How do we know what we know? Through experience? Or through ‘fear of the LORD’?
Such philosophical musings on the nature of knowledge (‘epistemology’) may seem out of place in a church magazine article, yet not in the Bible.
As we use our morning series to investigate the fear of the LORD in Proverbs, we are given a unique angle – and challenge – through a complementary wisdom book we find in our Bibles. Welcome to the world of Ecclesiastes.
The self-declared ‘Teacher’ of the book assembles students, not to give answers but to help them ask the right questions, most poignantly, ‘how do we know what we know?’
Thus the experiment begins…the Teacher explores knowledge through experience – essentially, what would become the Greek worldview (the book uses language from the 5th or even 4th century BC), that is, knowing by what we have seen, tried and tested ourselves.
But what is his conclusion? If existence is only about what we see and do here under the sun, then life, when put into the context of death and eternity, becomes meaningless, temporary, a vanity, a vapour, but a breath.
Even if we put ourselves in the place of the wealthiest and most powerful who have lived before us, the repetitive and transient nature of life on earth leads us to the inevitable deduction: to see (and do and feel) is not to believe but to constrain. Essentially, human existence resembles that of a goldfish in a bowl.
Over the sun, under the sun
What is needed is an awareness that life under the sun only makes sense when we are given meaning and purpose from the one over the sun.
Alongside this critique of the Greek worldview, sprinkled throughout Ecclesiastes we find the Hebrew worldview, as espoused most fully in the book of Proverbs. Hebrew wisdom challenges us to ‘fear God…for this is the whole duty of man’ (12:13) and contrasts knowledge through experience with knowledge through relationship with God.
Subtly, Ecclesiastes challenges the assumption that we can know everything we need to know through Do-It-Yourself and Try-It-Yourself – for the most important things, we need the Creator of the Universe to tell us about himself and about ourselves.
What’s in my head…
This has many implications for 21st century living. It is a challenge to those who try to find meaning in life purely through trial and error, whether that is ‘try before you buy’ religion, fulfilment through career progression or life as an ongoing quest to find love.
Yet it is also a challenge to the 21st century church. Knowledge from God, not just from seeing and doing, challenges the assumption that the Kingdom of God is only as big as our own experience. How many of us are guilty of acting and speaking as if the fullness of the Christian life equates to the sum total of knowledge and experience in my head?
It puts to bed the suggestion that the only valid ‘Biblical views’ on all sorts of secondary issues are simply those we’ve heard about or grown up with. It broadens our horizons to see that God’s rule and reign is bigger, wider and more diverse than our own tradition, denomination, culture and country.
At its core, whilst recognising the value of seeing and doing, Ecclesiastes also sees its limitations, propelling us instead towards seeking the wisdom of the one over the sun, for proper living under it.
May we value ‘fear of the LORD’ over experience as we move forwards as a church together.
With every blessing,