What does it mean to come to know something?
This is the simple question behind the fancy word epistemology.
Dru Johnson has written a short book, Scripture’s Knowing, to explore what the Bible has to say about what it means to know something.
My tendency is to think that once I’ve ‘gotten the point’ of something mentally I’ve ‘understood it.’ In our culture, we do a lot of our learning in the classroom.
When it comes to what we ‘do’ – things like baptism and communion – we think of them as simply outward expressions of what we already know. Baptism becomes merely a public display on our internal faith. We don’t expect the experience itself to teach us anything. And yet it does, whether we understand it or not.
With the Lord’s Supper, we often think of it as a merely reminder that Jesus died for us. Yet we experience something more than that, even if we don’t totally comprehend the experience.
But throughout much of the Bible, learning comes from doing which leads to deeper understanding
Actions lead to experiences which lead to deeper understanding.
One example in Israel’s story is the Feast of Tabernacles/Booths. During this time, the people were expected to live in tents for 7 days.
The story of the wilderness wanderings after the Exodus from Egypt was frequently retold and the generations knew it. Or at least they knew about it. But the Bible indicates that an annual experience would lead to another knowing.
“Celebrate this as a festival to the Lord for seven days each year. This is to be a lasting ordinance for the generations to come; celebrate it in the seventh month. Live in temporary shelters for seven days: All native-born Israelites are to live in such shelters so your descendants will know that I had the Israelites live in temporary shelters when I brought them out of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.’” Leviticus 23:41-43
Reflecting on this, Johnson says this: “The Hebrew Bible repeatedly depicts rituals as epistemological. For instance, the express goal of tent-living seven days during Sukkot (Feast of Booths) is so that Israel’s generations would know that YHWH made Israel to live in booths during their flight from Egypt.”
“By recounting the story to the children, Israelites can make known the bare fact of tent-living to their children. However, a different goal emerges in the biblical text: knowing something about tent-living during the exodus. That something-to-be-known can only be known through tent living.”
The core idea here is that biblical practices “are meant to shape knowers and not merely express what is already believed or known.”
As I already mentioned, this may have an effect on how we think about baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
But what about Feet Washing?
John’s account of the Gospel tells this story about Jesus washing the disciples feet. I’ll quote Jesus’ ‘debrief of the experience:
“Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” John 13:12-17
As far as I can tell, most Christians feel that it’s not significant to practice feet washing. The common view is that Jesus wants us to understand that it’s important to serve others. So ‘washing feet’ becomes a spiritual principle for the way that we live in service. We think that as long as we know the ‘bare fact’ that we are supposed to serve others, it doesn’t matter if we actually wash feet.
While the understanding that washing feet is meant to shape our entire lives is surely right, is there something significant that we miss when skipping this awkward practice?
Jesus’ approach was first the experience and then the understanding.
Much like living in tents for a week helped the children of Israel know something that just being acquainted with the story did not, I would suggest that literally practicing the washing of one another’s feet helps us to know something about Jesus and the life of discipleship.
Take note of Jesus’ last statement quoted above. “Now that you know these things…” How did they know? Not only by Jesus’ words but also by his actions and their experience.
They knew after they experienced feet washing.
And if we want disciples today to know what those disciples did, perhaps we need to think more seriously about not only teaching what Jesus taught but doing what he did and taught us to do.
There are things that we can only know when we do.
And according to Jesus, we’ll be blessed if we do.