Reading the Bible . . . and longing to know
Reading the Bible . . . and longing to know

Reading the Bible . . . and longing to know

The Bible is a doorway to a Person, an invitation waiting to be sent. When we read it obediently and expectantly, and when we climb into the words of God and long to know Him . . . He comes to us, in gracious and surprising self-disclosure.

June 1 st 2006
Appears in Summer 2006

I am an epistemologist, which means that I think a lot about how people know what they know. In my book Longing to Know: The Philosophy of Knowledge for Ordinary People (2003) I developed my proposals in this area. I defined knowing as the profoundly human struggle to rely on clues to focus on a pattern, to which we submit as a token of reality. People familiar with the work of Michael Polanyi will recognize this proposal as his. Polanyi's unique contribution to epistemology consists in identifying the from-to structure of all knowing: the knower relies on clues to focus on a pattern. (See Polanyi's Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy, 1958.) In any act of knowing, the knower is subsidiarily aware of the clues while he/she focuses on or attends to the pattern. For a particular act of knowing, what we rely on or attend from or are subsidiarily aware of is knowledge that cannot in that act be fully specified or put into words. It's more like we live in the clues, embody or indwell them. We can be intentional in our attending from them, but we do not attend to them. If we do switch back to focusing on them, it becomes a different act of knowing we are involved in, and the former one evaporates.

All this is far more easily understood in an example. Let's talk about driving a car. You come out from work, and snow has been falling steadily for two hours. The roads are slick, but you must mount a daunting hill on your way home. If you are an experienced snow driver, you know what it feels like when your wheels are grabbing traction under you, and you know what it feels like when they aren't. Your ascent up the hill consists of a judicious balancing of gas, gears, steering, and your ongoing sensing the impact of all of these, all activities that you integrate into a single performance as you negotiate the hill. Your eyes may be riveted on your destination, or on the car in front of you. But you are indwelling the subsidiaries with intentionality. Your performance relies on clues while focusing on a pattern. The pattern need not be fully realized. It may simply be a hope—the prospect of the top of the hill and home and dinner beyond.

Another example is reading. Here you are, thinking heady epistemological thoughts, as you so indwell the marks here on the page before you that you barely notice them. Yet, if I were to come along and snap your book or laptop shut, the whole enterprise would be aborted. As it is, I hope you are thinking with me, and thinking of driving and of reading, and perhaps enjoying the way I use words and sentences, or noting word usages of mine somewhat new to you ("Subsidiary? What is she meaning by subsidiary?") and so on. You are relying on the clues (the marks on the page) to focus on a pattern (what I am saying about knowing). You indwell the one in attending to the other. Always.

The effort, what I have called a profoundly human struggle, and what Polanyi has termed, integration, is highly creative and synthetic. But once we gain the pattern, we submit to it as a token of reality—Polanyi's words. Like my daughter, Stephanie, announced to me from her car seat in the back of the car, at an age young enough to be so restrained—"When you can read that the Stop sign says Stop, you can't not read it!" Reality just seems to move in and take over. Older drivers know that actually what we do as we navigate city streets hardly can be called reading Stop signs. Instead, the octagonal red looms up and invades our persons, and restrains our forward progress. It's more like it reads us than we read it.

Thus, the subsidiary-focal integrative structure of human knowing that embeds us in, and unlocks to us, a world to which we submit. I have, since the writing of Longing to Know, come to be intrigued by a couple additional features of the knowing event. In a book currently in progress, Inviting the Real, I mean to argue that the act of knowing is best understood as interpersonal and covenantal. Go back with me to the slippery slope (—!). To get up that hill, you must bind yourself to work from your automobile's capacities to address the situation at hand. Disrespect looks like, in this example, giving the car more or less gas than the hill and the snow will reward, or forgetting you have rear-wheel drive, or some such thing. The driver behaves covenantally. The driver behaves covenantally in order to elicit response from the reality being addressed. Yes, one may fight with the car and the hill, powering one's way in a kind of override of the natural forces. Sometimes. One may also end up with a distressed car. Or one may also "nurse" the ascent through expert skill and experience and patience and respect for craft and elements. Or one may simply give up, park one's car at the bottom of the hill, and trudge home on foot.

What I want to suggest is that reality has a mind of its own; in this way it responds (or not) like a person to us. We should not demand response—or if we do, what we get is less the real thing and more a caricature—so much as invite it. And inviting it calls for covenantal respect of the sort that it takes to get to know a person. To take the words of the first book's title, we long to know—in order to know, we have to long. We have to comport ourselves, bind ourselves covenantally, waiting humbly, patiently, expectantly, respectfully, for what at the end of the day can only be described as reality's gracious and surprising self-disclosure.

All knowing is interpersonal

As a Christian, justifying my Christian belief to myself, I have wanted to show that the act of knowing God is like other acts of knowing, like knowing your auto mechanic. I wanted to torpedo the notion that Christians behave totally irresponsibly and irrationally and privately with respect to their belief—imagine!—reading and trusting an unscientific book, and calling it authoritative! No, knowing God is an ordinary act of knowing, like knowing your auto mechanic—so says Longing to Know. But now Inviting the Real says all knowing is covenantal and interpersonal, and you will be better at all your knowing if you deem it so. In effect it argues that knowing your auto-mechanic is like knowing God. I mean for the biblical covenant relationship to be paradigmatic.

You now are acquainted with the general thrust of my epistemic proposals, in light of which I want to talk to you about reading the Bible. The all-important thing to remember and navigate in light of is that we're talking about knowing a person, not about reading a book (per se).

It's kind of like an internet relationship. I have a few internet friendships, meaning, just about all our connecting happens in words. One such friend I haven't even ever met; he is another philosophy professor. When all you have of a person is the person's words, you work to get inside the words, climb into them, so you can get to know from the inside out who the person is behind the words. If you were, say, in love with that person—say that your beau is stationed far away from home—you might read and reread and cherish the letters. You might have them memorized! You might say that you reverence the letters. But you reverence them on account of the person whose words they are. Suppose you fixated on the words and forgot the person. That would be tragically wrongheaded.

So you climb into the words to know the person. You focus on and attend to the person while relying on, indwelling subsidiarily, the words. This shows us how we go about reading the Bible. We do our best to climb into the words to get inside the person whose words they are. You want to indwell the words.

The doorway of obedience

This involves indwelling the words not only as God's words but also as the words of a person in a certain situation (the text's writer, or the main person in the story). Let's take, for example, a verse I was indwelling this morning: "You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies." (Psalm 23, ESV) I have often climbed into this verse. I think about how it fits with the rest of the picture of what shepherds do for sheep. I can see wolves held at bay by shepherd's presence and music and firelight, so that sheep can simply guzzle grass and water and sleep. I love how it is so subversive! There's something vengefully delicious about this signature move of God's, to dangle this extravagant feast of his evident preference in front of his and my enemies! What was new this morning happened during my church's celebration of the Lord's Supper: while the elements were being passed (as we say) our blind pianist was weaving together two musical settings of Psalm 23. And it hit me square in the face: Jesus' table is THE consummate feast in the presence of my enemies! He is the one who prepares this table for me, and it spells their doom. What is more, the feast is HIM—bad grammar, I'm sure—the Shepherd gives his life for the sheep, and he tells me to eat his flesh and drink his blood, and so join with him in his death and his triumph. In the moment of my insight, Jesus himself marched out of—where?—and invaded me, and I was captivated in worship.

I hope you see the indwelling, the climbing-into-the-words, of this example. Reading the Bible is subsidiary; connecting with the Person is focal. Indwelling also involves obedience. Suppose your beau at the front writes that he is desperate for some books, some pipe tobacco, and some bug spray. Indwelling the words to know the person involves carrying out his request. Obedience is intentionally indwelling the subsidiaries to know the person. In fact, it often is that living out somebody's words brings you to know a person better—as Jesus said in John 7:17: "If anyone's will is to do God's will, he will know whether the teaching is from God . . ." This shows the covenantal dimension of knowing. Sometimes we have to choose to trust someone in the absence of full understanding, and do what that person says, as far as we understand it, if we are ever going to come to deeper insight. Knowing God isn't the only knowing that requires this; understanding the calculus professor does too! Obedience is an indwelling that invites the real.

So obedience is subsidiary action to the end of a focal relationship with God. What would it be like if we fixated on the obedience, focused on what should be a subsidiary indwelling? Guess what, guys—that's what we call legalism. The difference between obedience and legalism is whether the action is subsidiary to knowing God, or focal. To get it right, you have to keep obedience, like Bible-reading, as the thing you attend from, not the thing you attend to. It's important, very important, to read and to obey, not in themselves, but as doorways into the world of the Loved One.

By all means—memorize Scripture, meditate on it, love it—because you love and long for Him.

Reading like an actor, reading with expectation

When we long to know a person better, we attend to his or her ways, so that we can come to identify patterns—signature moves, I call them. What are distinctive, reliable, delightful ways that that person has of operating? Feasts in the presence of my enemies is one such signature move. My theologian friend, Mike Williams, argues in Far As the Curse is Found: The Covenant Story of Redemption (2005) that this approach of identifying patterns is how we should understand how the Old Testament promises Christ. God sets the pattern of redemption, with Noah, and then with the Exodus, so that when Jesus comes, we will recognize God's ways. Study God's ways as the relationship unfolds, not so you can predict the future, but so that you will recognize God when he shows up. Expect to be surprised, but also expect, if you have attended to him in love, to recognize him. The Bible is the unfolding drama of the covenant relationship between God and his people. When you read it, you attend carefully so that you get to know God, so that you will know his signature moves, so that you will experience them in your own life.

Christians have sometimes been tempted to think a bit too magically about the Bible and its application to their lives. They can lift a verse out of context, or apply it with more than its intended specificity to a personal decision. They can underdo scholarship and sensible attentiveness and overdo a false spirituality. But this is to be unfaithful to the very awesome yet not magic relationship that we are to have with the living God! It actually treats him as less of a person and more of a Las Vegas slot machine. Would you treat your spouse's words that way?! Do you reverence the person? Then treat the words sanely. Listen through them, not for some secret esoteric meaning, but just for plain old wonderful signature moves.

There is perhaps one most fundamental signature move of God's. This brings me back to what I said in the beginning about reality's gracious and surprising disclosure. The signature move of God is just this: he comes. Mike Williams would say you must always be clear that the Christian religion is not about ascending to God; it is about the descent of God. The motion of Scripture is not up, but down. Just this morning I was reading Psalm 24, a psalm I haven't particularly liked since it was read so unimaginatively as school openings when I was a child, before the onset of Madalyn Murray O'Hair. But there it was, jumping out at me: "Lift up your heads, O gates! And be lifted up, O ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in." —! He comes! God comes to his people to be with them. He is Emmanuel, God with us . . . "Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man" (Revelation 21).

We can think that our Bible reading is about a personal discipline; it can take a lot of personal effort and determination just to make time to open the book! And then we can sit and fight to read it, and treat it much like the regimen of brushing our teeth. Nor do I wish to downplay such regimens! There's much to be said for them. They are a living out a truth that we don't always feel or see, but which we feel committed to. They are ways of showing a personal reality how we long for its (his!) gracious self-disclosure. Again—what if your beau were at the front, and you longed so for his return that you set a light in the window every evening, even when you felt tempted not to make the effort when night after night had brought no such reward? We are called to live out our longings for the real, and in doing so invite its self-disclosure.

But sometimes we forget in the regimen of Bible reading that it's actually not about the regimen but about the Coming One! Somebody said that there are not two but three Advents—Christmas, the Second Coming, and third, every time you open the Bible! Every time you open the Bible Jesus comes! What we do, sadly, is miss the chance to invite him, because we don't expect him. "Draw near to God and he will draw near to you"—the Bible actually says this! It is gracious, surprising but recognizable, self-disclosure.

The needed shift in outlook and practice may not actually look particularly spiritual or difficult. This is certainly true in my case. Over the last year and a half in my new job I have been privileged to get to know Bob Frazier, my colleague in philosophy, and my dear friend. Once in this time I said something to him about having my quiet times. He said—"Why don't you have 'noisy' times?" He meant that the psalms were for reading out loud. I have followed his counsel (blindly, at first). What I have found is that as I speak the psalms to God, I indwell them much as an actor taking on a role and becoming the character. I am indwelling the words in a way that this hitherto cerebral, disembodied, very Protestant little girl never knew how to when she was just sitting with the Bible on her lap and studying it! And guess what? God shows up!!! I read Psalm 131 and I crawl up into his lap. Or the indwelling of Psalm 23 issues surprisingly in a communion-table disclosure.

Job spends thirty-some chapters begging God to show up, asking questions that he wanted answered, and summoning him to plead his case. Then God shows up. The tables are turned. God answers not one question but fires his own, silencing Job in the overwhelming but very sweet terror of His presence. You shouldn't expect it to be a packageable, God-answered-all-my-questions, polite sort of a thing. He's not God for nothing. And those are his words you are reading. You are definitely asking for trouble. For when you indwell the Bible, you are inviting the Real.

Topics: Religion
Esther Meek
Esther Meek

Esther L. Meek is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Geneva College. This year she received the College's Excellence in Scholarship award. Her 2003 Longing to Know: The Philosophy of Knowledge for Ordinary People (Brazos) is a book for people considering Christianity who have questions about how we know anything at all. Her 2011 Loving to Know: Introducing Covenant Epistemology (Cascade) proposes the interpersonal covenantal relationship as the paradigm for all human knowing. She has authored several articles and also gives talks, on subjects ranging from professional to popular, philosophy to Christian life. She serves on the board of the Polanyi Society. Visit her website,


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