Look at me getting all sentimental about epistemology again

I have a few potholes in the road that paves my intellectual life. I’m spreading the asphalt right now by reading Anna Karenina. I discovered this wonderful passage tonight.

“It used to be that a freethinker was a man who had been brought up with notions of religion, law, morality, and had arrived at freethinking by himself, though his own toil and struggle. But now a new type of self-made freethinkers has appeared, who grow up and never even hear that there were laws of morality, religion, that there were authorities, but who grow up right into notions of the negation of everything – that is, as wild men.”

It reminded me of two other passages that are a few mile markers back down the road. There is a passage where Bonhoeffer sardonically suggests that there is a difference between Socrates – after a lifetime of inquiry and study - saying, “All I know is that I know nothing”, and a college freshman quoting Socrates as an excuse for not doing their homework because in the end they will only “know nothing”.

There is also a wonderful passage somewhere in Buber’s writing where he tells of a French legend of a living book known (appropriately) as the Ars Vif. When you approach the book and open it, it has red pages with no writing. You have to do battle with the book, and once you defeat it, black letters appear on the red pages. He then suggests that every real book is an Ars Vif.

As I continue to struggle with epistemological questions, I think I do know one thing. The reason why passages like the ones I’ve referenced above seem to strike a chord with me is that I believe that all real knowledge is something that you have to wrestle with in order to win. The idea is certainly an old one. Israel – literally, “someone who struggles with God”, puts the epistemological question into a more fluid and dynamic area than many thinkers might be comfortable acknowledging.

Our culture has certainly developed a tendency to want to pin down knowledge to a certain set of “concrete” events and facts rather than a relational, struggling, and tentative dynamic tension. It may be why I have such great respect for certain friends. My friend, Guy Trainin, described himself to me as a “contrarian” today. I think that may be why I have such a profound respect for his intellect. He really wrestles with issues in order to win truth from them. My friend Robert Platte has worked very hard to win a non-religious position from a very religious upbringing. I find I have much more in common with him than I have with many people who are religious thinkers like me.

Somehow, it has also put me in mind of my favorite Thomas Merton quote. “ A publisher asked me to write something on 'The Secret of Success,' and I refused. If I had a message to my contemporaries, I said, it was surely this: Be anything you like, be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing: success. ... If you have learned only how to be a success, your life has probably been wasted. If a university concentrates on producing successful people, it is lamentably failing in its obligation to society and to the students themselves."

There is a way to go through life and be a success without wrestling. It is a bad way to live. It’s better to be a madman, a drunk, or a bastard. I may qualify for all three, and I may get pinned and lose, but if I have any conclusions about epistemology it is this: I want to be on the mat wrestling with God and the big questions with Guy and Robert.