..... continued .....

by Theodore Plantinga

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Chapter 11
Philosophy and Common Grace

In Chapter 1 we noted that there is some uneasiness in Christian circles about the application of the term "Christian." There are some believers who can hardly bear to see this adjective applied to anything human at all, whereas others appear to use it too generously. When it comes to philosophy, I have been applying it fairly freely insofar as I have assumed that there is such a thing as "Christian philosophy"; indeed, I have even used this phrase in the title of the book. What justification could one offer for applying the term "Christian" to something that originates outside Christian circles?

The justification I would propose is that philosophical thinking, writing and teaching represent activities that can be undertaken to God's glory, activities that can contribute to the realization of God's purposes here on earth. Just as one believer may claim to go about his daily work in farming as a Christian, another may claim to philosophize as a Christian. We speak of Christian approaches to philosophy, farming, and a great many other human activities. But we do not extend this possibility to all organized human activities: some clearly cannot serve as vehicles for God's glorification.

One might make a tidy living as a criminal, for example, but such daily "work" would hardly count as a contribution toward the realization of divine purposes here on earth. Thus, if there are any Christians who make a living as bank robbers, we are not likely to draw the conclusion that their daily activity is an "area of life" that must be "claimed for Christ"; rather, we would urge them to repent of their wickedness and to earn

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their living honestly.

There have been Christian thinkers who supposed that we need a doctrine of "common grace" to justify a link between Christian commitment and philosophical activity. Now, the notions behind this term have a lengthy and controversial history in Calvinistic circles. Some Reformed thinkers, such as Klaas Schilder (1890-1952), stay away from the phrase "common grace" altogether as they develop their own thinking, for they maintain that it creates more problems than it solves. I count myself among them; yet I must address the doctrine here and explore its application to the case of philosophy.

The notion of common grace does have a basis in the Bible. The text usually referred to is Matthew 5:45, where we read: "He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust." This text seems to be telling us that when it comes to the blessings God showers on His creation, which is now populated by "the just and the unjust," that is, by both believers and non-believers, by people who seek to do God's will as well as by others who resist Him -- those blessings rain down (literally) on both groups, seemingly without distinction. When we add to this text the emphasis in the parable of the wheat and the tares (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43), namely, that believers are not to live in a land apart but are to dwell among non-believers, we see that it could hardly be otherwise. Thus it appears that there is a goodness or favor of God grounded in His continuing relation to this world in virtue of His providential will, in which all human beings -- indeed, all creatures -- share on a roughly equal basis. And that goodness is what some Reformed thinkers call "common grace."

There is another important element in this doctrine of common grace, namely, that God postpones judgment on fallen, rebellious man. That postponement of judgment is part of the plan of redemption, of course, for without it, His will and plan for our salvation could not be realized. Once we understand this, we see why the term "common grace," which is usually

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contrasted with particular or saving grace, is not well chosen: the postponement, the lengthening and extension of the time during which man may go on living on God's good earth, enjoying both sunshine and rain, is by no means unrelated to His saving grace, His redemptive will and plan. God's dealings with man are ultimately one and unified -- not divided up over separate segments or dispensations or orders.

Reformed thinkers who use the doctrine of common grace to justify Christian involvement in philosophy -- and in other sectors of culture, for that matter -- often complicate the picture even further by introducing peculiar notions about divine revelation. Following in the footsteps of certain church fathers who made theologically inappropriate suggestions, they give us the impression that God needed pagan thinkers and cultural leaders to serve as channels of revelation in some weaker sense; that is to say, He used them to make Himself partially known to pagan nations during Old Testament times. Such thinkers are not talking the language of Romans 1:18-32, which is usually invoked when the notion of general revelation is discussed; rather, they are comparing the works of the great philosophers to the books of the Old Testament. They maintain that just as the Old Testament is incomplete in that it does not present Christ to us but can do no more than point ahead to His coming, so the works of these philosophers are incomplete and can serve as no more than preparations for the coming of the Savior who was to be made known to the whole world. In any event, the doctrine of common grace (wrongly understood and applied) then gets intertwined with this curious notion of general revelation that has no foundation in Scripture.

The upshot of this combination of doctrines is first of all that we should reserve a special place in our hearts for either Plato (428-348 B.C.) or Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), but probably not both. (Usually someone who thinks along these lines favors one or the other of these two great thinkers of ancient Greece; the two established separate intellectual traditions that dominated philosophy through about the sixteenth century.) In

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our time we find Christian thinkers making similar suggestions about the great philosophers of ancient India: could one argue that the Buddha (560-477 B.C.) and Nagarjuna (second century A.D.), who are the two greatest philosophers of Buddhism, were used by God to prepare the way for the gospel in Asia? And would we want to assign similar status to Shankara (788-820), the greatest philosopher in the Hindu tradition? In orthodox circles such suggestions seem bizarre; in liberal Christian circles they get a respectful hearing. And when we turn to more recent Western philosophy, the common grace approach seems even less appealing. Many of the great philosophers of the last few centuries expressed themselves in explicitly anti-Christian (or perhaps "post-Christian") terms. Surely no one would want to maintain that thinkers like David Hume (1711-76), Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) and Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) are to be regarded as channels of divine revelation!

Another version of the common grace approach to non-Christian philosophy and culture comes to us under the theological heading of "transformation." What we are told by proponents of this way of thinking is that the proper way to understand the relationship between Christianity and culture is that the former transforms the latter. This would be a piece of good news if it were true, although one could not help wondering why more of the fruits of such transformation are not evident in our time, almost two thousand years after the resurrection and ascension of Christ. After all, contemporary Western culture does not strike us as all that Christian; indeed, one might well get the impression that the culture of the Western world has been growing less Christian.

This theology of culture has its roots in the thinking of the American theologian H. Richard Niebuhr (1984-1962), whose book Christ and Culture (1951) has attracted quite a following in some otherwise orthodox circles. Niebuhr himself liked to speak of his position as "conversionism." Moreover, in his formulation, it is Christ who transforms culture -- not Christianity. But on either formulation, the moral of the story is

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roughly the same: Christians have abundant reason to be optimistic about human culture and the possibilities of serving God in the mainstream of our society. Their calling is not to live in cultural isolation (as some of our Reformed forefathers seemed to think) but to participate in the broad stream of culture in their society.

Such a theology seems to fit in with certain slogans long popular in certain sectors of the Reformed world (especially slogans containing the word "all"), and so it should not surprise us that Niebuhr's thinking is regarded by some sincere believers as nothing more or less than Reformed theology in its application to ethical and cultural questions. We are given the impression that Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) would have applauded Niebuhr's Christ and Culture if he had lived long enough to read it.

As we seek a Christian rationale for participation in the cultural activity we call philosophy, we can safely set aside both common grace and transformation. The latter is a mistaken theology of culture, and the former is an unfortunate term for certain Biblical emphases that do not have any substantial bearing on the question of Christianity and philosophy.

Why, then, do Christians devote so much time and attention to philosophy? First of all, it is a matter of self-defense. Philosophy has shown itself to be a powerful force in Western culture. It has survived for almost three thousand years, and has often captured the best minds, in some cases turning people's hearts away from Christ and the gospel. It seems obvious that Christians venturing into the world of learning and science need to know what philosophy, as a potential spiritual foe, is about, and the best way for them to learn what they need to know is to study philosophy under the direction of someone who shares their Christian commitment. To some extent, then, Christian teaching about philosophy parallels the teaching we do about cults and sects that have some appeal for people in our faith community: it is best to find out from a fellow believer what the arguments against one's own convictions are.

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It was roughly in this spirit that Paul talked about philosophy in Colossians 2:8 ("See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy ...").

But there is also a constructive side to philosophical activity, as we saw earlier. Are we free, as believers, to participate in an intellectual tradition that does not originate among believers? To answer this question, I would appeal to what we might call the lesson of Genesis 4. In this important piece of Scripture we discover that God, very early in human history, gave impressive cultural and technological talents to people who stood in the line of unbelief, i.e. Jabal and Jubal and Tubal-Cain, who are presented to us as sons of the murderous Lamech. We may wish that God had allowed the believers to be the chief formers and leaders in culture and technology, but that has not been His will throughout history: the pattern of Genesis 4 is repeated down the ages. Just as Christians participate in metal-working and music-making today, they may participate in philosophy, despite the fact that the first great philosophers were not believers.

Still, there are Christians who think something more is needed. What they hanker after is a theological explanation for cultural excellence. If we stick with music as an example, we may note that some of the great composers in the Western tradition were dedicated Christians. Perhaps our awareness of their commitment enhances our appreciation of their music. But there were also major composers who do not appear to have been forthright Christians in terms of their confession or the position they took toward the community of faith; indeed, it would seem ludicrous to suggest that they were Christians in any but the most trivial sense. Although they lived in a country in which Christianity was still the dominant religious tradition, they did not associate themselves with the Christian cause in any overt way. Can we also appreciate their music? How is it possible for the music of such non-believers to stir us the way it does?

In our quest for a theological answer to this question, we

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need go no further than the doctrine of creation. The possibility of music or anything else that is of cultural worth was ultimately established by God in creation. Therefore we can freely praise God for anything in culture that we find excellent. We are not thereby making an honorary Christian of a composer who had no desire to associate himself with the community of faith; all we are doing is affirming that God's work in creation is the original source and ground of all goodness.

In this ultimate creational sense, we can also say simply that God made philosophy. If it were not for God's work in creation, there would and could be no such thing as philosophy. Yet we should go on to recognize that what we call philosophy, by which we mean a body of ideas and writings that has been with us for more than two thousand years, does not come to us directly from God's good hand; rather, it comes from Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, Kant, and so forth. Hence it should not surprise us that philosophy is blemished by human sinfulness.

Even the rankest pornography is a creation of God in some ultimate sense. Yet it never occurs to us to suppose that pornography is a product of "common grace" and rains down from heaven like manna and should be gratefully ingested by us. Pornography -- along with so much of the rest of human culture -- comes to us stained by sin. We freely disregard and discard much of what man produces and regards as culturally valuable, and we should also summon the courage to discard certain ideas. To do so is to recognize that philosophy does not descend upon us directly from heaven either: when we look at it carefully, we see human fingerprints all over it. And so we have reason to be both thankful and critical when we hold philosophical works in our hands.

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Chapter 12
Participation, Appropriation
and Commentary

A favorite theme for discussion in Christian colleges is Christian emphasis and distinctiveness in the courses and subject matter. The official line usually taken by our colleges, a line which is stressed especially in the promotional materials, is that all subject matters and all activities are approached in a recognizably and distinctively Christian way. Colleges regularly evaluate their instructors in terms of these goals. If an instructor does not come across as specifically Christian in what he teaches, he may run into problems when he is being evaluated with an eye to reappointment.

Part of what the colleges are looking for in their instructors is a Christian manner in the classroom and in relations with students. Whatever the subject matter being taught, it should be possible for an instructor to appear courteous and concerned about others, and he should be able to project an image of himself as animated by spiritual concerns. Furthermore, he should be a member of a community of faith and worship, a supporter of family values, an honest, hard-working person, and so forth. In Christian education circles, we often talk about "modeling," which is a main emphasis in the philosophy of education developed by Nicholas Wolterstorff (born 1932). An instructor in a Christian institution is supposed to "model" Christian values and commitments. Using old-fashioned language, we could make the same point by saying that he is supposed to set a good example for his students.

But when we have affirmed all of this, we still have not

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said enough. An instructor in a Christian college must also be distinctively Christian in terms of the content of his teaching. But what does this mean, more specifically? It is generally supposed that the philosophers among us have some special insight into this question; indeed, it is one of the functions of an introductory philosophy course in a Christian college to help students understand what is meant by Christian content.

The question I am addressing here is a difficult one because the subject matters offered in a Christian college are not able to be Christian in the very same sense and to the same degree. Some distinctions are needed if we are to make progress in our understanding of this matter.

There are many instructors who would rely on the language of common grace and/or transformation (H. Richard Niebuhr's theology) if asked to explain what is Christian about the subject matter they offer in their classes. They might argue along the following lines: "In discipline X, which I have taught in this Christian college ever since I received a Ph.D. in it from the (secular) University of Y, we find quite a few ideas that are unacceptable to people of Christian convictions. I criticize those ideas in my classes -- that's part of my responsibility as a Christian teacher. Yet we as Christians have to go out into all areas of life and transform them. Fortunately, there are now quite a few Christians working in discipline X and making original contributions to it. Indeed, I am one of them. And so, what I offer in my classes is a transformed and redeemed version of discipline X. And I try to inspire some students to go into the discipline as well to carry the work further. The Christian's proper relation to culture, after all, is one of participation."

This type of answer works to some extent for certain academic disciplines -- especially for some parts or branches of those disciplines. Yet it is open to criticism. First of all, such an approach is a little too glib and facile. A theological formula is applied: "Christianity transforms culture." This gives us the assurance, even before we take a careful look, that the

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discipline in question is on its way to being Christianized and that there is no fundamental reason to question its presence in the curriculum of a Christian college. In the common grace version of this type of answer, we are assured that discipline X is something we should treasure and get involved in because it, along with everything of value in culture, is a product of God's common grace and therefore is something we should receive thankfully as a gift from His hand.

The second criticism I would offer is more subtle and potentially disturbing to people: the transformation or common grace approach leaves us unable to criticize the content of a discipline when Christians are the ones presenting ideas within it. If the ideas they present are ultimately the product of God's work within culture, we have no more business criticizing and rejecting them than we have casting aside Paul's letter to the Ephesians.

What we need is an understanding of Christian higher education that would allow us to reject a body of ideas within discipline X even if those ideas have been formulated by a Christian. Just as not every philosophical idea that has been developed and defended by someone who is a Christian ought to meet with our approval (as we saw in Chapter 1), so we should reserve the right to reject ideas in other disciplines. There is always a critical edge needed in Christian academic work: we should not turn off our critical faculties just because certain ideas are presented to us as having come from Christians. Hence we should resist the impulse to declare immediately that a set of conclusions presented by a professor in a Reformed college represents the -- or a -- Reformed view of the matter; instead we should assess those conclusions carefully.

If we fail to be critical here, we are in effect suggesting that what Christians think and teach and advise always meets with God's approval, fits in with His intentions, and can simply be called Christian thought and doctrine and advice, without any qualification. The Bible leaves no room for such assumptions. When David decided he would like to build a house for

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God (i.e. a temple), now that he had provided amply for his own housing needs, he communicated his plan to the prophet Nathan. It struck Nathan as a good idea and he said so: he even assured David that God was with him in this endeavor. But it turned out that Nathan's advice was not "Christian": the Lord told him to return to David with the command not to proceed with this project (see I Chronicles 17). Here we see again that what must be decisive in our lives is not "Christian thought" (what Christians think) but divine revelation, i.e. what God has revealed, made known, commanded.

Analogous arguments could be made in reference to our response to art works and art forms. What is a Christian novel, for example? Surely we would not say that any novel written by someone who appears to be a genuine Christian must count as a Christian novel. Rather, we would want to develop more stringent and restrictive criteria that would focus on the work itself -- and not just its author. We also need more stringent criteria when it comes to determining what counts as Christian thought in such areas as philosophy and discipline X.

The participation answer to the question of Christian content is basically an across-the-board approach. It applies a formula that seems equally appropriate for any academic discipline one might care to name. But there is another type of approach one encounters in our colleges, an approach that is more pragmatic and strategic in nature, and a bit less inclined to talk about itself. It is practiced more than it is explained or defended.

A user of the approach I have in mind would point to the potential usefulness of his subject matter for Christian purposes. Let us suppose that his field is linguistics. He might then say that the general principles of linguistics shed a good deal of light on translation. Isn't it one of the aims of the Christian community to see that the Bible is translated into all living languages? Moreover, don't Christians have a special interest in communication (both oral and written) because their Lord has charged them with the task of preaching the gospel to all

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nations? Well then, Christians should get involved in linguistics and should appropriate (the key word here) its results and discoveries so that they can put them to use in distinctively Christian projects like the ones mentioned above.

Note that such a defense is not an example of "all areas of life" thinking, for there are many areas of work and economic endeavor on which it offers no commentary; indeed, in the case of some of them, defenders of the strategic approach would advise Christians not to get involved. One such area is the trade in illegal drugs, which involves work in manufacturing, transportation and distribution, and which generates billions of dollars in revenue. Such work contributes substantially to human sin and misery. The production and promotion of alcoholic beverages, however, is legal; yet it is hardly a type of activity that Christians would seize on as strategic for divine purposes: I have never heard anyone suggest that we need more Christian liquor producers.

If you were to ask a Christian college why it offers a program in nursing, part of its response would probably be that nursing is a type of work that includes opportunities for very significant contact between people -- even spiritual contact. After all, many people's thoughts turn in a spiritual direction when they confront serious illness or death -- whether their own death or that of a loved one. Isn't medical work a fine opportunity for witnessing to people about salvation in Christ? Isn't medicine a key field that Christians should work in? It is hard to argue against such reasoning when one realizes how many Christian doctors and nurses there are. And wouldn't it be wonderful for a Christian college to be able to establish a medical school, so that the Christians doctors of tomorrow could receive their training in a more spiritually sensitive climate? (Medical education is enormously expensive, and so a faculty of medicine is virtually out of the question for a private liberal arts college.)

There are a number of reasons why I prefer the appropriation emphasis over the participation approach when it comes to

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the question of Christian content. One of them is that the former represents an application of Augustine's "treasures of the Egyptians" theme, which is a way of thinking about "Christianity and culture" that can help us set a direction when we deal with ethical and cultural questions. Augustine liked to make much of the fact that when the Israelites finally departed from Egypt after the ten plagues, they took the gold and silver of the Egyptians with them (see Exodus 12:35-36). The psalmist points to this episode when he says: "Then he led forth Israel with silver and gold" (105:37). In commenting on this development, Augustine emphasizes that the treasures of the Egyptians (which I take to include the good things that have been developed by way of culture and technology among non-believers) belong to the people of God provided they are used for the service of God. The people of God are the rightful owners of those treasures, and so the term "appropriation" can well be used.

When we make appropriation our model, we can maintain the independence and integrity of the Christian community without surrendering our cultural task and responsibility. Yet this model does not deny that a certain reconstruction of the subject matter of "discipline X," for which the proponents of the participation model make a strong appeal, is in order. Both reconstruction and appropriation are needed. Yet reconstruction is not the same as an across-the-board transformation, nor do we need a doctrine of common grace in order to spell out what it involves.

There are also cases in which the proper Christian component in teaching cannot be understood in terms of either reconstruction or appropriation. Sometimes the Christian approach to a body of scientific work or to an academic or philosophical tradition is to comment on it in a critical vein. Suppose a Christian college offers a course in behaviorism, which is an approach to psychology championed by J. B. Watson (1878-1958) and B. F. Skinner (1904-90). Now, one would not want to Christianize behaviorism by making a few changes in its

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main theoretical principles and then presenting them as the (transformed) product of Christian reflection, nor would one seek applications for it. (Christians generally argue that behaviorist techniques for dealing with people do not properly respect the dignity of man as God's image-bearer.) Rather, the point of such a course would be to present the main Christian criticisms that have been made of behaviorism by psychologists and philosophers in the Christian community. If a student taking the course were asked to evaluate it in terms of its Christian orientation (or lack of such orientation), he would -- or perhaps should -- give the instructor a good rating if he has presented the informed commentary of Christian scholars on the behaviorist movement, just as he would do in a philosophy class in which the topic was Marxism. (A Christian philosopher, presumably, would not be out to either reconstruct or appropriate Marxism.)

The same approach could be used to understand the rationale for studying feminism in a Christian college. Critical commentary would again be offered. This is not to say that there is nothing of value to be learned from feminist writers and thinkers when it comes to the question of gender differences as they manifest themselves in human life; yet we should bear in mind that what a Christian learns or picks up from a non-Christian writer or teacher is not necessarily what the latter intends to teach him.

This way of understanding the Christian element or emphasis in a course can also help us when we ask in what sense literature courses can be considered Christian in terms of their content. Some bodies of literature have been extensively studied and commented on by Christian scholars and literary critics. A Christian instructor teaching a course in such a body of literature would presumably pass on some of that commentary and perhaps add to it on the basis of his own professional expertise. But there are also occasions when the literature being studied in a course has not drawn much attention from Christian scholars. In such a situation, the Christian instructor in

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effect has less to say by way of Christian orientation, and the course will seem to have less Christian content and emphasis than other courses the students have taken. Although the instructor will surely try to present his own informed Christian commentary on the literature being read, he should not be penalized or criticized simply because the subject matter he is teaching has never drawn much attention in Christians academic circles. Instead we should admit that some subject matters are, at this point in history, more susceptible of a thorough Christian treatment than others are. Since I teach a course in Asian philosophy, I have had occasion to notice that there is quite a difference between European and Asian philosophy in this regard: it is hard to teach Asian philosophy in a thoroughly Christian manner.

Perhaps it has occurred to you to argue that if a certain body of literature or a given subject matter has not been studied much by Christian scholars, it is not fit to serve as the content of a course in a Christian college. There is some merit to this thesis, although I would respond that unless we begin offering courses in some of these relatively unexplored domains, we will never make much progress toward a Christian understanding and criticism of them. Nonetheless, it should be admitted that the material selected for inclusion in a course -- in terms of both primary sources and secondary materials discussing those primary sources -- is an important factor in making the course substantially Christian in character and content.

When we bear this point in mind, we see why it is fairly common for Christian instructors to go out of their way to include the work of Christian thinkers and writers in the courses they teach, just as feminist professors bend over backwards to include the work of women in their courses. What these efforts indicate is that selection is a very important factor in making a course Christian in its orientation. A treatment of twentieth-century fiction that completely ignored the works of Christian writers -- and there have indeed been some fine

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Christian writers in our century -- would have to be judged inadequate and disappointing in its Christian orientation.

The most difficult courses to deal with on the basis of the selection emphasis are the ones offered in the natural sciences, computer science, and mathematics. In the case of certain subdisciplines within these disciplines, one does not detect any substantial difference between what is taught at a Christian college and what is taught in secular institutions. This is not to say that there may not be differences in pedagogy and attitude on the part of the respective instructors; still, it should not be forgotten that there are also Christians teaching at secular institutions.

Even if there is not much difference in content in the case of certain courses, this should not be a reason for despair, for being different must not, in and of itself, become our goal in a Christian college. Yet in certain of the subdisciplines in the sciences, the considerations mentioned earlier do find some application. Christian instructors in the natural sciences will presumably take time to talk about the many ethical questions that seem to bubble up from recent advances in the sciences and medical technology. They must ask their students how man's responsibility to care for the earth can be discharged now that so many potentially dangerous interventions with the environment are being contemplated and developed by scientists.

* * * * *

Let us now survey the senses in which the term "Christian" might be applied to the content of the courses in a Christian college. Bear in mind that in some cases a course may count as Christian in more than one of the senses distinguished here, and that some courses will inevitably wind up with more Christian content, emphasis and orientation than others simply in virtue of their subject matter.

(i) A course may represent a study of Christian writers and thinkers and shapers of history, in which case we will judge it to be Christian in a substantial and unproblematic sense.

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A good example would be a course dealing with the theology contained in John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion.

(ii) There are courses dealing with academic disciplines in which Christians have managed to do quite a bit of work by way of theoretical reconstruction, so that we can speak of Christian theories within the discipline in question. Many courses in Christian institutions move in this direction and contain some material of this sort, but do not get very far. Theoretical reconstruction is hard work. But we should be thankful for small beginnings.

(iii) And then there are the courses which offer Christian commentary and criticism in relation to scientific, philosophical and cultural traditions. An example might be a course in the nihilistic French literature of the twentieth century. The content of the course (i.e. the primary sources to be read) would be rather bleak and would certainly seem remote from Christian thought, but the overall reading of the works offered by the instructor and by the secondary sources he assigns could well be shaped by Christian concerns and a Christian understanding of literature.

(iv) Finally, there are courses of a more practical nature in which little attempt is made to challenge widely accepted ideas and techniques on Christian theoretical grounds. The emphasis in such courses would lie on the potential applicability of the subject matter to Christian life and service. When Christian colleges offer courses in aviation, they presumably qualify as Christian under this heading.

Thus not all the courses count as Christian in the same way and to the same extent. Precisely because they are not all "equally Christian," a Christian college builds a fair amount of prescription into its curriculum. It does allow its students plenty of choice between courses, but it declares that they have not had a proper Christian education unless they have taken certain prescribed courses that are especially effective in transmitting Christian content and Christian ways of thinking about cultural, scientific and academic traditions. All the instructors

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in a Christian college are asked to contribute toward the college's overall purpose, but they do not all contribute in the very same way.

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Seeing, Hearing and Saying

Experience and knowledge. Like other academic disciplines, philosophy is divided into parts or subdisciplines. Most standard handbooks recognize two of them as central, as forming the very heart of philosophy -- ontology and epistemology. Ontology deals with the nature of being or reality in general, whereas epistemology, which is our concern in this appendix, focuses on knowledge and experience. More specifically, epistemology is supposed to shed light on the criteria for truth and probe the question what is involved in knowing something.

Many of the writings that make up the primary sources in philosophy are concerned with the nature of knowledge. When we examine such works today, we are inclined to regard some of them as a mixture of philosophy and psychology. And students who take a course in the history of psychology find that many of the topics, thinkers and writings are familiar from philosophy class. The reason for this overlap is that various classical philosophers felt they had to say something about the sensory apparatus which human beings use in gaining knowledge of reality.

Now, the manner in which the human sensory apparatus operates is in good measure an empirical question: it is pursued by studying and analyzing the working of the sense organs in their relation to the brain. The scientific study of the sense organs of non-human creatures can also help us understand our own perceptual processes better. Today psychology and allied disciplines devote some attention as well to the extension of the human sensory apparatus by means of various technological devices which enhance and sharpen our perception.

Philosophers in our time do not claim to be experts on the

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workings of the human sense organs. Although philosophy and psychology formed a single department in many universities not much more than a century ago, a division of territory has since taken place between psychology and the part of philosophy that deals with knowledge and truth (i.e. epistemology). In this discussion I shall respect this boundary and offer no detailed comment on how the human sense organs actually work and how they differ from the sensory apparatus of various species of animals.

Contemporary epistemology is concerned largely with criteria for truth and with the conditions under which a person can be said to know something. It is interested in experience broadly understood, but it does not equate experience as such with knowledge. What we call experience is in need of assessment and interpretation; its "givens" have to be judged critically. What the knowledge content of a particular experience is, or what an experience serves to establish as true, is not an easy question to answer.

The first thing we should note is that what we call experience is a broader domain than knowledge. Much of what we call experience is never subjected to analysis and reflection; it flashes by, so to speak, before we get a chance to focus on it. In principle it could be retained for a little while, at least, but life does not always give us the leisure to engage in a careful analysis of what we have experienced, and so it fades away. Moreover, some of it is inherently confusing, like the whirl of images and sensations in a feverish dream. It sometimes seems that we do not have the categories to hold it fast and remember it. Experience may be the basis and source of our knowledge, but it is clear that something must lead us from the former to the latter. Knowledge is not simply experience retained; we could better say that it is experience that has been processed.

Seeing as a form of knowing. The dominant approach to knowing in the history of philosophy tends to assimilate it to seeing. And so, if there is something that links experience

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and knowing, turning the former into the latter, one might suppose that it is the wondrous processing of visual data that takes place in the brain. This supposition, however, is too limited, for an analysis of this sort might have value in terms of a psychology of perception without yet adding up to an adequate epistemology -- especially not if our concern is to construct a Christian philosophy.

In arguing for this point, I do not wish the denigrate or devalue vision as an important sensory system in the human body or seem ungrateful to our Creator, who has fashioned the eye. But I would point out that different societies have not all agreed on the extent to which humans should rely on vision (as opposed to other sense organs) in orienting themselves to reality: in so-called primitive societies, for example, we find a much higher reliance on smell. Yet Christian thought should have no qualms about reliance on vision for everyday purposes. The issue, rather, is whether vision should be allowed to become the dominant metaphor or model in terms of which all knowledge is to be understood. There are significant reasons for imposing some limits here.

The popular phrase "the mind's eye" illustrates how much our conception of knowledge is dominated by metaphors transferred from the domain of vision. To understand, to know something, seems to involve seeing it. "I see what you mean; I see what you're driving at," we may say to indicate that our thinking has risen to the level of knowledge. We may make such a statement after listening to a line of reasoning that has nothing to do with vision in the literal sense at all, e.g. when discussing an abstract point in higher mathematics or a theme in a piece of complicated music. We might even make such a comment when we conclude that a person we are talking with is being very emotional about something that we thought could be approached rather casually. Theories, ideas and various other terms that form part of our vocabulary of knowledge also have some etymological connection with knowledge in the literal sense: a "theory" (the term comes to us from Greek) is

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something one "sees" to be true -- in "the mind's eye."

Seeing for yourself. Empiricism in philosophy is the insistence on grounding our knowledge and truth in experience -- more specifically, in personal experience. To know something is to see it for oneself -- as opposed to grounding one's certainty in what others say or have experienced. And it is here that we begin to understand how much potential there is for philosophical disagreement between Christianity and Humanism. The latter, of course, is characterized by its insistence on human autonomy: the human being is not subject to any norm or authority alien to himself. The theme of Western history, in a Humanistic analysis, is man's gradual realization that this is so, which represents his emancipation, his overcoming of alienation. The law under which the individual lives is one of his own choosing, one to which he has given his free consent.

The Humanist impulse is fairly well understood when it comes to social and political theory, but not when the topic is epistemology, where it translates into the determination to see for oneself. Humanism is comfortable with the main line in the history of philosophy: both are deeply dependent on the metaphor of vision when dealing with questions of knowledge and certainty.

Why is vision to be preferred over the other senses, as far as Humanism is concerned? Mainly because it affords the individual a greater opportunity for sovereignty and autonomy than the other senses. When it comes to vision (as contrasted with hearing), the person having the perceptual experience is in control, in the driver's seat. He can close his eyes and thereby end the experience. He finds himself at a distance from the object of his visual perception and can avoid it by turning his head or turning around altogether. Even more important, perhaps, is that he has to "construct" his visual field and make it something meaningful. Vision seems to require more "synthesis" (a term certain philosophers rely on heavily when discussing experience) than hearing does. By squinting or closing my eyes

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partially, I can blur my visual field and then restore it to proper focus whenever I wish. Such filtering of the experiential givens is much more difficult in the case of hearing, which seems to retain its character regardless of what I want or do; at best, I can muffle the sounds coming at me. When I listen to loud recorded music in my living room, I can even feel the music when my shoeless feet are on the floor. But I do not see with my feet.

The Western ideal of objectivity as a virtue to be cultivated in the process of gaining knowledge is essentially an extension of this vision-based approach to knowledge. The knower must maintain a sovereign aloofness, an ability to shut reality out, so that it can be considered in the aloneness and privacy of thought. To know something is, first of all, to apprehend it at a distance without being committed to it morally or entangled with it emotionally, and then to make something of it in "the mind's eye."

What this aloofness means when considered in existential terms can nicely be illustrated by considering a communication situation. When a person has to deal with a difficult communication delivered orally, the presence of the messenger or spokesman complicates and limits the range of his possible responses. Therefore many people prefer to receive painful communications (e.g. a reprimand from the boss) in written form, by way of a memo or note which is then processed through the eyes rather than the ears. This allows more control over immediate reactions. Often the immediate reaction is denial: one puts the memo away and tries to forget about it. Work situations in which one's superior communicates in writing via memos are generally preferred over those in which one has a foreman nearby to shout fresh orders or a rebuke when needed.

Hearing and submission. There are various phrases that link hearing with action, such as "hearing and doing" and "hearing and obeying." In some settings, to "listen" is simply to obey, to do as you are told. In German and Dutch, the

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words for hearing and obeying are closely related.

This connection helps us understand why many people, especially if they have some elements of the Humanist impulse toward individual autonomy in their psychological make-up (Christians are not exempted from such failings), do not like to be spoken to in an authoritative tone of voice. They tend to feel they are being controlled or manipulated, and they may react almost automatically by resisting or disobeying. They prefer to receive written orders, to which they can respond in their own way and at their own pace. And if communication simply must be oral, they insist on being asked to do something, rather than told.

People with such a psychological make-up are not good candidates for membership in religious traditions that make much of a "word" of God which demands unquestioned and immediate obedience from man, such as Christianity and Islam. It is helpful to realize that the name Islam simply means submission. An Islamic believer is one who does not argue with his God but submits -- "blindly," we might say. In other words, he does not need to "see for himself" or think it through in Cartesian isolation, thereby preserving his autonomy. But the same emphasis is to be found in Christianity. "Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe," said Jesus to doubting Thomas (see John 20:24-29), who had earlier insisted that he had to see it (i.e. evidence of the resurrection) for himself.

Because Western Christianity has long ago made its peace with science, which relies heavily on the visual understanding of knowledge and promotes an objectivity grounded in the autonomy of the individual, we tend to overlook the "hearing and obeying" (as opposed to "seeing for yourself") emphasis in the Bible. Therefore we are also comfortable with the idea that the Word of God comes to us in written form, as a book which we can read when we want, as long as we want, and then close with a yawn when we are ready to go on to something else. We prefer not to listen to God speaking to us directly (see Exodus 20:18-20), and we may find that we do not really

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like to listen to prophets and apostles and preachers who serve as His spokesmen.

Islam is less Westernized and less inclined to think in terms of a written Word of God: the real Word is the Koran oralized (i.e. chanted, not just read aloud) in Arabic, the original language. In other words, a Muslim is much less ready to admit that a printed book which he holds in his hand is the Word of God than is a Christian. Chanting still plays a significant role in Islamic worship. And there is less room for the individual believer to "see for himself" what the divine message is and how it might apply to his daily life. The theme, rather, is obedience.

Islam is also more suspicious of images than is the Christian tradition. While Islamic civilization contains considerable cultural diversity, it does manifest a tendency to reject the image (after all, God comes to us in words, speech). In Christianity something of that same preference is present in the famous second commandment prohibition regarding images: "You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them" (Exodus 20:4-5; see also Deuteronomy 5:8-9).

When it comes to revelation, at least, the divine plan and preference is clearly for hearing rather than seeing. And one reason, presumably, is that while vision leaves the person doing the seeing in the driver's seat, largely able to make whatever he will of what was presented in his visual field, hearing leaves more room for domination and control on the part of the one who is speaking. What needs to be done now in philosophy is to explore and exploit that divine preference for the spoken word over the visual mode as a communication possibility.

Judgment and facts. Many people do not like the idea of a link between hearing and submission. They admit that we do tend to obey when spoken to sharply, but they find merit

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in developing an impulse to resist, if only to delay briefly in order to weigh what is said (even a command) before deciding whether to take action on it. And if one does take action, the whole range of possibilities should be reviewed.

Because we live in a sinful world with endless lies coming our way, there is something to be said for inserting a moment of suspicion between hearing and submission. In more neutral terms, we could make the same point by affirming that there is an important place for judgment in the process of coming to knowledge. The person who hears this or that must take the trouble to judge it and decide whether he can accept it as true or authentic. The original human sin resulted from a failure in this regard: Adam and Eve took Satan at his word.

This need to judge is not restricted to commands: when alleged information comes our way, we also have reason to be critical. Some information is out of date, some is grounded in misconceptions, and some falls under the category of malicious lies or gossip. We may not simply pass on whatever we hear; we need to sift it and assess it.

But there is even more to our responsibilities in this area: moral uprightness and a determination to avoid falsehood or false witness are not enough. There is also a process of refinement that takes place as we consider what we have heard. In some cases we wind up passing on a less pure version of what someone has told us, but it is also possible, through reflection and judgment, for an individual to sharpen and refine what he has been told. If a little boy living in the country emerges from the woods and tells his father that he was confronted by a wild animal which he then proceeds to describe in a confused way, the father may determine from the description, combined with his overall store of knowledge concerning local wildlife, what sort of animal it must have been, with the result that he is able to offer a more accurate description of it when he passes the tale along.

Because judgment plays a role in these matters, knowledge transmission must not be conceived of as a passive process. We

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cannot always be in the clear by declaring, "I'm just telling you what I heard." Rather, in some cases knowledge transmission calls for an amplification and purification, just as some computer-based technology nowadays can boost and "clean up" airborne signals intended to provide us with visual images; something similar is possible with an audio tape.

The word "fact" can help us here. When someone addresses us and claims to be passing on something true, we should digest it to the point that we can understand it and would be able to reformulate it in words of our own. To do so is to accept that it is true and treat it as a (potential) fact. (A fact is best understood as something recognized as true by many people; it is not just a private certainty.) And so the process of listening to others is in part one in which a person seeks to arrive at facts, that is, true statements that should in turn be accepted by others as reliable because of their inherent plausibility, because of his own reputation for honesty and good judgment, and because of the sources or basis he claims for them. We could say that the goal of judgment is to arrive at facts.

It is important to realize that facts are not intended solely for one's own use or benefit. A fact is really supposed to be available to a wider human community: if a piece of information is meant to be kept secret, it is not, strictly speaking, a fact. Now, there are times when a person keeps certain bits of information to himself (e.g. what he originally paid for the house he is now offering for sale at a much higher price -- it's "nobody's business" but his own, he maintains), but in most cases we should be willing to share the information we possess with others if it is relevant to their welfare.

The public (as opposed to secret) character of facts can be nicely illustrated by way of our customs concerning marriage. When two people are married to one another through the exchange of solemn vows, this is a matter of fact and needs to be publicly recognized. That's why the wedding (the exchange of vows) takes place in public: the commitment the bride and groom have made to one another is no secret. Couples who

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choose to live together apart from any wedding ceremony therefore should not expect to enjoy the social privileges that go with marriage. However committed to one another they may claim to be, their relationship is secret and not a matter of fact or public record. Society in effect says: "They are living in the same home, but `we' do not `know' what their relationship is." Once we realize that facts have a public character, we see why there is a connection between facts and language, which is also something we share with others. (We do not speak English in just any fashion that strikes our fancy but in a way that is shared and accepted by others, so that we will be able to communicate with them.) To possess facts is not just to understand this or that in one's own private, peculiar way but to be able to express what one knows in a way that will be understood by others. Our formal education is, in good measure, training in exactly this sort of communication.

Shorthand. Shorthand is a system of symbols that makes it possible for one person to copy down what another is saying without writing out each word in full. (Normal writing would be too slow, as students taking notes in college quickly discover.) In this age of dictaphones, the use of shorthand is not as widespread as it once was; it used to be a standard component in secretarial training.

At the heart of the process called shorthand, we find a part standing for a whole. It is important to realize that the part is less than the whole: this is what makes shorthand hard to work with. In many judgments we see something akin to shorthand at work: the judgment may be a reduction of a complicated situation to a phrase or two, perhaps with a built-in indication of the appropriate action or response. A grade 6 student on the lookout for the return of the teacher while the class is acting up suddenly hisses, "Here she comes!" He could just as well say, "Back to work!" Either way, the students understand and take appropriate action: they scurry back to their desks and pretend to be absorbed in their assigned work.

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In many cases in which knowledge claims are challenged, shorthand is the issue. Let's suppose Mrs. Smith says to Mr. Smith over breakfast that she saw their neighbor leave for work at 7 a.m. this morning. Mr. Smith replies: "But he wasn't going to work at 7 a.m. He goes to the club first for some exercise." Mrs. Smith responds: "I know that! But after getting his exercise he heads for the office." Mr. Smith objects once more: "He first makes a stop at McDonald's for breakfast."

In this argument, both are right. It is true that the neighbor was headed for his athletic club rather than his office when he pulled out of the driveway in view of Mrs. Smith: her husband wins that part of the argument. But getting some exercise and some breakfast could be considered legitimate parts of heading off to work (just as stopping at the post office to pick up the company's mail would qualify). Mrs. Smith was also right, but she was speaking in shorthand terms.

The important point philosophically is that for purposes of everyday knowledge, one need not analyze an action or set of them into minute components in order to offer a valid description: shorthand is permitted. In this case Mrs. Smith has taken an ultimate or overall goal and used it as the description -- and rightly so. Had her husband wished to be even more argumentative, he could have insisted that all his wife saw that morning was their neighbor pulling out of his driveway and driving down the street. (Indeed, what would it mean to see someone "heading for the office" if the office is far away and beyond view? Would it involve looking into that person's head to see what his intention is?)

One of the activities in which philosophers engage is arguing over seemingly maddening questions of this sort. When they get up a head of steam, they tend to deny the validity of shorthand descriptions and knowledge claims -- and thus, more broadly, of facts stated imprecisely. But when common sense pauses to reflect, it generally goes the other way and pronounces itself content to accept shorthand knowledge and facts. When we consider what is involved in everyday

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knowledge as we receive it from other people in words and then pass it on, we should be conscious of the role -- and shortcomings -- of shorthand knowledge.

Consider situations of danger: shorthand knowledge again plays a role. When a dangerous animal approaches us in the woods, we generally don't get a good look at it. We sense its presence from a sound, or perhaps we catch a fleeting glimpse of something that looks menacing. We take action by fleeing or reaching for a gun. If we wished to be strict about what counts as knowledge, we would have to stand our ground until we got a fuller apprehension of the animal -- and actually saw (perhaps also smelled) for ourselves that it really is a grizzly bear. Such an example reminds us that the knowledge we live by and act on is a bit different from the knowledge we discuss in a leisurely and abstract way in a philosophy seminar. Pragmatism, in particular, has stressed the inevitability and indispensability of shorthand knowledge.

Hearing and saying. One of the major shortcomings of the philosophical tradition known as empiricism is that it placed too much emphasis on the givens of the various senses when it offered its analysis of knowledge, and did not pay enough attention to judgment, interpretation, context, background knowledge, and such factors. In the light of the comments made above about judgment, shorthand and facts, it should now be evident that hearing contributes to knowledge in the everyday sense but is not simply to be equated with it. Again, we see that experience and knowledge are not the very same thing.

When Christian philosophy criticizes the excessive orientation to vision in the accounts of knowledge that have been offered by Western philosophy, it does not propose to replace this one-sidedness with a new one-sidedness that makes hearing central to knowledge. Hearing is no more to be equated with knowing than is seeing. Rather, the responsibility of the perceiver and would-be knower must be emphasized in the case

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of both of these sources of our knowledge. To affirm this is to recognize that we cannot regard ourselves as "knowing" everything we have heard. We may be asked what we know about such-and-such and answer that we know nothing, even though we have indeed heard something. If it is our judgment that our source was not reliable or that someone was lying, we may choose not to pass on as knowledge what we have heard. To say "I know this or that" is to stand behind it personally. Hence people speak of the ethics of knowledge and may say to someone: "But you ought to have known that ...."

One small qualification is needed here: it may be that we say we know nothing because we have not yet had the time, or taken the time, to work through what we have been told in an effort to weigh and assess it. Thus we may deny any knowledge when in fact we could and should be passing on some information and facts. In such a situation we are morally at fault, but not because we have violated the rule about bearing false witness or passing along falsehood. Rather, we are at fault because potentially relevant information about our neighbor's welfare did not occupy our attention sufficiently for us to take the time to think and act in his interest. For example, if a farmer has heard that there may be flooding upstream, which might pose a threat to his neighbor's farm (but not his own, for it is on higher ground farther from the river), he has an obligation to take this possibility sufficiently seriously to think about it and, even if he cannot decide himself whether it has any plausibility, to pass it along to his neighbor as what it is -- hearsay. Many such examples could be offered from the domain of health. Business ethics takes up some difficult cases that arise from the recognition of such a rule.

Seeing and saying. Knowledge is to be equated with neither hearing nor seeing: it is more a matter of what we are able to say or are justified in saying than of what we have experienced. We should not speak of knowledge apart from judgment and the formulation of a fact in language: "raw" experience is

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not knowledge. When we think about the knowledge a person possesses, then, we should not ask him, "What do you see in your mind's eye when I mention the name of So-and-so?" but rather, "What can you tell me about So-and-so?" Knowledge is the outcome of a process of judgment.

This realization helps us understand why many philosophers have been hesitant to talk about knowledge in connection with animals. That animals perceive reality and act on their environment in response to what they hear, see and smell is obvious; in a low-level way, they "know" reality and manifest intelligence. They even engage in planning of sorts: think of a pack of lions considering how to approach their prey, or of a squirrel storing food for the coming winter. But because they are largely undeveloped when it comes to language use -- especially the ability to represent and talk about things that are not in the current experiential domain -- their "knowledge" does not amount to much.

This realization should also help us understand why an epistemology or philosophical theory of the criteria for knowledge and judgment should not depend so heavily on visual metaphors, as though knowledge were always a matter of "seeing" something. There is more to knowledge than visual awareness: the process of judgment is all-important. In fact, judgment is even more necessary for knowledge based on seeing than for knowledge derived from hearing. When we hear sounds produced by events, we need to interpret them, and in the process we draw on what we have picked up from other senses. But when we hear words, a good deal of interpretation and factuality is already built into them; in some cases, at last, we can repeat or pass on, word for word, what we have heard. To some extent, then, what we know is what we have heard clearly and have no reason to disbelieve. Biblical truth (i.e. what God's Word tells us) is part of our knowledge; it is not simply opinion.

There is an analogy to such "pre-packaged" knowledge in the visual domain, for language also comes to us in written,

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visible form. And so, to some extent, our knowledge consists of what we have read and have no reason to distrust. But vision is used more extensively than hearing to gain a general, day-to-day orientation in reality. Because it is so rich, and can take in so much, and can operate at tremendous distances, with the result that texture and details are minimized or even lost in some cases, it requires careful sifting and interpretation: in many cases, we are not sure of what we saw. And so we can say that at the heart of our knowledge is a process whereby visual data (supplemented, perhaps, by data drawn from other senses) get interpreted, applied and converted into (potential) facts, which may even be stored in some written form on paper or in a computer.

Telling the truth. The Christian emphasis on telling the truth can be understood and restated in relation to the process whereby we move from what we have seen to what we take it to be. The language used to make this point in the Ten Commandments is that one is not to "bear false witness," that is, give a false account of what was observed. Truth, then, is grounded in what people have experienced, but it is often ascertained by others through statements of it. In short, the truth of which the ninth commandments speaks is a matter of stated knowledge. There are some instances in which we are able to show someone else what we saw, but in many situations this is impossible -- the scene is gone when we return.

So carefully must witnesses consider exactly what they observed that when it comes to serious crime and transgressions, two witnesses must be produced. In the Old Testament law we read: "A single witness shall not prevail against a man for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed; only on the evidence of two witnesses, or of three witnesses, shall a charge be sustained" (Deuteronomy 19:15; see also 17:6; Numbers 35:30). The idea of relying on more than one witness in such matters is carried over into the New Testament as well (see Matthew 18:16; John 8:17; II

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Corinthians 13:1; I Timothy 5:19).

To know something is to witness or speak truthfully about it -- or better, to be able to witness to it if called upon. And witnessing, in turn, means "attestation of a fact, event, statement" (Oxford Universal Dictionary). One states what has been observed or perceived. And although we like to talk about eyewitnesses, the term is in principle just as applicable to earwitnesses (to coin a term). The root word here is wit, which refers not just to the mind but also to the various senses individually. To know something is to convert what one has ascertained by means of the senses into knowledge, by making a formal statement concerning it. What we know is what we are able to say.

Knowledge networks. What complicates this account of knowledge is that much gathering and transmission of knowledge is undertaken by a number of people together. Although in some cases we stand alone in making observations and formulating conclusions on the basis of them, in a great many instances the process of knowledge-gathering is a collective enterprise.

This is the reason why we tend to use the verb "know" with a plural subject -- " we know ..." rather than "I know ...." Science is best understood along these lines: it is what "we" (the community of scientists, who recognize one another as being committed to the same overall endeavor and the same set of procedures for establishing reliable knowledge) have agreed together. Hence science is often spoken of as "public knowledge" (John Ziman's term), which is to be distinguished from the private knowledge or certainty of some small group or individual. Even a scientist of the greatest eminence must be content to brand his firm conviction on some new matter that has emerged from his own research a mere hypothesis until he has persuaded his fellow scientists of the point, usually by inviting them to run through the conclusive experimental work for themselves.

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The "we" character of knowledge is also obvious from the way courts proceed. It is the court (a body of people following carefully worked out procedures for presenting and marshalling evidence) that draws the conclusion and ultimately declares: "We now know who committed the murder." The key eyewitness whose testimony turned the tide in the case "knew" it much earlier, of course, for he actually saw the murder being committed, but only after his testimony has been scrutinized and accepted as valid by the court can his own conviction in this matter be inscribed into the public record: at that point his knowledge becomes our knowledge.

What takes place in science and the courtroom has broader implications for knowledge as understood in daily life. Many analyses of knowledge proceed from examples in which an individual is operating on his own -- and there are indeed such situations in life, in which we are able to vouch personally for the conclusions we offer as our knowledge regarding this or that. But there are also extensive networks of people who work with one another and rely on elaborate gadgetry as they seek to gather information and formulate conclusions. Most national governments operate what they call "intelligence" services or networks, which are supposed to gather knowledge of potential foes (and perhaps even of allies) so that when the national leaders make decisions, they will be able to act on current and accurate information beyond anything available in the communications media.

Here the "Christianity and culture" question rears its head again: Christians must sometimes ask themselves whether they may join a knowledge network and allow their input to be submerged into that of a certain group which forms collective judgments preceded by "We know." Christians are willing to join with non-Christians in some endeavors (e.g. business enterprises), but not in others (e.g. bringing children into the world and raising them as parents). Is it justifiable to become part of a knowledge network that includes -- and is perhaps dominated by -- people who are not Christians? This

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question, which we confront in both the business world and the university, is not an easy one to answer.

We should not suppose that the Biblical rule against bearing false witness requires that we are to gain and state knowledge only as individuals. It may be true on a practical level that it is easier to maintain one's cognitive or epistemological integrity as an individual, but there is in principle nothing wrong with a team approach to difficult questions of the sort that arise in science, in criminal investigations, and in various other areas of life. The enterprise known as auditing (the checking of the financial records of a large organization by a team of accountants outside the organization) is in effect a collective process of assessment and stating conclusions.

The demand for truth-telling also requires that we become "epistemological Daniels" on occasion. In the Sunday school song "Dare to be a Daniel," children are challenged to "stand alone." Because there is so much lying in human life, some of it involving entire groups of people who stand together in their untruth, there are times when truth-telling means taking a lonely stand, declaring that one did not see such-and-such (the most literal sense of refusing to bear false witness), or perhaps that one saw something altogether different. In many cases such "stands" are not all that dramatic, but they are nonetheless necessary as part of a Christian life. This is also why the " we know" approach or a "public knowledge" analysis must not be the last word in a Christian epistemology or theoretical account of everyday knowledge. Christians cannot afford to go along with every consensus, nor may they say that when it comes to truth, the majority rules.

Authority and knowledge. When we recognize the operation of knowledge networks, we see how often our knowledge claims amount to little more than passing on what we have heard or read. Traditional epistemology has not paid sufficient attention to the "passing on" character of so much of our knowledge; it has operated too much with an ideal of

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knowledge as adequately grounded in one's own experience. The idea was that the individual should be able to vouch for his own knowledge by relating it to his own (indubitable) perceptions.

The idea that a person should vouch for what he says and claims to know is not wrong, nor is it a mistake to appeal to one's own seeing and hearing by way of support. What needs more recognition is that the source of one's knowledge is, in a great many cases, something said or written by someone else. Not every claim made by others should be accepted at face value, of course, but in practice we do accept a great many of them. And so we must deal with the issue of authority in relation to knowledge claims. We tend to accept and act on statements that issue from persons or agencies that we trust and invest with authority. Perhaps the authority is limited to a certain domain that the person in question is supposed to "know about," but it is authority all the same.

The account of knowledge offered in much traditional philosophy is out of step with actual educational practice. What does it mean to "learn"? If knowledge is always to be grounded in personal experience, one would expect that learning is finding out systematically about reality through one's own sense organs, and accepting only that which one can ground in personal experience. In actual practice, learning and formal education has a great deal to do with finding things out by way of recognized resources, sources of information, knowledge banks -- in short, by consulting authorities, learning to use the library, and relying on representations (see Chapter 7 above). At the higher levels, the emphasis is even more on learning how to learn (i.e. how to use knowledge resources efficiently and effectively) than on direct inspection of reality with one's own sensory organs. The idea seems to be that once you know how to go about it, you can quickly find out for yourself what you need to know in a particular situation or in the face of a certain challenge.

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Testimony and revelation. In Indian philosophy we find a freer acceptance of the point that a great deal of our operative knowledge derives from authoritative sources than in most Western philosophy. A term often used in Indian philosophy when listing the sources of our knowledge is testimony, which is then mentioned alongside inference and perception.

The acceptance of testimony as valid does not represent philosophical naiveté; defenders of testimony are not suggesting that one should believe everything one hears and reads. Rather, judgment and discretion need to be applied, just as when we deal with the direct givens of seeing and hearing. Western philosophers have not explored such critical judgment at any great length. The most valuable discussions of this sort in the Western tradition have taken place within the context of the consideration of historical sources. The question is then what principles one ought to employ in determining which sources should be taken at face value and which should not. Hume's famous discussion of miracles has such a context and is really a discussion of reports of miracles: the question is not whether miracles can occur but under what circumstances one would be justified in accepting reports of miracles as trustworthy.

The Western notion of revelation can best be integrated into epistemology as a species of testimony. Now, not every "holy book" in any religious tradition one might care to name should be taken as falling into this category; for example, if the Upanishads of ancient India represent revelation, it is surely of a different order than the Bible and the Koran. The basic Western idea of revelation is that an infallible source of truth (i.e. God) has made some declarations that are to be accepted without question -- believed "blindly," that is, without making an effort to "see for yourself." If God has declared the such-and-such is the case, we know it to be true.

In Western philosophy of the last couple of centuries, we find little consideration of revelation in such terms. There is a reason for this, namely, the gulf that has been posited

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between "knowledge" (scientific, objective, rational) and religious claims (arbitrary, subjective, non-rational). It is a virtual truism in our society that the convictions of religious believers simply do not count as knowledge. They have nothing to do with science (collective inquiry) and should play no role in public affairs (hence, "separation of church and state").

The epistemology of everyday knowledge I am proposing is, among other things, an effort to get away from this tradition of separating religious claims from other claims. Yet I do not mean to suggest that all deliverances of revelation or messages said to be from God are somehow beyond discussion and do not need to be subjected to judgment: one needs to judge that they are indeed revelation -- and not false prophecy (see Jeremiah 23:16-17; I John 4:1). In this regard they are like all other sources of knowledge; hence the givens of revelation should not be repeated thoughtlessly.

An authentic message from God delivered today (literally) and meant for people today would presumably not need much reflection to be understood and applied appropriately: one ought simply to accept it and do what is required, as Abraham did when God told him to sacrifice his only son Isaac on a certain mountain. But the claims of revelation included in the Bible stem from the ancient world and therefore strike us as somewhat "distant." Hence it takes some reflection to ascertain what God's command to sacrifice Isaac "means" for us today.

In claiming that fundamental religious convictions are to be described as items of knowledge, I am echoing Biblical language. Think of Job's stirring affirmation: "I know that my Redeemer lives" (Job 19:25). If he were a modern thinker, he would have said, "I believe that my redeemer lives." And knowledge, in the Bible, comes through hearing, as we learn in Isaiah 40: "Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning?" (vs. 21) and "Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth" (vs. 28).

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Christian knowledge. Once we realize the extent to which the believer's knowledge comes to him as divinely authorized testimony which he accepts and passes on, putting his own shoulder behind the epistemological wheel, so to speak, we see further why it is a mistake to use a string of visual metaphors and comparisons in explaining the idea of Christian doctrine. This mistake is made especially by those who use the phrase "worldview" and its variants to sum up what Christians believe.

Christian teaching is grounded in hearing the word and submitting to it. And if there is any further authenticating of the testimony to be done, it is not accomplished by appealing to one's own observations as similar to the observations underlying the testimony being offered as true; rather, one testifies to the standing of the person offering the testimony. Think of what we read at the end of John's gospel: "This is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things, and who has written these things; and we know that his testimony is true" (21:24). Paul also takes pains to establish his identity as the bearer of the revelation: "I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand" (I Corinthians 16:21 and Colossians 4:18). Elsewhere he makes it clear that Christ appeared to him personally (see I Corinthians 15:1{SYMBOL 45 \f "Symbol"}8).

Christian knowledge, then, is not something one has "seen" (to say nothing of claiming to see the whole world) but something we have been given, and something which must then be passed on without loss. It is not a set of "views" (with man in the driver's seat, deciding what he has seen, and closing his eyes if he chooses to do so) but a set of true statements (which man receives and passes on faithfully). Paul says to Timothy: "O Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you. Avoid the godless chatter and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge" (I Timothy 6:20). At the heart of our Christian knowledge is "the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude, vs. 3).

This is not to deny that seeing has anything to do with

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Christian knowledge. The risen Lord made sure to appear to many disciples and followers, so that they could testify, "I have seen the Lord! He lives!" Seeing is to be integrated with other sources of our knowledge and subjected to a process of screening, of judgment. Yet the Bible elevates believing without seeing above any empirical reliance on one's own senses (the Humanistic spirit of "seeing for oneself"). Jesus says to Thomas (who had insisted on "seeing for himself" that Jesus had arisen from the grave): "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe" (John 20:29). The most important knowledge comes through the ear, through what we are told: "An intelligent mind acquires knowledge, and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge" (Proverbs 18:15).

Christian schooling. The fruits of this understanding need to be applied in Christian schooling, which we should not analyze in "see for yourself" terms. Rather, we should recognize that at the heart of the Christian knowledge passed on in Christian day schools, as well as the educational programs of Christian churches, stands revelation.

There is a choice to be made here. The more one emphasizes Christian knowledge as a set of "views" or a "worldview" (on the implicit assumption that to know is to see), the more one becomes open to the influence of Humanism with its scientific conception of knowledge as based on detached objectivity, and as excluding testimony. This is not to say that visually based knowledge has no place in Christian schooling. What we need to do is to make sure our conception of knowledge fits in with the emphasis we find in Biblical revelation. On the other hand, the more one emphasizes knowledge as flowing from hearing the truth, the more critical one will be of science (with its visualist epistemology) as the main way to gain an orientation to reality.

When we realize that the primary content of Christian schooling and Christian knowledge in general is revelation, we

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will no longer make unwarranted totality claims for what we teach. Although revelation is about life in general, it does not describe or comment on everything in life and our world in a specific way. Many of the things within our local community are talked of in the Bible only in the most general sense. Therefore, not all of what is taught in a Christian school is Christian knowledge in the same way or to the same extent: some of its bears a strong resemblance to what one could learn in a public or secular school.

This conclusion sometimes frightens supporters of Christian schools. The best antidote to their fears is to stress that the content of the revelation given to us must be brought out in our educational program. We should make that content primary, and then fill in the rest of the instructional time as local needs demand and opportunities suggest themselves, while emphasizing "that which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands," all of which is summed up in the phrase "the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you" (I John 1:1, 5). That message is not a matter of vision: "So faith comes from what is heard," writes Paul, "and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ" (Romans 10:17).

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Acts 17 (Paul's visit to Athens), 16f
Amish, 23
Aquinas, Thomas, 60
Aristotle, 73, 77
art, 64f, 68, 81
Augustine, 83
authority, 106ff, 110
autonomy, 69, 92, 94
Buddha and Buddhism, 22, 34, 74
Calvin and Calvinism, 19, 87
Chinese civilization, 22, 34, 85
common grace, 71ff, 79f
computers, 22
creation, 58f
criticism and constructive thought, 22, 25f, 61ff, 67ff, 76, 80, 83, 87
culture -- relation to Christianity, 7, 15f, 105f
Descartes and Cartesianism, 28, 77, 94
"ears to hear": see ``hearing'' emphasis
education, philosophy of, 30f, 111f
empiricism, 92, 100
epistemology, 89ff
evil, problem of, 58f
evolution, 58
facts, 10, 63f, 97ff
fall into sin: see evil
feminism, 48, 52, 84f
Grant, George, 27
Greece, ancient, 33
"hearing" emphasis, 7f, 39, 57, 92ff, 100, 110f
Hegel, 25
hermeneutics, 54ff
Hinduism, 22, 30, 34, 74
historiography, 50, 108
Humanism, 69, 92, 94, 111
Hume, 74, 77, 108
idealist thesis regarding research, 48ff, 62f
"images": see second commandment
Indian (Asia) civilization, 22, 34, 85, 108
Islam, 45, 94f, 108
Kant, 29, 77
Kuyper, Abraham, 75
language, 47ff, 98, 102f
literature, 84ff
marriage, 11f, 14, 97f
Marxism, 51f, 84
materialism, 19f
metaphysics, 41ff
Middle Ages, 9, 23ff
missionary mandate, 24, 81f
Mormonism, 11, 45
Nagarjuna, 74
neutrality: see objectivity
Niebuhr (H. Richard) and transformation, 74f, 79f
Nietzsche, 74
novels, 14
objectivity, 38, 93f, 111
ontology, 89
Orwell, George, 47
Pauline epistles, 18
Plato and Socrates, 27, 29f, 65, 69f, 73, 77
"perspective" language, 37f
poetry, 14
pornography, 77
pragmatism, 100
private vs. public discourse, 52f
projection, 42f
psychology, 89f
religion, philosophy of, 52, 65
representations, 43, 47ff, 107
revelation, doctrine of, 73f, 95, 108f, 111f
Roman Catholicism, 19
Rome, ancient, 33
Rorty, Richard, 28f
Russell, Bertrand, 74
Schilder, Klaas, 72
science: see theories
second commandment, 8, 39, 64, 95
secularism, 51
Septuagint, 15
Shankara, 74
Skinner, B. F., 83
smell, sense of, 91
sociology of knowledge, 36
Socrates: see Plato
Spinoza, 28
theology, 18f, 42, 58f, 65, 87
theories, 62f, 91f, 104
transformational thinking: see Niebuhr
treasures of the Egyptians, 83
truth, 9f, 89f, 103, 106
unity among Christians, 36
visualism, 38f, 90f, 100, 110
Watson, J. B., 83
wheat and tares parable (Matt. 13), 24, 72
wisdom and the Wisdom literature of the Bible, 17f, 21, 65
Wolterstorff, Nicholas, 78
worldview, 33ff, 41, 110f
Ziman, John, 104

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