Review of Loving to Know

Loving to Know book cover

The terms that usually spring to mind concerning the study of philosophy and all its attendant issues are those like, “dry,” “technical,” “abstract,” “cold,” etc. As Nicholas Wolterstorff wrote in his endorsement for Loving to Know, “Nobody acquainted with philosophical epistemology would associate it with eloquence or passion.” In contrast, Esther Lightcap Meek’s Loving to Know is passionate, warm, and evocative. Drawing on the work of scholars across many fields, mainly Michael Polanyi, but also John Frame and many others, Meek attempts to articulate a vision of “Covenant Epistemology,” a view of knowing “fraught with the interpersoned.”

Over against Enlightenment dichotomies that set science against religion and art, belief against knowledge, mind against the sense, Meek argues for a view of knowledge that is thoroughly engaged with persons and by persons. All knowing is performed by persons: drawing on Michael Polanyi, Meek argues that knowing is fundamentally a focal-subsidiary integration. Knowing is the coming together of our narrow focus with the tacit or unconscious subsidiary attention that draws our focus into contact with reality and reflexively imbues it with meaning, becoming what James Loder calls a “transformative event.” Drawing on John Frame’s work on the knowledge of God, Meek argues that all knowledge involves the three coordinates or perspectives of the person (existential), the object (situational), and the standard (normative). All knowing is personal because it is ultimately coram Deo, done before God under His covenant ordering of the world: this makes all knowing, as John Frame argues, a subsidiary of ethics, fraught with “ought”s. Drawing on the work of many 20th century existentialists and philosophers of the person (e.g. Martin Buber, James Loder, John MacMurray), she argues that as a gift from the personal God, reality is itself interpersoned and takes on a personal dimension “metonymously,’” “imbued with the dynamic interpersonal relationship which contexts it, yet freely distinct from Giver and recipient” (381).

Loving to Know is not argued in a laborious philosophical manner—the mode against which her proposal argues—but is intended to embody Meek’s epistemological agenda. As such, it is cast as a series of conversations or interactions with thinkers, ranging from novelists to theologians and philosophers. The first part gives a diagnosis of the defective epistemology Meek identifies in Western culture and introduces her counterproposal. In the second part, Meek interacts with Polanyi and Loder to identify the nature of knowledge and knowing as transformation resulting from a focal-subsidiary integration. Part three interacts with two theologians, John Frame and Mike Williams, to situated knowing in a “covenantal” context, where covenant refers to the “unfolding relationship between persons, such as in a covenant of friendship or of marriage” (194). She does add the dimension of obligation that is requisite for a covenant in the Biblical sense of the word (197).  Part four draws on the work of several philosophers and theologians to argues that knowing is thoroughly “interpersoned.” Meek wants to argue that all knowledge takes on a personal dimension not because reality is itself actually personal or divine but because of its close relationship to God who gifts reality to His creation within the contours of a covenant. The fifth and final part draws together the threads of her argument to offer her proposed “covenant epistemology.”

Loving to Know has many strengths for which the reader will benefit. Meek writes with a passion that makes it easy to read, despite being nearly 500 pages in length. Her theological appropriation of Polanyi and the integration of his thought with John Frame is well worth attention. These two have been highly influential in my own thinking and I wholeheartedly concur with her summary of their contribution to her own thought, “if Frame offered the parameters of human knowing in the context of biblical lordship, then Polanyi showed me how it worked” (167). However, I was less than persuaded by her attempt to integrate the personal on the side of the object of knowledge or the “real.” Meek’s desire and efforts closely mirror my own, as I am working them out in my PhD thesis and series “God’s Gifts for the Christian Life,” but I believe her volume suffers under the same deficiency I detect in the work of Frame, Polanyi, and others. I am not convinced that she offers an ontology (or an account of reality and its realness as it corresponds to knowledge) sufficient to account for the Biblical account of God and the knowledge of Him that we all possess (according to Romans 1), nor am I convinced it is sufficient to account for the complexities of knowing as she identifies in her account of Polanyi and Frame. Part four, in which she argues for this most significant part of her project is thoroughly evocative, provoking ideas of all sorts, but it never quite lands—in my opinion. Of particular concern is her employment of Gunton’s perichoretic model of the Trinity. This model is historically discredited: for the early church, perichoresis did not mean “circle dance” and the Cappadocians and others, nothing of the sort of reciprocity or mutual divine inner life was developed.1 From a theological perspective, the social trinitarian account is dubious, and the implications drawn from it are more so.

In sum, Meek’s Loving to Know is a significant step of “Epistemological therapy” for Evangelical Christians steeped in Modernism and its successors. It is valuable and important for its development and integration of Polanyi and Frame’s thought in an accessible manner. However, in the area of ontology, I think there remains work to be done.

  1. As one commentator puts it, for the Cappadocians, the hypostases are merely realizations of the one ousia. []

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