a candle to it. Plus, over the centuries of Western philosophy, what we see happening is not that Christianity gets “tainted” by pagan philosophy, but rather that Christianity transforms pagan philosophy into something far superior and more truly what was envisioned than was possible without the help.
Christians need to get out of the defensive posture and delight confidently in the very realities we profess.
Worldview and philosophy
“Worldview” denotes a pretheoretical perspective, a framework of fundamental belief commitments on ultimate matters, which actually shape the way we see and think about the world. Worldview is a popular, informal way of attending to philosophy, of engaging the BHQs of reality, knowing, value, and humanness.
Some scholars argue that worldview is not philosophy. This is false. For one thing, to develop a worldview approach is to do philosophy. To deny that worldview is philosophy is also to do philosophy. So the position is self-referentially incoherent. It commits a performative contradiction. Thirdly, philosophically to deny that worldview is philosophy is a sleight of hand akin to the illicit move of metanarrative.
What makes a metanarrative, “meta,” is not its size, but its illicit attempt to hide the fact that it itself is a narrative—claiming instead that it is universal reason. There is nothing wrong with being narratival; there is something terribly wrong—and an abuse of power—narrativally to deny one’s narratival nature. Worldview can be recast as a matter of narrative, by the way There is fundamentally one culprit metanarrative: the Enlightenment ascendancy of reason. Returning to the matter of an approach to worldview that denies that it is doing philosophy: I am claiming that a worldview account that hides the fact that it itself is philosophy, “delegitimating” philosophy, is a kind of metanarratival move. This move, additionally, automatically insulates one’s chosen worldview commits from the blessing of any sort of philosophical (or theological, or psychological, or…) reform or development.
Finally, this faulty worldview approach presumes a commonly held but mistaken epistemology that says that knowledge (and thus philosophy itself) can only be that which is articulated in statements. So anything pretheoretical and prethetic (before stated) cannot be knowledge, and cannot be the target of philosophical inquiry. I espouse Michael Polanyi’s revolutionary epistemological insight that all knowing has a two level structure; all knowing is “subsidiary-focal integration.” All knowing and knowledge is rooted in the inarticulable and subsidiary. To designate it philosophically as subsidiary is to gain philosophical purchase on worldview commitments, and begin to access them.
People and programs committed to worldview analysis and worldview formation can’t help but be helped by studying philosophy and developing philosophical awareness.
Apologetics and philosophy
“Apologetics” is defense of the faith—offering reasons for the reasonableness of Christian belief. More broadly, it has to do with making sense of Christian belief, and with commending it to others. So it bleeds easily into theology and into mission.
From the very beginning of my thinking as a Christian believer, and once I got clued in to what philosophy is, it was a no-brainer to me that doing philosophy was part and parcel of thinking as a Christian believer. I went on to cut my teeth in a theological and philosophical tradition that explicitly and emphatically links theology with apologetics, and both with epistemology. You can’t do one without the others. It’s not that one is identical to the others. You should rather see them as triadically related, utterly permeating but never reducing to one another. And this is not defect, but rather an asset.
As an epistemologist creatively blending Polanyian epistemology into my own covenant epistemology, knowing is as wide as life. The most fundamental key to any area of life and thought is epistemology, and getting epistemological therapy (in healing challenge to modernism’s defective knowledge-as-information mindset) transforms everything at the fundamental level. It actually frees us to be more consistently biblical in our epistemology, to unleash the transformative epistemic dynamo that is the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, and our redemptive encounter with Him.
Epistemological therapy therefore actually reorients most fundamentally what we take apologetics to be. It ceases to be merely about arguments and proofs. These are important and valuable—but only in the far more three-dimensional epistemic context of knowing as bodied orientation transformative reshaped through graciously inbreaking insight that is itself in some measure the coming of God. The Gospel is then unleashed in power to shape all our knowing ventures.
I have taught covenant epistemology as apologetics—I have rendered epistemological therapy—frequently, and thus have seen its transformative personal impact for apologetics and mission. Additionally I have noted the independent, complementary value of students also developing philosophical awareness through the study of philosophy broadly. Students who have developed philosophical awareness appreciate and appropriate more profoundly and thoroughly the epistemological therapy that frees them and their thought from the defective epistemic default of modernism.
For the history of Western philosophy offers the alphabet or grammar of ideas, out of which all thought has and can be shaped. Apologetics consists in offering reasons for our belief; apologetics, therefore, draws on this alphabet of ideas. Not to have to developed philosophical awareness is to be left to depend naively on the thought of others. And not to be attuned to the alphabet is a bit like a duck afraid of the water, rather than delighting in it as a natural medium.
And that returns us to the injunction to take the plunge into philosophy.
Esther Lightcap Meek