I’m not a fan of George Michael but maybe those of a strictly naturalist and modernist bent could learn from him. His song ‘Faith’ which includes the line, ‘I just gotta have faith’ is classic 1980s cheese. It’s everything that makes me cringe about music. Give me Metallica any day.
However, if we cut through all the glitz and glamour, we can rework his lyric to help us understand our pursuit of truth. And we’ll realise, when it comes to knowledge, everybody has faith.
Epistemology is the study of knowledge and regardless of whether we’ve thought about it or not, we’re all consumers of knowledge.
But how do we come to knowledgeable decisions? How do we arrive at our convictions and conclusions? How do we know what we know? Regardless of whether what we know is actually true!
At the beginning of his book on the Trinity, twelfth century monk Richard of St. Victor has remarkable insight and clarity on this. He states:
‘Now, if I am not mistaken, we have three ways to know things. We perceive some realities by direct experience, we attain to others by means of reason, and finally, we hold onto the last ones by faith’.
We arrive at knowledge through three chief means – experience, reason and faith. Let’s take a look at these three briefly to see how they work out in reality.
1: KNOWING THROUGH EXPERIENCE
This is processed in two main ways – internal feelings and external surroundings.
What we feel makes a difference to what we know – it will shape our interpretation or might cloud, distort or amplify how we process or accept certain knowledge. For example, if we hate a politician, then regardless of what that politician says, and even if the information and knowledge that politician gives is ‘good’ information, we might interpret the information negatively or dismiss it completely because of the way we feel. If we hate something, then that hate will often be accompanied by cynicism rather than a credulous reaction.
On the opposite end, we might also interpret knowledge differently depending on how much we love something – we may only process the good. This love kindles credulity and greater acceptance to truth. Equally, it might help us listen more carefully and be more willing to accept the information we’re given. Because I love my wife I’ll listen to her version of truth and trust it over a stranger, especially if that stranger is not trustworthy.
This then ties into the reality of external experience, which often informs our internal feelings. I will hate a politician because of what that politician has done. For a case study just mention the name Margaret Thatcher in some northern UK towns. If I have had a negative experience of strangers stealing from me or attacking me, then I’m less likely to accept their truth. From such experience, we might also trust certain institutions and people based on the things they say and write. We might even appeal to authorities because our experience has taught us to trust them, especially in areas they specialise in.
2: KNOWING THROUGH REASON
The experience of trusting authority figures leads us into our second main category of processing knowledge. We think through reasoning. Descartes classic dictum ‘I think, therefore I am’ is the timeless example. But of course, reason wasn’t invented by the Enlightenment thinkers, it is evident in early pre-modern thinkers from Socrates, Paul, to Anselm.
Like experience, the pursuit of reason can be dissected into the internal and external: rationalism and empiricism. Many would pit the latter in the camp of experience, but if we pitch it under the larger umbrella of ‘reason’ then rationalism and empiricism are simply different sides of the same coin. Let’s briefly look at each in turn.
Although rationalism was alive and well before Descartes (think Socrates), the Enlightenment certainly resurrected the central importance of gaining knowledge from within. We accrue knowledge through logic and deductive reasoning, from the mind not the material world. We trust our mind not our sensory experiences. It will lead philosophers like Leibniz to ask questions like, ‘why is there something, rather than nothing?’ and develop fundamental principles like the law of non-contradiction or the law of sufficient reason.
In trusting the mind, we put great store in intellectuals and will immediately be suspicious of anything irrational. This can be a great strength in arriving at knowledge through areas like science and mathematics, but can also be a tremendous weakness when it comes to poetry, religion and our imagination. At its worst it can lead to a blind hubris, and a narrowing of our epistemological vision. We’re stuck in Plato’s cave when there’s a whole world to explore.
Another option that is often pitted against rationalism is empiricism – seen in key thinkers like Locke and Hume. Knowledge is arrived at by observing the natural world and providing external evidence for our conclusions.
This is an important discipline in science and history. We look for evidence that can lead to facts. But one of the problems of empiricism is that it can’t ever really be used on its own – we’re going to weigh the evidence and will have to use our rational minds to do so. The question is also asked – how much evidence do we need to arrive at a fact? And do extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence?
The problem with that last question betrays a materialistic bias that cannot see past the natural into the supernatural. And the further we go back, and dig for clues – the less sure we are that these clues make up reality.
That’s why you’ve got to have faith in pretty much whatever you do. Aside from some forms of mathematics – our knowledge gap is filled in by a leap, or a step of faith. We trust. Postmodernism has helped us realise that our basis for knowledge cannot be so certain in various disciplines, especially science. Our reason will only get us so far.
This doesn’t mean my faith is blind – or it’s a leap in the dark. I trust my wife, when she says she hasn’t killed anyone, because I know her well enough, have both the empirical and experiential data to back that up. My love for her will incline my opinion strongly in her favour. But when all that is laid out – I’ve still got to trust her word.
And this is how we arrive at the knowledge of the truth when it comes to Christianity. It isn’t blind faith – although trust is essential. It is reasoned, experiential faith based on evidence, logic and love.
We place our faith in God. But then everybody places their faith in something.
The question is – is that faith well placed?
 Richard of Saint Victor, On the Trinity 1:1, trans Ruben Angelici.
 By no means are these three the only ways we acquire knowledge or arrive at truth – but I think broadly they are the three chief ways.
 On the other hand love can also ‘blind’ us to the truth.
 You cannot read Paul’s letter to the Romans and dismiss the idea that Paul used reason. Read Justin Martyr or Irenaeus in the Second Century AD for more reasoned logic. The whole argument of Anselm’s Why God Became Man is built on reason. Likewise see the scholasticism of Thomas Aquinas and our friend at the beginning Richard St. Victor, who following in the same footsteps of Anselm who was influenced by the Augustinian idea of ‘faith seeking understanding’. See Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Faith Speaking Understanding, for a helpful modern treatment of this notion in relation to the drama of doctrine and discipleship.