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Knowing God—What Kind of Knowing?

Knowing God—What Kind of Knowing?

“…the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord…” —Philippians 3:8

We use the word “know” in many different ways. For instance, someone might ask you if you know Jerry? With this question, you are being asked if you have been introduced to that particular person and thereby have a knowledge of identity. Another use can be imagined if your pastor uses the word “eschatological” in his sermon and you have recently attended a class where he provided an extensive understanding of what that word means. This gives you a knowledge of information. A third use is illustrated by your overhearing a conversation in Spanish and you took a few classes and you actually paid attention and worked at it. As a result of putting the language to use, you are able to understand what they are saying. This is about having a knowledge of practice.

When we hear Paul talking about the “surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord,” we must ask what kind of knowledge he is talking about. Is he talking about knowing the identity of Jesus? Was he referring to information about Jesus? Was his meaning about having a knowledge based on the practice of the faith?

The answer to each question is both yes and no. Knowing Jesus of course referred to knowledge of his identity, of specific information and of an understanding formed by specific practices. However, the knowing Paul wrote about here went beyond this. This is the kind of knowing that we might refer to as knowledge of union. This kind of knowledge is personal because it affects us at the core of our being. We can experience this kind of union in a variety of ways. For instance, when asking my grandmother how to make one of her dishes, she would say something like, “Well you turn on the oven to medium heat. Then you add mix a bunch of flower with some milk, a bit of water, add a few shakes of salt…” At that point, it became clear that there was no way that someone could do what she did in the kitchen. She was not working from a technical knowledge of the information about cooking. She was working from a knowledge of cooking that had shaped who she was.

Information builds upon identity, as we cannot know something that we are not acquainted with. Practice builds upon information. My grandmother did not arrive at that point of knowledge of cooking without practice. However, knowledge of union takes us beyond all three, as illustrated.

Or think of it this way: Someone who grew up on a farm, went off to school to study the science of farming and then managed a farm for thirty years has been shaped by the vocation of farming. He knows farming. While he might have plenty of knowledge of information about farming, that information is not the ultimate goal. The end goal is the kind of knowledge that arises out of the experience of working on the farm.

While the knowledge of identity, of information and of practices are important, if we stop there, we keep that which we are trying to know at arm’s length. It remains objective information that we can dissect and analyze. When we apply this to God, it becomes the kind of knowledge where we try to figure out how we can get what we want from God. If I believe the right facts, then I will go to heaven when I die. If I can only learn the right information, then my life with change. If I can start obeying God in the right ways, then I’ll be faithful. If I pray the right way, then I will find God’s favor. But this kind of knowledge leaves us in control.

Knowledge of union is the kind of knowledge that we cannot control. If I want to learn how to cook like my grandmother cooked, I have to move beyond my need to control and let the otherness of cooking get inside of me. The same could be said about almost anything we want to know. And it’s even more true of God. If I want to know God, it requires that I let the Otherness of God be Other than I am, that is, something that I cannot control or manipulate for my own benefit. It requires that I let the Otherness of God draw me into mystery, into adventure and into intimacy. It’s not the kind of knowledge that we make happen. It’s the kind of knowledge that we discover along a journey.