How do I know what I know?

How do I know what I know? On what do I base my opinions and beliefs?

These are two very important questions for people who take seriously God’s command to “live at peace with everyone, if it is possible, as far as it depends on you.” (Romans 12:8) Before I take any action, I should consider the reliability of the information on which I am about to act.

When were you last in hospital because your belief system was faulty?

Recently I came crashing down from the fourth rung of a ladder and ended up in hospital for two weeks. (Shout out to the wonderful staff of the Liverpool Hospital!) Four broken ribs and a broken shoulder-blade are a high price to pay for relying on bad beliefs. Of course, I’d heard that people of my age shouldn’t climb ladders, but that’s just a standing joke, isn’t it? Something to help us laugh in the face of our ageing. No-one takes that seriously, especially if they’ve never fallen before and if they’re as careful as I am not to over-reach. Then reality bites! As the doctor told me, the fluid in your ears thickens as you age and the sense of balance can become deceptive. Crash. Bang! On what did I base my belief that I would not fall? Whatever it was, it was a false belief based on a flawed foundation.

Are we ever wrong in what we believe?

In our everyday lives, are there beliefs that we hold, about ourselves or others, that have a similarly false foundation? Are there beliefs that are common to our society that have no basis in truth? How can we tell? How can we assess and evaluate them? We’re forced back to our starting question: how do I know what I know? It’s the age-old question of truth.

How do we know what is true?

There are people who claim that there is no truth.

There are others like Pontius Pilate who operate on the understanding that no-one can know what is true. Those positions are not open to Christians. Over and again in the gospels, the objective reality of truth is affirmed. Questioned by Pilate about whether he was a king, Jesus said, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” (John 18:37).

That’s what provoked Pilate’s well-known question: “What is truth?” He then went out and declared to the Jews, “I find no basis for a charge against him.” Interesting, isn’t it. He has no idea what truth is, or even if any truth can be known, but his declaration is a statement of his opinion – his perception of truth – a perception formed after examination, that he considers Jesus innocent. In effect, he says, “I don’t know if there is any truth, but here’s my truth, this man is not liable to any charge.”

The illogical inconsistency should be enough to make any head spin. But Pilate is not alone.

What’s all this got to do with conflict?

So many people today have no defensible basis for their opinions or their actions, and that makes conflicts all the more difficult to resolve. When we’re caught up in a conflict, or if we’re helping someone else to address their conflict in a way that pleases God, we have to explore the “positions” that people hold in relation to a disputed matter. More importantly, we have to explore what “interests” people have that give power to their positions. Understanding the interests that lie behind people’s positions will require consideration of the bases on which people have built their beliefs.

Here’s a really helpful tip

People believe what they do on the basis of declarations or discoveries. That’s how we know God. It’s how we know other people. God utters his word and tells us what we are to believe concerning him, and what duly he requires of us. That’s the declaration part. God speaks. We receive his word. Then we have a reliable basis for our belief system.

But the creation also reveals God himself (Romans 1:18), so that as we responsibly observe the creation we are able to deduce and discover other facts about life, such as the laws of physics, the period of the planets, the uniqueness and distinction to be made between adults and children, men and women, and so much more.

In the same way, we form many of our beliefs about other people by listening to their declarations and taking note of what they say. We deduce the rest of our opinions by observing their behaviour. But what if the information we have is indirect or incomplete? Indirect information may be received when a third party shares their opinion about another person’s beliefs or conduct. Incomplete information may be received when we only see a part of an event but don’t have knowledge of the whole situation.

Making it practical

Are you in a conflicted situation at the moment?

Would you consider taking three simple steps that may help? 

Would you:

  1. take time to identify the beliefs you hold about the other party, and then work out on what basis you hold those beliefs?
  2. assess the degree to which your belief is based on declarations made by the other party or deductions made because of behaviours actually observed? ; and
  3. consider assessing the degree to which your deductions are based on indirect of incomplete information?

That exercise will prove very helpful in discovering areas where your opinions should be open to review, and it should help you listen more carefully and ask more engaging questions when you have the opportunity to talk closely with the other party.

I fell from the ladder because of incomplete information. I treated warnings of the risk of falling as a joke, confident that it wouldn’t happen to me. But it did, because I didn’t know that my body truly was losing the very ability to balance. I’m listening with new ears now, and a new appreciation of my frailty.  

And as I do, God is helping me see my world and the people in it with a little more humility, and to leave a little more space to accept that my initial beliefs about myself and others may not always be right.

This article was written by Bruce Meller.

Bruce Meller has had a life-long interest in overcoming conflicts, both personal and organisational. He is the Assembly Clerk for the Presbyterian Church of Australia and is the immediate past Superintendent of Ministry & Mission, Presbyterian Church (NSW).  By his own admission, he’s tried too many wrong strategies and now tries to focus on those that he knows work: seeing conflict as an opportunity to glorify God, do good to others, and grow to be like Jesus. BTW – he’s married, has three adult kids and nine grandchildren, most of whom he can’t see because of the current pandemic. About that frustration it’s best that he remains silent. 

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