“By this we know.” We hear this phrase four times in our reading from the first letter of John this morning. Knowing is fundamental to this letter, as are three interrelated questions: what we know, how we know it, and what we are going to do with that knowledge. As we begin this season after the Epiphany, as we recall God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ, these three questions can guide our own discovery of God in and among us now.
First, what do we know? From this first letter of John, quite a lot. We know that God is light. We know what love is. We know we belong to the truth. We know God lives in us. This is big stuff—the foundation of our faith, of our relationship with God and with each other. So big, though, that these truths can feel remote from our daily lives. What does it mean for you, here and now, to know that God is love, and that God lives in you?
Reflecting on how we learn, how we come to know, can help bridge these eternal truths and our daily, particular experiences. For John, we know by sense—by what we see, hear, and touch—by example, and by assurance from someone we trust. Each of these modes is familiar to us, and I’m sure each of us learns better in one way than another. I know I learn best by touch, by moving my body, and by holding, tinkering, and manipulating.
To know something is, in our imagination, an intellectual endeavor. To know something is to study it, to ascertain its dimensions, to come to conclusions about it, to test those conclusions, always refining your conclusions based on that testing, and to be able to articulate what you’ve learned to another. This is a valuable and useful approach, and it’s consistent with the general standard of knowledge that Western culture has adopted in the modern era.
But I find it lacks. I find it unsatisfying. It, perhaps, can sate my intellect, but I find that that’s not enough. As much as I’d sometimes like to be, I’m not merely an intellect. And as I learn to have less fealty to my intellect and more loyalty to my full humanity, I increasingly find this approach to knowledge to be somewhat sterile. Helpful, useful, yes, of course. But after this meal of the intellect, I often walk away feeling undernourished.
It is reassuring to find, then, that this is an incomplete understanding of the idea of knowledge in Christianity. St. Ephrem, a fourth century Syrian deacon and hymn writer, put forth the idea that there were three ways to attempt to know something.1 The first, the crudest, the most rudimentary, is a pursuit of knowledge that seeks to dominate the subject that is to be known. This is knowledge merely as a means to an end. There is nothing inherently wrong with coming to know something purely in service of some other goal, but it is no full depiction of Christian knowledge