Another New Essay on Human Understanding

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Jay Smith, YTI President and Bridger Professor of Theology & Ethics

July 18, 2017

For several centuries, Western culture has been in the grasp of an inadequate understanding of human nature. Allow me to make a short historical survey to explain how this happened.

In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, it became vogue for philosophers and naturalists in Western culture to write essays on the topic of “human understanding.” John Locke led the advance with his Essay Concerning Human Understanding in 1690. This essay was followed by responses from Gottfried Liebniz, George Berkeley, and David Hume, among others. Locke’s 1690 volume laid the groundwork for philosophical empiricism.

Finding Knowledge Through Our Senses

Empiricism basically argues that all knowledge is derived from sense experience. This short blog is not the place for a full-blown essay seeking to respond, refute, or renew John Locke’s work. Indeed, there are many reasons to appreciate Locke; for example, he was a convicted Christian. However, empiricism— whether naively or scientifically affirmed—continues to be the reigning paradigm for understanding what it means to “know” in our Western world. Locke, followed later by Hume, Kant, and others, sought to affirm “knowledge” through sense experience, reason, or a combination of the two.

Either way, following Bacon and Descartes, Locke and the later empiricists sought to either prove—or disprove—the ground of human knowledge without reverting to theism or its derivative revelation. This great experiment in reason and empiricism escalated into rationalism, scientism, and logical atomism. Even the Christian faith was not immune to this cultural and philosophical upheaval.

Failing to Build a Better World

However, following two world wars built upon a philosophy and technology driven by the rational and empirical search for true knowledge, empiricism brought with it the seeds of its own demise through postmodern deconstructionism. The world had not turned out any better after the rational and empirical search for the ground of knowledge, which leads us to our 21st century malaise. Indeed, phenomenology, the rationalist off-shoot pioneered by Edmund Husserl in the late 19th century, has experienced a “turn to religion” in the late 20th century in the work of Richard Kearney. It seems that revelation has made a comeback.

Well, this is a blog, and not a formal academic essay. For those of you who had the fortitude to stick with me this far, I hope you will not be disappointed. Western culture has struggled to reconcile the pervasive presence of the Divine with the human quest for independence from just such a presence for the last several hundred years.

A Different Understanding of Reality

I suggest we stop struggling and simply rethink—not who God is, or is not, but who we are and how we understand our world, without rejecting the concept of God outright.

Human beings are finite, inquisitive, and imaginative creatures. We are relational, reasonable, and have a tremendous capacity for love and for joy. Yet far too often we reveal our capacity for anger and for hate. Our very existence—without regard for the cosmological research being pursued by physicists and evolutionary biologists to prove otherwise—predicates the possibility of a Divine Creator.

Once we accept this premise, even as a possibility, it opens a door to a different understanding of human beings and how humans understand reality. A Divine Creator opens the door to sense of purpose, possibility, and hope that does not come naturally to the biological creature. A Divine Creator reconnects the human person to the rest of creation, allowing us to realize the joy of life and connectivity in our world.

Without a Divine Creator, human beings are reduced to the lowest common denominator—survival, sex, and death. Love is reduced to an unattainable romantic ideal, and after time, simply abandoned. Without a Divine Creator, we are forced to simply face existence, fighting for survival, dominating and depriving one another until we die.

Forgetting That God Is for All of Us

The possibility of the Divine Creator requires us to rethink how all religious expressions have interpreted revelation and tradition over time. Wounded by reprobate human ego over and over again, religious traditions have taken a circuitous route to the chaotic situation in which they find themselves today.

Each religious expression has evolved over time to the point that their earliest adherents would have a difficult time recognizing them. Whether Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, or one of a myriad of other “Axial Age” expressions, they have lost sight of their origin and the expression of the Divine Creator that was unique to them.

No revelation makes sense if God is not for all of us. Every human being. We cannot live or thrive without each other or our Divine Creator.

The Unique Message of Christian Love

How is Christianity unique in this constellation of religious expressions? It would seem that most of our contemporary religious expressions find their genesis in an experience of the Divine. Whether that was the epiphany at Mount Sinai, the Cave of Hira, or the Cross at Golgotha, the earliest encounters were profoundly personal and existential.

The difference is in the personal and existential claims of Christianity. Jesus, a historic human being, is asserted to be of Divine origin by historic accounts, and exhibits Divine attributes in life and death. The substance of the message of Christianity is that God reconciles all of humanity to the Divine Self and one another in the life, death, and resurrection of this unique person. The message of this person is love—absolute self-giving for the sake of the other. All barriers—religious, political, ethnic, and gender—are broken down in this person. Jesus becomes personal in the Holy Spirit—His Spirit—to each of us, who simply believe.

This is confusing to many. Why “only to those ‘who believe’?”

Human beings have ‘free will’, because love demands freedom to choose. If we cannot choose it, it is not love. Thus, the choice to believe is an act of love. Indeed, choosing to believe is a choice of love: a choice for redemption, wholeness, and ultimate personhood. Hate and violence are vanquished by love. Hope is inspired by love. Life is given meaning by love.

Complete Human Understanding

If time has revealed anything to the human race, it is that human understanding cannot be reduced to physical senses and the rational mind. Human understanding is completed in Love; love is not reducible to romance or sexual expression, but is the unconditional gift of self to the other.

Human understanding that is shaped by Love is the complete human being. In this sense, rationalism and empiricism, in the service of Love, complete the quest for human understanding.

The trick is that Love, the solution to the equation of human understanding, is only completely available to us in faith—opening us to the mystery of the Divine Creator. Jesus is the key to that mystery—speaking to our physical senses and our mental capacity through the power of imaginative belief.