Let’s look at these. First, Willard’s diagnosis of the problem that generates the question of whether we can hear God reflects the from-to structure of knowing, the transforming subsidiary-focal integration that gives profoundly transformative meaning to all it takes up within it, including ourselves the knower, as a greater pattern breaks in. The question about hearing God, as Christian believers typically pose it, arises since we focus on it, disconnecting it from this larger pattern. We need to embed it in the larger integrative pattern of life with God in his world. Willard writes: “Ultimately, we are to move beyond the question of hearing God and into a life greater than our own—that of the kingdom of God.” (9, italics his) I think you’ll admit that that is an intriguing opening comment. It seems to reflect the from-to structure of knowing. And it suggests that the would-be inquirer must also find herself caught up in a greater life. Willard will argue for a great reversal: we need to see that it is not first that God might be in us, but that we are in God. (96)
Actually, although Willard does not quite say this, when we do hear God’s voice, as Willard describes it, the event itself is a subsidiary-focal integration. That is why, according to Willard, it seems obvious and brings peace. (230-31)
Challenging the defective epistemic default
Key to his diagnosis of Christians’ common misperceptions in this area is effectively—though of course Willard does not use heady terms—a defective epistemology and the need to replace it with one that sees knowing as interpersonal relationship. This is covenant epistemology’s central claim. L2K speaks of the “defective epistemic default” that all of us in the modern Western tradition of thought and culture are born with. Hearing God identifies it as the modern (post-Cartesian) Western view of knowing and reality. (94, 159)
This is already evident in Willard’s diagnosis of the defectiveness of Christian believers’ well-intended question: it involves a focal fixation on a mechanistic method, one that depersonalizes both knower and known and their “relationship”. (68) He says that it is not enough to mean well, and even having experiences of God won’t by themselves render the reorientation we need. We need to grow our general understanding, our model of what is happening. (12, 18)(This is as close as the gentle philosopher gets to naming metaphysics and epistemology!) Willard cites the “special burden of unbelief in Western civilization” that has put science in opposition to theology, construing knowledge in such a way that it excludes God. (94) We need to substitute a better model—one of communion and conversation in friendship. (12) A new model of what is happening will help us accredit genuine experiences we may already have had but have not felt permitted to take seriously. Willard notes the significance of the paradox that many claim to receive specific guidance from God at a time that many also express extreme uncertainty regarding what he is saying or whether we hear it (what covenant epistemology calls, “certainty or bust.”) (30)He promises that the new model of growing conversational relationship will dissolve this paradox (as covenant epistemology promises the epistemic therapy that will move us beyond the daisy of dichotomies. (L2K chap 1))
Willard criticizes a desire for truth (and to be proven right) that overruns a desire to practice the truth. (210) He touts the trap of mere “Bible knowledge.” (211) He commends, over comprehending a word from Scripture, being “seized by a word from Scripture—finding myself addressed, caught up in all the individuality of my concrete existence by something beyond me.” (239) (Covenant epistemology calls this many things, an I-Thou encounter, the gracious inbreaking of the Holy, to name only two. (L2K chaps. 9, 10) Willard commends the confidence of relationship over a depersonalizing and unworkable certainty, as does covenant epistemology. And most obviously, the model he commends is dynamic friendship. This just is how covenant epistemology calls us to construe knowing: the best paradigm for the knowing that links a knower to the yet-to-be-known is the interpersonal, covenantally constituted relationship.
Over many years of teaching covenant epistemology, I’ve learned that, when the conversation is about our relationship with God, about knowing God, especially with earnest believers not yet philosophically attuned, it’s easy to for them to take all this in as “spiritually nourishing” and miss that it is profound epistemology—an epistemic shift meant to reorient them transformatively across their entire lives at a fundamental level. And sadly, in missing that, they cut themselves off from greater—in fact, transformative—spiritual nourishment. This is how knowing works, covenant epistemology claims. And we have actually been doing a bad job of knowing God, Willard is saying. We’ve done a bad job of knowing God because we operate out of a defective epistemology. So if we can fix knowing, that will help us do a better job of knowing God. And we’ll be immensely better off for it.
Willard labors to get us to take seriously that what we have with God is an interpersonal relationship, and that we should comport ourselves accordingly. You wouldn’t think that we would need this encouragement, esp. with respect to God! Yet the very question of whether we can hear someone speak is not the sort of question we typically ask in typical family relationships! That’s curious. Defective epistemology has rendered even interpersonal relationships in need of rehabilitation—even our relationship with God.
Inviting the Real
As part of the new way of seeing our relationship with God, Willard enjoins us to several practices which covenant epistemology names as ways to invite the real:
Willard models covenant epistemology
Throughout the book, Willard himself embodies covenant epistemology as he models the expert authoritative guide who, from long years of personal experience, is able to apprentice us through a wealth of concrete, maximic, know-how in a realm in which a step-by-step method or a technical manual would offer a poor substitute. (LTK chap 13, L2K chap 5) He is the consummate guide, according to the covenant epistemology vision, who loves and knows his subject and also cares for us his apprentices, and who teaches by modeling and inviting. (LM chap 1)