What do we mean when we say “I know”?
As so often happens this seemingly simple question opens a Pandora’s box of more questions which are too important to ignore but too difficult to answer – even more so when the context of the question is theological. For a general discussion on what is knowledge you can check out Wikipedia – what follows is a very short and of course inadequate attempt to highlight some differences, as I see them, between just three kinds of knowledge (Latin scientia, Greek gnosis): scientific, philosophical and theological.
So what kind of knowledge does a scientist seek? In particular, scientist’s knowledge often gives him either direct or indirect power and control over the object of his research or experimentation (that’s what is usually meant by “useful science”) and while it is widely accepted that scientists often feel a sense of awe and wonder it is intertwined with the sense of being able to understand and potentially change things. Another aspect is that scientist’s realisation that his knowledge is imperfect and subject to revision (understanding of particle physics for example) doesn’t stop him from going ahead and changing things in the wider sense of the word, e.g. by creating an atomic bomb.
Philosopher’s sort of knowledge is more difficult to pin down not least because being able to do something with that knowledge is not always seen as necessary or even possible – a philosopher may be content with just understanding or establishing whether something can in principle be understood at all. It doesn’t necessarily give the philosopher any power or control – in fact the opposite may be true (philosopher’s realisation that he doesn’t have the power or control he previously thought he had). While of course philosophy can and does have practical implications it’s not really what is most important about it (in my opinion anyway).
Theologian’s search for knowledge is quite different from the examples of a scientist and a philosopher. Theologian* does of course seek knowledge but his destination and conclusion are known in advance; his objective is not radically new, different or revolutionary knowledge but ever increasing insight into the acts and qualities of, and relationship with, the one who can never be fully understood yet cannot be ignored, the one who attracts his mind and soul, the one who is the source and the destination. Such increased, hopefully improved, but never complete understanding of the theologian (needless to say) does not give him power over the creator who created him and everything else – in fact it makes him question the nature of the very concepts of power and knowledge, among others.
These are just few of the differences between the kinds of knowledge mentioned above. When we say we know someone we mean something very different from what we mean when we say we know about someone – knowing a person personally is very different from knowing some – however many – facts about that person. This kind of knowledge is perhaps closer to the knowledge of a theologian than the philosopher or the scientist.
* I assume here that our theologian is a follower of and a believer in the tradition he studies – there are of course theologians who are neither but they are outside the scope of this post.