Monday, December 18, 2023

Experience, not Theory, Breeds Conviction

(Horses threaten to get up close and personal.)

Two senses of the verb"to know" are:
1) Theoretical knowing - call this, following Michael Polanyi, explicit knowing. Such knowledge is impersonal, or from a distance.
2) Experiential knowing - call this, following Polanyi again, tacit knowing, or knowledge by acquaintance (not merely knowledge by theory). Experiential knowledge has been called "personal knowledge."

First, for example, I know about the game of ice hockey. I can recognize and state various elements of the game as I observe it. Because of this I can identify it when I see it and distinguish it, for example, from bowling.

Secondly, I know how to ride a bike. This use of "know" is non-theoretical. When asked "Do you know how to ride a bike?" I don't respond by reciting some scientific theory of bike riding. Instead, I respond "Yes, I do." That is, I can do it; viz., I am able to ride a bike.

This second kind of knowing is especially Hebraic. It is experiential and, when it comes to "knowing" God, it has consequences. Henri Nouwen writes:

"Once I "know" God, that is, once I experience God's love as the love in which all my human experiences are anchored, I can only desire one thing: to be in that love. "Being" anywhere else, then, is shown to be illusory and eventually lethal." (Nouwen, in The Only Necessary Thing: Living a Prayerful Life, 69)

It's possible for persons to know about the love of God from an experiential distance. This kind of knowledge is largely uncompelling; it rarely moves people. It's sometimes referred to as "head knowledge."  But, in Scripture, we are assured that it is possible to know God up close and personal. We can have "heart knowledge" of God.

Jesus was going after heart knowledge. To experientially know and be known by God. Only this kind of knowing keeps the inner fire burning. Experience, not theory, breeds conviction.

(In Polanyi's own words, the distinction:
"These two kinds of knowing are not only distinct, but also in an important sense mutually exclusive. Motion studies may teach us to identify some of the elementary acts constituting a skill, and this may be useful in training. But, while attending to the elements of a skill in themselves, we impair their smooth integration to the joint performance that it is their function to serve. If we succeeded in focusing our attention completely on the elements of a skill, its performance would be paralyzed altogether.

The mutual exclusiveness of the two kinds of knowing can be expressed in terms of a logical disjunction. When we know something by relying on our awareness of it for the purpose of attending to something else (i.e., we know a particular for the purpose of attending to a comprehensive entity to which it contributes), we cannot at the same time not rely on it for this purpose - as would necessarily be the case if we attended to it exclusively in itself.

We may call “knowing by attending to” a focal knowing, and “knowing by relying on” a subsidiary knowing, and reformulate in these terms the conclusions we have arrived at as follows. We know subsidiarily the particulars of a comprehensive whole when attending focally to the whole which they constitute; we know such particulars not in themselves but in terms of their contribution to the whole. To the extent to which things are known subsidiarily in terms of something else, they cannot be known at the same time in themselves."

(For more detail see my book Leading the Presence-Driven Church, ch. 2, "The Case for Experience.")