Philosophy begins with wonder
I think that a good way to get a feel for what philosophy is is to connect it with wonder. We all have experienced moments of wonder. As has been said from the beginning of philosophy, philosophy begins with wonder.
What is wonder, then? Stop and wonder at wonder. It really is a stunning, mysterious idea, even though we all know what it is to wonder.
Wonder is a knowing and a not-knowing at the same time. A mystery, a puzzle, and a clue are like this, too. This is not contradictory—or clues would be unusable. It is a kind of not-yet-knowing. Wonder draws us. It delights and is joyous, inherently.
Wonder, actually, connects us more intimately with the thing about which we wonder. It is a better insight into it and understanding of it—no matter whether it’s a person or a mollusk, a formula or a touchdown pass. You actually never want the wonder to dissipate, because that will actually disconnect you from the real, and diminish you as a person. This is all wonder-full.
Philosophy beginning with wonder means that philosophy is rooted in wonder through and through. To philosophize is to marvel at things as they are. In our un-wonder-filled way of relating to things, we don’t marvel at them. They are around us, a backdrop to what we are doing, or we study them, or use them. To wonder at them, you can see, is to see them in a different way—to really see them, you might say. It’s not to see them and dismiss or discount them. It is to see them and connect with them, embrace them, in a way that never dissipates their mystery.
To wonder is to see something, and to say, “Huh!” It’s to sit in the “huh!,” not to try to explain it away.
Philosophy begins with wonder and never leaves its beginning. Doing philosophy (well) is cultivating wonder, deepening wonder, all along the way. To wonder deepens our humanness.
Why wouldn’t you embrace wonder and philosophize?
Alas! Modernity has exiled wonder! No wonder we avoid philosophy.
There is actually a reason—a current situation in our culture’s philosophical outlook—that dismisses wonder. That’s also threatened philosophy itself, inclining it to dry, inscrutable, dehumanizing debates. Not so tantalizing as it was meant to be. How could philosophy let this happen to itself?
Philosophy began with the presumption that philosophy begins with wonder. Modern philosophy began with the presumption that philosophy begins with doubt—with being skeptical, critical, eventually cynical, untrusting, of everything. The point of philosophizing came instead to be to eliminate wonder, moving toward total control. To say that knowledge is power, as Francis Bacon did, is to attempt to aggrandize Man in a way that eliminated wonder. The trick is that it self-destructs, because it desiccates humanness.
This 17th century innovation—pretention—still marks and damages us. This means that modern philosophy itself can be seen to be dying for lack of wonder. There are actually recent philosophical discussions about whether philosophy has reached an end. Philosophy is at risk. It also means that humanness is at risk as well. And human culture, too.
Another dimension of modernism’s impact is that in the absence of wonder, it has totalized work. Humans have been reduced to workers—by both collectivism and capitalism. College is reduced to preparation for work. Many contemporary philosophers have expressed concern at our absorption by a technological spirit: the problem is not technology; the problem is philosophy. Philosopher Joseph Pieper, in “What Does it Mean to Philosophize?” argues that philosophy is what pierces the dome of the world of work—wonder that saves our humanness.
Modernity puts reality itself at risk, too. It denudes reality of its own mystery and depth and miracle. It renders it impersonal, ours to appropriate how ever we want. We can in the process destroy it.
You would be justified, because of modernity, for not feeling inclined to philosophy. But you should not give up because of that, because after all you continue to be human. It means that a more complicated road lies ahead. It means a more desperate situation, a situation more desperate for restored philosophizing.
Philosophy is the love of wisdom
Philosophy is, literally, “love of wisdom.” That means that what it is, most basically, is love!
Philosophy is, I think, best understood as a posture we take toward the world. You can see the posture when you think about wonder, and you can see it when you consider love. Both orient the wonderer, the lover, desirously toward the real, with self humbly open to welcome it in.
“Wisdom” can sound as if we have “arrived” at total comprehension. I don’t think it does mean that; but the point is that “philosophy” isn’t “sophy” without the prefix, “philo.” Philosophy is ever the love of wisdom, not ever a final attainment of something. Or maybe we could say, to be wise always retains the love of wisdom. Wisdom itself retains and accompanies the posture of love.
The orienting posture of love is humanness at its deepest. We should all cultivate being lovers--amateurs—not as a side act, but as the center ring of who we are. That posture is philosophical.
So philosophy matters. To you, and to philosophy itself.
I think it’s helpful to speak of developing philosophical awareness, rather than learning philosophy. Of course, the best way to develop philosophical awareness is to learn philosophy! But what we want is not the information, but the posture it cultivates—the wonder, the love of wisdom, the orientation to the world. We want in-formation: formation in the posture.
In this it’s like any other subject. Studying birds for a while makes you hear them more and more understandingly; the same with bus routes, or renaissance art. The bird/bus/art-world comes alive to you. It only gets richer. The information forms you in it. You never walk away from the subject, having completed it. You lean into reality in that respect, in fertile communion, for the rest of your life.
But here’s what sets philosophical awareness apart from awareness of birds, busses, and renaissance art. Philosophical awareness dramatically heightens your awareness of everything else. Everything else. For every subject, at its root and throughout, is a tissue of philosophy. Not that philosophy teaches you about birds. But it orients you insightfully, philosophically, to the real and to how we understand it, and how we value it. And that does bird lovers no end of good. Birds, too. And ornithology.
All my life in philosophy, I’ve found myself defending the value of philosophy. Somehow it’s a problem I never had—just the opposite. It drew me before I knew what it was. But philosophy continues to be something that many people don’t know what is but presume it is not for them. It sounds intimidating, dangerous, heretical, impractical, inscrutable, irrelevant, abstract, too difficult. Besides, philosophy only offers a bunch of contradictory ideas; it never finally gives a single answer. So what’s the use? We should just steer around philosophy, giving it a wide berth, and get on with life.
Here are some of my thoughts about why you should take the plunge.
You are already in the pool, I: talking about philosophy is doing philosophy.
And by the way: unlike any other discipline in the world, when you think about philosophy and what it is, you are already doing philosophy. With every other discipline, to think about what it is, you have to stop doing it and do philosophy. To do every discipline well, you have to stop doing it and do philosophy.
So you are doing philosophy.
So you should do philosophy to do it well.
Granted, you can do something and not know you are doing it. (That, by the way, says something about knowing; that’s philosophy about knowledge--epistemology.) So just to be told you are doing it doesn’t really help you know what philosophy is. It’s still a reason to dive in and find out.
You are already in the pool, II: you are human
It really takes only one qualification to be philosophical. That qualification? To be born.
Born as a human, that is. To be human is to be philosophical. My old dog, Miles, never wondered, never asked, why? He never pondered the meaning of dogginess, the meaning of life, of existence. He never wondered about reality beyond smells, food, his ball, me, and places to “go.” You and I, by contrast, can’t get through a day without pondering who we are, and what the meaning of life is. To be human is to be such a question.
Humanness and philosophy each involve the other. You can’t have one without the other.
That suggests, too, that growing philosophically is growing more deeply as humans. And closing out such questions makes us shallow as humans, and as whole societies too.
To cultivate our own humanness needs no rationale. It matters. So philosophy matters, too.
You are already in the pool, III: the Big, Hairy Questions
Philosophy concerns itself with what I call, the BHQs—the Big, Hairy Questions. (“Hairy” is left over from my youthful, hippie-era days. It dates me. But it gets at the strangeness of these questions.
The BHQs are: What is really real? How do I know whatever I know? What is right and good and beautiful? And, What does it mean to be human?
Those questions anchor the big areas of philosophy: metaphysics (“after” or “above” physics) or ontology (study of being in general); epistemology (study of knowledge); ethics, axiology (study of value), aesthetics; philosophical (as opposed to cultural) anthropology.
The main way that they are hairy questions is that every single thing we do implies some response to them. They permeate everything.
They’re hard to pin down just because they are so close to us—the way that we cannot see our corneas yet cannot see except through them.
They are nevertheless highly influential. They aren’t abstract, and they aren’t “pat.” They are concrete and formative, for individuals and whole cultures and eras. They actually shape what we think it is to be rational and plausible; they shape what we actually see to be real; they shape what we value.
Philosophical questions are hairy because they do have this way of jumping out and strangling us in times of crisis. But times of crisis are the defining moments of our lives: birth, adolescence, relationship or betrayal, faith or its rejection, commitment or boredom, creative or scientific discovery, suffering, war, tragedy, death. On the other hand, it doesn’t take a crisis to wonder.
The BHQs matter--deeply. Cultivating philosophical awareness breeds a maturity in engaging them, and in living well.
Covenant realism, covenant ontology
Finally, much of Hearing God is devoted passionately to reorienting the way we see reality, to what I call covenant realism and covenant ontology. I believe that this is Willard’s preeminent concern. According to Willard, also operating covertly in our generally defective model is perhaps the most powerful agent—our view of reality. Our view of knowing and our view of reality (what it is that is there to know) are inseparable. They are defective, or they are life-giving, together. In his fresh “model of what is happening,” Willard is doing both epistemology and metaphysics. He pronounces explicitly that what we think about what there is predetermines what we see. (80)
Thus, Willard exhorts us to see ourselves as created for an intimate and transforming friendship with the creative community that is the Trinity. (10) We are to see God as real and dynamically present. (12) He gives an entire chapter the enthralling title, “Our Communicating Cosmos” (ch 4), and another, “The Word of God and the Rule of God.” (ch 6) In the former, he calls us to ask the basic question, what kind of world do we live in? This bears critically on how we conceive of how God relates to us in it—or whether he even can.
An integral part of the special burden of unbelief that the modern West bears is a naturalistic view of reality as entirely physical. It reduces all causality to bare mechanism. It presumably encapsulates human beings and renders God distant and inaccessible. (94). For us to begin to hear God in the context of being in friendship with him, caught up in a life beyond our own---for us to take seriously what Scripture describes!—we must have are view of reality reshaped. Willard argues that, in rejection of the dominant view, not all reality involves space. (96) Willard cites scientists saying that “it is not possible to formulate the laws of quantum mechanics in a fully consistent way without reference to consciousness”; and “subjective and objective realities, consciousness and matter, mutually create each other”; and “the structure of matter may not be independent of consciousness. (99)
Spirit—God’s and ours, is unbodily, yet causally active, personal power. And the physical and the spatial are in the spiritual, the way your body is in you (not vice versa)—the way that we “live and move and have our being” “in Him.” Because we have our being in Him, he is nearer to us than even our sensations. Far from God being distant, impeded by space and physicality, he is closer to us then we are to ourselves. The whole of reality is penetrated through and through by God. (101) “Every working of visible reality is a movement within the encompassing Logos, the sustaining Word of God, and it rests on nothing else but God through his Son, who was and is the ‘reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word’ (Heb 1:1-3).” (104) In such a reality, indeed, God is not very far from us! We are—and all reality is--in God. Obviously this redraws the entire matter of concern in Willard’s book!
This metaphysical exposition—he calls it and intellectual and spiritual hardhat area (80)—is just what we need to strengthen our faith. (101-2) It is the reshaping idea that opens our eyes to see what is there—what is there in Scripture, and what is there in the world.
Willard returns in 3 chapters to extend the exposition by talking about the Word and Rule of God. What place does God’s Word, have in reality? He says there is a single basic truth here: God’s creating, his ruling, and his redeeming just are his word. (156) Our words shape reality too. Modern Western naturalism is in no-way equipped to observe that reality is fundamentally God’s voice. But “in a personal universe whether our own small arena or God’s cosmos, the word directs actions and events.” (171) In reality itself we are all always already hearing God. Reality just is the kingdom rule of God, where kingdom is by definition a network, not of mechanistic causes, but of personal relationships. (159) Thus, “the one who hears God’s voice is operating from the foundation and framework of all reality, not from the fringe.” (155) And reality—our universe—by nature responds to a word, to thoughts and intentions. (171) “Reality, including the material world, is ultimately a kingdom in which authority, personal relationships and communication (words) are basic to the way things run. (177) People who understand this, “and they alone, are at home in the universe as it actually is.” (198)
As if two chapters were not enough, Willard adds an epilogue that returns to the matter of reality. He confesses that he still painfully aware of the one great barrier that might hinder some people’s efforts to make such a life their own. The barrier: “the seeming unreality of the spiritual life.” (282) Given the dominant skepticism—the epistemic posture—of the modern Western world, in which a skeptical person is always deemed to be smarter than the one who believes, “only a very hardy individualist or a social rebel—one desperate for another life—stands a chance of discovering the substantiality of the spiritual life today.” (283). Sobering words, indeed. Yet he offers hope in saying that “we live on the Emmaus road, so to speak, with an intermittently burning heart.” We can come to understand that the presence of the physical world no longer has to be a barrier between me and God—that “my visible surroundings become, instead, God’s gift to me.” (288)
I have chronicled Willard’s metaphysical claims extensively here for more than one reason. First, they are the last alignment I mean to note between Hearing God and covenant epistemology. They express without qualification what L2K has articulated as covenant realism and covenant ontology. So we have seen that Hearing God is doing covenant epistemology—espousing it, embodying it. This lies at the heart of its distinctive message and its effectiveness.
But there are a couple other reasons I have taken such a close look at what Willard says about reality. One is that the nature of reality is what seems to matter the most to Willard in his argument. Another is that, for most of my adult philosophical life, and now in a fresh venture of inquiry, it matters the most to me. In the wake of L2K and now its skimmed-cream synopsis in A Little Manual for Knowing, I am returning to study reality. My current project is to update and revise for publication my 30-year-old doctoral dissertation as, “Contact With Reality: Michael Polanyi’s Realism and its Value for Christian Faith.”
I have spent the summer plunging with delight into a world of fresh insights about reality. That I am “…created for intimate and transforming friendship with the creative community that is the Trinity” (10) puts a finger on the fountainhead and the dynamically ever-newness of it all. Hearing Hearing God, this summer of my life and work, what Dallas Willard is saying about reality has all my attention. But I am grateful for how Willard’s wise, philosophically attuned, concretely helpful work not only corroborates covenant epistemology, but this summer helps me understand much better how to relate to—and in—God.
With special thanks to Jay Hawthorne, and to Paul Sparks
ELM, Aliquippa, PA, August 2014
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)
This is the first in what I hope will become a series of engagements of important voices in our time. I want to show that their proposals echo or accord with covenant epistemology—that covenant epistemology makes sense of their endeavors, visions, messages. This is not an “I told you so.” It is a “Behold! See the common thread, the shared understanding and hope of many in our time.” May covenant epistemology lend resourceful aid to a vision larger than itself even as it draws gratefully on the resources of others in dynamic conversation. –elm
In the high summer of 2014, my mornings were streaked rosy gold with my reading of Dallas Willard’s Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God (IVP, 1984, updated and expanded edition 2012). Willard (1935-2013), a noted philosopher of phenomenological realism, is perhaps better known as a powerful writer of helpful books on Christian spirituality. This was my first venture into Willard’s work—one I had anticipated with delight for a long time. Plus, I was intrigued because I had heard third-hand of Willard’s personal commendation of covenant epistemology.
Summarizing Hearing God
The book addresses the ever-live concern of whether people can/do hear God speak to them, to give them specific guidance about his will for their lives. Willard argues that the way we are meant to hear God is within the larger context of growing a conversational relationship with God. And this is only possible when we have reoriented our general understanding of reality so that spiritual life is real, and persons in relationship, shaping reality by words, is the way reality is. Willard gently guides his readers through this reorientation, and he shares the concrete know-how of an expert and experienced guide. I commend this nourishing book to any Christian believer wanting to deepen their relationship with God. Willard writes: “The key concept underlying all the themes I have raised in this book is this: Hearing God’s word will never make sense except when it is set within a larger life of a certain kind.” (274)
Echoes of Covenant Epistemology in Hearing God
In several respects, the heart of what Dallas Willard is carrying out, and of what he is commending, accords with the claims of covenant epistemology. Covenant epistemology claims that all knowing is relational knowing, and the better we are at cultivating the knowing as an interpersonal relationship, the better we will be at knowing. This is true of knowing rose bushes or carpentry. It’s obviously true of knowing persons, though we always seem to need to be reminded to treat persons as persons. Covenant epistemology also means we should see knowing persons and knowing rosebushes as working the same way, in many respects—interpersonally. It takes challenging the presumed distinction between knowing rose bushes and knowing persons to make us better at both. Knowing God, of course, is knowing a person of the most unique sort.
Hearing God, obviously, is about knowing God. Willard is showing us how to cultivate a mature interpersonal relationship with God. And what he offers and how he offers it are just the key points of covenant epistemology.
I'll develop these points in Part II coming later this month.