Thursday, February 10, 2011

'Head knowledge' means only one thing: Hypocrisy. It is not about abstract academic works or learning.


Have you heard of the phrase "head knowledge"? Yes.

Where? Every where, from home to school to church, in books, and in the press.

What does it mean? It means a form of knowledge that is metaphorically located "in" the head. The emphasis is on the "in". It is seen in two different manifestations:

Manifestation 1: It exists only in the "inner" part of our being where there is no exterior material or physical manifestation of this knowledge. Hypocrites fall into this category. This is alienation on the individual-personal level.

Instances of authors who are actually referring to hypocrisy when they use the phrase "head knowledge" (probably to soften their rebuke):

"Satan knows that as long as you are content with merely having head knowledge of the Word, you are not much of a threat to his plans. But as soon as you get serious about making some changes in your life, he will fight you tooth and nail."
(Rick Warren, Rick Warren's Bible Study Methods: Twelve Ways You Can Unlock God's Word [USA: Zondervan, 2006], p.37. Emphasis added.)

"By true religion Wesley meant our knowledge of our spiritual relationship with God. [...] Wesley was overwhelmed by the courage and faith of his fellow passengers, the Moravians. [...] Wesley could hear the Moravians singing and praising God. He realized in that moment that although he had head knowledge of God, he had no real living faith."
(Richard J. Foster and Gayle D. Beebe, Longing for God: Seven Paths of Christian Devotion [USA: IVP Press, 2009], p.185. Emphasis added.)

"This same trust factor is that which changes any of the roles from being just head knowledge into practical, relational experience."
(Allan Coppedge, Portraits of God: A Biblical Theology of Holiness [USA: IVP Press, 2001], p.372. Emphasis added.)

"Growing in Christ doesn't mean that we acquire a bunch of head knowledge. It means that we grow in areas such as moral excellence, intimacy with Christ, self-control and discipline, perseverance, godliness, kindness, and love."
(Rory Noland, The Heart of the Artist: A Character-Building Guide for You and Your Ministry Team [USA: Zondervan, 1999], p.37. Emphasis added.)

"John's qualification for being a child of God by believing on His name means much more than just head knowledge. It is not just giving intellectual assent to the fact that the name Lord Jesus Christ is the label attached to the person. It means to rest in Jesus, to put all of our trust on Him alone for forgiveness and salvation."
(Anne Graham Lotz, Just Give Me Jesus [USA: Thomas Nelson, 2009], p.25. Emphasis added.)

"So the end of theology is not the acquisition of mere head knowledge. The goal rather is heart transformation. Our knowledge of God leads us to faith and repentance, motivates us to adore and worship him, and prompts us to serve him out of love and devotion."
(James R. Estep, Jr., Michael J. Anthony, and Gregg R. Allison, A Theology for Christian Education [USA: B&H Publishing, 2008], p.22. Emphasis added.)

I bet many of us have encountered preachers rightfully preaching against such "head knowledge" (i.e. hypocrisy). I have.

Manifestation 2: It exists only within a group. Those who do not belong in the group do not have access to that knowledge. And "access" does not necessarily mean only material or physical access but includes also cognitive access. For instance, only those who are familiar with the relevant discussion understand a recent article by Peter Scott titled ''Global Capitalism' vs 'End of Socialism': Crux theologica? Engaging Liberation Theology and Theological Postliberalism'. This is alienation on the group/class level.

Given the significant nuance of each manifestation, there is always a risk of misunderstanding the phrase "head knowledge" when it is used without qualification, be it on the pulpit or in conversation. Due to this, often there is a negative connotation of the phrase.

What is the negative connotation? It is hypocrisy in the first manifestation, while irrelevance in the second.

With these negative connotations, why then people still use the phrase on others? When used in the first manifestation, it is to encourage praxis. While used in the second manifestation, it is to discriminate the disagreeing others, stamping them as "irrelevance" for their defiance. It is a class struggle, of course. It is a rhetoric used to discriminate those who disagree with us so that we can ignore and dismiss them regardless of the standing of their say.

But what about those impractical "head knowledge" exercises like speculating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin? I see this sort of exercise belongs to the second manifestation. Its relevance belongs within certain groups. On the issue of impracticality, we have to ask 'impractical to who?' Practicality depends on the relevance of such exercises to which group. To some, they wouldn't care to note what is the role of Jacques Derrida's "différance" in his idea of deconstruction. While to others, they spent significant portion of their lives learning it, teaching it, hold conference and organize seminar concerning it, and write books about it. An entire market is established due to such execises that are based on some knowledges that are deem impractical to others. So what is practical or impractical is really a question on relevance. And the question on relevance is a question on the dynamics of group interest.

But we do have cases where people, especially academicians, talk in ways that others do not understand, you know? Yes, I know, but that is not an issue of "head knowledge" but an issue on communication. Each of us are exposed to limited amount and genre of vocabulary and prose in our interaction with literature and people. Hence when we are exposed to literatures written in ways that are beyond our reckoning, it is not that the author is engaging on "head knowledge"; just that we do not share the same experience and hence also "wavelength".

So the next time we encounter anyone uses the phrase "head knowledge" on others not as a reference to hypocrisy, we should be open to the possibility that it could be a Marxist's class-struggle rhetoric to mask one's inferiority.

1 comment:

Mak said...

Hi Joshua,

Thanks for pointing out the sweeteners that preachers often put to mask the reality of hypocrisy. I will bear that in mind when I preach about that point the next time round.

On the other hand, I was wondering if there is another room for "head knowledge" that fits neither of the category you described. I can't find the technical word to it yet but let me say that it is the "knowledge by experience". For example, I know that when husband and wife quarrel, it does not feel good. However, to know it as something I read off a marriage book/chickensoup/gossip mag/thrashy newspaper and to experience it first hand are two different forms of knowledge in a certain sense. Yet, I would perhaps be quite ok to describe the first as head knowledge.

What do you think?