A “way of knowing” is a way of acquiring information. It’s how data enters our heads. The ways have several channels for entry, like a wired network, WiFi, Bluetooth, and USB, each way of knowing represents a different mechanism for entry. The generally accepted ways of knowing are language, sense perception, emotion, reason, imagination, faith, intuition, and memory.
We all understand that language and sense perception account for empirical collection of information. Likewise reason. But “faith” is a different question.
On Religious Knowledge in General
But first, what do we mean by a Christian understanding faith? Faith can be (1) a complete trust or confidence in someone or something, (2) a commitment to a core set of principles, or (3) a commitment to or sentiment about something without evidence.[i]
The third definition is the most popular one. It is the straw man used by skeptics when attacking Christianity and other religious systems. And it is one that many Christians cling to. It is hope against hope. It is a sentiment. And it is a safe harbor when ideas fail. But it is not a sufficient way of understanding the Christian life. It should be reject outright with regard to religious knowledge.
The second is probably a good parallel for reason as a way of knowing. Reason is a commitment to, as well as the practice of, logical analysis.This is how the mind works.
(It is also non-empirical. I mention this because there are many who require that knowledge be somehow empirical. But there is, for example, no empirical evidence that 1+1=2. We can see and understand the values but the processes of “+” and “=” are non-empirical. They are mental processes only. They are principles of logic and reason. Still, numbers are measurable. Or at least the themselves are measurements of something else, which is more likely the case. It can only be treated as empirical if the term empirical is over-simplified to mean measurement or measurable. That tendency is not uncommon.)
The first definition is foundational to the second. It is not a way of knowing but rather a statement about something known and to which one is committed. It’s faith as something objective and external rather than as an internal mental process.
So, if we dismiss #1 and #3 (#1 because it seems more foundational than a definition and #3 because it is insufficient), and if #2 is fairly understood as a corollary for reason, then it seems faith as a way of knowing becomes irrelevant in the sense that it is defined and accomplished by other means. Faith is a trained intuition about God — an intelligent, informed trust in God and the principles of sound Christian theology.
On Religious Experience
The next step is to see whether the knowledge gained by religious experience is legitimate. This knowledge comes from internal religious experience. For the Christian it is stated to be the work of the Spirit in the mind of the believer (as well as those who are not believers). The Spirit prompts the person to act or pray as a response to something unknown. In this experience there are two components. The first is the influence of the Spirit and the second is the response of the person to that influence.
The response of a person to these internal influences or promptings again amounts to perception or intuition and as such becomes at least a qualified and legitimate way of knowing. The qualification here is to discern whether or not the work of the Spirit (or any other transcendent being) is real. If there is no God of any sort then the intuition can be said to be misinformed even if the intuition is normally reliable. If there is a God (or other deity) then the intuition can be said to be not only reliable but also a conveyance of potentially true knowledge.
Both parts are important here. Religious experience is built on both the intuition of the individual and the internal spiritual change or communication. The reliability of the individual’s intuitive perceptions gets questioned when assessing a particular experience. That is necessary for validating a specific event or situation. But here we should appeal to the general principle that intuition is (can be, that is) a reliable conveyance of knowledge.
Does this mean that religious experience should be rejected as a source for knowledge, a way of knowing, because there is no method available for validation of the individual’s internal spiritual experience? It would seem that, if we want to include religious experience as a way of knowing, that it be qualified rather than blanket.
Allowing a qualification is not really a compromise. What I’m saying is that there are some religious experience which are false and other which are true. Our inability to do any qualification of what happens internally means that not all religious experiences should be taken at face value. Of course each theological persuasion will accept its own as legitimate and those of other persuasions as illegitimate.
What we have as a result is that some religious knowledge is clearly legitimate and some is at worst qualified. There is no rational reason for a blanket rejection of religious knowledge as a way of knowing. While the first part may be reduced to intuition it is still religious by definition and perhaps should be treated as an additional type of intuition. The experiential part also includes intuition but is qualified on account of our inability to very the communication that happens.
Answering a Criticism Regarding Religious Knowledge as a Way of Knowing
There is a component of reason that requires a priori acceptance of the processes of reason as legitimate? That 1+1=2 must be given ascent, and that’s a fair definition of faith commitment. It’s a metaphysical, non-empirical question and clearly has its place in the discussion.
Logic says that 1+1=2. That’s a justifiable true belief, and it presupposes the reliability of logic itself, it also being a justified true belief. Even communicating this idea requires that the efficacy of language be accepted as a justified true belief. That may seem unnecessary. But start again from the beginning: Shall we reject a knowledge claim if it is not empirically verifiable? None of this is empirically verifiable. These are mental abstractions which have consensus agreement.
Let’s get back to empirical claims regarding religious belief. There remain radical empiricists who demand only empirical outcomes. Jerry Coyne picks some favorite straw men to bolster his argument against the metaphysical sources for knowledge.
Oh dear dear dear. Russell, I, and others have addressed the idea of science and the supernatural many times before (see here, here, and here, for example), dispelling the soothing idea that “science has nothing to say about the supernatural.” That is, of course, hogwash. Science has plenty to say about the Shroud of Turin, whether faith healing works, whether prayer works, whether God seems to be both beneficent and omnipotent, world without end. Science can, as we’ve repeated endlessly, address specific claims about the supernatural, though it’s impotent before the idea that behind it all is a hands-off, deistic Transcendent Force.[ii]
As for “ways of knowing,” my response is always, “What do you find out? What do you “know”? And how would you know if you were wrong? Was Jesus the son of God? Christians’ “way of knowing” tells them, “Yes, of course!” But Islamic “ways of knowing” say, “No, of course not, and you’ll burn in hell if you believe that.” Revelation, dogma, and scripture are not in fact ways of knowing; they are ways of believing. There are no “truths” that religion can produce which are independent of truths derived from secular reason.
What Dr. Coyne has done is give us an example of a model that employs a limited set of data and that also confuses data types. Let’s look at his argument more directly.
Reading the whole of the article he rejects religion as a way of knowing. He rejects the accommodationism proposed by the NCSE as he understands that these (science and religion) are not, as Gould stated, non-overlapping magisteria. He frames religious belief as first making empirical claims which are to be tested and, if not verifiable, should be rejected. As his starting point he notes “that empirical claims derived from revelation form the basis of nearly every faith.” That’s the problem.
At the core of his argument is a straw man: He doesn’t understand and thus misrepresents Christian theology. Just like evolutionary models, the model of Christian theology is a matter of history. That is, it is a record of history which views God’s providence over time and draws inferences to best explain history from a theistic frame of reference. Of course that’s not all there is to it, but that’s the structure of the model. Both evolutionary science and orthodox Christian theology are explanatory models.
For both models the empirical amounts to supporting evidence. Never mind that the nature of the Shroud of Turin exists within the confines of a theological system. It is not a theological claim. No theological system depends upon it. It is an ecclesiastical claim. As such any challenge to it is not a challenge to theology but to ecclesiastical authority. In short, Dr. Coyne has built a straw man, whether that be out of ignorance or intent.
For the past 2+ centuries we’ve seen massive changes in the evolutionary model. One can see almost annually some change in the model regarding the timing of human origins or the abiogenesis of life. The model is always in flux. Why? Because the evidence is also based on an historical model and the acquisition of more historical evidence forces this relatively recent model to adapt to historical evidence. Modern empirical evidence is always an analogy to something that may or may not have happened in the past. There is nothing empirical that fits into the historical, explanatory model. The best that it can do is support the historical claim.
But what does this have to do with ways of knowing? Evolutionary theory, because it is an historical model, holds no more weight with questions of evidence than do theological claims. Theology provides a foundation for other claims related to intuition, matters which evolution can do nothing but become merely arbitrary.
What matters of intuition? That’s where ethics finds its home. The models of Judeo-Christian theology all provide generally consistent ethical foundations. There are differences, of course, and some of these have had negative consequences. Those have come under great scrutiny over time, and not just from the community of skeptics. That’s one of the reasons for the period we just celebrated – the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.
The materialism of the evolutionist has borne fruit in a highly utilitarian worldview. People are today not “personnel” but “human resources” and materialists regularly engage in the buying and selling of human body parts, with apparent impunity, even though such trade is highly illegal. Children are trained in utilitarian ethics by Thomas and Friends where everyone needs to have a function.
There are many other, even much greater, concerns with this materialism. But we can readily see that one cannot get an “ought” from an “is.” There is no moral imperative to survival of the fittest. There is only the imperative of survival. The only morality that the materialistic evolutionist can garner is what is appropriated from Christian ethics.
Do you see self-sacrifice as a high moral value? Do you find it a beneficial trait for altruism, either socially or in national defense? Can you find it in a model that teaches survival of the fittest? No. It’s not there. It had to be appropriated from “Greater love has no man than this …”
Dr. Coyne also inquires as to whether Jesus was the son of God. Again, that is not an empirical claim. That is a functional claim based on statements in the OT which reflect on the character of a messiah. Without going into great detail, it is a matter of systematic interpretation. Zechariah 12:10, among other passages, stands out on this question.
The Bible is no different than any other material when it comes to requiring systematic interpretation. Philosophers interpret Kant according to early and late. Scientists re-interpret data regularly depending on, for example, the degree of cataclysm generated by the Yucatan impact of 65My or whether the information in. This is just how data in interpreted.
What Dr. Coyne has done again is to set up one straw man after another, whether out of ignorance or intent. I can’t read his mind so I can’t say and will not speculate. In the end he has not advanced his claim that religious knowledge is illegitimate.
Yes, religious knowledge is a legitimate way of knowing. But unlike other methods it comes as a package, a mix of intuition, the work of the Spirit, and a set of terms that doesn’t match what the normal philosopher might employ to describe knowing. Some discernment of the spirits, as we are encouraged to do in the Bible, is also necessary. We have to do this just like we have to watch our intuitions, as does everyone else.
In the end your relationship with the Lord remains as intellectually sound as any other type of knowledge.