Knowing of the Third Kind

A heart-warming story behind this picture will follow shortly but first I have a simple task for you. Take a few moments to think of a sentence that begins, “I know …”.  Got one? Good!

The sentence you have thought of will probably fall into one or other of three main categories, three kinds of knowing.

The first kind of knowing is knowing-that. I know that the square of nine is eighty one … Helsinki is the capital of Finland … Nelson Mandela was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1993 … water usually freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit. This kind of knowing is factual knowledge.

The second kind of knowing is knowing-how. I know how to swim … ride a bicycle … change gear in a manual transmission car … make a sponge cake. (Oops, if the last of these is a claim I’m making for myself personally, it is very questionable!) This kind of knowing is skilful knowledge. It is acquired by doing, not simply by reading about it. I can be skilful at driving a car without knowing what is happening in the transmission when I depress the clutch to change gear.

Knowing-how is different from knowing-that. In an age when factual knowledge is available in an instant at the click of a mouse, skilful knowledge is becoming more important. That is not to say that factual knowledge is not important. Far from it, especially at the present time. Talk of ‘post-truth’ and ‘alternative facts’ had become common in recent years but the advance of the coronavirus has meant we have again become desperate to know the facts and we are becoming tired of spin.

The third kind of knowing is knowing a person, place or thing, knowing with a direct object. I know my grandsons, … the town where I have lived for several decades … the dolmen on the Irish farm where I grew up. This is relational knowing, knowledge by acquaintance.

The importance of this kind of knowing has surely been brought home to us in these days of physical/spatial distancing. ‘Social distancing’ is a misnomer as the photo illustrating this piece shows so vividly. The photo is from a heart-warming newspaper article by Canadian Guardian journalist Daniel Brown[1] about a nurse and her grandmother, both of whom live on Cape Breton Island off the Atlantic coast.

Julienne Van Hul, 91, is in self-isolation at her home because of the coronavirus pandemic. As her grandmother has no internet, Stephanie McQuaid “had the idea of giving her a spare iPhone so she could use its FaceTime app to make video calls. … She bought a SIM card and phone plan … and then configured the phone to be senior-friendly and added some family members into its contact list. She cleaned the phone using lysol wipes and put it in a ziploc bag, then drove out to her grandmother’s home and left the phone package on her porch. Her grandmother retrieved it – making sure to wash her hands first. Then came the challenge of teaching Van Hul how to use the device through the patio window. McQuaid sat outside and used her own iPhone to help demonstrate, focusing exclusively on how to use FaceTime.”

Van Hul is now receiving FaceTime calls from various relatives. She has been “able to see one of her grandchildren who lives in Calgary, and she could share her thoughts on another grandchild’s new haircut”.

The three kinds of knowing are related. Some ‘knowing that’ is necessary for relational knowing for it would be strange to claim to know a person and not be able to state some facts about her or him even though the facts that we state may not be exactly the same as those stated by somebody else who also knows that person. At the same time, it is possible to make an in-depth study of facts about a person and still not be justified in claiming to know that person.

In a similar way, some interpersonal skills may also be necessary for relational knowing but they cannot be sufficient for it because we may know to some extent how to relate appropriately to a person without actually knowing that person.

Relational knowing cannot be reduced to either ‘knowing that’ or ‘knowing how’ or even to a combination of the two. Something more is required by way of a direct acquaintance with or immediate awareness of the person, place or thing that is known.

These distinctions among kinds of knowing are reflected in many languages. In French, for example, relational knowing is connaître while savoir is used for both ‘knowing that’ and ‘knowing how’. German distinguishes usages even further for it has different words for all three kinds of knowing—wissen (know that), kőnnen (know how) and kennen (know a person or place).

The Scottish and Northern English word ‘ken’ has its origin in kennen as in the folk-song ‘D’ye ken John Peel’ although it’s meaning is not limited to relational knowing. We talk of things being ‘beyond our ken’.

Irish Gaelic has the same word for ‘knowing that’ and ‘knowing how’ and a different word for ‘knowing a person, place or thing. ‘Tá a fhios agam gurb é Baile Átha Cliath príomhchathair na hÉireann’ (I know that Dublin is the capital of Ireland). ‘Tá a fhios agam conas snámh a dhéanamh’ (I know how to swim). ‘Tá aithne agam ar Bhaile Átha Cliath’ (I know Dublin)

The word used almost always in the Old Testament for knowing of any kind is yada’. This is the word used when intimate sexual relations are written about in terms of ‘knowing’ a man or a woman. The same word is used for knowledge of God. Knowing God is not merely an awareness of his existence but a recognition of who he is and of his demands upon the obedience of those who know him.

Part III of Handel’s oratorio The Messiah opens with words from the Old Testament book of Job – “I know that my Redeemer liveth”. It takes the form of a statement of knowing-that but it is also and perhaps centrally a statement of relational knowing.

Father God, help us to grow in relational knowing, being connected with one another and with the physical creation of places and things and, above all, in connection with you. In the name of Jesus who came into this world of people, places and things to reconnect us. Amen.

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[1] My grateful thanks to Daniel for giving me permission to use his photo.

Other Birds Our Teachers? Over to You!

My plan has been to post at most one blog per week but responses to yesterday’s piece have made me think I should follow it up today with something for you to think about and possibly to respond with.

Some have written with memories of John Stott or anecdotes about him and his enjoyment of bird-watching. They led me to recall how, as an eighteen- or nineteen-year-old, I had sneaked into a meeting organised by the Christian Union in Trinity College Dublin to hear him speaking. (I wasn’t a student and probably shouldn’t have been there.) I still remember the hush in that hall as he spoke of the absolute holiness of God and our own sinfulness.

Two friends have written to suggest biblical themes with which the characteristic behaviour of other birds could be linked. This in response to my cheeky suggestion that a chapter on ‘The Flight Formation of the Wild Geese: Interdependence’ could be added to Stott’s lovely book.

Matt Kaegi wrote from Winterthur in Switzerland to talk about the playful behaviour of crows, those fun-loving birds that have been observed to do such amazing things. Their playfulness is linked with creativity in the making of tools. Just google ‘crows playfulness’ and you’ll find lots of articles about this. See, for example, Harvard Magazine’sCrows know how to have fun’ and the BBC website’s ‘Crows could be the smartest animal other than primates’.

Proverbs talks about the playfulness of wisdom at creation. “When he gave the sea its boundary so the waters would not overstep his command, and when he marked out the foundations of the earth. Then I was constantly at his side. I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence, rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in humankind. (Proverbs 8:29-31)

Translations use ‘rejoicing’ because it sounds more pious but, in his book Wise Teaching, Charles Melchert writes: “Yet everywhere else in the Hebrew Bible, this term is translated ‘play’ … children playing with toys and games … people playing musical instruments and dancing … even of the love-play between Isaac and Rebekah.” (p. 189) Others have translated ‘rejoicing’ as ‘frolicking’ and ‘jesting’.

Christ who is Wisdom is therefore the Lord of the Dance! And our playfulness is linked with imagination and creativity!

David Smith wrote from Grand Rapids in Michigan to say he had recently read an article entitled ‘In homing pigeon flocks, bad bosses quickly get demoted’ and suggested this behaviour could be linked with the biblical theme of humility. The article reports research that showed how flocks of homing pigeons keep leaders with bad information from throwing them off course.

How often do leaders of human organisations, churches, schools lack the humility to step down or be redirected by others when they get it wrong?  All too often, I think.

Now it is over to you! Do you know of another bird whose characteristic behaviour can be linked with a biblical theme? If so, please share it.  More about how to do so in a moment but first let’s see what we have so far. Here is the list of chapter titles in John Stott’s book:

  1. The Feeding of Ravens: Faith
  2. The Migration of Storks: Repentance
  3. The Head of Owls: Facing Both Ways
  4. The Value of Sparrows: Self-esteem
  5. The Drinking of Pigeons: Gratitude
  6. The Metabolism of Hummingbirds: Work
  7. The Soaring of Eagles: Freedom
  8. The Territory of Robins: Space
  9. The Wings of a Hen: Shelter
  10. The Song of Larks: Joy
  11. The Breeding Cycle of All Birds: Love

To these we can add:

  1. The Flight Formation of Wild Geese: Interdependence
  2. The Playfulness of Crows: Creativity
  3. The Leadership of Homing Pigeons: Humility

So over to you! Please share any suggestions you have for chapter titles to add to the list. Alternatively, you may have memories or anecdotes about John Stott to share.

I suggest you do so by writing a comment on my Facebook link to this blog and you can find it by clicking here.

Alternatively, you can email me (address under ‘Contact Me’ on my website) and, with your permission, I can add what you share to the comments on my Facebook link.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Creator and Wise God, help us to learn from what you have made how to live in peace with ourselves and others, the physical world and, above all, with you. Amen.

P.S. If you would like to be notified when new blogs are posted, please EITHER (1) enter your email address in the box above ‘Subscribe’ on the ‘Posts’ page OR (2) email me through the contact address on this website OR (3) message me if you have come here via a link posted on Facebook.

‘The Birds our Teachers’ by John Stott

I guess many readers of this blog will have read one or more of the many books that the famous Bible teacher John Stott wrote during his long and influential life but have you read ‘The Birds our Teachers’?

In this unique book, John Stott introduces us to what he humorously terms ‘the science of orni-theology’ and he does so in eleven short chapters lavishly illustrated with more than 150 lovely photographs taken during his travels around the world.

Stott traces his lifelong love of bird-watching back to walks with his father in the country as a boy of only five or six years. On these walks, his father would tell him to shut his mouth and open his eyes and ears (p. 7). He finds “the highest possible authority” for his hobby in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus tells us to “look at the birds of the air” (Matthew 6:26). He says that, in basic English, Jesus is telling us to “watch birds” and he points out that the Greek verb used means “to fix the eyes on or take a good look at” (p. 9).

The book combines the author’s personal stories with information about birds and with biblical themes in a way that should be of interest to both birders and Bible students alike. Each chapter focuses on a different bird (albeit not exclusively because many other birds are mentioned in each as well) and on a different spiritual lesson. It is therefore not a book to be read straight through from cover to cover but rather more of a coffee-table book to dip into and reflect upon, one chapter at a time.

My favourite chapter is one near the end of the book entitled ‘The Song of Larks: Joy’. As I read it, I’m transported back to an unforgettable experience that Val and I had some years ago when we were on holiday in the Black Forest region in Germany. We went up the Feldberg in a cable car and, as we stepped out onto the snowy slopes, a lark was ascending in the clear air and singing its heart out just above us. It was a moment of sheer joy for both of us as we walked near the summit of the highest mountain in Germany outside of the Alps.

The chapter is focussed on the lark and opens with Shelley’s ode that hails the “blithe spirit”. He goes on to talk about the songs of other birds including “the liquid bubbling trill of the Curlew’s spring song” (and I’m a little boy again walking in the callows[1] on my father’s farm!), “the resonant, explosive outburst of the Wren” and “the melodious flute-like warbling of the male European Blackbird” (p. 77). Another songbird I love to hear is the robin and, being an incurable early-riser, I’m serenaded each morning by one in a cherry tree beside our house … but that very territorial bird is the focus of another chapter (my second favourite) in which Stott talks about space and our need to preserve a “combination of colony and territory” and to avoid the extremes of isolation and total loss of privacy (p. 66).

Missing from the list of birds mentioned by John Stott is the wild goose. If I were to cheekily add a chapter to the book, it would be entitled ‘The Flight Formation of the Wild Geese: Interdependence’. I would go on to talk about the V-formation in which they fly. (Actually, it is often more like a J-formation because one leg of the V is longer than the other but the lessons to be learned are still the same.)

The lead bird works the hardest by breaking into undisturbed air. Drag is reduced and uplift is produced for the following birds and they expend twenty to thirty per cent less energy flying. As the lead bird tires, it drops back in the formation and another bird takes its place. The birds constantly communicate with one another by honking. Honking from behind is effectively encouragement for those in front.

In a study of the phenomenon of the V, Steven Portugal of the Royal Veterinary College in Hatfield found that the birds were not only placing themselves in the best place but also flapping at the best time to reduce the energy expended by the flock. He said, “They are just so aware of where each other are and what the other bird is doing. And that’s what I find really impressive”.[2]

If one goose becomes injured and has to land, a few family members will stay with it until it recovers. When it is ready to fly again they all set off and look for a new flock to join.[3]

In these days of life under the shadow of the coronavirus, we can learn, and indeed are learning, how we need one another. We are not independent, we are interdependent! And ultimately, we are all dependent upon God, whether or not we acknowledge it.

In Celtic Christianity, the wild goose was seen as a symbol for the Holy Spirit. God is not to be tamed. A Spirit-led life can be like a wild goose chase!

“Look at the birds, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, careless in the care of God. And you count far more to him than birds.” (Matthew 6:26, The Message)

Creator God, help us to sing for joy at the work of your hands and to support one another as we seek to journey to wherever you are leading us. Amen.

[1] Callows are a type of wetland found in Ireland. Most of the farm I grew up on was hilly but part was low-lying and flooded in winter.

[2] Nature, 16 Jan 2014, pp. 399-402.


Humility: Virtue not Vice

This piece is about the virtue of humility. There’s not a lot of it in our world today, is there?! Some of our world leaders exemplify anything but humility but it certainly doesn’t stop with them. Indeed, many regard it as a bad thing and the humble are dismissed with derision and scorn as ‘losers’.

It seems it was always so. Many in the honour-shame culture of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome certainly did not regard humility as a virtue. Indeed, philosophers such as Aristotle regarded it as a vice. It was dishonourable to be brought low and it was considered shameful to put oneself lower than one’s equals.

Onto the stage of history steps Jesus of Nazareth, the Servant-King – how counter-cultural in his time … and in ours! Paul writes in Philippians 2:3-5, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus.”

This is immediately followed by Paul’s quotation of a hymn, presumably one known and sung in Philippi, which I’ve represented diagrammatically as follows:

Commentators point out that the shape of the story of Jesus contrasts line by line, step by step with the story of fallen humankind. I’ve constructed another diagram for this:[1]

Australian writer John Dickson comments on the Philippian hymn: “What we read in the above text is nothing less than a humility revolution. Honour and shame are turned on their heads. The highly honoured Jesus lowered himself to a shameful cross and, yet, in so doing became not an object of scorn but of praise and emulation. … Honour has been redefined, greatness recast. If the greatest man we have ever known chose to forgo his status for the good of others, reasoned the early Christians, greatness must consist in humble service. The shameful place is now a place of honour, the low point is the high point.” (Humilitas, p. 109)

As song-writer Graham Kendrick puts it, “So let us learn how to serve / And in our lives enthrone Him / Each other’s needs to prefer / For it is Christ we’re serving”.

Great God and Father, help us to be revolutionaries in a culture of winners and losers, and in humility to value others above ourselves. In the name of Jesus, the Servant-King. Amen.

P.S. If you would like to be notified when new blogs are posted, please EITHER (1) enter your email address in the box above ‘Subscribe’ on the ‘Posts’ page OR (2) email me through the contact address on this website OR (3) message me if you have come here via a link posted on Facebook.

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[1] You can read more about the contrasting shape of these stories in chapter 7 of a book that David Smith and I wrote some years ago (available as a free download here).

A New Orientation

This is a picture taken in winter of the mid-day sun over a lake. As you stand looking at this scene from the point at which the picture was taken, in what direction are you looking – north, east, south or west? Most readers of this blog will give the same answer but not all!

Back in May 2016, I had a work-trip to Australia and I made what was to me a surprising discovery. The sun shone from the northern sky!  I was standing by a street in central Sydney and a friend was directing me to the Opera House. He pointed down the street and said, “keep going south and you can’t miss it”. But the sun was shining from behind us and I thought, “That can’t be south … that must be north”. Of course, it was south because the sun (of which I was somehow aware without thinking about it) was shining down on us from the northern sky.

Again, a day or two later, one of my hosts had taken me to the rail station to catch a train into central Sydney and it happened again. She indicated the direction from which the train would shortly be coming and I thought, “Surely not, it will be coming from the west”. East and west were swapped around in my mind because, again, I was assuming that the sun was shining from the south … and it wasn’t!

After more than seventy years of life oriented to the sun being in the southern sky, I was being reoriented to having it shine from the north! East had become west and west east!

In the Introduction to his book What I Believe, Leo Tolstoy wrote this:

“Five years ago I came to believe in Christ’s teachings, and my life suddenly changed; I ceased to desire what I had previously desired, and began to desire what I formerly did not want. … It happened to me as it happens to a man who goes out on some business and suddenly decides that the business is unnecessary and returns home. All that was on his right is now on his left, and all that was on his left is now on his right; his former wish to get as far as possible from home has changed into a wish to be as near as possible to it. The direction of my life and my desires became different, and good and evil changed places.”

At the age of 55, Tolstoy wrote this about his conversion five years earlier. For most of his life he had been a Nihilist. He went on to say, “I, like that thief on the cross, have believed Christ’s teaching and been saved.”

I was seventeen, going on eighteen, back in February 1962. (You can do the maths!) I was sitting in a Sunday evening service in the YMCA in Dublin. It was a service to which young people came from all over the city and its suburbs. The meeting hall was quite large with a gallery at the back. I was sitting with two friends high in the gallery.

I had always believed in God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit. I had always believed that Jesus came as baby, lived, died on the cross and was raised again. I had always regarded the Bible as God’s book and read it regularly. I had always gone to church. I had always prayed to God. But, at that time, I was struggling with the realisation that, in spite of all that, all was not well in my heart and life, that there were things that I had done, said and thought that were not good. They were bad but I wanted to hold on to them.

That evening, sitting there in that service, while a church pastor from Liverpool was speaking, I surrendered to the Lord and trusted him as Saviour and Friend.

I was filled with joy as my friends and I walked the mile and a half or so to where we and other young men fresh up in Dublin from the country were living. I immediately wrote a letter home to my parents and younger brothers on the farm to tell them that Jesus was my Saviour.

I was changed and my life was changed. It wasn’t just a change of mind, a change of beliefs that I had. It was a new relationship.

How to describe the newness of this new relationship? I’ve come to think of it as being a reorientation, a reorientation of the whole person. Having this new friend, Jesus, come into one’s heart and life is a reorientation from having my world centred on me to having it centred on him. It is not that I’m consciously thinking of him all the time any more than I am consciously thinking of the sun as being in the southern sky but my living and my decisions and plans now take him into account. A husband is not consciously thinking of his wife every moment of the day but all his living and all his plans are made and decisions are taken within that relationship and oriented towards it.

Light of the world, help us to be always oriented to you as Son of God, to walk in your light and to reflect you in our living. Amen.

P.S. If you would like to be notified when new blogs are posted, please EITHER (1) enter your email address in the box above ‘Subscribe’ on the ‘Posts’ page OR (2) email me through the contact address on this website OR (3) message me if you have come here via a link posted on Facebook.