It is perhaps unfortunate that our English language (as well as the Greek and many other Indo-European variations) do not make a clear distinction between knowing something as a fact, and a different kind of knowing which requires participation in the actual life and reality of that which we know. Thus it is possible for me to know a great deal about the history of bread-making in 16th century France, even though I did not live in the 16th century, have never been to France, and only know what I know because I have studied it (I do not in fact know anything about this subject, but simply chose it as an example). On the other hand, it is possible for me to have studied the beliefs and teachings of the 1st century Church and yet have no knowledge whatsoever of the God for whom these early Christians willingly gave their lives.
Thus we can see a particular use of the word to know. It may mean nothing more than the mastery of facts, requiring nothing more than memory and an understanding of how those facts fit in which other facts of a similar time. We could even give such knowledge a name and call it “expert knowledge.”
There is another form of knowledge, frequently used in Scripture, which refers to a direct, experiential knowledge, in which we only know what we know because we have participated in it and, to some extent, have become part of what we know. Thus we can speak of knowing God because we have come to have a share in His life. This kind of knowledge presupposes that God is not an inert piece of data awaiting its assimilation into the greater database of our accummulated knowledge. Instead, we must assume in this kind of knowledge, that God is free, and can only be known because He makes Himself known. And we can also assume that I have come to know Him only because I have freely entered into relationship with Him and in some manner that is not necessarily disclosed, I have come to know Him. To some degree His life has become my life and my life has become His. I know Him, thus, in something of the same manner in which I know myself.
It is the Christian teaching that this latter form of knowledge is “saving” knowledge. Knowledge about things (or God) may fill our head with data, and may make it possible for us to score higher on certain tests, but it does nothing to us and requires nothing of us other than a certain dedication of time to acquire the knowledge.
The second form of knowledge is indeed “saving” knowledge. We are saved by this “knowledge” not because it enables us to pass a test (indeed I have found it almost useless in most graduate level studies of religion), but because it requires a change in us – a change that is, in fact, being conformed to the very image of God Himself. His life is becoming my life and my life His. I am becoming more like Him. That we use “knowledge” to express this relationship is partly our Semitic heritage (Hebrew used knowledge in this same sense) and partly that we have found no other word to say exactly what we mean. We could say that we are finding “union” with God and it would be correct. But though the Tradition uses this word, it still prefers “knowledge.” “Knowledge” seems somehow to maintain the distinction between knower and known in a way that union does not. “Union,” if used in the form it has in the Far East, may presume that all distinctions disappear. This would not be the Christian gospel. The more fully I know God, the more fully I truly become what I was created to be. I am more “Stephen” than I would be otherwise.
It is this knowledge that we seek as Christians. Studying can be a means of both kinds of knowledge. It can be an occasion for gaining expert knowledge and it can become the occasion for saving knowledge. My experience is that I study much slower if I am seeking saving knowledge.
But, wonderfully, saving knowledge can be had in immeasureable ways even by the unlearned. The village idiot may have more saving knowledge than the village scholar, though not necessarily. The future of the Church needs scholars, but without saving knowledge it will not even be the Church.
Always and everywhere, my heart should be set towards saving knowledge. It need not be at the expense of expert knowledge, but I should never seek to substitute expert knowledge for saving knowledge. It may preach – but it will offer a very meagre fare to its listeners. The Church’s contention is that saving knowledge can be had from Scripture and from icons – though both can be used merely for expert knowledge. But almost all in our modern life, driven as it is by the acquisition and distribution of data, can quickly become little more than expert knowledge.
To acquire saving knowledge of God, all that we approach must be approached as we would a person for whom we have the deepest reverence and who can give us what we want only as a generous gift and never as an answer to the demands we make. Thus I hear the Scriptures and bow my head, “Glory to Thee, O God, Glory to Thee.” I approach an icon, not in a hurry but with the recognition that I behold heaven through this tiny window and with the attention of my heart may perceive that heaven is beholding me.
And with each encounter comes something more than I can express – a knowledge that may have words to describe it – but once described so clearly transcends the description that it seems a futile effort. Silence has a way of surrounding this knowledge.
May God save us through the knowledge of His beloved Son, and give us the life that He alone can give. May we know Him even as we ourselves are known.