Jan 222011

The Cloud of Unknowing, By G. Boyd

“If I told you, you would not know; you simply would have been told.”

-Robert Heinlein, Friday

What is the difference between knowing something, and believing something?

This is something separate from the factual nature of a thing. A fact is a fact after all, and will remain a fact until it ceases to be a fact for some reason. It isn’t going anywhere. A fact is an end product.

If I believe something to be true, this does not require any direct connection with whatever proposition that I have chosen to believe. It is essentially confidence in a hypothesis. I may believe the latest news about what’s going on in the middle-east, and in doing so I am placing confidence in the statements that the reporter has made. There may well be factors, such as the credibility of the source or my own experience/knowledge base; but I need not have any direct personal experience with the event in order to believe it. When we argue in order to “prove” a belief, what we are doing is attempting to give justifications for the confidence we have placed in a proposition, while persuading the opponent to do the same.

To know something however requires something different. It requires an experience. When I tell you that I know that the car is parked outside I am implying a personal experience that led to that knowledge. I can say that I know such and such a person, and I am essentially telling you that I have had some experience with that person that allows me to know them. It is impossible to prove something that you know merely by words. At best we might persuade someone to believe what we are saying, but this alone will not lead them to the knowledge of a thing. I cannot prove to you that there is a car parked outside unless I take you to the window and guide you into your own experience of seeing the car. This alone allows you to know that there is indeed a car parked outside.

The Greeks give us the word gnosis. Often the word pertains to the knowledge born from some type of mystical experience, and while this usage is certainly correct, I feel that it is applicable to more than just that mystical experience. This term refers not to a belief, or even to the factual correctness of something. It refers to knowledge born of an experience. It is not a theory, or even confidence placed in something that someone may have told us. It is directly related to a personal experience.

So in life, we can really only KNOW things that we have experienced. We are free to believe and doubt all else as we will.

All the believing in the world doesn’t make a matter true however, and very real experiences can be misinterpreted and poorly integrated.

Throughout our lives we make countless observations, and draw conclusions based on those observations. While admitting the limitations of our own subjective perspectives, there is yet the tendency to treat the conclusions(beliefs) we have drawn as facts(knowledge). However many of the conclusions we draw from “observation” are really beliefs, and not properly knowledge. For the majority of the twentieth century, it was commonly accepted as fact that the speed of light was the maximum limit that matter, energy, or information could travel. We claimed to KNOW that there was no velocity greater. Now in the beginning of the twenty-first century, physicists have apparently made a startling discovery. The acceleration of certain sub-atomic particles to a speed greater than that of light. What is occurring now is the realization that while the notion of light as a cosmic constant was treated as knowledge, it yet shows it’s true colors as a belief. A belief which may well be in the process of being overturned based on new observations.

The Renaissance shows us the shift in thinking about these matters. We see a pronounced turning point in human history, where the distinction between knowledge and belief began to be blurred and what either really represented began to be lost.

“The real reason why Copernicus raised no ripple and Galileo raised a storm, may well be that whereas the one offered a new supposal about celestial motions, the other insisted on treating this supposal as fact. If so, the real revolution consisted not in a new theory of the heavens but in ‘a new theory on the nature of theory’.”

-C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image

Now I do not feel that a belief is of lesser quality than knowledge. I do however feel that their distinction is important to understand, and that we realize that each is merely of a different substance than the other. Where knowledge is incomplete, we can yet choose to believe something; and that choosing of belief can open us up to a world of possibilities that might never present themselves otherwise. We are all possessed of a myriad of beliefs. They are beliefs where we have had no direct experience by which to claim knowledge. These beliefs allow me to interact in ways that I simply could not otherwise interact. It may not always turn out to be factually true, but it’s potential usefulness seems quite apparent. While the belief that the speed of light was the ultimate speed may have limited us in some ways, it nonetheless allowed a tremendous body of research and theory that has proven quite useful. The development of atomic power is a testament to this, as are numerous applications of twentieth century physics.

In closing, I hope that I have highlighted the distinction between these two concepts. The value of knowledge seems rather apparent, but so too is belief. We must understand the distinction if we are ever to have productive and meaningful discussion in most cases. Our world is founded as much on belief as knowledge, and to deny this is to deny the use of what can be an invaluable tool. We can use our beliefs in ways that are creative and constructive, or they can serve only to destroy. The choice is ours. A search for knowledge means a search for experience, otherwise there can be no knowledge. The gaps of ignorance that exist where we have not yet acquired knowledge need not remain empty and useless. The tools are at our disposal, but it is important that we understand they are not all created equal. Belief is vital in the quest for knowledge, but we have to choose and apply the beliefs that fit into our puzzle in a coherent manner. This is the nature of the very personal Journey of the individual, and it is a journey that can be filled with Truth and Purpose…if we would but believe in such things.




*Updated 10/26

G. Boyd

G. BoydI will open my mouth in a parable, and I will utter the dark sayings of old...

  67 Responses to “Knowledge vs. Belief”

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  1. From watching yalls discussion it would seem that you both really mean the same thing(correct me if I am wrong).

    We can do the right thing for the wrong reason at times…C.S. Lewis gives the example of the phrase, “cold as charity”. This phrase comes to be used because “charitable” people are often quite unsympathetic, self seeking, and conceited. They will often do “good things” for the wrong reasons. Their motivation is not always selfless, but rather they often do the things they do in order to gratify themselves for various reasons. What you are comes out in what you do. Unselfishness becomes a form of showing off. We try to be religions, and become legalistic. We try to be kind, and become patronizing. This is an example of “works” without “faith”.

    It is also not enough to “know” the right thing, and not do it. James tells us that faith without works is dead, and so it would seem that to simply “know” that we should behave a certain way and not do it possesses no value. The “faith” that precedes works really boils down to knowing not only what you’re supposed to do, but WHY(logos), and then doing it. So while faith without works is meaningless, so to are works done without a sense of purpose.

    The “faith” and “works” go hand in hand, even if the “faith” is not based in some sort of belief system(i.e. Religion, philosophy, ect…). Paul seems to imply in Romans that it is possible to “know” the law, even if we have never been told the law; but is not enough to simply “do the right thing”, nor is it enough to “know” the right way. It must be done for the right reason as well, otherwise it’s value is short-changed so to speak. Intent is prior to content, and content has little value without it’s corresponding intent. You can feed the beggar, but your motivation behind your actions determines the total value of the action. Your food may indeed feed him physically, but we exist on many more levels than just this “physical”.

  2. Gareth, I Your probably right. :)

    Luke, I think you and I may be speaking of righteousness in two different ways. This sums up my meaning:
    Righteousness” is the position of being totally acceptable to, and accepted by, God. Each Christian became acceptable to God when the sin that stood between him and God was washed away by the blood of Christ. Thus, “righteousness” is our standing in the sight of God as people who are “right” and “accepted” in spite of our sins, failures, and shortcomings. This righteousness is by faith.

    When you say we are made righteous by our works, I was thinking of this kind of righteousness. Which, I still say is by faith. However works are essential, necessary and even conditional to our continued walk with Christ.

    I don’t disagree with any of your scriptures. Some of them are my favorites. I do believe if we start leaning on certain parts of the bible while choosing to ignore othes we miss the whole picture.

  3. There is a time when words simply fall short…it is then that we need more than words…

    “My speech is imperfect. Not because I want to shine with words, but out of the impossibility of finding those words, I speak in images. With nothing else can I express the words from the depths.”
    -Carl Jung, The Red Book

    There is a time when even images fall short however…and we then need more than mere images…

  4. @Kenneth Taylor

    I guess it boils down to this passage not making plain sense to me in English. Based on how John portrays Jesus in the rest of his gospel, it just didn’t sit right with me that he would tell Nicodemus to not be surprised. “Born again” wasn’t the common expression that it is today; it would  have been very surprising to hear, and if Jesus had meant “born again,” he would have expected that. When I looked into the Greek, it suddenly made much more sense to me, with Jesus’ statement “you shouldn’t be surprised” along with the subsequent explanation taking on more of a “you misunderstood me” meaning. 

    As for why I don’t think it really happened: we know that John was at least a little embellishment-prone (the final conversation in the final chapter of his book couldn’t have happened in Aramaic), and the conversation with Nicodemus, though I am also quite fond of it, sounds more to me like John’s introduction to the gospel than like Jesus’ other teachings. Out of curiosity, what is it about this story that you feel has a ring of truth to it?

    And I apologize for my above claim to this as fact. It was an admittedly presumptuous thing to do, as scholars aren’t in agreement over it (though the idea seems to be gaining ground in scholarly circles) and it isn’t necessary fact in the same way that “Jesus was a Jew” is necessary fact. 

  5. @G. Boyd

    That’s not what I said I disagreed about, though personally I would prefer someone who did good things for me for the wrong reasons over someone who did nothing for me though they had good intentions. That’s a matter of personal preference, though. 


    1) If faith is what makes us right before God, then why bother to constantly teach, as Jesus did, that we are judged according to works? Why not just teach that it is by “true” faith that we will be judged?

    2) Why not give certain parts of the Bible more weight than others? You seem to give more weight to Jesus’ teachings than teachings in the Old Testament. Why not give the same weight to Jesus’ emphasis on works and fruit over Paul’s emphasis on faith?

    3) Honestly, the outcome of this discussion (which has been going on since the Protestant Reformation) doesn’t really matter to me. A decision about this particular doctrine wouldn’t affect in the slightest how I live my life. 

    The only reason I brought up the things that I did was to try to nudge you, albeit rather clumsily, to a more honest appraisal of your world view. The doctrine of “justification by faith alone” is not set in stone, and has a historically traceable source in human tradition. Your fretting over an emphasis on works comes from a long line of aversion to Roman Catholic tradition, where there is no worry about such an emphasis. And I’m honestly not trying to change your mind or remove your trust in these traditions, just to get you to really look at why you cling to the teachings that you cling to. 

  6. @C Luke Mula

    Sorry I guess i should have put a few more spaces between my first statement and the rest of my comment. The first statement was my opinion that if you could express the things yall are saying in more than words, you might well find that you both agree with each others’ image of this matter.

    The rest of the comment was merely my thoughts on the matter.

    While the beggar would of course prefer such a thing I believe that the physical satisfaction he will get from receiving food is only a very small part of the potential total value of the action. The total value of an action meaning the “right” thing done for the “right” reason, and with a sense of purpose that is greater than merely ourselves.

    If I give you five dollars because i want you to just go away, or to show off to my girlfriend how generous I am, the action has as much value as you merely finding 5 dollars on the street.

    I suggest that we exist in more levels than just this physical(mental, spiritual, etc…) and so an action is really an action on all the levels of personhood and personality that we exist in. An action that is the most valuable is an action that is creative and cohesive not only on all levels of our self, but truly creative for those around us as well on all of the levels that they exist in.

  7. Luke
    In response to:
    Why not give certain parts of the Bible more weight than others? You seem to give more weight to Jesus’ teachings than teachings in the Old Testament. Why not give the same weight to Jesus’ emphasis on works and fruit over Paul’s emphasis on faith?

    You asked for scriptures from the gospels and I responded. Other than that I don’t recall speaking of any scripture old or new testiment. I have no idea why you’ve decide I give more weight to the gospels. I love reading the gospel, but in no way would I favor them over other books of the bible.

    As to why not giving favor to certain books of the bible than others. Well Just taking certain books and leaving out others actually changes the meaning of the whole. We actully can tend to manipulate them to suit our own likes and dislikes even without meaning to. How can we go to the bible as final authority if we all only acknowledge the scriptures we like? The bible becomes just another good book. I’ve enjoyed our talk for the most part because I enjoy being challenged… Mabe I missed something. Plus I’ve enjoy learning your perspective.

    As for my worldview, please enlighten me? In our talks you’ve pesumed to know alot of my thoughts and meanings. I’ve tried not to do that to you.
    Honestly, I’ve held to the terms I choose because you seem to be telling me not to because of your own issues with them. Where I respect that you may have issuses with tradition or Prodestant teachings, they’re your issues not mine.

    And once again. I’m definately not clinging to my ideas any more than you’re clinging to yours. That’s the pot calling the kettle black! :)
    I think we can both agree to disagree on faith and works.

  8. @JLBoyd

    I said what I did about your favoring Jesus over the Old Testament because there are several teachings of Jesus which are in outright conflict with (as in, can’t be obeyed at the same time as) several Old Testament ideas. Since it is impossible to give both equal weight, you have to give more weight to one set of teachings. Christians by definition take Jesus’ teachings when they are in conflict with Judaic teachings. 

    And I never said to leave parts of the Bible out. I just said to give more weight to parts. It would indeed be hard to say we’re talking about the Bible when we’re not talking about the whole Bible. 

    And I apologize for coming off as presumptuous of your thoughts and meanings.

    The reason I said that you have clung to teachings is because you assume that “justification by faith” (“or else we’re earning our own salvation”) is the only way to see the issue based on the Bible. I have tried to show you (with Bible verses) that this is not the case, and that this wasn’t an issue until the Reformation. Instead of giving me solid reasons for why you do, you’ve so far only said that faith is implied as emphasized in every verse I’ve referenced. This doesn’t qualify as a solid reason, especially when there’s no proof in those references that faith is implied as most important or even implied at all. 

    I honestly have no problems with Protestantism or tradition, but I do with the way you stood on “justification by faith” as though it was an undeniable truth (a “biggie,” if I remember correctly). I’m all for following tradition as long as we recognize the difference between tradition (doctrines, customs, etc.) and truth. And I’ll admit that this is not an easy task. 

    As for my stance on faith and works, I honestly don’t have one. I assumed a particular stance for this discussion because I see it as having a lot of merit and thought it could have been a helpful exercise in why particular biblical viewpoints are taken over others. I’ve clung to that perspective because, taking the whole Bible into account, there are a lot of things which do point to it. But as I said before, if this doctrinal issue were to be resolved tomorrow, it wouldn’t change in the slightest how I live or how I view the world. 

  9. I don’t think the bible contradicts itself, so I see no reason to lean on portions of scrpture over others. I’m unaware of the scriptures you’re referring to.

    I’m sorry if my saying justifacation by faith was a “biggie” was an offense to you. I wasn’t trying to be high and mighty. I think a lot of things are “biggies”! By that I’n not necessarialy referring to what I think are salvation isssues, but things that are just important to our view of God. I appologize if I implied my view being above your own or anyone elses. I do agree seperating issue over truth can be difficult.

    I didn’t address scripture because it seemed that we had very different views of scripture. And when I gave the few in John things seemed to get heated. I really don’t want to go through the trouble of finding scripture for you to say “that never happed” or that’s not valid. No offense intended, but that seems futile.

    You keep saying the idea of justification by faith originated in the reformation and I know it was made popular by Luther. However, aside from the bible, the idea is also found in the writings of some of the ante-nicene fathers. Not that it really matters.

  10. Apology accepted lol. Yeah, it’s cool.

    This whole topic sparked my curiosity, and based on some cursory online reading, it would seem that the idea of Jesus and his contemporaries knowing at least some Greek is fairly likely, and not at all implausible. For example, see: http://blog.beliefnet.com/markdroberts/pages/series/what-language-did-jesus-speak-why-does-it-matter.html

    Personally, I have no trouble imagining that conversation happening at the end of John, with most of it being in Aramaic, but employing Greek words for love. It’s ordinary for people in multilingual societies to borrow words from one language when no suitable word is found in the other.

    As for why the Nicodemus story seems historically true to me, I’m not exactly sure. I guess Nicodemus just feels like a real person to me. He seems like such a nuanced character, in contrast to the stock character vibe I get from a lot of the Pharisees. He fits into neither category of “Hard-Hearted, Religious Bad Guy” nor “Get Healed, Repent, Follow Jesus Good Guy.” He seems to genuinely struggle to understand Jesus, and I really feel his heart when I read about him.

    I know this doesn’t constitute good evidence. I’m just saying that the story feels true to me.

  11. While I am far from being an expert on the culture of Israel in this time period I am aware of a few things. It is quite likely that Jesus and his disciples had at least a conversational understanding of Greek, it was the language of trade at that time in history throughout the Mediterranean. However, the context of the story given to us in John is important to take into consideration. This is a rabbi and a Jewish religious leader speaking one-on-one about the Hebrew God and the scriptures. It’s probably a lot more likely that they were speaking in Hebrew, not even Aramaic

    You and I may both know Spanish, but if we meet together to discuss something we are both intimately familiar with in a one-on-one setting, how likely is it that we will hold our conversation in Spanish? It is certainly possible, but is it likely?

    The Jews are historically xenophobic because of their belief that they are God’s “Chosen People”. I think it’s at least as unlikely that the conversation occurred in Greek as that Jesus really spoke all of his words in Greek except for the few instances in the gospels where it specifies an Aramaic word or phrase.

    Now I don’t think that Luke is at all questioning the Truth that John is expressing. Personally if I look at the passage in light of this theory about the language, I actually have a much fonder appreciation for what John is doing. I actually appreciate that John seems to not be so concerned with the factual correctness of the conversation as much as communicating the Truth of what occurred.

    Try to explain to a child in scientific terms why his dog died and he probably wont get it. Explain it to him in simple terms that the dog went to sleep and isn’t going to wake up again, and your chances of being understood increase dramatically. Your simple explanation may not be completely on point factually, but the Truth of what occurred is conveyed nonetheless…

    To me this is the Beauty of John. He explains to us as though we are children. Not stupid children, but children nonetheless. Perhaps this is because he has “faith” in his readers. Perhaps it is because he really expects us to become like little children, that one day we might see the Kingdom of God.

    All of the Gospels don’t really fill the role of history books. All the facts in the world won’t lead you to an experience like I believe that John leads us to quite masterfully.

  12. Gareth, I agree with just about everything you just said. Just like you, I don’t believe the stories must be historically factual in order to communicate profound Truths.

    My only contention is that I don’t see the point of saying, “This COULDN’T have happened this way.” It seems plausible, and not at all unlikely, that the whole conversation could have taken place pretty much as described, but in Hebrew or Aramaic, with the exception of employing some Greek words for love.

    It wouldn’t be at all strange or unlikely. Allow me to demonstrate. In American English, all of the following would be clear and ordinary sentences:

    Gareth: “See ya later, Ken.” Ken: “Adios, Gareth.”

    “Gareth and I went to CC’s and had beaucoup King Cake.”

    “Gareth, that guy is totally your doppleganger.”

    In fact, since you and I both know a smidgen of Biblical Greek, I could even say, “Gareth, do you ‘agapao’ me?” and you would understand what I was saying.

    I admit the possibility that the story is totally fabricated, but I think it’s far from a settled issue, and I would even dispute the claim that it “most likely” didn’t happen. Of course, I’m no Biblical scholar. But at the same time, I won’t just accept the scholarly consensus without it being demonstrated to me that there actually is good scholarship behind that consensus.

  13. Oh I would certainly agree Ken. I also didn’t mean to imply that it’s a fact that the conversation didn’t really take place the way John describes it. Even if it happen the way he tells it, it’s still a remarkably profound account.

    As far as the last passage in John, It really doesn’t matter to me if it really happened the way it’s described or not. The Truth and meaning behind the words is quite apparent to me. I guess I just don’t really look for factual correctness in scripture any more because it really isn’t important to me. Not that I don’t like knowing what was going on, but the Truth behind the words(factual or nonfactual) is what’s really important…

    I do not at all say this to promote an ignorant view of studying scripture, but realize that if your looking for historical facts and figures, then you should look in books that profess to present those things. While the Truth expressed to us in John certainly can be apprehended by our rational mind, I believe that it’s power goes even deeper than that…and higher…it divides soul and spirit…

  14. “I guess I just don’t really look for factual correctness in scripture any more because it really isn’t important to me.”

    “. . . but realize that if your looking for historical facts and figures, then you should look in books that profess to present those thing.”

    I’m not sure if you’re referring to certain books or passages, or to the entirety of Scripture.

    Historical accuracy seemed to be important to at least some of the Gospel writers, Luke especially. It also seemed to be important to the earliest Christ followers.

    In an essay titled “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism,” C. S. Lewis says the following:

    “In what is already a very old commentary I read that the fourth Gospel is regarded by one school as a ‘spiritual romance’, ‘a poem not a history’, to be judged by the same canons as Nathan’s parable, the book of Jonah, Paradise Lost ‘or, more exactly, Pilgrim’s Progress’. After a man has said that, why need one attend to anything else he says about any book in the world? Note that he regards Pilgrim’s Progress, a story which professes to be a dream and flaunts its allegorical nature by every single proper name it uses, as the closest parallel. Note that the whole epic panoply of Milton goes for nothing. But even if we leave our the grosser absurdities and keep to Jonah, the insensitiveness is crass – Jonah, a tale with as few even pretended historical attachments as Job, grotesque in incident and surely not without a distinct, though of course edifying, vein of typically Jewish humour. Then turn to John. Read the dialogues: that with the Samaritan woman at the well, or that which follows the healing of the man born blind. Look at its pictures: Jesus (if I may use the word) doodling with his finger in the dust; the unforgettable nv vuz (13:30). I have been reading poems, romances, vision-literature, legends, myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know that not one of them is like this. Of this text there are only two possible views. Either this is reportage – though it may no doubt contain errors – pretty close up to the facts; nearly as close as Boswell. Or else, some unknown writer in the second century, without known predecessors, or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern, novelistic, realistic narrative. If it is untrue, it must be narrative of that kind. The reader who doesn’t see this has simply not learned to read.”

  15. Sorry I was typing hurriedly and was misleading and imprecise in my statements. I didn’t mean to imply that historical factuality was not there, nor that it wasn’t important.(Conversations we have had certainly reflect my interest in the historicality of many aspects of scripture.) I did mean to say that for some parts of scripture that are often criticized for their…far fetchedness or factually questionably, whether they are are really factual or not will often take second string in my mind. The final passage in John is a prime example of this. I do feel that the nature of certain books of the Bible are of a more historical nature than other books however. 1 and 2 Chronicles are blatantly historical records, as are certain gospels and the book of Acts. The book of John does seem (to me) to attempt to communicate certain Truths in a manner that is only partially dependent on the historical factuallity of certain statements within it.

  16. Ok, cool, we’re totally in agreement on that subject then. : )

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