Christian Knowledge and Action

You’d think Pavlov invented it, that characteristic sound of a new instant message, the "buh-ding." That’s what Jack heard in his cubicle that morning, before caffeine had cleared the fog in his head. He clicked over to his messenger application as routinely as if distraction was a part of his job description.

“You’ve got to see this. I mean, we probably shouldn’t be watching this, but it’s a live web-stream of a home break-in,” the message from Jack’s coworker read.

Jack followed the link to what appeared to be a cheap webcam security system in some poor guy’s apartment. How the guy had published his webcam feed but not followed it close enough to call the police in such circumstances was a question that Jack momentarily considered. But the entertainment value of the feed quickly won out over any hypothetical moral reasoning or pity for Mr. Webcam.

The thief was wearing a ski mask, like they always do--an image so cliche that Jack felt like he was watching prime time television and not something that was happening in the real world. But that all changed gradually, like the beginning of an avalanche is gradual. Jack began to notice things about the apartment, things that seemed important but not close, like emergency sirens in the distance. Jack noticed a lamp that he recognized and thought to himself, “That guy must have bought the same lamp as I did from Ikea.” But then the layout of the apartment looked the same too, strangely, and then the couch, the coffee table, the television, too large to be anything other than masculine posturing. It was all the same.

Buh-ding. “Isn’t this crazy? Watching this guy get ripped off.” But Jack wasn’t there to respond to his coworker’s instant message, he with phone in hand, three digits dialed, running out of work, trying to remember if he had purchased the theft protection ryder on his renter’s insurance.

Knowledge and Action

What made Jack take the webcam feed seriously? It wasn’t his moral compass, troubled enough to know that he was watching a crime in progress, but not strong enough to do anything about it. It wasn’t the truthfulness of what was going on. He knew it was a real-life break-in. The difference was immanence. In an instant Jack became convinced that what was abstract moral truth had now become truth which had direct bearing on his own life--a bearing that caused several reflexive actions to occur all at once: "call the police," "leave work," "speed home," "catch a crook."

There are two misconceptions about knowledge and action, the first is that raw knowledge produces action while the second misconception focuses on applicability of truth to the exclusion of knowledge.

Raw Knowledge

Some people pursue personal, spiritual growth through fact acquisition, amassing large--even encyclopedic--amounts of knowledge, storing it in their functioning but dis-shelved mental filing system. The thought here is that adequate preparation will prompt decisive action as if large munitions could make up for the lack of a battle plan. But these folks find their process to be altogether inadequate, sooner or later. The try-fail-study-repeat process eventually wears a Christian down no matter how stubborn or diligent he is.

Truth and Application

Other folks look to an apt application of truth as a blasting cap for knowledge, needed to set it off, leaving knowledge inert without personal and poignant direction for follow-up. These folks are easy to spot in sermons, bored during the exegetical work, while raptly attentive, pen in hand, during the closing “application” portion of the preaching. To deleterious ends, these folks at times are even found spurning robust truth claims for the sake of more “applicable teaching,” opting for Chicken-Soup-For-Your-Soul versions of Christian heterodoxy.

God, Truth, and Immanence

Having handled two misconceptions we return to our original thesis that what makes truth actionable is immanence, meaning that the action we take based on a truth claim is directly proportional to how much bearing we believe that truth to have on our life. But we have to make a few more crucial steps. Biblically, truth doesn’t exist as a separate entity, unmoored and drifting, waiting to be discovered by happenstance. All truth is God’s truth (Psalm 19:7; 2 Tim 3:16). Truth and the reality it describes is God’s declaration of who he is and the world he created. God reveals that truth in the Bible culminating in Jesus, the Truth incarnate (John 14:6). Truth is specific, personal, targeted, and entirely about God. And God is immanent, actively governing the world (Psalm 115:3) and the one before whom all men must eventually be accountable (Rom 14:12; Heb 4:13).

The immanence of God and the veracity of the Bible solve our knowledge and action problem. The trick isn’t to amass knowledge or to search out a tailored application of the text. Instead, it is to realize that we stand coram deo, before God’s face. We don’t have the luxury of sitting in our cubicle deciding if the web-stream pertains to us or not. The web-stream is always about us. All truth is God’s truth in it declarative claims along with it’s explicit and implicit demands.

Believe and Do

Where does that leave us? The Westminster Assembly crafted its confession and catechisms around a summary of the what the Bible taught. They summarized that teaching under two heads: what man is to believe concerning God and what duty God requires of man (Westminster Shorter Catechism Q. 3). Belief and duty are concordant and symphonic in God’s economy. Neither is a tack-on. We must guard against a strictly data mining the text. But we must also guard against closing our ears to a text unless we feel like it pertains to us. God exists, is near, and has spoken.


Are you still in your cubicle?

Joe Holland