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.
Covenant realism, covenant ontology
Finally, much of Hearing God is devoted passionately to reorienting the way we see reality, to what I call covenant realism and covenant ontology. I believe that this is Willard’s preeminent concern. According to Willard, also operating covertly in our generally defective model is perhaps the most powerful agent—our view of reality. Our view of knowing and our view of reality (what it is that is there to know) are inseparable. They are defective, or they are life-giving, together. In his fresh “model of what is happening,” Willard is doing both epistemology and metaphysics. He pronounces explicitly that what we think about what there is predetermines what we see. (80)
Thus, Willard exhorts us to see ourselves as created for an intimate and transforming friendship with the creative community that is the Trinity. (10) We are to see God as real and dynamically present. (12) He gives an entire chapter the enthralling title, “Our Communicating Cosmos” (ch 4), and another, “The Word of God and the Rule of God.” (ch 6) In the former, he calls us to ask the basic question, what kind of world do we live in? This bears critically on how we conceive of how God relates to us in it—or whether he even can.
An integral part of the special burden of unbelief that the modern West bears is a naturalistic view of reality as entirely physical. It reduces all causality to bare mechanism. It presumably encapsulates human beings and renders God distant and inaccessible. (94). For us to begin to hear God in the context of being in friendship with him, caught up in a life beyond our own---for us to take seriously what Scripture describes!—we must have are view of reality reshaped. Willard argues that, in rejection of the dominant view, not all reality involves space. (96) Willard cites scientists saying that “it is not possible to formulate the laws of quantum mechanics in a fully consistent way without reference to consciousness”; and “subjective and objective realities, consciousness and matter, mutually create each other”; and “the structure of matter may not be independent of consciousness. (99)
Spirit—God’s and ours, is unbodily, yet causally active, personal power. And the physical and the spatial are in the spiritual, the way your body is in you (not vice versa)—the way that we “live and move and have our being” “in Him.” Because we have our being in Him, he is nearer to us than even our sensations. Far from God being distant, impeded by space and physicality, he is closer to us then we are to ourselves. The whole of reality is penetrated through and through by God. (101) “Every working of visible reality is a movement within the encompassing Logos, the sustaining Word of God, and it rests on nothing else but God through his Son, who was and is the ‘reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word’ (Heb 1:1-3).” (104) In such a reality, indeed, God is not very far from us! We are—and all reality is--in God. Obviously this redraws the entire matter of concern in Willard’s book!
This metaphysical exposition—he calls it and intellectual and spiritual hardhat area (80)—is just what we need to strengthen our faith. (101-2) It is the reshaping idea that opens our eyes to see what is there—what is there in Scripture, and what is there in the world.
Willard returns in 3 chapters to extend the exposition by talking about the Word and Rule of God. What place does God’s Word, have in reality? He says there is a single basic truth here: God’s creating, his ruling, and his redeeming just are his word. (156) Our words shape reality too. Modern Western naturalism is in no-way equipped to observe that reality is fundamentally God’s voice. But “in a personal universe whether our own small arena or God’s cosmos, the word directs actions and events.” (171) In reality itself we are all always already hearing God. Reality just is the kingdom rule of God, where kingdom is by definition a network, not of mechanistic causes, but of personal relationships. (159) Thus, “the one who hears God’s voice is operating from the foundation and framework of all reality, not from the fringe.” (155) And reality—our universe—by nature responds to a word, to thoughts and intentions. (171) “Reality, including the material world, is ultimately a kingdom in which authority, personal relationships and communication (words) are basic to the way things run. (177) People who understand this, “and they alone, are at home in the universe as it actually is.” (198)
As if two chapters were not enough, Willard adds an epilogue that returns to the matter of reality. He confesses that he still painfully aware of the one great barrier that might hinder some people’s efforts to make such a life their own. The barrier: “the seeming unreality of the spiritual life.” (282) Given the dominant skepticism—the epistemic posture—of the modern Western world, in which a skeptical person is always deemed to be smarter than the one who believes, “only a very hardy individualist or a social rebel—one desperate for another life—stands a chance of discovering the substantiality of the spiritual life today.” (283). Sobering words, indeed. Yet he offers hope in saying that “we live on the Emmaus road, so to speak, with an intermittently burning heart.” We can come to understand that the presence of the physical world no longer has to be a barrier between me and God—that “my visible surroundings become, instead, God’s gift to me.” (288)
I have chronicled Willard’s metaphysical claims extensively here for more than one reason. First, they are the last alignment I mean to note between Hearing God and covenant epistemology. They express without qualification what L2K has articulated as covenant realism and covenant ontology. So we have seen that Hearing God is doing covenant epistemology—espousing it, embodying it. This lies at the heart of its distinctive message and its effectiveness.
But there are a couple other reasons I have taken such a close look at what Willard says about reality. One is that the nature of reality is what seems to matter the most to Willard in his argument. Another is that, for most of my adult philosophical life, and now in a fresh venture of inquiry, it matters the most to me. In the wake of L2K and now its skimmed-cream synopsis in A Little Manual for Knowing, I am returning to study reality. My current project is to update and revise for publication my 30-year-old doctoral dissertation as, “Contact With Reality: Michael Polanyi’s Realism and its Value for Christian Faith.”
I have spent the summer plunging with delight into a world of fresh insights about reality. That I am “…created for intimate and transforming friendship with the creative community that is the Trinity” (10) puts a finger on the fountainhead and the dynamically ever-newness of it all. Hearing Hearing God, this summer of my life and work, what Dallas Willard is saying about reality has all my attention. But I am grateful for how Willard’s wise, philosophically attuned, concretely helpful work not only corroborates covenant epistemology, but this summer helps me understand much better how to relate to—and in—God.
With special thanks to Jay Hawthorne, and to Paul Sparks
ELM, Aliquippa, PA, August 2014
Let’s look at these. First, Willard’s diagnosis of the problem that generates the question of whether we can hear God reflects the from-to structure of knowing, the transforming subsidiary-focal integration that gives profoundly transformative meaning to all it takes up within it, including ourselves the knower, as a greater pattern breaks in. The question about hearing God, as Christian believers typically pose it, arises since we focus on it, disconnecting it from this larger pattern. We need to embed it in the larger integrative pattern of life with God in his world. Willard writes: “Ultimately, we are to move beyond the question of hearing God and into a life greater than our own—that of the kingdom of God.” (9, italics his) I think you’ll admit that that is an intriguing opening comment. It seems to reflect the from-to structure of knowing. And it suggests that the would-be inquirer must also find herself caught up in a greater life. Willard will argue for a great reversal: we need to see that it is not first that God might be in us, but that we are in God. (96)
Actually, although Willard does not quite say this, when we do hear God’s voice, as Willard describes it, the event itself is a subsidiary-focal integration. That is why, according to Willard, it seems obvious and brings peace. (230-31)
Challenging the defective epistemic default
Key to his diagnosis of Christians’ common misperceptions in this area is effectively—though of course Willard does not use heady terms—a defective epistemology and the need to replace it with one that sees knowing as interpersonal relationship. This is covenant epistemology’s central claim. L2K speaks of the “defective epistemic default” that all of us in the modern Western tradition of thought and culture are born with. Hearing God identifies it as the modern (post-Cartesian) Western view of knowing and reality. (94, 159)
This is already evident in Willard’s diagnosis of the defectiveness of Christian believers’ well-intended question: it involves a focal fixation on a mechanistic method, one that depersonalizes both knower and known and their “relationship”. (68) He says that it is not enough to mean well, and even having experiences of God won’t by themselves render the reorientation we need. We need to grow our general understanding, our model of what is happening. (12, 18)(This is as close as the gentle philosopher gets to naming metaphysics and epistemology!) Willard cites the “special burden of unbelief in Western civilization” that has put science in opposition to theology, construing knowledge in such a way that it excludes God. (94) We need to substitute a better model—one of communion and conversation in friendship. (12) A new model of what is happening will help us accredit genuine experiences we may already have had but have not felt permitted to take seriously. Willard notes the significance of the paradox that many claim to receive specific guidance from God at a time that many also express extreme uncertainty regarding what he is saying or whether we hear it (what covenant epistemology calls, “certainty or bust.”) (30)He promises that the new model of growing conversational relationship will dissolve this paradox (as covenant epistemology promises the epistemic therapy that will move us beyond the daisy of dichotomies. (L2K chap 1))
Willard criticizes a desire for truth (and to be proven right) that overruns a desire to practice the truth. (210) He touts the trap of mere “Bible knowledge.” (211) He commends, over comprehending a word from Scripture, being “seized by a word from Scripture—finding myself addressed, caught up in all the individuality of my concrete existence by something beyond me.” (239) (Covenant epistemology calls this many things, an I-Thou encounter, the gracious inbreaking of the Holy, to name only two. (L2K chaps. 9, 10) Willard commends the confidence of relationship over a depersonalizing and unworkable certainty, as does covenant epistemology. And most obviously, the model he commends is dynamic friendship. This just is how covenant epistemology calls us to construe knowing: the best paradigm for the knowing that links a knower to the yet-to-be-known is the interpersonal, covenantally constituted relationship.
Over many years of teaching covenant epistemology, I’ve learned that, when the conversation is about our relationship with God, about knowing God, especially with earnest believers not yet philosophically attuned, it’s easy to for them to take all this in as “spiritually nourishing” and miss that it is profound epistemology—an epistemic shift meant to reorient them transformatively across their entire lives at a fundamental level. And sadly, in missing that, they cut themselves off from greater—in fact, transformative—spiritual nourishment. This is how knowing works, covenant epistemology claims. And we have actually been doing a bad job of knowing God, Willard is saying. We’ve done a bad job of knowing God because we operate out of a defective epistemology. So if we can fix knowing, that will help us do a better job of knowing God. And we’ll be immensely better off for it.
Willard labors to get us to take seriously that what we have with God is an interpersonal relationship, and that we should comport ourselves accordingly. You wouldn’t think that we would need this encouragement, esp. with respect to God! Yet the very question of whether we can hear someone speak is not the sort of question we typically ask in typical family relationships! That’s curious. Defective epistemology has rendered even interpersonal relationships in need of rehabilitation—even our relationship with God.
Inviting the Real
As part of the new way of seeing our relationship with God, Willard enjoins us to several practices which covenant epistemology names as ways to invite the real:
Willard models covenant epistemology
Throughout the book, Willard himself embodies covenant epistemology as he models the expert authoritative guide who, from long years of personal experience, is able to apprentice us through a wealth of concrete, maximic, know-how in a realm in which a step-by-step method or a technical manual would offer a poor substitute. (LTK chap 13, L2K chap 5) He is the consummate guide, according to the covenant epistemology vision, who loves and knows his subject and also cares for us his apprentices, and who teaches by modeling and inviting. (LM chap 1)
This is the first in what I hope will become a series of engagements of important voices in our time. I want to show that their proposals echo or accord with covenant epistemology—that covenant epistemology makes sense of their endeavors, visions, messages. This is not an “I told you so.” It is a “Behold! See the common thread, the shared understanding and hope of many in our time.” May covenant epistemology lend resourceful aid to a vision larger than itself even as it draws gratefully on the resources of others in dynamic conversation. –elm
In the high summer of 2014, my mornings were streaked rosy gold with my reading of Dallas Willard’s Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God (IVP, 1984, updated and expanded edition 2012). Willard (1935-2013), a noted philosopher of phenomenological realism, is perhaps better known as a powerful writer of helpful books on Christian spirituality. This was my first venture into Willard’s work—one I had anticipated with delight for a long time. Plus, I was intrigued because I had heard third-hand of Willard’s personal commendation of covenant epistemology.
Summarizing Hearing God
The book addresses the ever-live concern of whether people can/do hear God speak to them, to give them specific guidance about his will for their lives. Willard argues that the way we are meant to hear God is within the larger context of growing a conversational relationship with God. And this is only possible when we have reoriented our general understanding of reality so that spiritual life is real, and persons in relationship, shaping reality by words, is the way reality is. Willard gently guides his readers through this reorientation, and he shares the concrete know-how of an expert and experienced guide. I commend this nourishing book to any Christian believer wanting to deepen their relationship with God. Willard writes: “The key concept underlying all the themes I have raised in this book is this: Hearing God’s word will never make sense except when it is set within a larger life of a certain kind.” (274)
Echoes of Covenant Epistemology in Hearing God
In several respects, the heart of what Dallas Willard is carrying out, and of what he is commending, accords with the claims of covenant epistemology. Covenant epistemology claims that all knowing is relational knowing, and the better we are at cultivating the knowing as an interpersonal relationship, the better we will be at knowing. This is true of knowing rose bushes or carpentry. It’s obviously true of knowing persons, though we always seem to need to be reminded to treat persons as persons. Covenant epistemology also means we should see knowing persons and knowing rosebushes as working the same way, in many respects—interpersonally. It takes challenging the presumed distinction between knowing rose bushes and knowing persons to make us better at both. Knowing God, of course, is knowing a person of the most unique sort.
Hearing God, obviously, is about knowing God. Willard is showing us how to cultivate a mature interpersonal relationship with God. And what he offers and how he offers it are just the key points of covenant epistemology.
I'll develop these points in Part II coming later this month.
Esther Lightcap Meek