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The False Dichotomy Between Faith and Knowledge
Is faith for those who are blind to reality? No—and here's why.
Knowledge is a result of continuous engagement with a subject matter.—Dallas Willard
We frequently confuse faith or belief with knowledge. Most people know Christians have faith, but many also believe that we don’t know anything. We mistakenly believe that faith and knowledge are opposed to each other—that if you have knowledge, you don’t need faith, that faith is for those who are blind to reality.
This is the actual truth: The best, strongest, most actionable faith grows from, is rooted in, and takes appropriate action on the basis of experiential knowledge. This was the effect of hearing God’s voice at Jesus’ baptism and the transfiguration, Jesus’ miracles, the appearance of angels, the stilling of storms, and Jesus’ attitudes and behaviors at his unjust arrest, trial and crucifixion. These experiences conveyed to the disciples knowledge of true reality, which built faith/confidence in Jesus, and led to actionable living that changed the world.
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The first friends of Jesus knew him and about him the same way you know workmates and neighbors. They had experiential knowledge that far supersedes any media-driven knowledge we have of our favorite music celebrities, TV personalities or movie stars.
Knowledge Is Crucial to Followership of Jesus.
No one would trust a surgeon who advertised: We have had a lot of luck lately with our procedures! We would not take pills from a pharmacist who said: We hope this medicine is safe. Because we want to be able to count on them—to rely on them—we require surgeons and pharmacists to know things.
Considering Christian apologetics, Willard says, Knowledge is a result of continuous engagement with a subject matter. That is precisely what Jesus’ first followers had—and to some degree so did the crowds of people who gathered around him. It was because of such knowledge that we now have the biblical gospels and the letters of Peter and John.
It helps me a great deal to remember this: Ancient people were at least as intelligent as me and you. They did not know about artificial intelligence, DNA or brain theory so they could not and did not speak of it. But they knew Jesus, they knew what he taught, they witnessed his deeds of power, and they observed the gentle manner in which he carried himself as he argued for his Father’s perspective on things and proclaimed the kingdom of God.
Primarily through the Bible, that same body of knowledge has been passed down through the centuries. But generation after generation, people have contemporary experiences of Jesus.
This past Sunday evening my wife, daughter and I saw The Jesus Revolution movie. I was reminded that knowledge being passed down is how I came to faith. Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa is actually in Santa Ana, where my wife and I grew up and attended Santa Ana High School. The movie conveyed a big part of the story of my adolescence. I remember that every Monday morning we heard new stories of friends, who we knew were sinners, coming to faith through services at Calvary Chapel.
Those friends had come to know things too. They heard Pastor Chuck’s simple, loving bible teaching. They themselves were healed of drug addictions or saw it in others. They saw committed sinners make new, stunning moral choices. There was the experience of love and acceptance in the communal aspects of coming to faith. The experiential knowledge of love was in the air.
That is the context in which I came to faith.
I could not do so in the mainline church where I grew up. Those leaders were proud to know nothing. They were engaged in an intellectualized form of deconstruction before anyone had heard the term. It was predictable that robust doubt followed. Again: We would never trust a surgeon with dubious knowledge and skill. And no one is animated to follow Jesus based on doubt. This is why Paul said to the Philippian church:
Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
In discipleship to Jesus, we want to keep moving to the place where our minds are being transformed (Romans 12:2), and we are taking on the mind of Christ (Philippians 2:5), preparing our minds for all the elements of action that are common to human life (1 Peter 1:13).
Like Jesus’ first friends, we all have doubts and uncertainties of some sort. But their doubts occurred in a context of vibrant faith fueled by knowledge. When this process broke down for some reason, Jesus would ask questions rooted in experiential knowledge:
Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time?
Willard is insightful about the crucial role knowledge of truth plays in Christian spirituality:
Truth is more vital than bread, because only by truth can we successfully deal with bread and all the realities upon which our existence and well-being depend.
Willard also writes that Jesus’ teachings are the best information on the subjects of greatest importance to human beings. Jesus is the only solid foundation for our ideas. And we live at the mercy of our thinking.
Thus, we want our apologetics to have an allure to them as we, with gentle unfeigned confidence, share with others what we have experienced and come to know about Jesus.