This ridiculous title is neither inspired by a postgraduate seminar I attended on the book of Revelation on Wednesday at Spurgeon’s College (thank you, Joshua Searle, not least for the awful joke that if you don’t understand what the word apocalypse means – don’t worry, it’s not the end of the world) nor by a year’s worth of trying to situate myself with regard to a theory of knowledge that will underpin my doctoral research, but by a simple verse found in the futuristic visions of the prophet Daniel, living as an experienced, prayerful, imperial administrator in a Persian capital city – maybe Susa, above, where he is traditionally buried – and in conversation with angels:
A hand touched me and set me trembling on my hands and knees. He said, “Daniel, you who are highly esteemed, consider carefully the words I am about to speak to you, and stand up, for I have now been sent to you.” And when he said this to me, I stood up trembling. Then he continued, “Do not be afraid, Daniel. Since the first day that you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard, and I have come in response to them.” (Daniel 10:10-12)
…you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before your God….
What a thing to say about a human, especially from an angel who knew about these things. I think that here is a true Christian epistemology, a view of knowledge that places understanding precisely in the context where God longs for it to be. Eugene Peterson’s translation is:
…you decided to humble yourself to receive understanding…
which makes the link between heart attitude and cognitive gain more causal.
Luther used the words: du von Herzen begehrtest zu verstehen und dich kasteitest vor deinem Gott – which adds a note of desperation (begehrten – coveted) and of self-abasement (sich kasteien – mortify oneself, chastise oneself). This shows us a Lutheran theme, that the longing for knowledge, the longing to understand, is geared powerfully to the seeking of God. William Morgan’s 1588 translation into Welsh, which predated the English Authorized Version (though not Tyndale’s not Luther’s), has a different understanding: rhoddaist dy galon i ddeall – you gave your heart to understand: “you put your entire desire, motivation and personhood on the line for the sake of this understanding of me.”
So here we have a complex of emotional and psychological factors underpinning our epistemology. Here there is no standing back with a clipboard and observing, nor is there a creation of new knowledge through constructivism. Daniel is not consulting books nor is he speaking to other people to covet new angles of vision. He is not trying to get a feminist or liberation theology reading on his ancient scriptures. He is taking steps, as he has in his great prayer in the previous chapter to place his whole self into the knowledge, knowing that the level of understanding he will gain is completely related to the desire and state and submissiveness of his heart. We know that God esteemed him and told him so (Daniel 9:23; 10:11). We know from modern socio-linguistic study, that our epistemology, our theory of the construction of knowledge, has to impact ourselves, and that we and our experience are complicit and implicit in the theory we create. However, what that hardly imagines is that our understanding will grow to the degree to which we allow ourselves to be transformed into the likeness of Christ. Consider this passage from Peter’s second epistle:
His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 1: 3-9)
Knowledge here – the supreme knowledge as Peter sees it, is the knowledge of Jesus Christ, as mediated into our transforming character. Paul, in 2 Corinthians 4:6, tells us that God “made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.” What this means exactly is hard to pin down. A parallel idea is in Colossians 3:10, where Paul talks of “the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator” as we give ourselves over to the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit and engage in those practices that build new habits in our hearts and minds.
Even if we can’t grasp the dynamic of this fully (and I am of the opinion that it is probably impossible to do so) the essential link that Peterson makes between understanding and humility is well known and scripturally unremarkable. What is really interesting to me though, is the way that it undermines traditional modernist evangelical approaches to what is considered biblical knowledge and biblical authority. The relationship between humility and understanding means that in all our seeking of wisdom, of reality, of what can be known of God – unless we come at it from a humble position (and the most humble position is that which will allow God to dethrone our self-made understandings of the Bible), we may never know anything of God with any certainty at all. Even the certain things cannot be approached with the prideful, modernist, propositional approaches. The postmodern movement has thus done us a favour, in fact, in helping us a few steps along in our love of God and the way in which we might be conformed into his likeness. It is no mistake that Peter, above, enjoins us to add knowledge to its predecessor, goodness, and that having acquired knowledge, then to remember self-control, perseverance and love as the hallmarks of a life to whom that knowledge is granted.
So let us give ourselves to Jesus Christ in humble devotion as a first step in seeking understanding. This is surely an epistemology that will find favour with God.