COVID-19 and a Christian Epistemology of the Heart, Part 2
by Brandon Rickabaugh | Plus, An Excerpt from "The Bedrock of Christianity" by Justin Bass
COVID-19 and a Christian Epistemology of the Heart, Part 2
by Brandon Rickabaugh
*Editor’s note: Read part one here.
Worry & Fear
Emotions ever present to so many in the throes of the global pandemic include worry, fear, and hopelessness. A main contributor to worry, fear, and hopelessness is what I will call might-predictions. Might-predictions are epistemic judgements about what might happen in the near or distant future. A significant motivation for some might-predictions, especially those that produce unwarranted worry, fear, and hopelessness, is epistemic pride. In epistemic pride, one has the disposition of their heart to refuse to accept life’s uncertainties and ambiguities. One source of this epistemic pride, but certainly not the only, has to do with two things: (i) a false conception of the nature of knowledge and evidence, and (ii) a false conception of the nature the emotions.
Before moving on, I must stress an extremely important point. Some causes of anxiety, fear, and hopelessness are neuro-biological. Some suffer from certain mental health conditions that require treatment by medical experts. I am not speaking to those instances of anxiety, fear, and hopelessness, although there are clinical studies showing that what I am about to explore is of some help to these individuals. A failure to recognize this will likely involve epistemic pride, where we refuse to recognize that we are not mental health experts.
One reason we struggle with anxiety, fear, and hopelessness arises from the confusion that knowledge requires certainty. When someone has knowledge they have a belief that is true as well as justification–reasons or evidence—for holding their belief to be true. Knowledge is, therefore, a matter of evidence. When someone has epistemic certainty, they hold a belief that is both true and impossible for them to be wrong about. That is, their belief has a zero probability of being false. When someone has psychological certainty, they hold a belief with a feeling of great confidence about their belief being true.
Notice a few things. First, one can have psychological certainty without epistemic certainty. That is, one can feel that they can’t be wrong in their belief although it is possible or even very probable that their belief is false. The lesson: the emotional state of certainty is often not a good indication that your belief is true or even likely to be true. Much of anxiety, fear, and hopelessness results from a failure to recognize this point.
Second, one can have knowledge, and in most cases does have knowledge, without having psychological or epistemic certainty. Knowledge involves holding a belief based on enough evidence that the belief is more likely to be true than false. So, knowledge or the justification required for knowledge comes in degrees. Our evidence might mean that the probability of my belief being true is 65% or 90%. Lesson: I can be confident in holding a belief without having certainty about that belief. Many of my students are worried they picked the wrong major, because it is possible that they are wrong about their choice. Notice the false inference: because I could be wrong about p, I am in danger of being wrong about p. But that doesn’t follow. I could be wrong about there being a bush outside my window right now. But that doesn’t mean that I should be worried that my belief is false. That it is possible that p is false does not entail that I have good enough evidence to be worried that p is false. In this sense, the antidote to intellectual arrogance or pride is not ignorance, but more knowledge: knowledge of the limitations and power of our capacity for knowledge.
Here are two applications. First, we must exercise epistemic humility and we must help our friends do so as well. We are in a situation of conflicting opinions among experts about the nature of COVID-19, its likely impact and spread, and the future state of the economy. For those of us who are not experts in these fields we should recognize that we do not have access to all the relevant evidence, and even if we did, we do not have the expertise to evaluate the evidence with much confidence. That is, we are not in a position to motivate our fear by the data we come across. This doesn’t mean we don’t act on the evidence we have. This means that we are honest with ourselves and others about our degree of confidence in our assessing the evidence we have. This should undercut some of our anxiety, fear, and hopelessness.
Second, we should take stock of what we do know. We know that Jesus is Lord. We know that our ultimate flourishing cannot be stolen from us. COVID-19 cannot block or defeat the love of God or the capacity to be permeated by the love of the Divine Trinity right now where we are. We should take stock of our evidence for these truths. Faith-confidence in God does not grow by direct effort, but by indirect effort empowered by the Holy Spirit. We take stock of our evidence, of what we know about God and the trustworthiness of God. Doing so will bolster our confidence that we are ultimately safe in Christ. In the next section I will make an extended application of this.
Faith, Hope, and Love
We know that God loves us. Our evidence tells us this. So, where is the blessing in this epistemology of the heart I’ve sketched? And in particular, where is this blessing during our global pandemic? Ignatius of Loyola summarizes at least one powerful blessing quite wonderfully.
God wishes to give us a true knowledge and understanding of ourselves, so that we may have an intimate perception of the fact that it is not within our power to acquire and attain great devotion, intense love, tears, or any other spiritual consolation; but that all this is the gift and grace of God our Lord.
This is not knowledge at a distance from our emotions. It is not what philosophers call propositional knowledge: knowledge of facts about real world objects and persons. Rather, this is what philosophers call knowledge by acquaintance or interpersonal knowledge. As such, this “intimate perception” provides transformative knowledge which comes from experience. This includes the evidence provided by our emotions and our humble evaluation of them in the light of reality.
By the empowering grace of God, we experience the stirring in our heart, our anger, our fear. We own this. We sit with God in this. We do not cover it up with quick promises to never act in anger or fear again. Instead, we come intimately face to face with our confidence and lack of confidence in the Lord. Experiencing this dimension of our inner life is priceless. It will allow us to cry out to the Lord, “I believe; help my unbelief” (Matt 9:24).
The gift in quarantine could very well be the “intimate perception” that we do not possess the power to become like Christ by effort alone. We cannot turn our fear into faith, our anger into love, our discouragement into hope by any means but divine grace. We cannot blame others for our anger, for our irritability. It comes from within. And that is where the Holy Spirit will work. The stirring in our heart is an invitation from God to see our weaknesses, to gain strong evidence of our spiritual frailty, so we can grow in greater dependence on Christ. In this we grow in Christlikeness. This is a profound good; a life-giving result of God working for those who love Him. An incommensurate good produced, in part, by knowledge of self and of God. A life growing in faith, hope, and love in the throes of a global pandemic.
 See, e.g., M. Dugas and M. Robichaud, Cognitive-Behavioral Treatment for Generalized Anxiety Disorder: From Science to Practice (New York, NY: Routledge, 2007).
 St. Ignatius, The Spiritual Exercises, Rules for the Discernment of Spirits, sec. 322.
 For a detailed study of knowledge by acquaintance and its impact on Christian discipleship, see Brandon Rickabaugh, “Eternal Life as Knowledge of God: An Epistemology of Knowledge by Acquaintance and Spiritual Formation,” Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care 6 (2) (2013): 204-228. Available online: https://www.brandonrickabaugh.com/knowledge-by-acquaintance-god
— Brandon Rickabaugh is the Franz Brentano Fellow in the Metaphysics of Mind at the Cultura Initiative, and a doctoral candidate in the Department of Philosophy at Baylor University. Learn more about Brandon and his work at brandonrickabaugh.com.
Quotable—The Pre-Pauline Creed of 1 Corinthians 15:3-7
from The Bedrock of Christianity by Justin Bass
It is a bedrock fact that [Paul and Peter] met, but exactly what they discussed and where they went is left to the historical imagination.
While we don’t know exactly what they said to each other, there is one significant clue as to the content of their talks. Paul says, “I went to Jerusalem to obtain information from Peter” (Gal 1:18 GNB). This phrase “to obtain information from” is one word in the original Greek (historeō). It is where we get the English word “history.” It is found nowhere else in the New Testament. What historical information would Paul want to learn from Peter?
As C. H. Dodd mentions above, they surely did not spend all their time talking about the athletic games or the weather! It is unimaginable that the primary content of their conversations did not involve the historical man Jesus. In his commentary on Galatians, J. Louis Martyn says, “It is, of course, inconceivable that during the visit Cephas was silent about Jesus the Christ, about God’s having raised him from the dead (cf. 1 Cor 15:5), and about the work among his fellow Jews to which God had called him.”
It is important to point out that Paul did not learn the gospel from Peter. As Paul forcefully argues in Galatians 1:11–12, he learned the gospel directly through a “revelation of Jesus Christ,” which occurred during his conversion about three years earlier.
On the other hand, Paul did learn many historical facts and traditions about Jesus from Peter and others who knew the historical Jesus. This awareness of Jesus’ life, exemplary character, and teachings is reflected all throughout his letters (see 1 Cor 7:10; 9:5, 14; 11:1, 2, 23–26; 15:3–7; 2 Cor 8:9; 10:1; Gal 1:19; 4:4; Rom 14:14; 15:3, 8; Phil 2:5; see also 2 Thess 2:15; 1 Tim 6:13). From Galatians alone, we know that on the same visit when he spent fifteen days with Peter, Paul spent some time with James, Jesus’ brother (Gal 1:19). During his second visit to Jerusalem (AD 46–47), Paul met John, the son of Zebedee and possibly others of the Twelve (Gal 2:9–10; 1 Cor 15:5). There the proposed authors of twenty-one of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament were together deciding the future of the church of Jesus Christ! Those same hands that once embraced the historical Jesus were now embracing Paul.
It is very likely that this was the meeting where Paul received the creedal tradition(s) he cites in 1 Corinthians 15:3–7, among other traditions and hymns concerning the historical Jesus. “Creedal tradition” is a phrase that means this section is, first, pre-Pauline tradition, and second, was composed in the form of a creed (whether oral or written). Scholars are unanimous that this creedal tradition originated at the latest within a decade of Jesus’ death and at the earliest “months” after Jesus’ death.
This is why we begin with this bedrock meeting between Peter and Paul. New Testament scholar F. F. Bruce says, “One piece of information which he most probably received during his visit was that Jesus, having been raised from the dead on the third day, ‘appeared to Cephas’ (1 Cor. 15:5).… It may also have been from Cephas that Paul learned how, after his appearance to Cephas, Jesus appeared ‘then to the twelve, then … to more than five hundred brethren at one time.’ ” As evidenced throughout his letters, Paul learned many historical facts and traditions about Jesus from Peter, James, and others who knew the historical Jesus. Yet the creedal tradition in 1 Corinthians 15:3–7 is the most valuable of them all; indeed, as A. M. Hunter puts it, “it is our pearl of great price.” [Bart] Ehrman writes that if this tradition goes back to “before the time when Paul himself joined the movement around the year 33 CE, some three years after Jesus had died … it would be very ancient indeed! This passage almost certainly contains a pre-Pauline confession, or creed, of some kind.”
—Justin Bass, The Bedrock of Christianity: The Unalterable Facts of Jesus' Death and Resurrection (Lexham Press, 2020), 19-22.
One of the unique aspects of the Christian faith is how strongly it’s tied to people and events in history. While a number of religions are based primarily on a philosophy, Christianity depends entirely on the historical reality of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. As the apostle Paul wrote, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (1 Corinthians 15:14). In The Bedrock of Christianity: The Unalterable Facts of Jesus' Death and Resurrection, author Justin Bass demonstrates a historical scholarly consensus concerning the death, resurrection, and post-resurrection appearances of Jesus, as well as the rise of the Christian movement. Citing scholars across the ideological spectrum, Bass shows that these key events are acknowledged as historically sound, and that the best explanation of them is that Jesus rose from the dead.
“Very highly recommended.”
— Gary R. Habermas, Distinguished Research Professor & Chair, Philosophy Department, Liberty University
“Justin Bass takes us down to the core historical facts which have to be explained, surveys the best historical scholarship on each, and shows why ultimately they point towards a risen Lord.”
— Andrew Wilson, Teaching Pastor, King’s Church London; author of If God, Then What
Find The Bedrock of Christianity at Amazon, Lexham Press, and other major booksellers.
* This is a sponsored post.
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