One of my greatest fears is that we have forgotten how to know. Although this questions sounds silly or overly philosophical, it is, nonetheless, one that everyone must answer.
Today, I think it can be safely said, that the general consensus is that our brains function like biological computers. We are enamored with computers and even call our smart phones “accessory brains.” These gadgets allow us to access answers to many questions: packages of data to answer questions while eating street tacos or drinking coffee. We even have hopes of “uploading our brains” into computers so that we might live forever. (This is the old sin of Eden, and if you think I am making this up, check out “transhumanism,” championed by Ray Kurzweil of Google and his plans to do just such an upload by 2045). Thus, we “know” by our ability to recall a slew of facts, then process and analyze them.
That’s only half the story.
But the Middle Ages can set us straight. Those distant times which seem irrelevant to our cool modern world might be able to teach us a thing or two, that is, if we can set aside our chronological snobbery for just a bit. Way back then, human knowing involved the faculties of ratio and intellectus. These Latin terms need not dismay us, for their meaning is straightforward. Ratio is our reason—our searching, analyzing, examining, logic. This ability is what distinguishes us from the other animals. It is distinctively human.
But knowing also involves our capacity for intuition, contemplation, i.e. our spiritual vision (intellectus). Only humans have this characteristic too, but it is actually beyond our material nature, since it is of a spiritual origin. It is given by God for communion with him and understanding of him (Genesis 2:7). How else could a material creature (us) understand the one true God who is spirit?
Thus, we know through our reason and our spiritual vision—both.
Such a view of knowing will obvious reject the notion that the universe is “nothing but” material. Instinctively, intuitively, contemplatively, we know the world we experience is something more. How we know this is via our spiritual vision—some know little of it for they are almost blind; others see more, enabled by God to know. And this sort of knowing is a strange thing: it is accessed by silence, by quiet, by reception—unlike our reason which is honed by constant acquisition of new data and facts, never-ending analyses, perpetual information processing. One is quiet, the other busy. One is received, the other grasped. One is easy, the other is difficult.
This should not surprise us, for He told us long ago, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”