This week I sit curled up next to family, watching small siblings opening gifts. I lie on carpet squinting at economics and algebra textbooks, and watch the pilot episodes of a couple of shows people have instructed me to see, weighing whether I can sustain the commitment to finish their stories. I wake up late. I run. I sit cross-legged on my bed in the temperate glow of my single strand of Christmas lights and ponder things. What am I looking for? What do I need to manufacture for myself vs. find outside of me? What duties/joys am I shirking and why? Where am I needed? I read T.S. Eliot:
The lot of man is ceaseless labor,
Or ceaseless idleness, which is still harder,
Or irregular labour, which is not pleasant.
I have trodden the winepress alone, and I know
That it is hard to be really useful, resigning
The things that men count for happiness, seeking
The good deeds that lead to obscurity, accepting
With equal face those that bring ignominy,
The applause of all or the love of none.
All men are ready to invest their money
But most expect dividends.
I say to you: Make perfect your will.
I say: take no thought of the harvest,
But only of proper sowing.
There are things you lose when you pursue a career: Worship as an obvious chief vocation. Time to be still. Motivations unaffected by the hope of rising higher.
O world of spring and autumn, birth and dying!
The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to God.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Brings us farther from God and nearer to the Dust.
I have lost the easy stride of a worshiper. I am like my brother who, untrained at piano, can play hymns in full harmony by ear– but when I straighten his bench and sit down to teach him note names and fingerings, inspiration is forgotten and he languishes in a tangle of thumbs and accidentals.
I am that child. Learning technique. Questioning my choice of direction and reminding myself what I leave behind. And still, still drawn to my work. But the work and the life get confused often because I think about density and walkability and sustainability and ecology and community and bake myself into a buzzword pie but forget to till my own land and speak to my own neighbors.
What life have you, if you have not life together?
There is not life that is not in community,
And no community not lived in praise of GOD.
And now you live dispersed on ribbon roads,
And no man knows or cares who is his neighbor
Unless his neighbor makes too much disturbance,
But all dash to and fro in motor cars,
Familiar with the roads and settled nowhere.
I have given you hands which you turn from worship,
I have given you speech, for endless palaver,
I have given you my Law, and you set up commissions,
I have given you lips, to express friendly sentiments,
I have given you hearts, for reciprocal distrust.
I have given you power of choice, and you only alternate
Between futile speculation and unconsidered action.
Many are engaged in writing books and printing them.
Many desire to see their names in print.
Many read nothing but the race reports.
Much is your reading, but not the Word of God,
Much is your building, but not the House of God.
And the wind shall say:
“Here were decent godless people:
Their only monument the asphalt road
And a thousand lost golf balls.”
I fight suburban sprawl and automobile-oriented environments. But imagine I win; who am I then? A decent godless person: her only monument the pedestrian-oriented streetscape and a thousand lost souls?
When the Stranger says: “What is the meaning of this city?
Do you huddle close together because you love each other?”
What will you answer? “We all dwell together
To make money from each other”? or “This is a community”?
Oh my soul, be prepared for the coming of the Stranger.
Be prepared for him who knows how to ask questions.
So I hear the questions and I am afraid because it turns out I am not good at walking this path, but I refuse to turn back. Like a fool, I wander forward into the unknown because I just want to HELP, but I don’t know if I will. I want to be important, but I’m afraid it would destroy me. I want to be independent but I don’t want to be alone. I want to worship AND be accepted in a secularized city. So it’s a mess. But I believe I’m meant to wade through it.
In spite of all the dishonour,
the broken standards, the broken lives,
The broken faith in one place or another,
There was something left that was more than the tales
Of old men on winter evenings.
I believe Jesus will be faithful to complete a good work in and through me. Halfway in and halfway out of the dark, I will keep Christmas.
The work of creation is never without travail;
Lord, shall we not bring these gifts to Your service?
Shall we not bring to Your service all our powers
For life, for dignity, grace and order.
And intellectual pleasures of the senses?
The Lord who created must wish us to create
And employ our creation again in His service
Which is already His service in creating.
(Poetry taken from Eliot’s Choruses from “The Rock”; I recommend the entire poem.)
How do you know?
How do you know that you know?
How do you know that you know that you know?
The bemusing yet essential questions of epistemology have been around for thousands of years. In her book, A Little Manual for Knowing, Esther Lightcap Meek addresses those questions gently and accessibly. Meant to be a guidebook for those embarking on “knowing ventures”, each short chapter culminates in a series of introspective questions to assist thought and application.
What does it mean to gain knowledge? For most of us in this age of information, knowledge is simply an accumulation of facts, but Meek spends the 100 pages of A Little Manual debunking this assumption. Although she agrees that knowledge often involves amassing information, she goes deeper into the reality of human knowing with the intention of convincing us that there is more to knowledge than data. Ultimately, she claims that knowing requires love, commitment, and creaturely gratitude in order to come full circle and bear fruit. While information-driven knowledge is about control, love-driven knowledge invites and receives reality as it is. “We must be willing to have it change us,” she urges. Unless there is an element of trust and commitment to the yet-to-be-known, we’ll miss the reality of the thing– gaining a mere cursory idea of it or projecting our own expectations onto it. We’ll be the proper hearers of T.S. Eliot’s question: “Where is the life we have lost in living? Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”
Meek borrows heavily from the philosophy of 20th century polymath Michael Polanyi, especially his theory of tacit knowing. Like Polanyi, she claims that much of our focal concentration is rooted in subsidiary awareness. Subsidiary-focal integration, or SFI, encompasses the core of a knowing endeavor. Skills like playing the piano exemplify SFI: you can’t play well if you focus entirely on your finger movements, for instance. Your fingers are part of your subsidiary awareness. When you begin to learn piano, your fingers are at the forefront of your concentration, but as you learn to control them, they take on the habit of correct posture and movement and allow you to shift your focus to the music. Similarly, as we learn in other ways, we integrate the focal and the subsidiary in a way that drives us closer to the heart of a subject. What begins as focal knowledge passes to subsidiary, where we can “indwell” it like our own bodies. Once-foreign concepts become presuppositions. “Coming to know proves to be a process of moving from looking at to looking from, in order to look beyond,” writes Meek.
She’s currently a successful writer, professor of philosophy in Pennsylvania, and Visiting Professor of Apologetics at Redeemer Seminary in Dallas, but Meek remembers being in middle school and wondering how we can know when we’ve achieved knowledge. It’s a question that has plagued epistemologists for centuries, and maybe those epistemologists all started out as confused middle-schoolers. Meek’s explanation of how we know when we’re in contact with reality involves a complex term: Independent Future Manifestations; which just means a sense of unfolding possibility. “When you learn to ride a bike,” she told Ken Myers in an interview for the Mars Hill Audio Journal, “the world opens up to you in bikish ways.” When reality points you to more reality, that’s how you know it’s real. That moment of epiphany is empowering. Meek goes beyond that first connection, though. She encourages knowers to retain the wonder of epiphany throughout life as we continue to pursue understanding.
The necessity of retaining wonder requires us to see knowing as an exercise of love and invitation of the yet-to-be-known instead of a harvest of empirical facts. The first method is a pursuit of peace and living along-side; the latter is about power. And when we’re seekers of power, we are unwilling to allow our contact with reality to transform us. We take but do not give. Meek compares healthy learning to a dance: a give-and-take relationship between knower and known. We cannot strive for dominance or we’ll never achieve virtuosity. As creatures, we live inside a reality that has much to teach us, and often our most useful tool is acknowledgement of our own ignorance. 1 Corinthians 8:2-3 points this out: “If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.” The proper focus is always on being known, rather than knowing; on approach rather than arrival. Meek speaks of reality in these terms when she says, “Rather than fitting into our sense of what makes sense, it fits us into its sense of what makes sense.”
A Little Manual for Knowing delves deep without drowning the reader. Only a centimeter thick, it’s essentially the layman’s version of Meek’s opus, Loving to Know. In that substantial work, the concepts of A Little Manual are detailed more thoroughly. But for those who don’t have time or fortitude for over 500 pages of epistemic philosophy, this thin manual delivers the core ideas. It is passionate and enthusiastic: highly unusual qualities in this field! Sometimes Meek waxes too eloquent and becomes gushy, and there are too few citations even for laymen, but I enjoyed Meek’s crash course in loving epistemology and I recommend it or Loving to Know for anyone interested in expanding his understanding of understanding.
For further reading on wisdom, tacit knowledge, and Michael Polanyi, try this post.
Midnight is exactly that
a certain balance of darkness
gone into darkness
hanging on scales
and as the attaining of the middle, the fulcrum,
so are your days and mine:
hard to hold
Contribute your perspicuity
despite the lulling shade of the palm trees,
loose your voracious intelligence and pry something free
from this curse of apathy
Tomorrow will see us all dying
every day closer to dying
has there ever been a day with no dying?
Soft shoes pound with your weight in them
on a hard stage you dance in them
is it by memory or in passion that you
dance and lean the audience toward you?
old women and young boys sit mesmerised
but is it by memory or in passion that you
capture applause from the world?
the ember sky forms kinks and curls
like an old water hose
your professor knows
On hard stage, grass stage, third stage
your performance erupts
into kindness and rage
In a full house, tell me in what part of the house
would you like to sit with me?
on twin bar stools or the ragged couch
or upstairs on beanbag chairs like anemones?
take off your shoes and tell me
has there ever been a day with no dying?