Faith / Pluralistic World / Spirituality

Longing To Know

More people these days talk a lot about stories, when you might be expecting them to talk about truth.

At a Borders gathering earlier this year in St. Louis , Denis Haack stressed the critical significance of stories in our lives and in any culture. Quoting Robert Jensen, he concurred that “stories link past, present and future, in a way that tells us where we have been (even before we were born), where we are, and where we could be going… Our stories teach us that there is a place for us, that we fit. They suggest to us that our lives can have a plot. Stories turn mere chronology, one thing after another, into the purposeful action of plot, and thereby into meaning… Stories are the best way humans beings have for accounting for our experience.” (First Things 10/93)

“The stories of a people, or generation, or culture tend both to reflect and to mold the ideas, hopes, dreams, and values of those who listen to and identify with them,” added Denis. “It is story which also shapes our values and perception of reality.” Denis went on to suggest that “the stories of our day are found by and large in the cinema, and that means that if we want to understand our times and our friends and our selves, we need to listen to the movies.”

Stories vs. truth?
Do you find it surprising that he and others make such radical claims concerning stories? How can something that is “just a story” be so important, life and perception shaping, for individuals and cultures? What is a story, if not something humans make up—as opposed to, say, truth? Or reality? What hath fabrication to do with knowledge?

Plenty, I venture to suggest. What Denis is saying about movies and story, I believe, actually applies to all human efforts to know. Devising stories involves assigning significance to events to make sense of them. I believe that every act of knowing involves us in such significance assigning. All knowing is the responsible, risky, human, active struggle to shape a pattern by assigning significance to its pieces, whether what we are knowing is a book bag or a disease, atoms at cold temperatures, or persons. A profound pattern unlocks the world for us, and we submit to the reality it reveals.

Stories are patterns issuing from responsible human appraisal and unlock the world. Thus they resemble all acts of knowing. Stories are patterns in time—temporal patterns. So devising stories, and this includes film-making, is fundamentally an act of knowing by which we access the world.

Our lives are a tapestry of acts of knowing. You can’t turn around without being involved in one, at least one, maybe more. So it is going to make you better at knowing, and more a person of integrity, if you give some thought to what you are doing when you know. Furthermore, much indeed is at stake in our ideas about knowing—truth, reality, God, not to mention who we are and what we do.

Default mode #1: statements and proof
But I offer my approach to understanding knowing as a third alternative to far more common ways of conceiving it. How do we typically view the “epistemic enterprise”? Our “default mode” of thinking about knowledge is to picture knowledge as so many statements, and their proof. Statements and proof, statements and rational proof. “A cold front is moving through.” “How do you know?” “Well, it’s been windy all morning, and now the wind has shifted to the north.” “Sir Ernest Shackleton was the key to the rescue of all the crew of the Endurance.” “How do you know?” “I just was reading what his crew wrote in their journals about him, and that’s what they say.”

Obviously, there is nothing amiss with saying that statements and proof have to do with knowledge. We have only gotten ourselves in trouble (in the Western tradition of thought) by saying that it is all that there is to knowledge. If you say that all that there is to knowledge is fully articulated statements that are thoroughly justified by other statements, some things don’t get explained, some really important factors get overlooked, and if you are really rigid about it, you actually inhibit your success in knowing. What is worse, key components of your skill at knowing simply atrophy through disuse, and you feel disconnected from your world, yourself, and others, including God.

Here is an obvious problem with saying that statements and proof is all there is to knowledge. If knowledge is only that which has a full justification, and is fully articulated, how do we get it in the first place? How do you come to know? I am only repeating what Socrates’ disciple, Meno, asked his master in Plato’s dialogue named after him. Wherever you end up, you certainly don’t start with explicit statements rationally justified. That’s the whole point of exploration of any sort. But exploration, successful exploration, occurs all the time. There must be more to what we do in our knowing than statements. In fact, in the process of exploration, we usually can’t articulate related statements and proof until after the discovery. —Which ought to make us wonder what is going on prior to it.

And that raises the question, why should we consider “knowledge” and “knowing” to refer only to the statements only possible after our success, and withhold that designation from the exciting, risky, sometimes heroic, irresistible, very human longing to piece things together to get there, and to continue to affirm it once we do? Philosophers, and our default mode, have often relegated the getting-there part to non-knowledge. We may think it’s mystical, even miraculous. We are told it is irrational. It’s what artists do, and religious people, but it isn’t knowledge. If you want to talk about knowledge, talk about statements and proof.

Default mode #2: private truth
Nowadays, we have developed a second default mode. Okay, knowledge is statements and proof, but it doesn’t exist. All we have is private truth. It has become so patently evident to us that people’s perspectives, their situatedness in history, place, and culture, shape their reality. And if this is the way things are, you can’t have knowledge that is statements and proof. So you can’t have knowledge. And while we’re at it, reality is only what we make it. So make up what you want. Also, in a misguided attempt to exalt the virtue of tolerance, many of us think that we have to say that what is true for me can be and often if different from what is true for you.

Actually, default mode #2 is caught in the same dynamic as default mode #1. If knowledge is exclusively statements and proof, the radical disconnectedness of knowledge from knower and known will lead to the demise of knowledge. Knowledge cut off from knower and known eventually proves to be no knowledge at all. Default mode #2, in reaction, has at least attempted to reconnect with knower, but has done so by reducing knowledge completely to the knower: it’s all about me, as we say. But in our heart of hearts, this does not satisfy.

In describing these default modes, I am being simplistic; our actual practice of knowing never conforms purely to either default mode. I believe that humans can actually be deluded about how they go about knowing, and still succeed in knowing, because they rely on the very dimensions of the act that they deny. Our epistemology, as humans in the warp and woof of living, is usually better than what we say and think we are doing.

But do you see that to the extent that we hammer our default modes, to that extent our ability to recognize and cultivate any other dimensions of knowledge that might exist can’t help but atrophy? These ignored and often atrophied dimensions include responsible choice, patience and humility as we woo the yet to be known, covenantal self-binding, intentionality with regard to our bodily, felt, lived, sense of the real, and intelligent orienting of ourselves in light of authoritative guides of all sorts.

Longing to know, connecting the dots
The act of knowing, I say, is the active human struggle to rely on clues to focus on a pattern, which we then recognize and submit to as accessing the world. A short way of saying it is to say that knowing is making sense of experience, “connecting the dots,” as we say. Isn’t that what people are always trying to do? “Why are there cookie crumbs on the counter?” “Why is my roommate acting like that?” “What the heck does my professor mean when he shouts ‘particularity!’ at the top of his lungs?” When are we not doing this? When we are deathly ill, or just dead.

How do we go about knowing? We enter a situation that initially makes no sense when we look at the pieces. Because nothing makes sense, we can’t even be sure what counts as “a piece.” We struggle to make sense of it, to detect a pattern. The process isn’t at all linear. It’s not like we can line up our premises and derive a conclusion, because we can’t say what the premises are until after we find the conclusion. For all that, we struggle toward the solution, and sometimes we even have a sense of getting closer to it. We see that some people get to solutions faster than we do in areas in which they are skilled and experienced. That’s because like all skills, some people have a special gift, and all of us improve with practice.

But then there comes a moment when light dawns, a light bulb moment. We have in our struggle actively reshaped the pieces into a pattern, and the pattern seems to take over. The pattern more than connects the dots we thought we were working from. It’s liable to explode them with something breaking in that’s three-dimensional, that transforms them and us to boot. We get the sense that we have unlocked a door. We can get this sense that we are no longer the one asking the questions. We get this sense that there’s horizons and possibilities that we can only imagine.

Can you give an example of such an experience in your life? Can you think of some that you have seen or read about? The Bible also yields telling examples. One of my favorites is the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 23). See if you can track the unfolding of knowledge for them along the lines of my description.

Restoring statements to their natural habitat
Contrast this description of knowing to the two default modes: in human efforts to know, the statements we do articulate, claim and justify are just the tip of an iceberg. They are the skin that congeals on the top of a cup of cooling cocoa—they lie at the intersection between fathoms below and fathoms above.

Statements crest a responsible human struggle, an exercising of skilled personal appraisal. Statements require a profound reintegration of the pieces, and draw their life from much that is tacit on which we rely to assert them. We will be better knowers as we graciously and humbly acknowledge and cultivate the subsidiary roots of our claims. We ignore them to our peril.

In the other direction, moving outward, statements are the tip of yet another iceberg, namely, the world. While we aspire to represent reality in them, we must not make claims stand or fall by a rigidly explicit ideal. It isn’t certainty or bust. For sometimes our words are more like keys that unlock doors, or catalysts that engage creative response. Words evoke as much as they describe. They point, and sometimes they unleash.

It’s not that knowledge isn’t statements and proof, or that statements and proof don’t consolidate our gains. It’s that limiting knowledge to statements and proof is about as helpful as cutting off the branch you are standing on. Nor is it that we determine reality. Shaping patterns isn’t fabrication, unless it’s a bad pattern. Shaping patterns unlocks the real, the way any good act of knowing does. When I say these things, I take them to describe knowing in science as much as they do knowing in art, in business as much as in religion.

Yes, statements and their truth are key ingredients in knowing. But they survive only as we allow them their integral connection to us and to the world. We need to restore them to their natural habitat for them to thrive.

How do we shape a pattern?
Knowing is the active and responsible human struggle to interpret clues to shape a pattern that then we submit to as accessing the real. Humans shape the pattern. A good pattern unlocks reality. How do we shape a pattern? We do it by assigning significance to the pieces.

Take a simple example. We see a white crescent in the evening sky. It is the moon. What is it that we are seeing? Are we seeing all of a crescent, or part of an orb? Part of an orb, we all agree. The pattern we make hinges on whether we say that what we don’t see is absent, or whether it is merely hidden. We assign significance to that gap. And doing it properly unlocks the world to us: we’ve even put people on the moon.

For us to “see” a pattern, we have to have assigned significance to the pieces. This goes for our simplest and most basic perceptions, just as it does for the theory of relativity. “Noticing” is our very common word for assigning significance to the smallest thing. And seeing the thing can only happen when I assign the significance aright. Noticing requires us to rely on more than we are able to put into words. It is laced with tacit, lived, feel, a kind of navigating and orienting that is a bit like a bat flying through a cave by dint of bouncing radar off the rocks.

Because knowing involves shaping patterns, we actually need others—coaches, teachers, guides—to teach us to assign proper significance to the pieces—even to pieces within our own body or thought! How else does anybody learn to read X-rays? How else would anybody learn to read, period? We need to be taught to see what is there. Have you ever noticed how much the Olympic ski jump commentators manage to say and say excitedly about what we are all watching? I find it hilarious! How is it that they see all that? Author Annie Dillard speaks wisely: “The lovers can see, and the knowledgeable.”

Movies, stories, are patterns, too
Movies often depict acts of coming to know. My favorite is The Hunt for Red October. If you are familiar with it, you can name the pieces that Jack Ryan and others are trying to make sense of. You can name the moment when Ryan grasps a pattern that reinterprets the pieces and makes profounder sense than what everybody else is thinking: Soviet submarine commander Ramius, in launching the Red October, isn’t starting World War III; he is trying to defect. You can note the passionate commitment to this pattern that drives Ryan on to ever greater risk and danger, compelled forward by his sketchily based conviction about Ramius. You can savor the moment when he meets Ramius face to face. You can share his terror when he finds that he is no longer the one asking the questions or giving the orders: his pattern has compelled his submission to its reality. Talk about patterns unlocking and engaging the real!

Movies themselves are patterns, as are all stories. Identifying a snowy owl or a Tiffany lamp engages us in shaping a spatial pattern. By contrast, a story is a temporal pattern, a pattern we shape in time. (So is a musical composition, by the way.) A story is essentially a person orchestrating pieces into a pattern by assigning significance to those pieces, is it not? And some stories are more profound, unlock reality better, than others. They can resonate to our experience, they can help us understand ourselves better, or the world better, they can even shape the course of history—my friend’s father saw Mrs. Miniver in the theater and walked straight to the recruiting office during World War II.

To make a movie requires assigning significance in such a way that shapes a beginning, a problem, a climax, a resolution. It involves bodying forth what is significant about life and reality. Better movies and better stories resonate more profoundly with the real; they assign significance more truthfully. They have a message that grows out of the significance they have assigned to the pieces.

And while we are talking about noticing, notice how the cinematographer prompts his/her audience to notice the right things, and in right relationship to the overall pattern. The cinematographer is a guide, too. And for those of you who read Denis Haack’s reviews, or sit alongside him and view a film together, notice how Denis helps you notice the right things in the film. Yet another guide on whom we rely to help us to see the pattern that is there.

Denis says, pay attention to movies: they tell the stories of our culture and of our lives. We need to see that, far from diverting us from the pursuit of truth, he calls us to the main stream of it.

A call to story telling, a call to truth
One final comment, of the many things we could go on to discuss. You shape stories too, and view your life in terms of them. Think of how you relate to your friend what happened at the band competition last weekend, or at the office this morning. Think of how as you move into adulthood you have to reassess what happened between you and your family growing up. Think how you try to cope when adversity strikes. We are compulsive pattern seekers, significance assigners. As image bearers entrusted by God with preserving and developing his world, this is our glory and His.

I hope you find it helpful to see that shaping such stories is the stuff of knowing, and profoundly human. It calls for personal appraisal, personal responsibility, and a good measure of risk. You can do it well or you can do it poorly, according to how profoundly your pattern engages the real. Embrace your calling, and may the wind be at your back.


* I have adopted and adapted the epistemology of Michael Polanyi as presented throughout his writings, such as in Personal Knowledge: Toward a Post-Critical Philosophy (Chicago, 1958).