I try to write in the spirit of exploration and discovery, not dogmatic finality. As I explained previously, to write is to focus my attention on a particular subject to see what that subject reveals about itself. My perception of the subject may, and likely will, be flawed to some extent, but even a roundabout route takes one closer to his destination than not traveling at all, as long as the general direction is correct.
In this case the subject is Understanding. To understand meaningfully and sufficiently is the second step in the Engaged Awareness Cycle (EAC), but it is first in priority. Within the flow of the EAC, we pay attention for the sake of understanding. We act because understanding drives us to such action. Those many elements that occupy our awareness only interest us inasmuch as we suppose that they are worth understanding and, perhaps, interacting with.
In our age, the word “understanding” seems to refer exclusively to those neurological processes which enable humans to navigate the material world. I “understand” that fire burns, therefore I am careful not to touch it. And while this understanding of “understanding” is accurate, it seems insufficient.
There is an aspect to understanding that eludes scientific analysis. It is easy to see why understanding the destructive nature of fire makes sense from an evolutionary biological point of view in that it directly contributes to the survival of our species. But how many of us, staring into the dancing flames of a campfire as we warm ourselves on a crisp autumn night, can’t help but feel the tug of the numinous, somehow understanding that there is something more taking place than chemical reactions?
To use another example, the fact that certain musical chord progressions evoke specific deep-seated and predictable emotions in us shows that we understand at a soul-level something that can’t be fully expressed in scientific terms, nor can it be explained in a materialist paradigm.
The use of the word “soul” is problematic for those who look to science to provide answers to philosophical questions. Because “even modern science admits it has difficulties explaining consciousness—the residue of the soul in beings that think,” it is easier for committed materialists to sidestep the issue entirely.
But, whether he admits it or not, even the skeptic can’t help but acknowledge upon honest introspection, “The mirth is not in the merry peal, nor the melancholy in the funereal toll of the bell; nor is the music in the flute or organ, but in the soul which breathes and beats and rings in harmony with the external movements” (pg. 299). He must concede that the soul “has principles at once deeper and higher than sense, and the faculty which compounds and compares the material supplied by sense” (pg. 286).
While this discussion doesn’t focus on the nature of the soul per se, it is an important component because, as some reliable and grounded philosophers have asserted, the understanding is a “capacity” or “faculty” of the soul. Some said there were two of these: the understanding and the will. Others, such as John Witherspoon, added a third: the affections, such as pleasure or pain (pg. 346). But regardless of the others involved, the understanding at least was always viewed as an activity of the soul.
To reduce understanding to chemical reactions in the gray matter of one’s skull is as superficial as reducing music to simple sound waves with complete disregard to its effect on the listener. Something is happening that gives music its transcendent quality that cannot be measured scientifically. Likewise, something is happening when one understands that goes beyond neurological response to physical stimuli.
So, assuming that understanding is a capacity of the soul, then to understand is to engage the soul in a process of development. We cannot understand something deeply and consistently without that understanding affecting who we are at the deepest level. Granted, understanding that fire burns doesn’t seem to be the kind of realization that changes lives. But a deep understanding of the destruction that fire is capable of, combined with the will (also a capacity of the soul) to do something about it, gives many a firefighter a meaningful way to do good for his or her community.
To understand meaningfully is both to comprehend a thing, at least to some extent, and its relationship to the one who understands. I can know all there is to know about a certain bus schedule but it means nothing to me unless I or someone I care to help needs to use it. In this sense, meaningful understanding is a dialogue between the subject and the object, as well as a comprehension of the relationship between the two.
Take, for example, the sentence, “There is a dog.” I may know much or nothing at all about the dog’s breed or history. But what matters much more than that is whether or not it is my dog. My relationship to it determines whether I am responsible for it and how dangerous it may be to me. In such a case, understanding the relationship matters as much or more than understanding the thing itself.
Now for the sentence, “There is a God,” which 87% of Americans affirmed according to a 2017 Gallup poll. Like the dog, my relationship to God matters, but in this case understanding what “God” means is even more critical to comprehending my relationship to him. This is because that which is greater sets the terms of the relationship. The dog, by nature of being a dog, is lesser than I. God, by nature of his divinity, is greater. As a human, I may own a dog. I can never own a God. If I could, he wouldn’t be God.
The point is that the object plays a major part in determining our relationship with it just by virtue of what it is. Between the dog and I, I am the greater being so I have much more of a role in determining, rather than simply understanding, my relationship to it. But in my relationship to God, he is the greater so he sets the terms except inasmuch as he limits himself and empowers me. As a result, understanding God is infinitely more consequential to the state of my soul than understanding the dog.
In this sense, to understand that which is greater than myself is to become greater than I was before. The more I understand God, limited though that understanding may be, the more my soul postures itself appropriately before him. I shed my pride as I understand his sovereignty. I grow in resilience as I understand his goodness in spite of the inevitable suffering I encounter. I become more responsible as I understand just how great and terrible a mission he has entrusted to mankind and the particular role I have to play. I become more reliant as I understand how fragile and error-prone I am, making his goodness and forgiveness that much more relevant to me.
So, if to understand is to become, and if paying attention frees our understanding to go to work on the object of our attention, then what we pay attention to deliberately and consistently determines who we end up being. And if that is the case, then the pursuit of truth is much more than the accumulation of facts. It is soulcraft at its most fundamental level.