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Epistemology 01: A working glossary

26 June 2009

Thanks to a timely delivery by, I want to take a brief hiatus from N. T. Wright for what I hope will be a profitable detour into the questions of Christian epistemology, or how we come to know what we know and what relationship that has to the validity of our Christian professions, commitments, beliefs, praxis, ethics, and (integrating all of those) discipleship.  Once again, I have chosen Dr. Dallas Willard as my primary partner in dialogue.  As a widely published scholar and teacher of philosophy, known primarily for his work in the philosophical discipline known as “phenomenology,” Dr. Willard is an intellectually credentialed force who cannot be lightly dismissed.  He is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Southern California and author of the new book, Knowing Christ Today:  Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge (see Reading List at right).


We’ve got to lay some groundwork for this series of blog posts lest I be tempted to bite the whole thing off at once.  A mere nine pages into the book, the range of issues Dr. Willard raises for sober reflection already has me over a barrel – not least the questions of pacifism raised by the halakah of Matthew 5:38ff – so I will have to be disciplined and patient.  (“Disciplined and patient,” by the way, is the style of both Dr. Willard and Bishop Wright.  It pays off big-time.)


So let’s begin at the end, where we wish to end up.  In Dr. Willard’s lexicon, the idea currently known as “world view” consists primarily of the answers to the following four questions and the logical corollaries of those answers:

1.  What is reality?

2.  What is the good life?

3.  Who is a good person?

4.  How does one become a good person?

We wish to know the answers to those four questions because we wish to build a just society, and we sense, rightly, that the answers to those questions are indispensable to doing so.  Our end, as it is for many strains of religion and philosophy (not least the ancient Greeks), is social justice – intepreted as broadly as possible, not the impoverished, intimidating term that has been co-opted by modern political liberalism.  If we successfully answer those four questions, we are certainly on the way to justice, if only because we have a reliable map to the earliest, essential waypoints.


Now, a glossary of sorts, a collection of Dr. Willard’s working definitions, keeping in mind that we wish to avoid the briar patches and the usually unproductive rabbit trails that consist of merely semantic arguments.  (Semantic arguments have their place, but the following working definitions will give the reader a sense of what Dr. Willard means when he uses these highly significant, well worn, heavily laden terms.)

Knowledge is the ability to represent things – to work with them, speak about them, write about them, or examine their implications – as they are, on an appropriate basis of thought and experience.  Already we have the seeds of discontent, as some Christians denigrate reason (thought), and others mistrust experience.  Thus an auto mechanic who thinks that Dr. Willard’s Buick needs a new starter when it does not is not trafficking in knowledge, but in a rumor or guess or conjecture.  Knowledge has room for a spectrum of certainty; in fact, all knowledge is subject to some degree of uncertainty, and our readiness to act (see “belief”) as if a proposition were true is closely, though not exclusively, related to our degree of certainty about it.  (Postmodernism tends to assign a non-trivial degree of uncertainty to nearly all significant propositions; this past week, though, Willard wryly noted that he knows very few people who stand squarely in the postmodern camp when they are calculating their fringe benefits!)

Truth, for Dr. Willard, is (to be glib, perhaps) what you run into when you’re wrong.  It is unyielding reality, the basis for knowledge:  things as they really are.  Of course, truth may go far beyond the range of things with which we interact, but for our purposes here we want to be concerned with the full range of reality that is potentially relevant to justice and the building of a just society.

Belief is, therefore, the readiness to act on a proposition as if it were known to be true.  One might even go so far as to say that belief is the actual behavior itself, predicated on knowledge or suspicion that a proposition is true.  Willard says that we all act on what we actually believe; that is, our actions betray our genuine beliefs, irrespective of our professions or commitments.  If I believe strongly enough that smoking will kill me, I will act accordingly, continuing to smoke if the implications are not sufficiently important to me, or quitting if they are.  Either way, my belief governs my behavior to a significant degree.

Commitment, one layer further removed from truth, is the readiness to act on a proposition as if one believed it.  Here, obviously, is where self-delusion, propaganda, manipulation, or cult plays its most tragic role.  Even if I cannot get you to believe something, I can sometimes get you to commit to it anyway.  Commitment does not require knowledge or even the perception of knowledge; belief at least requires the perception that I know a thing, if not the knowledge itself.  Thus, a Senior Pastor can sometimes by the force of his personality or rhetorical gifts persuade me to commit to an agenda that is predicated on things I do not believe to be true or things about which my knowledge is strongly uncertain.  But he will have to return again and again to re-start me, because commitments do not have the self-initiating, self-sustaining power that beliefs have.

Profession is parallel and similar to commitment.  I need not believe in something in order to profess it, any more than I must believe in something in order to commit to it.  It is the statement of a readiness to act on a proposition as if one believed it.  It may be explicit or implicit, spoken or tacit.  And it need not coincide perfectly with commitment; it is perfectly possible to profess a commitment that does not actually exist.


The fundamental difference, then, between belief and commitment/profession is knowledge, granted the roles of (a) uncertainty and (b) the thresholds of uncertainty that emerge from our experiences and personalities.  Now we are ready to take another step.

Profession, commitment, and belief might be viewed as stages in a person’s journey toward salvation, by which I mean (not DW necessarily) “conformity with the way things really are.”  This rendering of salvation is not identical to the biblical definition(s) – not necessarily, anyway, and certainly not at this piont in our quick-and-dirty exposition.  But we’re probably going to end up there.  After all, if we cannot associate “god” – still less, the “YHWH” of the Jews or the “God” of the Christians – with ultimate reality, then what purpose other than insistent self-delusion is served by seeking him at all?  It would be irrational, wouldn’t it, to invest one’s life in pursuit of the “will” of a “god” that does not, after all, represent what is really true about the universe in which we live?  At very least, we’re going to need to say that any ethical framework worth its salt must conform to reality as it is, including the identity and character of any “god” who might be thought to author and sustain it.

I don’t know if that proposition can be proven in the affirmative, but its negation just seems absurd in the extreme, doesn’t it?


In this construction, individual salvation is wrapped up in the idea of social justice, the expansive context with which we began.  My salvation is communal, not individual, which is to say that it is measured by the extent to which I contribute to, and conform with, the social ethic that gives rise to systemic justice.  (Yes, I’m tempted to use the Hebrew word shalom.)  That requires that my world view, my “operating system” – what governs my life whether I am aware of it or not! – be conformed to reality, the universe as it is.  But this gets ahead of the argument.


qb has now thoroughly exposed his ignorance.  Not completely, but thoroughly!  So let the education of qb resume.


4 Comments leave one →
  1. 26 June 2009 1:01 pm

    I like your tack on this qb. Blogging while reading a book … documenting the journey of ideas. Thinking of getting back into books myself; its been many a year since I immersed myself in that media form. The internet has pretty well dominated my attention in the last 3 years. And yet … am waiting for the next big shift; post-twitter, and post-facebook if you will.

    I applaud you on your consistent blogging efforts; from Jan 05! I’ve started and stopped many a blog over that time.

    take care, and blessings,


  2. Ben permalink
    26 June 2009 3:01 pm


    I appreciate the diversion!!

    As you jump into epistemology, may I offer another resource for your casual review? W. Jay Wood (Ph.D Notre Dame and Assoc. Pro. of Philosophy at Wheaton College) wrote a wonderful introduction to epistemology that I’ve come to appreciate. Entitled: “Epistemology: Becoming Intellectually Virtuous” (IVP, 1998), this relatively short volume sets the table for deeper reflection and consideration of the subject. Not to take anything away from Willard – he is a fine scholar and gifted author – but, in this instance, I would say Willard is more on the “outside looking in” when it comes to this subject.


    P.S. Linda Zagzebski’s, “Virtues of the Mind” (Cambridge, 1996) is also a fine starting point.

  3. 26 June 2009 4:00 pm

    Beauty, Ben, it’s on my Amazon wish list. My guess is that Willard’s view of epistemology is driven more by pragmatic concerns than anything else – hence the “working definitions” rather than “utterly rigorous definitions.”

    ggw, thanks for stopping in. qb has had many phrases come to mind to describe his own blog, but “consistent blogging efforts” was not among them! This blog moves in fits and starts. But I hope you’ll stop by if the subject matter is worth your time.


  4. dmbaldwin permalink
    24 July 2009 6:56 am

    I was at the Conversation with Dallas last week. You have represented his thoughts and ideas better than I did on my blog. Thanks so much for the posting. I am about 1/3 of the way through his book. I’m lovin it!

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