I have found myself pondering “knowing” and “believing” lately. Such a pondering is fraught with peril because there is so much wiggle-room in the definition of the words and because of the unconscious baggage they often carry . In the America of the Culture Wars many are quick to associate “knowing” with science and fact and the physical world and “belief” with faith and religion and perhaps even superstition. In such a scenario, the terms become pugilists, squaring off in the ring at every bell and seldom returning to their respective corners. I myself have been guilty of such association, and hope here to avoid that particular quicksand though I am sure I will likely fall into it or some other.
Instead, I would like to show that the terms are actually friends who complement each other quite nicely, like coffee and mornings or movies and popcorn. Each of our lives is actually a highly interwoven fabric of fact and faith. There are things we think we know absolutely but in fact we have placed our faith in someone else or their knowledge and experience, and if we seek deeply enough we may come to see that they themselves did not “know” either, but believed what someone else had to say on the matter.
So first we need to get a definition or two out of the way. What I mean by knowing is that which I have direct experience of via the five senses. What I mean by faith is the acceptance of the testimony of another. Already I am on a slippery slope, but please bear with me a bit. As an example, I know there is a place commonly called “Spruce Knob” which exists in my home state of West Virginia. I know this because I have been there. I know it is aptly named because it is covered with red spruce trees at its highest elevations. I have seen them and touched them and smelled their lovely spruciness (spell check does not like “spruciness”, but I am overruling its objection because I stand as the Supreme Court of this blog). I know that wild blueberries and huckleberries grow there, sometimes in great preponderance, because I have stuffed my belly with them.
Now, there here are some other things I “know” about Spruce Knob, but I do not know them by the direct experience of my own five senses. I know them through the testimony of others and I presume that their knowledge is based on their five senses or the accumulated knowledge of the five senses of others. For instance I know the elevation above sea level is 4,863 ft. I certainly haven’t measured it myself nor do I completely understand the mathematics involved in calculating such a figure. I also know that Spruce Knob is the highest land elevation in this state. But again, I know this not by experience but by the testimony of others. I have trudged my way atop many of the mountains in West Virginia but certainly not all of them, and I haven’t personally measured the elevation of those either. So I have a knowledge but it a faith-based knowledge, not an actual knowledge possessed or experienced via my own five senses.
When we look at life this way, we are all believers of a sort. And there is no way for it to be otherwise since we are all limited in space and time and intelligence. None of us can actually “know” it all. But an objection quickly arises–while it is true that no one person can go everywhere or know every thing to be known, actual, physical people do experience these things or know them via the five senses so it is at least theoretically possible for an individual person to know them. In other words, just because I have never been to Paris and likely never will go to Paris you could take me there if need be and I could experience it with my five senses. It is therefore simply a matter of fact that I have not personally experienced, and not really a matter of faith at all.
Well, yes and no. The “no” being that theoretical knowledge and actual knowledge are not one and the same and therefore until I do actually get to Paris I’m just gonna have to trust you that it’s there (and I do, by-the-way). In other words theory and practicality often never meet. In fact, the more we learn, the more we seem to realize how much we haven’t learned yet. It’s like climbing a mountain–the higher we go, the more we can see. But the more we can see, the more we realize there is even more out there we cannot yet see. And sometimes, as the view changes so does our perspective of things we could see already!
There is also one “place” that at least none of us can go–the past. I live about 45 minutes from a place called “Fort Necessity” where a young man by the name of George Washington began to make something of a name for himself. Or at least that is what I’m told. I wasn’t there when everything went down. I have never met George Washington. But I trust the testimony of others and the evidence in terms of artifacts and such. I draw a conclusion and believe it to be so. I know these things but don’t really know them at precisely the same time.
My whole point is really a simple one. In a world where people have all sorts of convictions and all sorts of knowledge and all sorts of belief and all these things get rolled into a mass and crystallize, it’s easy to draw lines and start conflicts or pile on in existing ones. It’s easy to subconsciously place our own knowledge and experience on a pedestal. But if we could on occasion just step back and breathe and see how fraught with peril all our knowledge is it might humble us just a tad. Perhaps we might not be so quick to lay out fuses or put matches to existing ones. It might just gentle us a bit and my how the world could use that.