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Knowledge, Belief, Commitment and Profession

I have just started reading a new book by Dallas Willard called 'Knowing Christ Today'.  It is a more philosophical type of book but I think he makes some useful everyday distinctions between knowledge, belief, commitment and profession.  Below are some quotes from my Amazon Kindle version of the book that I am reading on my Ipod touch:

We have knowledge of something when we are representing it as it actually is must be truth based upon adequate evidence and insight.   Knowledge in this sense is what we require in service people, professionals and leaders.  We expect them to know what they are doing, to be right, but not just by guessing or luck.  We might occasionally accept luck in an automobile mechanic - far less so in a brain surgeon or a government official - but even then only if it comes in a context of solid knowledge and steady practice based on it.

Belief has no necessary tie to truth, good method or evidence.  We can believe what is false and often do.  Belief may arise from many sources.  Children and others 'catch' beliefs from those around them.  Emotions such as fear, hatred, or love give rise to beliefs.  In its basic nature belief is a matter of tendencies to act.... as if it were so.  Thus belief involves the will in a way that knowledge does not.  If I believe I am low on gas, I will have an eye out for a gas station.   If I believe I have plenty of fuel .. my behaviours will be characteristically different.  But of course I could be wrong either way and still believe.

Similarly, if I really do believe in God, I will tend to act as if he exists.  If I believe that the bible and the church are unique sources of reliable information about life and well-being, I will tend to honor them and give them careful attention, making them a part of my life.  If I believe they are not, I will avoid them or even attack them.

Is it the same as belief?  Not at all.  Commitment, made so much of tocay in religion and life, need not involve belief, much less knowledge.  You can commit yourself to something you don't even believe.  Commitment is simply a matter of choosing and implementing a course of action.  We have that ability. It is part of what humans can do.  Sometimes we have to act when we 'don't know what to do' or even when we have no belief concerning what would be best.  A person lost in a forest may have no idea of which direction to take but commit to action to one particular direction because the person knows or believes he or she must do something.

At a greater distance from knowledge is profession.  Sometimes people profess to believe things they are not even committed to.  They may do this just to fit into a social setting.  Throughout history, and in some places still today, professing to believe things they don't believe, or even things they are committed against, has been the only way for people to save their lives or avoid great harm.   Professing to believe, has sadly, played a large role in the practice of religion.  It has profoundly stained our understanding of what religion is.  Some people seem to profes belief in God 'just' in case there is a God.

The difference between belief and knowledge is huge and affects every area of life.  Not having knowledge of the central truths of Christianity is certainly one reason for the great disparity between what Christians profess and how they behave - a well-known and disturbing phenomenon.

Knowledge, but not mere belief or commitment, confers on its possessor an authority or right - even a responsibility - to act, to direct and supervise policy and to teach.  We want leaders professionals and others we rely upon to know what they are doing, not just to believe or feel strongly.

Belief and knowledge are different kinds of things with different roles in life.  Belief does not necessarily disappear when knowledge comes.  Teachers and students or experts/non experts can have similar beliefs in an area but different levels of knowledge.

Rational and responsible people are those who strive to base their beliefs and actions upon their knowledge. 

The central teachings of the Christian religion were from the beginning presented and accepted as knowledge - knowledge of what is real and right.  That is why they had the transforming effect they did on a world dead set against them.  Indeed biblical tradition as a whole presents itself, rightly or wrongly as one of knowledge of God.  Then, within that overarching context of knowledge, there do arise specific occasions of faith and commitment to action extending beyond what is known, but still conditioned on the knowledge of God.  eg. Abraham left his homeland and went out 'not knowning' where he was going, but he did so because of his knowledge of God and of God's constant care in his life. 

An act of faith in the biblical tradition is always undertaken in an environment of knowledge and is insperable from it.

We can never understand the life of faith seen in scripture and in serious Christian living unless we drop the idea of faith as a 'blind leap' and understand that faith is commitment  to action, often beyond our natural abilities, based upon knowledge of God and God's ways.  The romantic talk of 'leaping' to which we in the western world have become accustomed, actually amounts to 'leaping' without faith - that is with no genuine belief at all.

The biblical stories know absolutely nothing of blind ' leaps of faith' as that phrase is now understood.  Such leaps are pure fantasy imposed upon those stories and upon the religious life by the prejudices and tortured turns of modern thought.

I obviously can't include everything here but the book goes on to make interesting observations about:
  • exactly how we perish for lack of knowledge
  • can we know that God exists? and
  • Knowledge of Christ and Christian pluralism
If you are interested you may like to get a copy for yourself.

David Wanstall, 23/06/2009