Knowing Requires Listening, But to Whom?

by John Ellis

Two of my favorite Facebook follows/friends are Esther Lightcap Meek and Bill Mallonee. Dr. Meek is philosopher who’s thoughtful (thought-provoking) work lives within the boundaries of art. Mallonee is an artist who’s thoughtful (thought-provoking) music lives within the boundaries of philosophy. And both speak into what it means to fruitfully engage the world (and others) around us via a more humble and holistic understanding of our Divinely given vocation as His image bearers.

I was introduced to Esther Lightcap Meek by a theatre professor and friend who had recently embarked on her journey towards earning her PhD in aesthetics (the study of the undivorceable marriage of art and philosophy). That introduction came at a crucial time in my growth, opening up an off-ramp (that, by God’s grace, an off-ramp I’ve been taking and will continue to take) from the insidious and idolatrous hold of foundationalism that had begun to darken my heart. At the time, thinking that God was directing me towards a future as a philosophy professor, specifically in the area of epistemology, I had devoured almost nothing but the mind-centered reductionism of Enlightenment/post-Enlightenment anthropocentric epistemologies that placed the locus of knowledge in myself. Following in the rebellious footsteps of our first parents, I was willfully embracing the Serpent-Satan’s lie that I determine what counts as knowledge because the ultimate source of that knowledge is my mind. Even though I would have angrily rejected this accusation, I believed that I had the same access to knowledge as God.

Intertwined with foundationalism, I was (am), like almost all of us raised in the United States of America, a product of Scottish common-sense realism. A school of philosophy that pretends to a God-honoring epistemology but that, in reality, offers the lie that truth (knowledge) is largely a product of my inner feelings. We love that lie. I love that lie. Expressive individualism is dependent on that lie.[1] Thankfully, as already mentioned, by God’s grace I was introduced to Esther Lightcap Meek.

One of my favorite descriptions of philosophy comes from Dr. Meek’s short book A Little Manual for Knowing. In the introduction, on page 2, of my lovingly crumpled and stained copy of the book, I highlighted years ago the words, “Philosophy accompanies the trajectory of our growing to understand what it means to be human, a trajectory from wonder to wisdom that never leaves the wonder behind.”[2]

That description helped alter the trajectory of my own journey and growth.

What does it mean to be human?

That’s a question that I had never really pondered, and a question that continues to shape my journey. More specifically, “what does it mean to image God?” is what shapes my journey. But that journey can’t be fully understood without Bill Mallonee.

A few years before being introduced to Dr. Meek, I was introduced to Bill Mallonee via a house-concert.

The tag “house-concert” is probably self-explanatory – it’s a musician playing to a (likely) small audience inside a house. The format allows for a level of intimacy that larger venues cannot come close to approximating. It not only encourages but demands that the audience enter into the art with the artist; the audience becomes the artist, and the artist becomes the audience. How can they not?

At the time of the Mallonee house-concert, I was in the middle of attempting to work out my theatre theory via exploratory and experimental forms. During our brief conversation after the show, Bill illuminated much of what I was only seeing partially. His passion and understanding of the intersection of art and image bearing was (is) a master class in vocationally imaging God. I drove home that night excited about the possibilities for my own art that Bill had helped me see.

By the time I first read Dr. Meek, my excitement had been squelched by the battering of those possibilities. Not all a product of outside variables undermining my art, I had also willfully (and, to be honest, somewhat ignorantly) allowed myself to be directed down a philosophical road that was the opposite direction from what I had learned from Bill Mallonee (and others). Philosophy without art leads to idolatry. Likewise, art without philosophy (theology) leads to idolatry.

However, that’s all precursory to a profitable moment while perusing Facebook this morning that is the reason why I’m writing this article.

I have recently begun rereading A Little Manual for Knowing, and so it was fresh on my mind when I encountered the poetic insightfulness of Bill Mallonee via Facebook this morning. Getting something right for once, Facebook’s consumerism-directed algorithms presented me with an over week’s old post from the singer-songwriter. Sharing with his friends and followers the song “Skin” from the Vigilantes of Love’s 1995 album Blister Soul, Bill also generously interacted with the comments underneath that share. His response to a particular comment is what caught my attention.

One Facebook user, after making sure Bill knew how deeply “Skin” has positively affected him, confesses that he has never been able to grasp Bill’s use of Van Gogh’s self-mutilation in the lyrics. The commenter, understanding the semi-faux pas of asking artists to explain their art, meekly ended the comment with the acknowledgment that Bill may never fully explain the lyric’s meaning.

Gracious, as always, Bill winsomely offered a semi-explanation. After expressing appreciation for the question, he added, “And b/c I want folks to dig deep into my work, I offer this.” He then reposted some of the lyrics, offering some “study guide,” so to speak, questions and comments about the lyrics intended to aid listeners as they seek to “dig deep into [Bill’s] work.” He ended his reply by posing the poignantly insightful question, “Who needs an ear when the voices of one’s identity are from within?”

I immediately thought of the contrast between expressive individualism and Dr. Meek’s covenantal epistemology.

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Dr. Meek warns that, “We tend to be ‘epistemological dualists.’ We distinguish knowledge from belief, facts from values, reason from faith, theory from application, thought from emotion, mind from body, objective from subjective, science from art.”[3] A page later, she adds, “Epistemological dualism cuts us as knowers down into disconnected compartments unable to work together – information here, body there, emotions in a third place. It depersonalizes us at the moment of one of our greatest opportunities for personhood – coming to know.”

That last sentence contains so much profundity that it’s easy to overlook its simple truth: God made us to be known by Him and to know Him, meaning that knowing is relational – communal. Meek calls it covenantal epistemology, and explains, “We should think of knower and known as persons in relationship, where knowing is the relationship.”[4] Before entering the meat of her book, she closes her introduction with the summation that, “Every act of insight suggests [God’s] giving, his coming, his redemptive knowing of us. And knowing him actually can make you better at knowing anything.”[5]

Bill’s question at the end of his comment speaks into this.

When we believe that we discover knowledge through our own efforts (mind), we cut ourselves away from what it means to image our Creator. We don’t listen to God because our own voice dominates. We don’t engage in the often hard yet profitable relational engagement with the community God has given us; we don’t listen to others unless those others are echoing what our inner identity has already decided as true. In that case, as Bill asked, who needs ears?

The irony is that Bill’s metaphor uncovers the ugly truth that while we may believe that we are the sovereign over our own knowing, we’ve actually surrendered our listening (our ears) to others. As Dr. Meek warns, “Truth isn’t a bare collection of obvious fact. It is a profession of allegiance.”[6] Loud echoes of Foucault’s “power is knowledge” is embedded in Dr. Meeks’ philosophy-art and Bill Mallonee’s art-philosophy.

We are not autonomous, never can be, no matter how loudly protesters may scream otherwise. The Bible tells us that we either belong to God or to sin. And belonging to either comes with communion. Being (re)born into Christ joins us with God’s people in a way that is far more real than our “membership” in our country or political party or earthly family. Not being (re)born into Christ leaves us intimately joined with God’s enemies, often reflected and revealed in our “membership” in our country or political party or earthly family. American Dream-styled liberty/freedom is a lie. Autonomous epistemology is a lie that Serpent-Satan uses in ways that allows us to believe that we are free and able to have communion with knowledge on our terms. The truth is, though, that knowing is ontological, meaning it’s also communal. The question is, then, to whom does our ear belong?

Listen to God. Really listen, in humility. If you have yet to surrender your ear to your Creator, do so. And if you believe that you have surrendered your ear to God, honestly assess to whom your ear really belongs. From whom and what are you getting your knowledge and definitions? How and where are you being controlled by contra-Biblical worldviews?

True knowledge comes from God. Knowing true knowledge is knowing God and being known by Him as your Father. “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you had known me, you would have known my father also (John 14:6-7a).”

Soli Deo Gloria

[1] Don’t be fooled by the protestations of “conservative” evangelicals who insist that they are opposed to expressive individualism and who would also angrily sputter at my “slander” of Scottish common-sense realism. What’s changed, and what they’re actually angry about, is that those who have the power to determine what’s included and excluded on our specific culture’s buffet of choices for expressive individualism has changed. Also, and this is important, any epistemology that pushes humans front and center is feelings based. We’re holistic beings, and feelings are a part of our mind, no matter how loudly the “facts don’t care about your feelings” crowd screams to the contrary. Side note (within a side note/footnote) – the Church has been historically bad at anthropology, and still is. The answer to the question “What does it mean to be made in the image of God?” has historically (and currently) been answered in idolatrously anthropocentric ways.

[2] Esther Lightcap Meek, A Little Manual for Knowing (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014), 2.

[3] Meek, A Little Manual for Knowing, 2.

[4] Meek, A Little Manual for Knowing, 5.

[5] Meek, A Little Manual for Knowing, 7.

[6] Meek, A Little Manual for Knowing, 69.

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