Sunday, October 03, 2010

Short review of Esther Meek's book Longing to Know

In the course of my readings, I have to read this particular book by Esther Meek. Here is a short review of the book which I have posted on

In this book, Meek seeks to discuss the act of knowing. As per the subtitle of this book, Meek utilizes simple words and metaphors in an attempt to bring this topic of epistemology (the philosophy of knowing) to the ordinary person on the street. More specifically, Meek writes for a few classes of people: 1) people who wrestle with questions concerning truth and the possibility of knowledge, 2) people who had presumed someone else's answers for questions which they now have to decide for themselves, and 3) people who are considering questions about truth and how we as Christians know the truth. (Foreword, pp. 7-8). Through discussing the act of knowing, Meek seeks to show us how we can truly know something to be true in this postmodern times.

Unfortunately, when Meek's book was perused, it has been found out that Meek embraces the postmodern Michael Polanyi's epistemology and passes it off as Christian. Like Polanyi and Kuhn, Meek seeks to build a relational focused non-absolutist objective epistemology in which the locus of truth is found in relationships primarily and/or secondarily in the believing community.

As an example of such postmodern non-absolutism, Meek on page 60 states:

Truth is always somebody's truth, in the sense that a truth claim is a truth claimed, a truth that somebody claims or asserts. (p. 57)

It [the act of Knowing] is not subjectivistic; it is human,... (p. 60)

Elsewhere, Meek constantly reminds us that knowing is something which humans do, an assertion which is however vacuous. Of course humans are the ones doing the knowing, not machines! The contrast has never been between subjectivistic and human, but subjectivist and objectivist, and between non-absolutist and absolutist. Truth is either outside of us in the sense that we don't determine truth but God does (absolutist objectivist), in relationship and/or within the believing community (non-absolutist objectivist) or determined by the individual (subjectivist). By creating a false dichotomy between subjectivism and being human, Meek skews the issue towards the relational and/or communitarian focus as opposed to the theocentric focus of traditional Christianity.

Meek further confuses learning with knowing, thinking that the two events are the same. In her own words, "What the modern model of knowing refused to admit was the existence and necessity of knowing that can't be put into words." (p 65). With this, Meek criticizes modernist epistemologies for reducing knowledge to cognition, thus ignoring other aspects of learning.

In this however, Meek fails to understand what epistemology is. Epistemology does not cover how people learn things, but how people know things. We learn how to play the piano, but we don't know to play the piano. We can know the technique of playing the piano, but we don't know playing the piano per se. So while epistemology does cover skills, it covers learning of skills as techniques (which can be expressed cognitively) not as the action itself per se.

Meek subsequently denigrates deduction. In its place she extols what she calls "integration", which is "The human effort that links clues to focus and beyond" (p. 75). The problem with this of course is a basic epistemic question: Upon what basis are such clues chosen to be integrated into whatever system of knowing that Meek desires to create?

When we look at the Polanyian edifice that Meek finally creates, a most glaring problem arises. Since the system is non-absolutist objectivist, then what apologetic can be mustered for saying that others are wrong as long as these other systems fulfill the criteria of "confidence in their system as having contact with the world"? If the locus of truth is some mystical undefined relationship and/or the believing community, does this mean that outside the community, these "truths" will not apply? Do the truth values of whatever truths in this system change when the values of the believing community similarly change?

It must be said that Meek's book as a purely descriptive book on the human process of knowing and struggling to understand truths is frank and helpful. However, if one were to use it for epistemology proper, Meek's theory fails tremendously. It is not even Scriptural but based upon the theories of Michael Polanyi. Meek does not seem to understand the main issue of epistemology, which is not the process of knowing (although that is important), but also how we can know what we know to be true. The Christian answer has always been to appeal to Scripture as the final authority, not some vague mystical "relationship" or some "believing community". God is the one who determines truth, not through a mystical relational imparting or the Church. God speaks and we respond to that revelation as truth.

It is sad that this book was written from supposedly Reformed academic circles. Coming from the tradition which prioritizes the authority of God's Word over the thoughts of Man, one would have expected the final authority of Scripture to be taught and emphasized in any epistemology Meek advocated.

Instead of this book, Robert Reymond's one (Faith's Reasons for Believing) is a more excellent alternative towards a truly Christian epistemology.

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