You’re at dinner at an Italian restaurant with your new potential romantic interest whom you have only known for a few weeks, sharing conservation about your parents and siblings as you share the breadsticks put between you. She has a bright smile that is highlighted by her deep red lipstick and you are dressed in a fine, silk shirt that accents your physical stature. The waitress comes and she chooses the chicken primavera, while you opt for the more pedestrian lasagna. The conversation continues throughout the evening as you begin to finish the fine red wine that accompanied your meal. The whole night has gone well, and then, as you talk about what you are looking for in a relationship, she suddenly looks down as her eyes exhibit a sense of downcast solemnity. “Did I say something wrong?” you think to yourself. Then she looks back up, and slowly says, “You are the first person I have gotten to know since I broke off my engagement with my fiancee who cheated on me. I have a difficult time with relationships.” Suddenly, in that moment, you don’t know what to say. How do you respond? This has been a wonderful evening and now her disclosure has brought up an emotional dissonance to the night. Is she saying she appreciates me? Or is she leading up to saying this isn’t going to work out?
Now, casting aside all judgments as to whether that is the right time to make such a disclosure known, there is something to grasp in this narrative: the whole night, you and your date have been getting to know each other. One’s dress, body language, and general conversation all seem to present a slowly, unconsciously growing sense of understanding about the person. But then, at a particular moment, she makes a disclosure that totally throws everything upside down and into a sense of confusion and uncertainty. Suddenly, one piece of new information breaks through that seems to be of greater weight and more revealing about the person than everything else you have talked about that evening.
Knowledge about people is a lot different than knowing about facts about objects, natural processes, etc. In the prototypical versions of science, all desired observations and measurements are weighed in a more or less equal way. Knowledge comes from taking all the data, processing it, and accomplish some theory or model that accounts for all the information. While eventually, one may come to an understanding that highlights certain observations as the important signal against the rest of the background noise, this only comes about after analysis of all the observations. However, when knowing about people, we don’t proceed is such a methodical manner where restrain judgment until we gather a wide amount of data that we then weight in approximately equal ways. Instead, if we are in tune with other people, we are constantly forming and reforming our sense of people, and in the midst of that, we intuitively understand that there are certain moments where what someone shows or discloses is of greater relevance to knowing them than much of what we have previously learned. If we were to reflect on this to form some sort of epistemology, we could come to understand the way we intuitively understand people and the way we analytically understand objects have some very pronounced differences.
Many problems result when we try to understand subjects via an object epistemology, or objects via subject epistemology. We would call someone cold, calculating, and distant if we treated our dates like scientific observations. A person who treats thinks their plants are talking to them would be taken as a bit eccentric, at least. In fact, we might say that many mental disorders may entail treating subjects and objects or vice versa.
Christian theology exhibits this problem time and time again. Even though we talk about God as if He is a personal being, many dogmatic formulations about the Trinity uses the language of persons, etc. there is a common tendency when addressing epistemic questions to think about God via an object epistemology. This is most evident in the theological debate between natural theology vs. revelation and the fact there exists a distinct split between these two categories. Much of the debate surrounding this is based around decided what sources may or may not be used for knowing about God. But a common, implicit assumption is that once we get the right sources, then all that we get from the justified sources of knowledge are considered of equal weight. For instance, in some cases of those who take revelation as coterminous with Scripture, many will treat all information of equal important: whether there is some contradict in some obscure passages in the Old Testament is of equal importance to the premise of Jesus’ resurrection. Or, let’s say we go a more Barthian direction in suggesting it is revelation of Christ that is of pivotal importance; the moral instructions of the beatitudes may be marshalled as just as important as the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ;1 AT the end of the day, our epistemic practices when it comes to theology tend to regard all information from the justified sources of knowledge as bearing more or less equal weight.
However, I would suggest the very reason for the divide between natural theology and revelation is that in trying to translate the way we know about a relating being in God into implicit, object epistemology frameworks, we have great difficulting apprehending how a) simultaneously take in all our knowledge about people as making something known while b) recognizing that certain moments are more “revealing” than other moments. Natural theologies attempt to make arguments about God based upon generalized observation and reasoning derived from the world highlights A, while not giving sufficient attention to B. Meanwhile, the category of “revelation” as generally employed in modern theological discourse attempts to mimic B but without recognizing A. Due to the implicit object epistemologies, a sharp, qualitative distinction between revelation and natural theology is formed when trying to understand the theological epistemology/epistemologies of Scripture. Then, we employ the spatial metaphors of immanence and transcendence to rationalize in a metaphysical structure the nature of theological reality in order to be coherent with these forms of epistemology; immanence accepts a relationship between our theological knowledge and the world we live within whereas transcendence increasingly shuns any connection between our theological knowledge and the world we live within. As a result, the immanent-naturalist and transcendent-revelatory epistemologies take on a self-perpetuating, circular life of their own, where the epistemology and metaphysics reflexively justify each other, leading to a greater and greater tendency to more extreme judgments about the opposing form of theological epistemology. Instead of a general revelational scheme that while treating natural theology as something different, is still useful although not reliable, Barthian schemes avoid any connection to natural theology. Or, as some immanentist thinkers recognize the importance of some Archimedian-like point of knowledge being grounded upon the person of Jesus, more extreme versions will reduce the importance of Christ to merely an expression of human ideals that we derive from our own experiences and lives.
At the end, both immanent-naturalist and transcendent-revelatory epistemologies both find their warrants within the Scriptures, while often tempted to ignore or minimize the warrants within the Scriptures for the opposing framework. This is because a subject epistemology which recognizes all experiences of the world can possibly, although not necessarily reliably on its own, show something about the Creator God, while at the same time highlighting certain disclosures from God that are of much greater important both share some similarities to the two object epistemologies. However, precisely because there is ambiguity, tension, and imprecision in subject epistemologies, whereas object epistemologies have a tendency to systematize, these subtleties are overlooked and lost as greater clarity, precision, lack of ambiguity, and coherence are not simply valued, but treated as implicit justifications for the rightness of one’s views.
For the Biblical world, knowing God is much like getting to know a romantic partner you desire but are just getting to know. There is a lot you might pick up on their sense of style, the occupation, their family, the way they talk, etc. etc. But there come certain critical moments where what is made known is of greater importance. You don’t ignore all the rest, but instead, all the rest orbits around the gravity of the heaviest disclosures. Or, in getting to know someone, you can get a sense that there is more to their story from your time together, but you can not quite pin it down, as if we can see from the “motion” of our experiences that there is a center of gravity everything is orbiting around but we can not precisely triangulate it. While we may be able to analyze so as to describe the basic movements of this Divine subject epistemology, the very nature of it precludes any analytic precision and absolute distinctions between the value and reliability of various sources. We can identify what exists as the center of our knowledge about God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, but there exists no clear dividing line between the center and the periphery of theological knowledge for the Biblical world.