The Epistemology of Christianity – Geoff OIliff

The Epistemology of Christianity – Geoff OIliff

Matthew 25: 14 – 30 John 10: 10 – 18

Sun 01 May

Well, here I am again. Once again I am totally aware of those that have stood in this spot in the past and delivered insight and wisdom. I am very aware of the level of scholarship with us this morning. During this study leave period, those who are putting the services together will generally not be doing so with the background of a Minister, the training, the experience. In my case, (and I can’t speak for the others), what I say is subjective….it’s what I think. It’s based on my contemplation and reflection. Speaking with some of the others I know that we are privileged to be able to stand here and share…you of course are privileged to listen! 


The first thing to tackle is the title. Epistemology of Christianity – where on earth did that come from. That is a university course, not a Sunday morning sermon replacement from a hack wannabe! A couple of months ago when we were preparing for these services, Angela was very keen to have a list of who was doing what when. In a moment of self-delusional grandeur, I threw this title at her. Trying to foot it with the big boys!

But despite the rather pompous nature of the title, I did want to share a couple of thoughts on the area, so let’s have a look…

For those of you who do not come from a background in research or philosophy epistemology is the branch of philosophy that deals with how we know what we know. It’s actually a fascinating area that has goes all the way back to Plato and Aristotle, so it’s had some fairly sharp minds consider the area! It asks questions like “what is knowledge?”, “how is knowledge acquired?” and “what do people know?”

In even raising this area, I am reminded (as I often am) that fools rush in where angels fear to tread….so let’s go

I am an engineer so I am comfortable with some knowledge: it is concrete, objective and demonstrable – the strength of a piece of steel, the speed of a car, the temperature of a room. These things are measurable, and we have a shared, agreed way of describing the attributes of strength, speed or temperature.

But much of what we know is subjective (by the way, I use the terms objective and subjective as useful descriptors – philosophers would not use them). For instance, how happy am I? How honourable? Of course these concepts are not just personally subjective (my view will differ from yours), they are culturally subjective also – what passes for honour and happiness in our society is vastly different from societies in other times or in other parts of the world.

This concept of Epistemology is a complex, deep area and I acknowledge those in the room who have knowledge and experience far beyond my own, and I ask for your indulgence…because from now on I intend to ignore it! From now on, I would like us to simply consider a spectrum from subjective to objective….and let’s work with that

You see the challenge we have is that much of our “knowledge”, these things we “know to be true” are neither objective, nor universal, yet we accept them as “truth”. Especially in the context of faith. You being here is an example of that – let me explain.

Our community (the Community of St Luke) represents a small subset of Presbyterians. We are differentiated from other press buttons through our belief (or non-belief) in certain concepts, principles and interpretations of Christianity.

We however are part of a group called Presbyterians, with whom we share some beliefs (believe some things to be “true”). Presbyterians have different beliefs from other protestant or reformed groups and the protestant movement differs from other Christian groups. Ultimately, Christians are part of a wider group of people of faith. It is like a family tree splitting and branching all the way down to us, here. And every fork, every split is based on knowledge. Who is right? Where is the objective truth? How do we know?

I read an interesting book last year. It was a brief history of the human race called “Sapiens” – (Harari) anyone read it? It’s a good read, but one fact in particular stood out, and sent me down this epistemological path: The author observed that 96% of people who profess faith, have the same faith as their parents.

While you may all take something different from that, it slammed home for me that there is no universal, objective truth about this concept called God. That despite what the writings of the different traditions say, what we claim as “knowledge” is far from reliable. That our traditions, interpretations and approaches to faith are largely subjective. They are ours, they are useful to us at this time. Of course we are part of this community because by and large we know that and are comfortable with that thought. But all over the world both east and west, people are dying because of a view of “knowledge”.

So where is the universal truth in this? It’s like peeling back an onion. As was recently pointed out to me if you peel back an onion enough you end up with …nothing at all. But for me (indication of subjectivity, so you can’t argue!), for me the underlying truth is the existence of the other – that undefined something that I acknowledged way back when I was young. This “truth” that God exists and in some way is knowable, this is deeper than the layers of “knowledge” applied on top. That is why todays gospel reading is special. The author has Jesus saying “I have other sheep, not of this fold. I must bring them also. They will listen to my voice and there will be one flock”.

I choose to interpret this as the voice of God, talking to humanity…you are all on the journey…

I explore this simply to underline that after 2000 years of scholarship, contemplation and reflection there is still a yawning gap between belief and “knowledge”, or even belief and “truth”. The very words are loaded. When impose our “truth” on others we injure the universe…

Means of Grace
This brings me to a concept that I first heard about from our minister over 30 years ago: The Means of Grace. It’s a concept that has stayed with me all that time. Of course it has been interpreted by the different faith traditions differently over the centuries, but at its cote the means of grace are the ways we as Christians receive God’s blessings, our edification and the strengthening of our faith. I interpret this as the way I can come to understand the truth about the nature of God (the numinous other) and the world in my life. This understanding, this truth is deeply subjective. I would never assume that it would apply to anyone else.

What are these means of grace? Well if you have read the larger catechism, or the shorter catechism recently, you may have a clue! While there are differences between the denominations, the means of grace I hold close, the ones Mike told me of years ago are scripture, fellowship with other believers and prayer. Despite my somewhat alternative views, I still hold these close.

These are means of grace – they are not grace itself. Grace is a big topic – maybe someone else could have a go at it another time? For me grace is the state of alignment with the concept I label “God”. Of course I have a particular understanding of “God” and that will be different to yours. However, my own journey has led me to the view that there is a way of living that is consistent with the way the universe is ordered. This is the way of radical love, the way of service, the way of others before self, the way of sacrifice. It is of course the Jesus way.

As I shared last time, if I had to describe what faith is to me, it is that feeling of being drawn to the light, of being called to a higher, better self, largely through these means of grace.

So What?
All this leaves me with one small question – and it’s a question that I urge you all to ask yourselves: So What? In fact, it’s almost a shout: So What?

For me the scholarship, the theological debates, the structures of the church, the pomp, it is all pointless…unless it changes the world.

Paul had it right when he said:

If I speak in the tongues[a] of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, [b] but do not have love, I gain nothing.

In this passage, Paul goes on to describe “love”, and what a wonderful description it is.

In my belief system, we are called to act out a love that changes the world – that’s why we are here. This is one of the means of grace – this is the fellowship of the believers, and we are to change the world.

This definition of success captures this for me:

Success is to live well, to laugh often, to love much, to gain the respect of intelligent people, to win the love of little children. To fill one’s niche and accomplish one’s task, to leave the world better than one finds it whether by an improved flower, a perfect poem or another life ennobled. to never lack appreciation of earth’s beauty or fail to express it, to always look for the best in others, to give the best one has. To make one’s life an inspiration and one’s memory a benediction. This is success.

Maybe your job is to improve a flower, or maybe you will change the world with a perfect poem. Or maybe, you will change the world by showing someone radical Christ-love…

What is it you want of me o God? To act justly, to love mercy and walk humbly with your God