Covenant epistemology offers a multifaceted vision of knowing that pertains to knowing ventures in every corner of our lives.1 Its central claim is that our paradigm of knowing should be, not the widely held view of knowledge as impersonal information impersonally amassed, but rather a vision of knowing as love-drawn, covenantally forged, dynamically unfolding, interpersonal relationship. I believe that shifting from the more pervasive paradigm to this vision of knowing makes a radical difference to learning and teaching. It makes sense of what we already know is important. It suggests ways we may be even better at it. And it offers fresh encouragement to us in our mission. Covenant epistemology makes delightful sense of knowing, restoring, among many other things, the adventure to our knowing ventures.
In this two-part essay, we’ll explore this alternative vision of covenant epistemology, and the difference it makes to learners and teachers. Part 1 invites you to ponder some of the mysteries of knowing, and it also sketches covenant epistemology’s understanding of both knowing and being as interpersonal. Part 2 (in the next issue) introduces you to a key component of covenant epistemology: Michael Polanyi’s innovative account of the two-level structure of knowing.
Part 1: Loving in Order to Know
All of us are involved in knowing, all the time, in every corner of our lives. Since this is obviously so, it seems we should be continually attuned to epistemology, and we should make responsible choices with respect to our epistemology. But it is also obvious that usually we do no such thing. Many people don’t know what epistemology is—that is, the philosophical study of how we know whatever it is we know. And the fact is that we go through life and knowing with little sense that we already have what I think of as an epistemic default. We have preconceived notions regarding what knowledge is, and these unavoidably impact all our knowing.
People of modernity in Western culture generally exhibit a default ideal of knowledge as impersonal information impersonally amassed. I call this the knowledge-as-information mindset, or posture, or orientation. It comes with several related stipulations regarding what knowledge is and what it isn’t.2
Learning and teaching are endeavors powerfully affected by one’s operative epistemic ideal, whether we have identified it or not. A defective epistemic ideal thwarts our efforts; a healthy one would positively and strategically impact them. In my work I identify the knowledge- as-information ideal and try to show its defects and illegitimacy. In its place I commend covenant epistemology, and an epistemic ideal of loving in order to know. I try to show its superiority in according with who we are as humans, in restoring regard to the world we try to know, and in showing us a more effective way to do so.
In what follows here, I want to guide the reader through some reflection regarding knowing that will showcase and contrast these ideals, criticizing the one and commending the other. In the process, I believe that any teacher and most any learner can quickly draw positive, concrete, effective, and encouraging implications for teaching and learning.
All knowing is coming to know
What is involved in knowing? To begin with, knowing is always a venture: all knowing is actually coming to know, being on the way to knowing. What should concern us, as we seek to make sense of knowing, is not what we already know, but what we do not yet know and how we move toward it.
What our epistemology needs to make sense of is not so much information and explanation. What it needs to makes sense of is discovery—coming to know in the first place. Making sense of that, it turns out, will not eliminate either information or explanation but actually allow us to make sense of it far more deeply. Understanding them properly will make us better at them.
The prevailing paradigm of knowledge as information gives us no help here. Knowledge is information; either you have it or you don’t. But it takes only a little reflection to realize that before we have the information in question, we can’t say what the information is. Even after we “have” the information, we have no guarantee that we understand it. And finally, even if we have the information and understand it, it would be entirely arrogant (and counterproductive) to presume that we
have exhaustively grasped its significance, implications and possibilities—any of which might reshape what we previously thought the information to be.
These puzzlements which the ideal of information engenders rightly suggest that it offers no account of how to move from not knowing to knowing. It actually suggests that we can’t move toward knowing. But if we were to conclude that knowing is impossible, we would be skeptics indeed. We would imagine ourselves cut off from reality. We would also be hardly human. This is not true to reality, and it isn’t true to who we are.
The main act, in knowing, cannot be expressed as “gathering information.” It must be something far more profound. We start to get at that profundity by seeing that all knowing is a venture toward the not-yet-known. Wonder involves knowing that we do not yet know.
For this to make sense, we will need an epistemology that makes sense of knowing what you do not yet know, and one which can guide you toward it. The Polanyian component of covenant epistemology affords just such an account; we’ll show that in Part 2. For now let’s just assume it. From well before we can be said to have information, we are setting out on a knowing venture, moving from not-yet-knowing, drawn by something we do not yet know. And this continues through the entire venture: at any point in our venture, we find ourselves poised on the threshold of more which we do not yet know. Knowing ventures are not-yet-knowing through and through. We are always on the “near side” of knowing.
I do not at all mean to cast this as futility. What I am envisioning, in the knowing adventure, it can be seen, is not a paranoid doubt but instead a responsibly risky but delighted confidence that whatever we know is liable to prove to be so much more than we might think. It will turn out that this is just what gives us the sense that we are actually connecting with reality. Knowing is not less; reality is more. And knowing itself only makes sense if we see it as a journey of discovery—a knowing venture.
Understanding knowing as coming to know brings our understanding of knowing into accord with our humanness, and with reality—with who we are, and with what (or who) reality is.
Loving in order to know
It is significant, therefore, that we do seek to come to know. As humans, we embody, in our very being as humans, a posture of hope and desire: we long and love to know. Covenant epistemology says that we should see ourselves, in knowing ventures, as loving in order to know, rather than as knowing in order to love. Knowledge does not precede love; love precedes and invites knowledge.
What stands most originally at the outset of our knowing venture is something like reality’s beckoning us mysteriously into wonder and puzzlement. We notice and attend; we say, “Huh!” In that notice, in our heightening desire, we are starting to respond to reality’s beckoning.
By way of example, I believe that you can supply a story or two, from your own life or others, that display that knowing is a venture, and that something akin to love and desire, a kind of wondrous intrigue with a hidden reality, sets it off. We must be drawn to what we want to know. Teachers—this teacher anyhow—are always scrabbling about to strike a spark in a student’s life, to wake them to wonder. Teachers of small children no doubt can infer from this claim that I teach college students! Small children, by contrast, are born loving to know. Teachers of small children have the opposite problem: they must seek not to extinguish the spark.
In the Western tradition of thought and ideas, especially in modernity, such an approach as loving in order to know is deemed both improper and ludicrous. People tend to conceive of knowledge as purest when it is refined to remove the dross of personal investment, passion, for these could only be a cloying, diluting, bias.
This paradigm presumes that information is only dispassionate. That is to beg the very question at issue. Is information dispassionate? Or is it rather the case that, if it is dispassionate, it is subpar as information? Have we, in fact, a myopia, not only with respect to knowing, but also with respect to reality? We want to develop an epistemic orientation which rings true to ourselves and to reality.
It is no great leap of logic to surmise that just such a defective approach to knowing lies coiled at the root of natural human desire, striking it into oblivion. If knowing requires checking desire at the door, we should not be surprised that childish excitement subsides into boredom and indifference. And we should expect that the human race will be adversely affected when it comes to understanding the world.
Key to a healthy epistemology is identifying the posture of loving to know. Key to learning and teaching is assuming it—in the sense of taking it as our own.
Pledging in order to know
People in the thrall of the pervasive epistemic ideal of knowledge as information tend to believe that responsibility and commitment are not involved in knowing; only after we know do we then have an option (not even an obligation) of personal commitment. A knowledge-as-information paradigm engenders this outlook. In the process it excises from knowing the very things that drive it and improve it. For love involves both desire and covenant. Love and pledge are two sides of the same coin; pledge is the underside of love.
As persons desiring to know the yet-to-be-known, we both love what we do not yet know, and we pledge ourselves to it. We pledge to do what it takes to pursue the hidden reality that beckons us. And I believe that reality is so structured that it takes just this loving pledge to evoke its gracious self-disclosure. Knowing is covenantal. And so is reality, as we will see.
Marriage vows offer a wonderful analogy here: we pledge to love, honor and obey…what we know but do not yet know. And that responsible pledge itself invites and brings reality to be. It invites and makes possible a new family and a good marriage.
If pledge is the underside of love, trust is the other side of loving pledge. We pledge ourselves in hope and trust in what we do not yet know. Love invites the real, pledges itself to invite it, and confidently trusts that reality will come through. Sts. Augustine and Anselm famously said, “I believe in order to understand.” It is only a small step from this to aver, “I trust in order to understand.”
Inviting the real, and a person-like real that responds
In that moment, what we do not yet know is hidden from us—even as it draws us. But it turns out that our epistemic posture significantly impacts what we apprehend. Love guides us into understanding contact with reality. Love actually invites the real.
We love in order to know. Of course we must distinguish love as healthy and responsible from defective, idolatrous, distortions that do not deserve to be called love.3 But all of us have plenty of experiences in which our attitude and approach actually shaped what transpired and what we received. I have come to recognize that how I address my “grandcat,” whom I am babysitting, affects her response. Bean is up to something questionable at the base of my Christmas tree. If I reprimand her, she cowers and hides. If I call her sweetly instead, I find, she comes readily to attend to me. Reality comes to me according to my posture.
Reality graciously and generously gives itself to be understood by those who bind themselves to what they do not yet know. Covenant epistemology implies covenant ontology.4 Knowing is best conceived of as loving; that which is known is best conceived as dynamically, generously, responsive to such overtures. It is also fruitfully conceived of as, literally, a tissue of promises—of the Lord’s covenantal “let there be”—every atom, in every instant. A tissue of pledge is therein also one of love. To say that love actually invites the real properly honors the integrity of the real as person-like—as love and pledge at its core.
A knowledge-as-information presumption mercilessly occludes the living core of reality, reducing
the real to two-dimensional 1s and 0s. Love, by contrast, enables us to apprehend what is there, as it is there truly. We don’t demand, and we don’t “harvest,” in the current, heartless, connotation of that word. Indeed, the knowledge- as-information approach has licensed us to dissect and appropriate whatever we want of reality. It accommodates our Western modernist desire to master and control, to
the end of power and progress. Instead, best practices of knowing, and thus of learning and teaching, are practices of love.
Aspiring knowers must cultivate an epistemological etiquette, so to speak. We’ve already fingered the posture of love as key, along with responsible personal pledge, trust, and risky investment. We may add the motifs of hospitality and welcome—we create a space into which we welcome reality. This suggests boundaries we must honor. It implies personal maturity, openness, humility, respect, gentleness and patience. We may not dictate or compel reality to fit our preconceived notions.
Listening deeply and empathetically, we should see, is no passive biding of one’s time, waiting to speak. Instead, it itself actively confers the very dignity that renders the yet- to-be-known the generous reality that it is. Reality grows to be itself in the dignity we confer. Listening empathetically means listening in concert with what we seek to know, seeking to indwell it and have it indwell us.
Here are a couple of closely related expressions of this that I especially commend: delight, and what I call noticing regard. It’s common to imagine, in our less-than- perfect world, that love involves a forbearing toleration and a condescending mission to improve what is lacking. The idea of delight subversively dispels this unfortunate caricature. Delight is a celebrative notice and regard. It is fraught with wonder and joy. It is entirely specific—this item, for itself—rather than something blandly general. It begins a relationship of knowing, and the relationship must only grow and deepen it.
The heart of knowing: insight
Love, pledge, trust, invitation—none of this guarantees understanding. Nor does it somehow add up to it. To cast knowing as a venture of coming to know is
to say emphatically that understanding, when it comes, is a gracious gift from beyond us. It contains at its core an element of surprise. Insight is intrinsically a transformative reconfiguring of whatever it was we thought we were dealing with or seeking to understand. Rather than information having been completely amassed, the dynamic is that what was hidden has now been revealed. We find ourselves not so much informed as, rather, changed. Polanyian epistemology, the subject of Part 2 of this essay, will elucidate the knowing event of insight.
The goal of knowing is not the exhaustive, comprehensive amassing of information. Nor is the question whether this is possible or whether we must settle for something less.5 The goal of knowing is of an entirely different sort. It is not information but rather relationship. It is not exhaustive comprehension at all; it is, rather, communion with the real. Coming to know anything
at all, whether the structure of DNA or God himself, is
a commencement of an eternally lively relationship of unfolding mutuality never devoid of further surprise and deeper delight. “From this day forward…”
The difference covenant epistemology makes to learning and teaching
It takes little effort to see how all this plays out
in learning and teaching. Instead, it gratifyingly confirms what we already sense is important, heartening, inspiring, and guiding us to cultivate it even more. Teachers invite the real, both with respect to the real they and their students seek together to understand, and with respect to their students. Students may also invite the real with respect to their teachers and their classmates. The goal of education, we should see, is to form persons as great lovers, people who care for a dynamically generous reality in which they already, as responsible persons, are embedded, and to which they are deeply bound.
All this fleshes out the vision of covenant epistemology, of knowing as, not merely knowledge as impersonal information impersonally amassed, but rather as the love-drawn, covenantally forged, dynamically unfolding, interpersonal relationship. Embracing the covenant epistemological vision makes a valuable, concrete, encouraging difference to learning and teaching. It restores the adventure to knowing ventures.