Jesus was once asked to identify the greatest and most important thing for followers of God to do (Matt. 22:36–37). His answer—“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind”—is quite famous.
Had others been asked this question, I suspect we might have seen a variety of answers. Perhaps someone would identify one of the Ten Commandments, such as having no other gods before God or keeping the Sabbath holy.
But not Jesus. Jesus told us that the greatest command is to love God. He says this is first among all the commands. Out of all we are to do, the primary thing is standing in a relation of loving intimacy toward God.
Now, it may strike us as a bit odd to be commanded to love. If so, it’s likely because we have in mind a thin view of love so dominant in our culture today, one that sees it as a matter of mere feelings. It’s odd to be commanded to feel a certain way since we can’t always cajole ourselves into those feelings.
Clearly Jesus has a richer, more multidimensional view of love in mind. It encompasses the entirely of our hearts, souls, and minds. This may involve feelings, but it engages all of who we are. I suggest love, in this thick sense, is about the pursuit more than the feelings we may experience. We seek and pursue our beloved in the context of the kind of relationship it is.
Obsessed with knowledge
According to Timothy Pickavance, professor of philosophy at Biola University’s Talbot School of Theology, our pursuit of God is deeply connected to knowledge. Knowledge is crucial for the love and pursuit of God. In a world that prioritizes mere feelings of love over the knowledge of truth, Pickavance’s Knowledge for the Love of God: Why Your Heart Needs Your Mind is a welcome antidote.
Among several life and family experiences that Pickavance recounts in the book, he begins with a kind of existential crisis that occurred while, during his doctoral studies, he became unsure how to connect his knowledge pursuits and his faith pursuits. This crisis shapes our journey through the book as he attempts to articulate what knowledge has to do with loving God and following Jesus.
To get to this destination, Pickavance looks at the idea of knowledge and its importance in the Bible, especially in the life and ministry of Jesus. As he points out, “the Scriptures are rather obsessed with knowledge.” The faithfulness of God’s people throughout their biblical history is rooted in the knowledge of God and his ways. By contrast, unfaithfulness and rebellion stem from forgetting God’s ways. It’s a lack of knowledge that leads to sin. Seen in this light, Jesus’ ministry might be summarized as a matter of teaching us, like no one else before, who God is and how to know him.
Now, Pickavance is a philosopher, and a good one at that. No philosopher worth his salt is going to write a book about something like knowledge without making some distinctions and taking a moment to say what knowledge is. He makes an important distinction between knowing about someone and really knowing someone that serves him well throughout the book.
We can know facts about someone without actually knowing that person. I know some facts about U2’s frontman Bono, but alas I’m not acquainted with him personally. I know about him, but I don’t know him. But this doesn’t work in the reverse. We don’t know someone if we don’t know anything at all about that person. A big part of getting to know someone is learning some relevant facts. The more facts we know, the better we know that person. Knowing someone is surely more than merely knowing facts. But the facts are still vitally important for any relationship.
Understanding this is a game-changer for why knowledge matters. Without knowing about God, we can’t be said to know God, much less love and pursue God with all of who we are. Knowledge matters precisely because without it we can’t love; at least not properly and fully.
Knowledge, in this way, begets worship and devotion. The more we know about God, the more we fall deeper in love. Our worship and devotion flow from knowing who he is and what he’s done.
The upshot here is that our pursuit of God should be rooted in the knowledge of reality, and this makes subjective feelings quite beside the point. One must discover truth about objective reality, and discovery is an inherently rational pursuit.
In making this connection, Pickavance highlights the story in the Gospels of the father who brings his demon-possessed son to Jesus for deliverance (Mark 9:14–29). The father betrays a lack of faith by conditioning his request for help with a proviso: “if you can.” Jesus tells the father that “everything is possible for one who believes.” The father’s very honest response is “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” And Jesus indeed obliges and helps his unbelief. But he doesn’t snap his fingers and magically whisk his unbelief away. Instead, Jesus provides reasons for this desperate father to believe.
Pickavance argues that knowledge requires reason and evidence, even when it comes to the knowledge of God. This is what Jesus provides his would-be followers throughout his ministry. Why else would he perform so many signs and wonders other than to give reasons and evidence for people to believe? As Pickavance observes, “This is an important aspect of how God deals with our unbelief. He doesn’t manipulate us into a change of view. Rather, he educates.”
Now, God doesn’t always accomplish this through signs and wonders, but the prescription remains the same. We should address our honest struggle of unbelief with reason and evidence so that we might believe rationally and know the truth.
Never stop learning
It should be clear that Pickavance’s book is set against the all-too-common atheist trope that faith is necessarily blind and irrational. He (along with sensible believers everywhere) argues that faith—real and robust faith—is best understood as trust rooted in knowledge, which requires reason. After all, how can one face down the brutalities of life, sometimes including brutality at the hands of an oppressor, on a blind wish? Pickavance suggests the martyrs of old exemplified trust rooted in knowledge. When we place faith in what we know is trustworthy, our faith is well placed.
Pickavance goes on to address a variety of possible concerns about this approach. He looks at the consistency of Christian faith with science, the legitimacy of believing something on the basis of Scripture alone, and the reasons for maintaining belief in Christianity despite massive disagreement among peers. These are real dilemmas, Pickavance acknowledges, but he offers thoughtful reasons to think none of them defeats the idea that we can have knowledge of Christian truths.
Pickavance then ponders a final question. Factual knowledge about God leads us to the relational knowledge of God. Okay, but once we know God, why should we continue pursuing this knowledge? Why not rest content? The answer is that the fullness of God and fullness of the gospel are great goods worth knowing. Why should we never stop pursuing knowledge? Because we won’t exhaust the depth who God is. As Pickavance declares in a summarizing statement:
The answer is simple really: extending our knowledge about God is essential for deepening our knowledge of God. The gospel, in the end, is an offer of relationship with God, of acquaintance with him. In the gospel, we are offered the chance to be with God forever, to be present and laid bare before him without any shame, to experience the abundant life that comes with intimacy with him. We are beckoned back to Eden, where God dwells.
The theology classroom is seen by many as a stuffy affair only for the academically minded Christian, and even sometimes as a distraction from the real work of practical ministry. However, Pickavance argues persuasively that learning about God, in any context, should be an important devotional affair for all believers.
Travis Dickinson is professor of philosophy at Dallas Baptist University. He is the author of Wandering Toward God: Finding Faith amid Doubts and Big Questions.