Divine guidance through the lens of “looking at” and “looking along”

C.S. Lewis’s distinction between the ways of knowing “looking at” and “looking along”, which in German roughly correspond to “wissen” and “kennen” respectively (or in French “savoir” and “connaître”), is a very helpful one.

I would like to apply it here to an issue that is particularly close to my heart.

Christians often say that they let themselves be led by God. In very few cases does this happen through a direct, propositional[1] speaking of God. In practice, it is rather a combination of prayer, reflection, circumstances, and intuition. A concrete example: a young father feels a call to give up his day job (let’s say he is a high school teacher) and become a philosopher. Is this a call from God? In order to answer the question in the sense of “looking at”, we need a set of criteria to judge whether God’s guidance is present. Such criteria must be accessible for the protagonist as well as for outsiders. Examples could be: that there is a pronounced ability to philosophize; that the envisaged philosophizing is to serve the spread or defense of the Christian faith; or that the man’s wife agrees. The problem, of course, is that all of these criteria can apply, without there being any desire to philosophize; or that the person has a burning passion for it, but some of the criteria do not apply. Would it be justified to speak of a vocation in the first case, and to withhold this admission in the second?

It seems to me that, as legitimate and important as the “looking at” criteria are, the person involved must always make a “looking along” judgment as well. In other words: Their first-person perspective, unseen by others, is indispensable. The right way is rationally underdetermined, like trying to solve a four-variable system of equations with three equations. Thus, the young man might say that he is drawn to philosophy despite some foreseeable drawbacks, and this is accompanied by a deep inner reassurance that it is not a selfish desire. In some cases, several paths will equally satisfy the “looking at” criteria; in other (rather rare) cases, the path perceived as a vocation may seem quite unreasonable.

At this point, an important interface between “looking along” and “looking at” becomes clear. Impressions gained by means of “looking along” should be checked by careful “looking at”, i.e. reflection and evaluation. Basically, the experiencer has to take an outside perspective on him/herself as a direct experiencer and play advocatus diavoli, so to speak (although outsiders can indeed be immensely helpful in this): Where could wishful thinking prevail? Where am I perhaps deceiving myself, making things up? What are my motives?

And yet, the most careful rational examination must ultimately give way to mature intuition. Paul went to Jerusalem even though Agabus predicted imprisonment for him (Acts 21:11), which came to pass. In The Hobbit, a company of 13 dwarves and one hobbit face off against the giant fire dragon Smaug because their calling drives them to recapture Erebor. And Jesus Christ took up the cross “for the joy that was set before him” (Hebrews 12:2/ESV). In the latter example it becomes clear that the stony and dangerous path along what has been seen (if, indeed, it was revealed by God) is always the rationally best one, too – all things considered. But insight into this is only sometimes granted to us, always in retrospect, and in often perhaps  only in the world which “has no need for sun or moon to shine in it”, because “for the glory of God gives it light” (Revelation 21:23/ESV). Then, although this is perhaps a bit speculative, “looking at” and “looking along” may come to be one, unified way of knowing.

[1] A proposition is a sentence with a truth value, i.e. which can be true or false. “It is raining today” is a proposition; “ouch” or “Let’s go dancing” are not propositions.

Image by Marcos Paulo Prado / unsplash.com

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