From Pastor Dan's Blog

Lessons in Epistemology: evidential linguistics, Gnosticism, and intimidating blog titles

            Christians believe a lot of strange things.  For example, there is a virgin birth, and that of a being who was simultaneously God and human, then a specific resurrection of that being who apparently could in some sense be killed, and the main point of those events is that they are the moral hinge on which turns the struggle between good and evil.  Christian beliefs are so weird that they don’t leave much room between correct or crazy.  And that’s good, because Jesus Himself was that way, either a certified genius or an authentic wacko. 

            On the other hand, even though Christian beliefs seem unreasonable and most Christians, when pressed, would admit that much of what they believe is a matter of faith, that doesn’t mean there isn’t evidence for what Christians say they “know.”  There are reasons to believe.  Faith is not blind.  Rather, faith matures when the faithful practice “faith seeking understanding,” which was the famous motto of the medieval Christian smart guy Anselm (1033 – 1109 AD).  In other words, Christians benefit when they examine how they know what they know.  Now we’re talking epistemology, the study of how knowledge is known.

            Christian epistemology isn’t merely for the believer, however.  The way Christians handle truth and knowledge in any part of life weighs on the credibility of Christian witness to the Person who is The Truth.  Broadly, if Christians learn well how to know well, they can demonstrate in the public eye a consistent habit of being reasonable and wise, and those characteristics become evidence for increased trustworthiness of what they believe about Jesus.  By contrast, if Christians play fast and loose with truth and sources and bias and deception in one part of life, the integrity and credibility of their spiritual beliefs suffer.  Therefore, in this era of mis- and dis-information, I’m offering a three epistemological thoughts.

            First, what if we had to include how we came to know something every time we made a statement?  In English, we can do this easily enough by saying, “I saw…” or “I heard on Media Channel X that…” or “90% of medical PhDs agree that…”  We can also use follow-up questions like “Who did the survey of medical PhDs and who paid for the project?” “Which medical PhDs?” “Was this done before or after we learned that…?”  But English doesn’t force us to reveal our sources or necessarily attune us to epistemological questions.

            There are, however, languages that do require adding information about how the speaker knows something.  If you are speaking those languages, you cannot make sense without adding certain grammatical markers that indicate whether you saw something personally or it was someone else who saw it.[1]  Such markers are called “evidentials,” and are as essential as get the many verb and noun right in this sentences.  If a speaker does not include epistemological information, they cannot make sense in their language.  The speaker can still lie or deceive in other ways, but the matter of how they know what they claim to know is part of the essential meaning of the language itself.

Various classes of evidentials include: visual (“I saw Doug there.”), non-visual sensory (“I smelled Doug there.”), inferred by the speaker (“Because Doug’s only pair of shoes were on the mat, Doug must have been there.”), or assumed by the speaker (“Doug said he would be there, so Doug was there.”).  The real fun happens when you can layer these epistemological devices, such as with a report to the speaker (“Dee told me she saw / smelled / inferred / etc. Doug was there.”), or when the speaker is quoting someone else (“Dee said, ‘I saw / smelled / inferred / etc. Doug was there.”).  For that matter, I am telling you that yesterday I saw Doug write that Dee said that she smelled Doug there.  Doug, no doubt, disputes the significance of his smell.

Here’s the value.  If you want to verify what I say so that you maintain a connection to reality, you can trace back the sequence of communications, asking questions about truth all along the way.  I don’t know that speakers of Central Pomo or Iroquois or other evidential languages avoid the besetting epistemological problems of English.  Tweets, in any language, can rally the emotional herd faster than rational thought can corral the stampede.  In any case, my point is that we all would benefit from the habit of asking “who?” and “how?” and “why?” when we receive “information.”

Second, I think another challenge for Christian epistemology is the temptation to gnosticism.  Listen, conspiracy theories and their offers of special knowledge available only to the special are nothing new under the sun.  Technically, Gnosticism is a broad label, invented in the 1800s, that describes a stream of quasi-Christian thought during the first and second centuries AD.  Gnostics had the idea that regular Christians only kind of understood Jesus, and had missed the “fact” that the Creator must have been a hack and that the Redeemer was the real God and the one to lead enlightened humans out of this material realm and into the higher, spiritual realms.  The way to heaven, then, was secretive knowledge available only to the initiated.  Such teachings were close enough to Biblical Christianity that it was possible for Christians young in faith to get confused or drawn in.  Those teachings were also prevalent enough that Gnostics appear to be among the “false teachers” in the background of various New Testament letters (see specifically 1 Timothy 6:20).

The “gnostic” element I see at work in American Christianity at present is the attraction of secret knowledge, which appeals to basic human pride.  Don’t we all like to know better than the unthinking masses?  Or better than authorities that we don’t trust for reasons that we want to think are religious?  We have insights “they” do not.  Our deviance is precisely what indicates that we’re on the right track.  We wouldn’t be so special if everybody saw things our way, but we are because they don’t.

I have heard Christians peddle conspiracy theories whose basic strength comes from the superiority of their suspicion.  “I’ve read a lot on the internet.”  Most people have.  What was it that you read?  And who wrote it?  And why?  Correlations become causes: “Did you see how the timing of that covid announcement coincided with this or that political poll?  Well, did you?  You know what I’m saying? (nod nod wink wink)”  One anecdote overwhelms thousands of monitored cases: “I know a guy who took that drug from the big pharmaceutical company and then, within weeks, he was dead of the thing the drug was supposed to help, so I don’t take what my doctor prescribes anymore.”  The unreliability of our Biblical interpretation is mistaken for Biblical infallibility: “It talks in Revelation about times like these!  The beast is really Mr. XYZ / the American dollar / the deep state / the pending wicca overthrow of the church, but most people don’t realize that.”[2]  Thus, the mere sowing of doubts becomes a self-assured wisdom, and negating public knowledge becomes a form of making alternate positive assertions that need no more proof than their own possibility.

The trouble is that such methods of knowing don’t work well at an epistemological level because it is very difficult to know things simply by denying alternatives.  Two plus two is not five, nor is it six, nor even ten, but I still haven’t told you what it IS.  In addition, so to speak, the denials also preclude a deeper epistemological curiosity, because, in fact, there is a way that two plus two is ten.  Two plus two is ten (or, at least, the sequence 1-0) in base three.  Oh, you assumed I was working in base ten, that system you learned in school?  Denials don’t bother with asking deeper questions about what assumptions are at work.

But back to the spiritual point.  Establishing secret knowledge by rejecting public knowledge has its root in pride.  It’s not that public knowledge doesn’t change, or that there is much we do not know, but there are firmer ways of establishing truth than building it on suspicion and innuendo.  Meanwhile, as pride in gnostic specialness grows, the gnostic finds that reality conforms to their suspicions, because they can no longer disentangle “facts” from the confirmation bias[3] that feeds their egos.  Secret knowledge is always bait for human pride.

Christians who care to witness to truth with trustworthiness, beware epistemological Gnosticism.

Third, epistemological humility matters and Christians should have good practice in this. 

If you’ve made it this far, I hope you’re ready for an ironic kicker.  You’ve slogged through an extensive blog post with fancy words and arguments.  But now you’re in the know.  Some people chickened out when they saw the title.  But you were smart enough to dive in.  Congratulations.  Have I stoked pride?  Did a blog post about epistemology really increase your knowledge, or merely the writer’s and readers’ ego?

All of us must remember that the beliefs of Christianity have always required a fundamental humility.  As sinners, we cannot know, let alone love, God.  Faith isn’t something we earn or construct or generate.  Instead, we need decisive intervention from God to know God.  Theologically, this is called “revelation” and it takes place on God’s terms.  Christian salvation thus humbles the saved, and so we must be vigilant against patterns of thinking that nurse pride into full grown sin.

If we acknowledge that, we should also recognize that such a way of knowing does not apply equally to all kinds of knowledge.  The spiritual situation hasn’t destroyed all our minds’ reliability.  We can learn about God’s world, its physics, its biologies, its numbers, without God’s Spirit alighting on us in tongues of flame.  God gave us minds that, though tainted by sin, still have the capacity to learn certain kinds of truth.

Sure, sometimes those ways of knowing overlap.  For example, though belief in the resurrection of Jesus comes by faith received from God, we also have eyewitness records which are remarkably consistent and well-preserved for their time.  This latter point can be admitted by secular scholars, even if they do not submit to the truth I would say that fact supports.  But Christians are wise to differentiate their epistemological methods based on the kind of truth with which they are dealing.

A further humility should be exercised because Christian beliefs are meant to be public and never secret (I leave aside the different issue of secret Christians who are trying to evade or survive persecution).  Christian beliefs are open to examination and critique.  The way of salvation was proclaimed in the marketplaces and squares of the Roman Empire.  That way can be stated simply, and while that might not make Christianity less weird, such simplicity makes it accessible.  Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved.  The Bible presents a truth that no one has to be in the inner circle to understand, and there are no gradations of Christians in God’s Kingdom based on how much spiritual knowledge Christians have obtained.  Christians are not gnostics of old nor gnostics of new[4] nor cult members nor illuminati nor cognoscenti.  Christians are rather people who have been given to know that they couldn’t know what mattered most unless and until God changed their minds and hearts.

So, Christians, please hear my plea to be discerning in how you know what you know.  Learn epistemology.  Be critical thinkers.  The credibility of your witness to Christ is at stake and the world is watching.

[1] David Valls, “Evidentials and Culture in North America,” thesis accessed 24 August, 2020; or this:; or Through the Language Glass by Guy Deutscher.  Such languages include Central Pomo in what is now California, and also a cluster of languages in the Amazon basin, including Quechua and Aymara.  Allilla!

[2] Epistemological note: These examples closely reflect the content of comments said to me by brothers or sisters in Christ within the last two years, though context and tone may have been changed to protect those entangled.

[3] Our brains tend to reject information that does not match what we already believed.  If we can’t reject it, then we are liable to twist it to fit the pre-existent story because the easiest way to resolve cognitive dissonance is to not bother with it and make reality conform to our minds, not vice versa.  But in the long haul, facts are stubborn things.

[4] Modern gnostics would include scientologists or the Masons.  Side story: I did a funeral once for a church member who was also in the masons.  For him it was a vehicle of community service, but it always seemed a little fishy to me.  His masonic buddies came to the funeral, and after the service, one took me aside with conspicuous attempts at subtle movements and an attention-grabbing low voice.  He wanted to pass along some of his gnosis: “The real power, pastor, I (he raised his bushy eyebrows) want you to know, it the god within.”  He widened his eyes with mystery and pointed to my chest.  Then he drew back, gave a satisfied nod and walked away.  Nope, pretty sure I don’t have reasons to trust myself that much.  In fact, my track record as a superior divine power is quite poor.