St. Anselm’s famous motto fides quaerens intellectum (“faith seeking understanding”) has long been an idea that has warranted the pursuit of theological knowledge and understanding within Christian circles. Being a Christian is about having faith, and not about what we know, but there is a certain pursuit and drive to comprehend the nature of what it is that we believe about God. But what if understanding cuts against the fundamental nature of what faith truly is? Now, some anti-intellectual understandings of faith might agree with this, presuming that reasoning and thinking somehow spoils Christian faith. However, that is not the only basis by which we can critique a faith that seeks understanding. An argument that is respecting intellectual inquiry can be made that theology risks spoiling faith, but not because intellectual inquiry is the problem.
Much that we label knowledge is a product of social constructive process, where an emphasis is commonly placed upon the people presenting certain “knowledge. Firstly, we can place a focus on who it is that taught us the knowledge we obtain. In academic circles, a high value is placed on citing the sources whom you pull from. Many churches are known by the style and content of pastoral teaching. Our social nature means that we place a certain emphasis upon particular authorities who we can deem to trust for understanding. The sources we attribute knowledge to obtain a certain status within the societies and communities they inhabit and are listened to within.
Secondly, the knowledge we obtain and retain has a personal significance to it. The knowledge we possess and acquire has a certain pragmatic purpose of helping us accomplishing goals we want to pursue. I learn how to do research because I both want to expand my own intellectual horizons and pursue an academic career. One can learn about the nutritional facts about various foods because they want to figure out a healthy diet. Put differently, “knowledge” places an emphasis on the authorities who provide that knowledge and upon ourselves in how we use that knowledge.
In other words, knowledge is commonly, tightly intertwined with social status and personal desire.
In 1 Corinthians 2:1-5, the Apostle Paul explains how his pattern of ministry was structured so that people’s faith would be in the power of God, rather than in any knowledge and wisdom he might have provided. In other words, right propositional belief was not the most important motivation, but focusing one’s attention rightly onto what God does. Then, in 1 Corinthians 8, he criticizes knowledge as making people arrogant, making them oblivious to the way their actions that are “legitimated” by their knowledge makes them overlook the harm they are causing to Christians who do not possess the same knowledge.
At the core, the problem of knowledge is not the intellectual employment of our cognitive capacities towards understanding God, but rather the way we gain and use knowledge tends to promote a bias towards knowledge-propagating authorities and/or towards our own inward goals and desires that we use the knowledge for. Knowledge as a form of belief that has been strengthened with confidence via intellectual justification entails the people with the praiseworthy skills to provide that, such as engaging in ontological inquiries about the nature of God, the cosmos, etc. And, knowledge as a form of confidence entails a quieting of any dissonance in our own hearts about other concerns that might conflict with the desires our beliefs serve.
This isn’t to say the process of justification and quieting of dissonance are automatically false or sinful from the get-go. It is only to state that the advancement and attunement of our heart towards the loving power of God is not built on the foundations of intellectual justification and the quieting of inward emotional disturbances that come via the processes of knowledge construction and acquisition. For Paul, when faith is rightly directed towards God’s power as made known in the resurrection of Jesus and the visible demonstrations of the Spirit, everything else can begin to come into line to serve God’s purposes. But when faith is directed towards knowledge construction in the form of expertise or to knowledge acquisition to quiet any inner emotional tension and dissonance, our faith becomes more and more formed to look for human expertise and to accept what is immediately useful for us in our circumstances.
Hence, for Paul, wisdom starts with faith, but without knowing; as the proverb states, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. It is this basic epistemic attitude and orientation that is moving towards being centrally attuned to the being of God in a trusting manner. rather than either to other entities, objects, ideas, etc. or towards God with a different attitude, which determines the way knowledge functions in our life. So, before true spiritual maturity can be built, the right foundation must be set. This plea to move towards paying attention to God in His power as made known in Christ and seeing the world through that lens can summarize Paul’s pleas in the Corinthian correspondence. For instance, as Paul states in 2 Corinthians 5, reconciliation with God only truly occurs when the epistemic attitude of believers shifts matures past the a fleshly faith that focuses simply on the customary badges of the authority of human groups and societies, which can be easily manipulated and seduced, to a faith that is grounded upon Christ in His glorious state as the precursor of new creation, which forms how other people and the world are to be seen. Until this shift of attitude from a misdirected faith in what is true to a rightly directed faith in the Truth, there is no true reconciliation with God, but only a gracious God whose will is being overlooked, whose mercy has not been truly understood, whose grace is simply something we acquire rather than something that forms us. In other words, one can believe specific propositions that are factually true, that are epistemically justified, and are pragmatically useful for our lives but one’s heart is resistant to the fullness of the Truth, as such a directed faith would entail many other propositions and attitudes that would challenge our authorities and shed light on our self-serving legitimations.