Friday, August 19, 2016

Teach me your ways

Ps 25:4 reads as follows:
Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths.
What is significant in these words is the passive attitude towards knowledge assumed by the psalmist. He must be made to know by God; the right way has to be taught to him, rather than discovered by him through his own strength. We might see here traces of that medieval epistemologies of illumination, which required divine illumination as a precondition of knowledge. There is something to this way of thinking, I reckon. Oftentimes we experience a sudden awareness or "illumination" with respect to something; it just "dawns on us" that something is true, and we find ourselves utterly passive in this whole experience. Something just "clicks." This may serve as a phenomenological corroboration of the illuminationist epistemological proposal.

It is important to note the moral quality of our psalmist, as well. He suffers no illusions about his own sinfulness: For your name's sake, O LORD, pardon my guilt, for it is great (v. 11). Therefore this appeal for divine illumination and understanding is coming from someone who is already a sinner and knows it. In light of this, what exactly is he asking?

I think there are different ways in which a person can "know" something. There is a kind of "knowledge" which is really just intellectual awareness of a proposition and various reasons in favor of it, but an awareness unaccompanied by any personal commitment to that proposition or any "sense" or "feel" that it is really true. This is what I think happens when people "knowingly" do what is wrong. They know various reasons why a certain thing might be wrong, but they do not feel deeply in their hearts that it is wrong; their convictions are otherwise. But there is also a kind of knowledge, more properly so-called, which carries with it a deep sense and conviction that this is true. This is a knowledge that grips you; this is a knowledge to which you feel impelled to commit yourself, from which you cannot turn away with indifference. This kind of knowledge is the sort that leads you to action, and which can reform your life.

I think this is what the psalmist is asking for. He doesn't just want to be told that murder is wrong; everyone knows that. He doesn't need to be taught that. Rather, he wants to be gripped by that sense and that vision of the world according to which God's laws are the proper way for a human life to be lived. He wants to see things clearly just as God sees them, and to be impelled by this clear vision to live in keeping with the Law. He wants really to know the ways of the Lord.

That is why his guilt is so great: because he did not see things aright, and out of his ignorance towards the truth, he lived in sin. And recognizing his own tendencies and inability in this respect, he pleads with God to illumine his mind and to fix the eyesight of his intellect. And that is what we ought to pray, as well, if we find ourselves utterly unmotivated and even ill-disposed to do what God requires of us. If loving our neighbors and our enemies seems too much for us, if we can't even sympathize with the sentiment expressed in the commands, then we ought to pray that God make his ways known to us.

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