Home » Sermons » Old Testament » Hosea » A Little Note on Two Kinds of Knowing: Scientific and Personal


A Little Note on Two Kinds of Knowing: Scientific and Personal


Hosea 4:1-6

I: — Although I’m not trained as a scientist I have never belittled science, and never belittled it for several reasons. One reason is that God mandates science. God commands us to subdue the earth, to have dominion over every creature (every creature, that is, except our fellow-humans.)

Another reason I don’t belittle science is that I relish intellectual enquiry. Intellectual enquiry, we should note, is one aspect of loving God with our minds.

Another reason is that I, along with everyone one else, have profited immensely from science. When I was still a teenager my grandfather used to say to me, “Victor, never let people tell you about ‘the good old days.’ They weren’t good.” We all know what he meant. Can you imagine what it would be like not to be able to have an inflamed appendix removed or a broken leg set? water not rendered fit for drinking? helplessness in the face of childhood disease? Yes, I’m aware that in a fallen world there is no scientific development that can’t be bent to the service of evil. The kitchen knife (unquestionably a product of technology) can be used murderously as readily as atomic power. But the fact that evil can co-opt any scientific development doesn’t of itself invalidate the legitimacy and glory of scientific investigation.

At the same time, we must recognize that while scientific investigation admits us to one aspect of the creation, it doesn’t admit us to all aspects; while it blesses us as only it can, it isn’t the only blessing wherewith we are blessed; while scientific investigation yields knowledge, the knowledge it yields isn’t the only kind of knowing. Furthermore, not only is scientific knowing not the only kind of knowing within the creation, the kind of knowing it is has nothing to do with knowing him who transcends the creation and is himself most profoundly what the non-human creation isn’t; namely, person.

Today we are going to probe both kinds of knowing, the kind that is peculiar to science and the kind that is peculiar to persons; and we are going to probe pre-eminently the knowing that is peculiar to the Person, the living God himself.


II(i): — Let’s start with scientific knowing. Knowing here arises as a subject investigates an object; the subject apprehends a thing; someone who is higher in the order of being investigates something that is lower in the order of being. Think of the scientific research into the properties and uses of the peanut. I assume that no one here today questions the assertion that human beings are higher in the order of being than peanuts.

(ii) Scientific knowing is acquired for the sake of using the object, controlling the object, manipulating the object; ultimately, mastering the object. Scientific investigation of the peanut is undertaken in order to learn all the properties of the peanut and thereby use the peanut as widely as possible: peanut butter, cooking oil, face-cream, suntan lotion, animal-feed, and so on.

(iii) In sum, the knowing peculiar to science presupposes objectivity, detachment; the scientific investigator stands over against the object, contemplates it from a distance, and manipulates it for the sake of using it.


II(i): — The knowing that is peculiar to persons is very different. In the first place, in knowing another person we don’t keep that person at a distance; we don’t maintain a resolute detachment, objectivity. Instead, knowledge of another person arises only through intimacy with that person.

(ii) Again, personal knowing is never gained for the sake of using another person. To use another person is first to “thingify” that person, reduce her to an object, and therefore not to know her as person at all. To use another human being is to manipulate, and we all recognize this as evil. As for mastering another human being; this amounts to a form of enslavement and is to be repudiated with horror.

(iii) What’s most important, to know a person isn’t to investigate that person and acquire information about her. Investigating someone and acquiring information about her “thingifies” her, rendering her a non-person. Most profoundly, to know a person is to be changed oneself by that person. In other words, to know someone else is to be changed oneself.

In 1923 the German Jewish thinker, Martin Buber, published his small book, I and Thou. (A book, I might add, that is surprisingly difficult, despite its easy-sounding title.) In his book Buber made the point that what we know of a person is the difference that person has made to our life. To know my wife isn’t to acquire information about her (she’s five feet tall, speaks French, and plays the piano); for me to know my wife is to have been altered myself through meeting her. If Maureen and I have lived together for 34 years and haven’t affected each other so as to make the profoundest difference within each other, then we simply don’t know each other, regardless of how much detailed information we have acquired about each other. Remember, to know a person is to be profoundly altered by that person. What I know of a person is the difference that person has made to me in the course of our meeting each other.

Now don’t go home complaining that what I’ve just said can be understood only by those with philosophical training. Although Buber gained a reputation as a philosopher, in fact he was a biblical thinker first and foremost. Buber grasped the logic of scripture as few others have. In other words, what Buber put forward he didn’t invent: it stands writ large on every page of scripture. If it’s writ large everywhere in scripture, why do we have such difficulty grasping it? We find it difficult just because we have never been schooled in the logic of scripture. Ever since the 18th century Enlightenment the western world has assumed that scientific knowing is the only kind of knowing there is. But it isn’t the only kind; and while it’s unquestionably an important kind, it’s not the most important kind. Knowing persons is far more important than knowing things, and knowing, the Person, God, is most important of all.

Remember, to know an object scientifically is to investigate that object and acquire information about it. To know a person, however, is to be affected by that person, altered profoundly, changed by that person, made different forever.

When scripture speaks of “knowing God’s mercy” it doesn’t mean that we have information about an aspect of God’s character. To know God’s mercy, rather, is to have intimate acquaintance with God’s mercy and to have been profoundly affected by God’s mercy, changed, made forever different.


IV(i): — Needless to say, it’s difficult for people like us who are far more exposed to scientific knowing than we are to personal knowing to grasp this point. How difficult it is is reflected again and again in our everyday conversation. For instance:

– Do you know Jane Smith?

– Yes, I know Jane; I know her well; I know what makes her “tick.”

– You do? Tell me what makes her “tick.”

– She listens to Beethoven by the hour. Beethoven does something for her. But she can’t stand    Mahler. Mahler leaves her depressed. Also, she’s a vegetarian; she won’t eat meat because she   thinks that eating meat is tantamount to cannibalism. She likes expensive clothes and wears them            well. That’s understandable, however, since she’s been divorced twice and is looking for a man.

– I see. You know Jane Smith really well, don’t you.

No! A thousand times no! The speaker doesn’t know Jane Smith well; in fact the speaker doesn’t know Jane Smith at all. The speaker has 101 bits of information about Jane Smith. The speaker assumes that as more and more information about Jane Smith is acquired, Jane Smith herself is better and better known. But the person of Jane Smith isn’t known in this way. In fact, so far from being known, Jane Smith hasn’t even been met. The only person who knows Jane Smith is the person whose encounter with her has left that person different himself.

Let’s suppose that one day such a fellow does meet her, even falls in love with her. Little by little he comes to see how she has changed his life. He knows her now, profoundly knows her. One day a friend says, “What kind of clothes does Jane wear?” “Clothes?”, the fellow says, “clothes? I’ve never noticed. But you can’t imagine what she’s done for me!”

(ii) A minute ago I said that we have enormous difficulty grasping what it is to know a person. We have similar difficulty grasping how we come to know a person. Everyone knows how we come to gain scientific knowledge of an object: we act on the object, dominate it, master it. To come to know persons, however, is entirely different: we come to know a person by exposing ourselves to her, by exposing ourselves to her defencelessly. Domination of an object yields scientific knowledge of that object. Vulnerability before a person, on the other hand, defenceless self-exposure, yields personal knowledge of that person. Our vulnerability, defencelessness, before a person finds that person altering us; insofar as we are altered in the course of our encounter with her, we know her. The difference my wife has made within me in the course of meeting her; this is my knowledge of her.

Everyone here today will agree that God knows us. In fact God knows us better than anyone else knows us. But why does God know us? How? Does God know us better than we know him in that he’s a better scientific investigator of us than we are of him? No. God knows us person-to-person; which is to say, God can know us only by being defenceless himself before us. And defenceless he is, for who is more defenceless, more vulnerable, than someone crucified?

But haven’t I said that we know another person only to the extent that that person has profoundly altered us? If God knows us, then we must have affected him. Wherein have we altered God? Can we affect him in this way? Yes we can. At the very least we have broken his heart. Sinners that we are — defiant, disobedient, rebellious, ungrateful — we have broken his heart. Actually, we have affected him, made the profoundest difference to him, in many respects, so very intimately does he know us. We have provoked his anger and mobilized his judgement. Yet we have affected him even more; most profoundly, we have affected him so thoroughly as to have him delay the day of condemnation and extend the day of grace. According to the prophet Hosea God had said of us, in the face of our defiance and disobedience, “Lo-ammi, Not my people”, “Lo-ruchamah, Not pitied.” Then in anguished heartbreak God had said, “How can I give you up…! How can I hand you over…! My heart recoils within me, my compassion grows warm and tender.” Finally God was heard to say once more, “Ammi, My people; Ruchamah, Pitied.” God knows us so very thoroughly not because he’s a practised investigator; God knows us just because he’s defenceless before us. We affect him most profoundly. What he knows of us is precisely the alteration we have effected in him.

Then what about us? Do we know him? How well do we know him? We know God only to the extent that he has made the profoundest difference to us. Only as we meet him defencelessly; only as we meet him without evasions, without excuses, without false faces, without calculation or self-deception; only in this way do we come to know God. We come to know him only as we approach him like the hymnwriter, crying, “Nothing in my hand I bring; nothing!”


V: — In the time that remains to us this morning I want to illustrate all that I have said so far with a few instances of personal knowing highlighted in scripture.

(i) Jesus exclaims, according to the testimony of the apostle John, “If you continue in my word…you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”(John 8:32) When Jesus speaks of “continuing in his word” he means “abiding in him”, since he himself is the word incarnate. And when Jesus speaks of “knowing the truth”, knowing reality, he is speaking of an intimate acquaintance with the truth as we expose ourselves defencelessly to the truth. And when he says that such radical, undisguised exposure to Christ the truth will make us free, he means that we are going to be released from everything that “hooks” us now and inhibits us from being the son or daughter of God we are meant to be. To know our Lord who is truth is to be altered by truth; and this is to be freed in such a way that we can now become what we were always created to be.


(ii) The apostle Paul speaks of “knowing Christ and the power of his resurrection.”(Phil. 3:10) The resurrection of Christ is the vindication of Christ himself, his gospel, his way, his mission, his promise. To know Christ and the power of his resurrection is to be intimately acquainted with our Lord himself and therein experience for ourselves the profoundest vindication of him and his gospel and his way and his mission and his promise. To know Jesus Christ and the power of his resurrection is to be affected by him in such manner as to have all the assurance we shall ever need that we belong to him because he first appointed himself to belong to us, all the assurance we shall ever need that his grip on us will ever be stronger than our grip on him, assurance that while he never lets us off he will also never let us go.


(iii) Finally, the apostle Paul says that one day we are going to know God even as we are fully known by God now.(1 Cor. 13:12) At present God knows us fully; we however, know him only partially — which is to say, our transformation through meeting him is only partial. To be sure, our knowledge of him is real; our knowledge of him is profound; our knowledge of him is immense blessing. Nevertheless, our knowledge of him remains only partial. One day, however, we are going to know God as thoroughly as he now knows us — which is to say, one day our transformation will be complete as we appear before him without spot or blemish. Don’t you long for it with an ache that will be relieved only on the great day itself?

On the day that we know God as thoroughly as he now knows us we are going to be changed; transformed, in fact, so as to need no further transformation.


In conclusion, what we know of a person, whether human or divine, is precisely what happens to us when we meet him as a person. It is the mission of the church to exalt such knowledge; and not only exalt, but exemplify it. For the church of Jesus Christ consists of those who know their Lord now, albeit partially, and want only to know him utterly.


                                                                                                         Victor Shepherd
April 2003