Navigating Knowledge: Suspicion as Spiritual Praxis


Spiral stairs in Saint Istvan Basilika in Budapest, image courtesy of FidlerJan at

Spiral stairs in Saint Istvan Basilika in Budapest, image courtesy of FidlerJan at

My goal is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. Colossians 2:2-3 (NIV)


Every year I teach a required upper-level course on Literary Criticism and Theory. In the span of a semester, my students and I paint broad strokes across centuries of intellectual history, from Plato to Foucault, studying the ways in which meaning and purpose are expressed through language and literature.

Highly speculative and interdisciplinary, the course challenges students to see how other fields of knowledge can deepen our interpretation of literary texts. We explore how Immanuel Kant’s revolutionary ideas about the nature of cognition fueled Romantic theories of literature. We examine how Sigmund Freud’s and Jacque Lacan’s theories of the unconscious provide a rich framework for understanding the motivation of literary characters. We enter into a game of intellectual gymnastics when we use poststructuralist theory to deconstruct the very foundation of literary composition—the idea of the author—by questioning whether authorial intention is the ultimate measure of meaning, and whether meaning can even be found at all.

I sometimes think my undergraduates feel like this foray into the world of the literati is a rite of passage that must be taken with the same rigid resolve as one takes a bitter dose of medicine. I am also tempted to say that studying criticism and theory, the “school of suspicion” as Paul Ricoeur famously said, is a largely secular endeavor that within the context of Christian thinking can feel downright heretical.

But there’s much to be gained from bold learning. When we step from the sand into the tide of intellectual curiosity and teach our students to do the same, we model more than critical thinking skills; we model a form of academic discipleship and faithfulness that finds the freedom in Christ to explore, question, and doubt without the fear of going under. We also teach our students that there is no “outside” of Christ, no physical or intellectual space or fold of time that isn’t part of his creation. This was true for Isaac Newton, and it is certainly true for us. God will give us the lens through which we can see epistemology—the endless questioning, the abandonment of meaning, the circular arguments, the dizzying lack of foundations—from his vantage point, not as an end unto itself but as a means unto Him.

We need not shy away from worldly ways of knowing by forming boundaries and standing behind dichotomies, for where we can only see in part, God enables us to see more. Lesslie Newbigin believed this kind of Christ-centered learning is not antithetical to the “secular” but is instead

a way of understanding reality as a whole, a way that leads out into a wider and more inclusive rationality…a wider rationality that in no way negates but acknowledges and includes these other kinds of explanations as proper and necessary” (90).

Christ will buoy us up to the surface of knowledge, to the source of light, and to the author of time, transforming intelligence into wisdom and using all of it for His glory in our lives and in the lives of our students.


How might you be challenged to see critical thinking as a form of worship? How might academic theory become spiritual praxis in your discipline?


Oh Lord, give us courage to engage all the questions of our fields. Let us see that You have made all things for Your glory, and You sustain and guide them. However mysterious, complex, or unsettling a question may be, let us see that You can use it to point us to Your vast strength and unending goodness. In Jesus’ Name, amen.

Further Reading

Newbigin, Lesslie. Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel in Western Culture. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 1986. Print.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Biographia Literaria.

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Angela O'Neal

Angie Crea O'Neal is an associate professor of English at Shorter University where she also holds the Joan Alden Speidel Chair in English and serves as the chair of English, Modern Languages, and Liberal Arts. Her poems have recently appeared in The Cumberland River Review, Kentucky Review, and San Pedro River Review. She lives in Rome, Georgia with her daughters, Marin and Maeve.

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  • Bethany Bowen-Wefuan commented on November 4, 2014 Reply

    This was very encouraging, Angela! As a graduate student in German Studies, I have wrestled many times with how to approach literary theory – this helps. Thank you!

      Angie O'Neal commented on December 1, 2014 Reply

      So glad, Bethany! Thanks for reading it! Blessings.

    Pat Walsh commented on November 5, 2014 Reply

    Reading this post together with Andy Walsh’s latest post in the Science Corner (5th November 2014), we are encouraged that there is no discipline in either the Humanities or STEM where serious critical inquiry is not appropriate.

    John Mulholland commented on November 6, 2014 Reply

    Nicely done. I like “bold learning” !!!

    I think Tim Keller’s briefish paper “Common Grace” speaks to issues you address here.
    For example, you speak of “worldly ways of knowing.” Maybe there is simply a common way of knowing, to which Christians bring their faith. But, the knowing and learning process is one on which we all are engaged.

    I will quote Keller’s two concluding paragraphs. [Find his paper here. * ]

    “Without an understanding of common grace, Christians may feel no need to study the world and other human cultures in order to get to know God. But the fact is that we need to appreciate truth and wisdom wherever we find it, and that studying different cultures, languages, artwork, and music expands not only our appreciation of the created world but also the God who made it.
    • Without an understanding of common grace, Christians will have trouble understanding why non-Christians so often exceed Christians in morality and wisdom. The differences between believers and nonbelievers are, sadly, often rather hard to discern. One of the reasons, of course, is the common stain of sin. The other reason is the gift of common grace.”

    • aoneal2013 commented on November 11, 2014 Reply

      Thank you so much, John. This is the second time this week I’ve been reminded of the doctrine of “common grace.” I hadn’t thought about it from that perspective, and I absolutely agree!

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