Saturday, May 21, 2005


Life begins with the acquisition of knowledge - the knowledge that we exist! Even before the baby’s first cry as she gasps for air to her lungs, the fetus lives in a dependent relationship with her mother. We do not know that she knows anything, but she at least knows that she is, even if she cannot remember such knowledge. After birth, knowledge accumulates rapidly as the baby learns to survive. In the spiritual birth of a Christian, before anything else, she has to have minimal knowledge of God, that God exists, that we are not God and that God has spoken. Armed with this knowledge, we are able to make sense of the world around us. Concepts such as contingency, absolutes, time, space, truth, matter, form, life, existence etc. begin to make sense. The mind in the life of a Christian knows of God.
How does God expect us to use our minds? Knowledge is merely interpreted data, information filtered through our rational minds and shaped by our prior commitments. It is not wisdom. Knowledge becomes wisdom only when it is used in furtherance of God’s will. Thus anyone can acquire knowledge of say, the natural sciences, or mathematics, of economics, or art. Anyone can live a life and thrive as humans in this world with mere knowledge.
However, it is only when we turn knowledge into wisdom that we begin to KNOW WISDOM because we have learned to use KNOWLEDGE WISELY. As we turn our knowledge into wisdom, we learn to worship, to exercise faith, to seek holiness, learn to trust God in guidance, and to love of others, expressed in evangelism and discipleship.

If our knowledge does not lead us to worship God, we are in danger of acquiring undevotional theology, which is just as dangerous as untheological devotion1 . True worship is intelligent worship. We must know the whats, the whens, the hows, and the whys of our worship. It must not be accidental or incidental, but deliberate. Worship must be done in truth and with all our mind (John 4:24 and Luke 10:27). Worship is the praising of God’s name and work of creation. Israel worshipped God as the lord of nature and the lord of nations2 , not some abstract philosophical construct.
Worship includes the intelligent private and public response to God’s revelation. Hence corporate worship in church and private reading and meditation of the Bible are essential aspects of Christian devotion. For Paul, all true worship involves the active engagement of the mind. So Paul was concerned about the Corinthian preoccupation with speaking in tongues without interpretation. “For if I pray in tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful. What am I to do? I will pray with the spirit and I will pray with the mind also ...” (1 Corinthians 14:13-15). This side of heaven, Christian worship will not be perfect, for only when we see God face to face will we be able to praise God perfectly.

Knowledge is the foundation of faith. It makes faith reasonable. Those who know God’s name put their trust in Him (Psalm 9:10). It is impossible to have faith in someone you do not know. We cannot believe without knowing and we cannot know without believing. The believer is privileged to benefit from God’s word because he now has faith which seeks understanding (Hebrews 4:2). It is like knowing mathematics before studying physics, or knowing the principles of music before learning to play the piano. Faith dramatically enhances our knowledge of God. Paul teaches that God’s power accomplished in Christ is now available to those who believe (Ephesians 1:18-20). Thus we find that faith and knowledge is inextricable bound in the Christian life.
What is faith? Is faith an irrational, illogical belief in the improbable? Let us start with describing what faith is not.
2.1 Faith is not credulity. H. L. Mencken was wrong when he said that faith is an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable3 . For Mencken then, faith and reason are incompatible. Credulity refers to gullible, uncritical, undiscerning and unreasonable belief. In 2 Corinthians 5:7, it is faith and sight which are held in opposition, not faith and reason. Indeed, the Lord in invites the reader to “come now and reason together” (Isaiah 1:18). The reasonableness of faith is based on its trust in the character and promises of God, which comes through knowledge and reflection. However, a rejection of the reasonableness of faith without any reason is nothing but dogmatic belief in disbelief.
2.2 Faith is not optimism. The late popular preacher Norman Vincent Peale promoted a promising power of positive thinking. However, he makes no distinction between faith in God and faith in oneself4 . His mantra is a daily dose of saying “I believe” three times5 , with no concern about the object of that belief. This was his “worry-breaking formula”. He ends his book with the words “so believe and live successfully” with no indication of what it is that we are to specifically believe in. This is perhaps the secret to the success of the book’s sales. It can apply to anything and essentially ... nothing. Peale’s faith is essentially self-confidence and ungrounded optimism applied to religion. While Dr. Peale apparently modified his position before his death, the book remains in print and defines faith as little more than wishful thinking6 . Instead of the optimism of “positive thinking” or “positive mental attitudes”, Christian faith is reasoning trust. In many of the travails of David in the Old Testament, he gained strength from his faith in God only after recalling God’s promises or thinking about God. Faith and thinking goes hand in hand. It was not a resolve to have faith in the abstract.

We need to know who we are in relation to God. During the temptations that Jesus faced, all three times he prefaced his response with “It is written”. Jesus trusts the authority of the Scripture (OT only) and demonstrated how Christians are to think of themselves as made in the image of God. We find sanctuary and wisdom in God’s word. Clear biblical knowledge of God’s will is the starting point. We must then make a commitment to obey it.
With our increasing knowledge of God comes greater responsibility to put what we know into practice, to live a holy life. We know God’s law in order to better obey it. Jesus himself, after washing the feet of his disciples and teaching them, said “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them”. James also echoed this with the words “Be doers of the word, and not only hearers who deceive themselves” (James 1:22). The disobedient Christian is one who believes theoretically but is effectively a practical atheist.
To live a holy life is to seek a life of self-control, which in turn, is really mind-control. What is the alternative? Our minds will still be controlled by our passions and cravings, except this time, the controls will be haphazard and inconsistent. We are in the business of redeeming the mind for Christ. Socrates scolded the people of Athens for spending time and money on feeding their bodies while neglecting their minds.

How do we discover God’s will? There is God’s general will and God’s particular will for us. God’s general will for everyone is to be conformed to the image of his Son. This can be gleaned from the Scriptures for it applies to everyone. But God’s particular will for your life and personal decisions are not to be sought in Scripture. Such personal wills are different for everyone. Since Scripture does not contradict itself, we have no warrant to look to the Bible to ask what specific actions we should take. God has given us an intelligent mind to think.
For example, on the question of marriage, the general will of God is that marriage is God’s good purpose for humanity and the single life is God’s good purpose as the exception to the rule. Within marriage, companionship and intimacy is a primary goal for which every marriage should honor. But who one should marry is not found in the Bible.
We are to
use our mind and the common sense given to us,
pray for guidance on the matter, and
seek opinions of family and friends who know us best, before making up our minds.

Psalm 32: 8-9 gives us a threefold promise by God to instruct, teach and guide us, but we are to be instructed, taught and guided with understanding. Again we are to use our minds. We need to be spartan in our loose use of statements such as “The Lord called me to do ...” or “The Lord sent me to ...”, as if we have a special email from God. Such talk often weakens the meaning of God’s communication with us and weakens our witness. While we may say that our reading of the Scriptures lead us to believe that ... or our understanding of the ways of God convinces us that we should do ..., we take license in the faith when we declare what may be untrue or irresponsible us of the words used by the apostles “The Lord said...”.
God will guide us in the way of love, for in a deep sense, God is love. Knowledge of God reality should lead to love. The more we know about God’s love for us and His plans for our future, the more we should want to share that knowledge with others. Sometimes, we need love to restrain the harshness of our knowledge, to learn to be sensitive to others as we share the incredible news of the gospel. While knowledge can puff one up with pride, love can build others up in the Lord. Knowledge without love is then but a clanging cymbal (1 Corinthians 13:1). This love is best expressed in apologetics, evangelism and discipleship (AED).
Apologetics is pre-evangelism, removing obstacles to effective evangelism. Evangelism is the faithful proclamation of the gospel. Discipleship is the equipping of the saints that they may go and do likewise.

Knowledge of our world is helpful in the art and science of apologetics, the constructive removal of obstacles to the preaching of the gospel or evangelism. Sometimes, people do not hear the gospel because they are distracted by unanswered questions which turn their attention away from the issues at hand. It may be a past experience of misinformation or a prejudice undetected or a hidden emotional attachment to a foundational philosophy. In these postmodern times, the most important apologetic issues are the dominance of scientism (the assumption that science alone can answer all questions) and the ideology of religious pluralism (the assumption that all religions are not mutually exclusive, i.e., that they are all equally valid, if not true).
True lovers of science and respecters of religious distinctives are scandalized by these outrageous assumptions that have come to take root in the way society as a whole learn, think, and teach with conviction. The great sorrow is not that truth is banished but that many people actually believe THE UNTRUTH THAT TRUTH CANNOT BE TRULY TRUE.

A thoughtful proclamation of the gospel is the most effective way to have the gospel heard, that God may arouse the faith in the listeners. Too often, we see emotional appeals for decisions with an inadequate explanation of what is to be decided. Paul summed up his evangelistic ministry with two words, “to persuade” (2 Corinthians 5:11)7 . This is an intellectual exercise, to marshall arguments in order to prevail on people to change their minds. Following Paul’s teaching by argument, explanation, proclamation, and persuasion, for three weeks in the synagogue, the writer of the Gospel according to Luke records that some “were persuaded” (Acts 17: 2-4). Paul sought to convince in order to convert. So when we say that our friend has converted, it should mean that he was persuaded. We should make a reasoned presentation of the gospel because people respond to the truth rather than directly to Christ. It is only later that Christians learn about Jesus. Thus, acknowledging, believing and obeying the truth are the elements of Christian belief. Objections to a reasoned evangelism.
(i) Does this not advocate intellectual pride? Yes, it is a lurking danger, but we distinguish between intellectual flattery and respecting intellectual integrity.
(ii) Does this not disqualify uneducated people? Not if the presentation seeks to reach the rationality rather than the content of knowledge. Even uneducated people can think rationally.
(iii) Does this not dispense with the Holy Spirit? Not at all. It is the power of the Holy Spirit alongside a reasoned presentation that marks evangelism. Without the Holy Spirit, it is mere human rhetoric, and without a reasoned presentation, it is a display of our laziness. Human argument is insufficient but it is not unnecessary8 so that human participation is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for effective evangelism.

The life of a Christian is not complete without the commitment to disciple oneself and others in thinking and living as a Christian should. Discipleship begins with discipline. Just as we learn to work as a midwife, lawyer, an accountant, a janitor or an electrician, the Christian life has to be learned. Discipleship causes our minds to interact as a community, holding each other accountable to the spiritual disciplines and encouraging us to grow in the Lord. As we learn to listen, pray, read, study and meditate on the Scriptures, we enrich our experience with God and heighten our sense of the divine in our souls.


jacksons said...

Yah, we could really use someone like you there.

Anonymous said...

Keep up the good work
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Alex Tang said...

Dear Dr. Choong,

Thank you for this most comprehensive essay on knowledge. I would appreciate if you will comment on
(1) the role of the Holy Spirit and knowledge.

(2) our emotions and knowledge.

My observation is that we have been teaching and teaching members of our congregation and they are full of knowledge. Yet, the way they behave and live is not consistent with their knowledge. Why do you think this is so?


R Choong said...

Alex, you brought up important questions. On the matter of the Holy Spirit, we are told by Jesus himself that the primary role of the Spirit is not to teach us but to illumine what we can already cognize. In the gospel of John, Jesus said that the Spirit will remind us of the things that Jesus taught. I am inclined to think that while the human capacity to acquire knowledge and limited intelligibility is unquestioned, it is the Spirit that empowers us to turn knowledge into wisdom. hence we read of the Word of God deemed foolishness by the Greeks because they do not possess the power of the Spirit.
As for our emotions, it is interesting that at this very moment, I am drafting a chapter of my dissertation of the role of emotional intelligence (ala neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux) on the evolution and emergence of moral cognition. In fear response and fear conditioning studies at NYU, the discovery of neural circuits that bypass conscious awareness have long challenged William James view that fear is a conscious physiological stimulus resulting in an emotional response. I suspect that the complex human capacity for hybrid emotional responses such as guilt and anxiety points to the human capacity for axiological judgment. If this is correct, it means that human acquisition of knowledge can be shaped by the emotional makeup of the mind. Hence we find that emotionally-challenged victims of brain lesions to the left lobe may possess knowledge that they cannot process sufficiently to trigger a sociologically appropriate response.
All this is to say that knowledge alone will not transform a congregation to behave as expected, otherwise we will not have smoking after knowledge of lung-cancer by smoking was made widely known.
It has to do with the volition. Will the listener will to live the Christian life? Sadly, most of us have not placed the two key factors of desires at the altar of Christ: the dual quest for security and significance. I submit that all physical and material quests are ultimately geared for security (health, food, shelter, & freedom from harm) and significance (social standing in society typically expressed by money, status and generation of envy). If we can persuade people to find rest for security and significance in Christ through the body of the Church, we shall be liberated to look outwards and become blessings to others

Alex Tang said...

Dear Ron,

You have made an important point which I believe many Christians have missed. The Holy Spirit is to 'illumine what we can already cognize.' This is a subtle but important point. The emphasis is on our learning. Most churches emphasise that the Holy Spirit is the only teacher we need. In a way, it create anti-intellectualism. Unfortunately, it also create laziness in our religious intellectuals and the lack of critical thinking skills.

I am fascinated to learn of your dissertation on EI in moral evolution and development. I think that emotions is an important component of our moral and faith development. I also believe that there is more going on in our subconscious mind than we are aware of. My own dissertation is on how Asian differs from the Westerners in how we process our faith. I believe that Asian and Westerners think differently. As a result, the process of spiritual formation differs. Hence the model of spiritual formation in an Asian church should be different from the model in North America. This is where subconscious emotions comes in. Asians live in a culture of shame, of conformiy, of guanxi and of communal good. This will definitely affect our thinking processes. This is so different from the individualism of North American evangelicalism.

Again, I do agree with you on the area of volition. Spiritual formation is mainly making the right choices.