A fortnight ago, I had the opportunity to participate in the Theopolis Institute’s intensive course with Dr Esther Lightcap Meek. Titled ‘An Introduction to Covenant Epistemology’, the course brought together over thirty students for a week of exploration into a Christian vision of knowing.
A Theopolis intensive course really is a unique experience. It begins on the Sunday evening, as we all assemble at the Leitharts’ house. Over a few hours, we begin to get to know each other, with informal conversation being followed by introducing ourselves to the gathered group, with a time of song and a charge and introduction to the week of studies ahead. Community, fellowship, and friendship are a critical dimension of any Theopolis intensive and this dimension is encouraged from the very beginning of the week: every participant in a course should expect to make new friends during their time.
Over the five days of the course itself, we begin with breakfast around 8am, followed by matins. Liturgy has always been at the heart of Theopolis’ vision and each day is punctuated by three periods of worship: matins, sext, and vespers (you can download the liturgy for free here).
The liturgy largely involves responsive singing, with chanted psalms. At the beginning of the week, when the liturgy is first explained, this might seem alien to students from many evangelical traditions. However, by the end of the week, most have become familiar with it and, on the two occasions I have been involved in a Theopolis intensive, a number have remarked on how powerful and important a feature of the week it is. Perhaps my favourite part of every day is the vespers service in Beeson’s spectacular Hodges chapel, where, accompanied by the organ and enjoying the great acoustics of the space, the worship is particularly glorious. Within this service, Peter Leithart delivers a brief yet rich homily related to some of the some of the themes that we have been exploring over the course of the day.
Dr Esther Meek is a compelling and charismatic lecturer, with an infectious delight in and enthusiasm for her subject and a tremendous capacity both to connect with students and to catalyse their bonding among themselves. At the beginning of the week, she carefully ordered the class into covenant epistemology groups, which we remained in for the entirety of the week. We regularly divided into these small groups of three or four participants to discuss among ourselves the concepts that we were learning, applying them to our own experience, before feeding back to the wider class.
Within this last course there were several denominational backgrounds represented, a significant range of ages, men and women, along with a wide variety of different vocations: people in the trades, in business, in the arts, in pastoral ministry, in academia, etc. This diversity allowed for some fascinating cross-pollination of and stimulating interaction of perspectives to occur.
The course itself was concerned with exploring the riddle of knowledge, with the question of epistemology. Although ‘epistemology’ may sound like a dry or forbidding subject, in Dr Meek’s hands it was anything but! From the very first session, she framed the subject matter of the course as intimately related to the ways that we arrive at the most concrete and practical of skills—learning how to ride a bike or drive a car, learning a musical instrument, or the art of photography.
A central concern of Dr Meek’s is to unsettle what she terms the Defective Epistemic Default, or the D.E.D.—students soon discovered that Dr Meek is fond of acronyms! The Defective Epistemic Default is, among other things, a ‘knowledge as information’ mindset. It is also a paradigm of thought that systemically privileges certain things over others: knowledge over belief, facts over values, reason over emotion, science over religion, objective over subjective, mind over body, etc.
Dr Meek regards herself as offering a sort of epistemic therapy to her students and, over the course of the week, it was clear that her teaching proved transformative for many. Her teaching didn’t just rearrange certain concepts in people’s minds, but changed the very manner that they perceived themselves to be involved in reality. The highly interactive form of her teaching encouraged students to become aware of how they already knew the things that they knew in a new way.
In place of the dysfunctional understanding of knowledge with which modern society has saddled us, Dr Meek offers an alternative epistemology, one heavily influenced by the work of Michael Polanyi. Where our prevailing frameworks can focus upon static knowledge, Dr Meek foregrounds the exciting process of coming to knowledge, something more akin to a pilgrimage towards an epiphany.
Knowing involves two stages, with a from-to movement, in what is called a ‘subsidiary-focal integration’ (S.F.I.). In riding a bike, playing an instrument, or doing philosophy, there are ‘subsidiary’ dimensions of our activity. Whether this is keeping our balance and managing our feet on a bike’s pedals, moving our fingers over the keys of a piano, or using familiar philosophical categories, these are skills or forms of awareness upon which our activity depends, but which are not its focus. They are generally things that we look from, rather than at. Indeed, we only tend to look at them when something has gone awry, or when we are learning a skill for the first time.
Dr Meek stresses the covenantal character of knowledge: truth involves our giving of ‘troth’, our pledge-like commitment to the object of our knowledge. Reality, framed by the fact of its givenness by its Creator, can never truly be scoured of the personal—indeed, it could be described as ‘personlike’. We must ‘know’ it in a way appropriate to the truth of its existence.
‘Best epistemic practice’—a very Meekian phrase!—requires a transformed comportment and composure in relation to the objects of our knowing, one marked by love, trust, humility, patience, respect, and joyful consent to our creaturehood. We must put ourselves in the way of reality, where it is likely to turn up. We must practice attentiveness to it.
Dr Meek said a great deal about ‘aha!’ moments and, over the course of the week, one of the striking things was seeing how many personal and collective epiphanies we experienced as students. The approach she offered provided a helpful framework and illuminating language for understanding many things related to our Christian thought and callings, to which she was repeatedly connecting her teaching. By Friday evening, we all felt that we had much to digest. Speaking just for myself, the week stimulated me to think more directly about key aspects of my ‘knowing ventures’ (another expression Dr Meek frequently employed), perhaps especially those related to the reading of Scripture. Even in areas where I was unpersuaded or somewhat critical of her approach, I was considerably clearer in my understanding by the end of the week.
A further delight of the week were the evenings spent in conversation and fellowship, especially the talent evening we had on Thursday, during which we were entertained with displays of dancing, singing, rapping, the reciting of poetry, acrobatic feats, the playing of musical instruments, the baking of cookies, and other impressive skills from various participants in the course! By the conclusion of the course, I felt exhausted but deeply fulfilled, and impatient for the next Theopolis course, in which Dr David Field will teach on the subject of ‘Paths to Human Maturity’.
While it will be a limited taste of the fuller experience of attending the course—not least because the lectures were so interactive and involved so much group work—audio lectures should be available in the near future on the Theopolis Institute site. If you would like to read Dr Esther Meek’s work for yourself, she has written several books. Loving to Know: Covenant Epistemology is perhaps the best book to read to get a deeper sense of her work. For those wanting more accessible introductions, I would recommend A Little Manual for Knowing and Longing to Know: The Philosophy of Knowledge for Ordinary People.
The Theopolis Institute seeks to renew people’s imaginative grasp of the symbolic world of the Scripture, enacted in the liturgy, for the reviving of the Church and the renewal of the culture. They train pastors and lay persons, provide resources to churches and students of Scripture, and help to forge networks of relations. It has been an immense privilege to work for them over the past few months; I can wholeheartedly commend their work and am excited about the ways it is developing into the future (while I work for Theopolis, I wrote the above post of my own independent choice).
If you would like to know more about Theopolis, you can sign up for their regular newsletter, In Media Res, here. If you would like to support the work that we do at Theopolis, you can do so here. On the Theopolis website there is also a frequently updated blog and various resources. I also participate with Peter Leithart in the regular Theopolis podcast.