In a discussion about Matthew Arnold’s Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse,[1] my professor created a popular (but false) distinction between knowledge and belief. Contemporary to Arnold’s writings were the development of Enlightenment criticism of the Bible as well as the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859. Both factors (as well as others) compelled Arnold, the son of a clergyman, to question the place that religion, and, by extension, a religious person, had in the world. For, as my professor suggested, how is one to read Darwin and Genesis without conflict?

Arnold writes this lament in Stanzas:

Wandering between two worlds, one dead,/ The other powerless to be born,/ With nowhere yet to rest my head,/ Like these, on earth I wait forlorn./ Their faith, my tears, the world deride -/ I come to shed them at their side.[2]

Allegory of Faith by Morretto da BresciaArnold’s speaker is caught between the world of faith and the world according to Enlightenment thought. The speaker cannot find a place to rest between both worlds and, therefore, cannot muster faith but only tears. I understand Arnold’s pain. The way that his writing evokes this emotional longing helps me to recall the pain I once felt on the same issue. But, while I believe Arnold’s poems can be a launching point for some good discussions, my professor has shown that it can also lead to some unfortunate mischaracterizations.

Upon discussing the stanza above, he told my class:

“We can know things to be true without resorting to belief. For example, I don’t need belief to know that, were I to stick my hand in a bowl of water, that it would become wet. I would know that’s what would happen. Think about it. How can any largely intelligent person (like Arnold) be truly happy? It’s the getting rid of that pesky problem of ‘knowing too much’ that is the solution for belief. It’s like that saying in the Bible, ‘Unless you become like little children…’ you know? At some point, you have to be like the church father who said, ‘I believe because it is absurd.’”

This dichotomy between belief and knowledge is false. While it is possible to believe something without knowing whether or not it is true, it is not possible to know something without believing it is true. It would be absurd (to borrow my professor’s language) to say, “I know something that I do not believe.” Therefore, knowledge is belief. More specifically, knowledge is a justified true belief. And any characterization attempting to separate knowledge and belief (as if they were two opposing things) is foolishness.

Jesus and the childrenSecond, my professor has taken the Bible quote out of context. The verse reads, “Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). Of course, if anyone takes this particular verse and removes it from the surrounding verses, he might be able to make the argument that Christians should become like ignorant children. However, in verse 1 the disciples asked Jesus who the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven was. Now, that kind of a question is rooted in an almost arrogant, competitive foundation, isn’t it? What does it mean to be the greatest in anything unless there is a system of competition to discover this greatness? Jesus, seeking to take the disciples down a peg (in my opinion), says become like a child because, in verse 4, “Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” So a child-like humility is the key. Not making yourself ignorant. As a matter of fact, in 1 Corinthians 14:20, Paul explicitly says, “do not be children in your thinking… in your thinking be mature.” So, my professor hasn’t helped himself by quoting the Bible to further his comments.

Third, the statement, “I believe because it is absurd,” is a popular misquoting of Tertullian who never actually said that.[3] Instead, Tertullian was a proponent of rational thought; believing it to be a natural outworking from God.[4] Even if a church father actually had made that statement, that doesn’t make my professor’s case that knowledge is not belief. That just means somebody in the past had made that statement.

So, my professor hasn’t done himself any favors quoting the Bible out of context and recalling a quote that doesn’t exist in order to create a false dichotomy between knowledge and belief. This is one of many examples of intelligent academicians (like my professor who has his Ph.D. and is tenured) who make egregious errors when speaking outside of their field.


[1] The poem displays Arnold’s conflicted view of Christianity as something that men cannot do without but also as something that men cannot do with as it is.

[2] Lines 85-90.

[3] David C. Lindberg, “Science and the Early Church,” God and Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter between Christianity and Science, ed. David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1986), 26.

[4] Ibid.

1 COMMENT

  1. So we can have belief without knowledge, but we cannot have knowledge without belief. They don’t oppose one another. This may be a moot point, but I can certainly see scenarios where knowledge precedes belief. Take for example any new discoveries in science, history, etc. The discovery itself provides the knowledge, which in turn sparks the belief. This still down’t put them at odds, but I could see someone claiming all things must first be known before a belief can be rightly claimed. Just throwin’ that out there.

    In your professors example, the “columbo” tactic might be to ask him how he knows his hand will get wet. He would likely recall prior experiences involving his hand and water. So, what makes him KNOW that the same will happen again? Well, he’s justified in proclaiming that as knowledge based on every single prior experience. He can also proclaim it as true because all factors involved are the same (following the same laws of nature) as they were before. So what he’s actually proclaiming in the statement “if I stick my hand in a bowl of water, it will become wet”, is a justified and true belief.

    I’m curious what class this was for? What branch within liberal arts? And did you or anyone in the class protest what he was saying, either it’s validity or the quotes from the church father and the Bible?

    • Yeah, great comments, Gene. I’ll answer these backwards.

      No one has a chance to say much in class because the professor doesn’t open the class up for discussion. If someone wants to ask a question, they have to essentially interrupt what he’s saying. Because this happens quite often in class, I choose to pick my moments of interruption.

      I’d rather not say which specific class or what this professor’s name is since some of my classmates are coming to this site as part of assignments and I think it’s in poor taste.

      As far as scenarios where knowledge can precede belief, I think it’s tricky. It’s almost like trying to decide what comes first in the ordo salutis. But I will say that belief and knowledge can be an instantaneous enterprise. And I don’t see any scenario where someone knows without also believing what he knows. Certainly there can be accidental discoveries as you pointed out but, since I don’t see any point in time where someone legitimately knows something without also believing it, I’m not sure knowledge can precede belief. Seems more like both happen at the same time.

      I could certainly be wrong about that but those are my thoughts. Thanks for the comments, Gene!

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