Scripture and the Necessity of Self-conscious Epistemology, Lesson 1
Now why in the world would I give this lesson that lame and wordy title? I want to start by asking a question that many have asked before throughout the centuries. How do you know what is true?
This was a question posed to Jesus once by a very powerful person (Pilate) in John 18:37-38.
Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate said to him, “What is truth?”
Pilate asked this, somewhat rhetorically it seems, and the next scene is Pilate delivering Jesus over to be killed. I find that to be one of the most fascinating parts in the scripture, and in line with my own experience. Jesus doesn’t answer questions directly, but what is true is going on right before our eyes and we don’t recognize it. And I want to read you a few passages of scripture that will help you see what I mean.
Luke 16:19-31. Now this is Jesus telling a parable of sorts (it’s not really a parable and people have debated over what this story actually is), but I want to focus on verses 28-31. The rich man is begging, while in torment, for a warning to be sent to his family about the reality of hell. And what does Jesus tell him? “They have Moses and the prophets, let them hear them.” And then he says, “No, but if someone goes to them from the dead, then they will repent.” How does Jesus respond? “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” Now I just want to pause there for a moment and talk about what Jesus assumes and what we typically assume.
Jesus assumes that the OT has enough warning to save anyone from hell. He also says if we do not hear Moses and the Prophets we wouldn’t even be convinced if someone were to rise from the dead. What Jesus assumes is that if you don’t already trust what God has already said, you will not see reality for how it actually is. You will not even believe what is tangible and self-evidently true to your experience. Now, if you have already in your mind said, “Yes, and that’s exactly what’s wrong with our culture,” I want you to put the brakes on that thought and think about yourself for a moment. What if Jesus wants to speak with you about this?
I want us to please consider the ramifications of this. I’m not talking to liberals or conservatives here. Jesus has a way of unsettling everyone. And what we assume is that we understand things properly. We assume our questions are good questions. Our desires — even when they are for the sake of the other, e.g., Jesus please save my family — assume foundational beliefs that are wrong, and we have to begin to hear differently. Back to the original question: How do we know what’s true? How do we know what we know? Jesus would say, “Hear Moses and the prophets. Listen to them more than your subjective experience.”
There’s this great short story by Flannery O’Connor called “Revelation” and there’s this scene in the book where a little girl hits this old women in the head with a book in the waiting room of a clinic. And I want you to hear how O’Connor describes what it’s like when Miss Turpin gets hit upside the head with a book: “There was an instant when she was certain that she was to be in an earthquake. All at once her vision narrowed and she saw everything as if it were happening in a small room far away, or as if she were looking at it through the wrong end of the telescope...” then when the girl was finally pried off of her, it says, “The girl fell with a thud and Mrs. Turpin’s vision suddenly reversed itself and she saw everything large instead of small.”
Jesus wants your whole way of thinking to be reversed. And we wake up everyday and forget that, no matter if we’ve been in the Church for a day or thousands of days. How do you become epistemologically self-conscious? How do you know how you know things? Jesus wants you to ask that question. I’m not just talking to those in the room that are maybe on the edge and considering Christianity for the first time or considering coming back to Christianity. I’m talking to all of us — myself included. How can we be sure about anything?
Jesus himself says, “Truly, truly, I say to you. The Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the father doing. For whatever the father does, that the son does likewise” (John 5:19). Later in verse 30, Jesus himself says, “I can do nothing on my own.”
Now many of you may have grown up in Christian homes and Christian schools, and you look back at your past and in some ways it unsettles you. You’re upset by some of the things you remember from the Church culture in which you were raised. Here’s my question for you as well as to myself: Do we really think there’s another way to live where we don’t implicitly and intentionally brainwash each other? Sarah put me onto this Harvard sociologist/psychologist professor and she says this about implicit bias: “We want to believe that we are less racist, misogynistic, and unbalanced than we actually are, but that’s not what the science shows even among very modern secular companies.” Airbnb shows that African Americans are far less likely to get a high star rating when they stay, and therefore have a much higher rate of being declined by hosts. And I asked Sarah what she liked about the podcast, and Sarah said, “I liked that even those who are ‘woke’ still have large areas of bias… and that’s what secular data points out.”
Now if God is who he says he is, if he created us and he knows that we are like dumb sheep, what does he tell us that will help? I see it over and over again: “There’s something more true than your experience.” Both in the Church and outside of the Church, we don’t know how to accurately interpret our experience, and Jesus even put himself under that same rubric for Peter and Peter concludes, “We have something more sure than my actual experience of the the transfigured Christ... it’s the prophetic word to which we will do well to pay attention to. Read 2 Peter 1:16-21.