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Theological Thursday: Epistemology

What is Epistemology?  It’s the way you know what you know.

There are a number of ways to approach this question – a popular and easy to understand way of breaking it down is using four categories: experience, reason, tradition, and scripture.

Before we apply this to theology, we can see it at work in a more simple question.  Suppose somebody asked, “How do you know the sky is blue?”

If you answer “Because I have seen it,” you are using experience as your authority.

If you answer, “The molecules that make up the air tend to filter light in such a way that only blue is seen, and the sky is filled with air,” then you are using reason.

Answer, “Because somebody told me,” and you trust tradition.

Finally, if you say, “Because the Bible (or some other sacred text… maybe you consider Buffalo Rising to be inspired?) says it is,” than you trust scripture.

Of course, there are problems with each of these ways of knowing, and most of us use more than one.  If I look at the sky and see something I do not expect (experience), I ask, “Why might this be happening?” (reason),  or “I’ll check with a friend to see if they see what I see.” (tradition) 

While all people use each one of these at one point or another, different people give primacy to different ways.

Now how does understanding these ways of knowing create a better neighborhood?

It keeps us from talking past one another (or worse, against each other). 

If I want my own congregation, which gives privilege to scripture, to participate in a neighborhood clean up, I am wise to root my argument in the Bible.   However, I also have to teach them that quoting scripture to somebody who does not care about it is a waste of time. 

The Unitarian Univeralist church, on the other hand, has historically given primacy to reason.  The Roman Catholic Church, values tradition, and “mainline” congregations often appeal to experience, as do (in a different way) Pentecostals.  (click on links for examples of each, in the Elmwood Village).

Again, each will typically use all four, but may favor one. 

Conflicts happen when epistemologies clash, but understanding happens when you question your own way of knowing.  Is your reason self-centered?  Your scripture badly interpreted?  Your experience limited?  Your tradition corruptible?

When you understand your own epistemology, you become more aware of your own blind spots, and you can better work with those who think differently.  Then, rather than wasting time in argument (a common pastime among those who think differently), you can consider another person’s perspective, and find a way to work toward common goals.  And really, you aren’t going to have one of the ten best neighborhoods if you can’t get different people to work together.

Next week on Theological Thursdays: How ‘The way we perceive God’ affects the way we form community.

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