Esther Lightcap Meek challenges the ‘default’ way of knowing common to western civilization since the dawn of the Enlightenment. This default, attributed chiefly to Descartes, seeks knowledge by reasoning through various facts using laws of logic to reach conclusions that are ‘certain’. Meek shows how this is all wrong. She’s not a relativist. She maintains there is absolute truth but that we cannot know it with absolute certainty. She urges a better way of knowing – an epistemology that we all commonly use that is intuitive and bears a resemblance to personal relationships. Though the path to ‘certainty’ is unavailable, she shows how we can have great ‘confidence’ in what we know.
Meek begins by detailing the flaws in the Cartesian mindset, which we recognize by numerous sets of irreconcilable dichotomies. She then counsels a more personal way of knowing which Michael Polanyi described – a method of clues and pattern, or more technically ‘subsidiary-focal integration’. Various ‘clues’ (or facts) are observed, or even better ‘indwelt’, until a ‘pattern grabs you’. In the process, you the knower are transformed in some way, large or small. This ‘grabbing’ process, Meek shows, is a good deal like a personal response. The pattern is more than than an arrangement of the clues – it’s more like a relationship you have with the clues and the pattern. A committment akin to ‘love’ prompts us to embrace the pattern.
With this Polanyian insight as her foundation, Meek takes the reader on a tour of other 20th century philosophers. She convincingly shows how many of these other philosophers have discovered facets of this clue/pattern relationship, though calling them different names and in some ways going beyond Polanyi’s insight. This series of ‘conversations’ she has with the various philosophers seems a bit tedious at times but amply reinforces her claim. As a result, we see her ‘covenant epistemology’ has broad support and can be trusted as more than simply her own personal idea (no pun intended).
What I took away as her basic idea for how all this works is as follows: To learn or know, we indwell clues until a pattern grabs us. This ‘grabbing’ is a personal response. Why ‘personal’? Because the world is personal with the person of God behind it all, initiating everything. God initiates Creation as a personal act. He initiates relationships with humans in the form of covenant. Covenant is love first and law or obligation second. This knowledge is interpersonal communication between God and ourselves. We come to an unsettled, confused situation where we lack knowledge – we can’t see the pattern. In this ‘void’ a rush of insight moves us. This is the ‘holy’ that settles the chaos and brings clarity. Though we relate to God, we remain distinct, ‘differentiated’ from Him. The insight does not absorb us or assimilate us. Rather, we dwell among the clues and among the holy in a ‘dance’-like relationship. Our knowledge and clarity can be held with great confidence, though not mathematical certainty.
I enjoyed the book greatly, more so the first half as her vision came into view. After I was convinced her view had merit, some of the later chapters seemed a bit repetitive. However, each philosopher she engages does add to the evidence for her view and increased this reader’s confidence that she is indeed on the right track. Meek has published the much shorter A Little Manual For Knowing recently. I browsed it after finishing ‘Loving to Know’. There she seems to incorporate more ideas for practice into the exposition of covenant epistemology. I’m glad I started with ‘Loving to Know’ as I do enjoy seeing the foundations on which her idea is built. Other readers may wish to start with the shorter volume and then turn to ‘Loving to Know’ to more richly ‘indwell the clues’ that led the author to the rich ‘pattern’ that is covenant epistemology.