‘Some areas of knowledge seek to describe the world, whereas others seek to transform it’. Explore this claim with reference to two areas of knowledge.
Some areas of knowledge do not simply describe and neither do they only aim to transform. Rather, some areas seek to do both, falling on a continuum between description and transformation rather than landing on mutually exclusive sides. I contend that two areas of knowing—history and religious knowledge systems—describe the world and transform it.
If any area of knowledge simple describes the way the world is, it would be history. In the West, the assumption that history constitutes a factual, objective description permeates most minds. C. McCullagh (2000, p.45) puts word to this typical view: ‘To describe what a historical subject was like, relative to some preconception of its general nature, is to provide a descriptive explanation of it’. He associates history with ‘descriptive explanation’ without mentioning the transformative goals of the recorder of history.
Some might claim that history formerly aimed to transform, while it now seeks to simply describe. For example, the earliest historians, in the form of ancient myth, certainly aimed to transform their hearers or readers. K. Kitchen (2003, p.262), on the cultures of the ancient Near East, writes, ‘there was, rather, a trend to “mythologize” history, to celebrate actual historical events and people in mythological terms. . . . The ancients (Near Eastern and Hebrew alike) knew that propaganda based on real events was far more effective than that based on sheer invention’. Kitchen does not necessarily agree that history now aims to describe. He rather reveals that former cultures certainly aimed to transform their world through history as an area of knowledge.
At this point, we cannot escape one matter: history does involve description. Even the ancients, in their myth and propaganda, rooted their material in ‘real’ and ‘historical events’. They described the world, albeit with a heavier hope to transform it. Thus, if history at least aims to describe, what is the purpose of this description?
Authors of history describe the world in order to, at least, convince the reader of that description. J. Collins (2011, pp.34–35) considers these matters and sets forth his conclusion: ‘I will take the term “historical account” to mean that the author wanted his audience to believe that the events recorded really happened. . . . This means that we might do best if we think of ‘history’ less as a literary genre . . . and more as a ways of referring to events’. In other words, historians describe the world in order to transform the mind of their reader, from unbelief into belief.
This confirms in my acts of recounting history. For example, I recently told a friend about my summer vacation. But as I started describing events, I realized that I had to make choices: I selected certain scenes and omitted others; I presented people and stories from a particular perspective, such as repeatedly mentioning my brother’s goofiness or the good food we ate throughout the week. Thus, my effort to describe the world was inseparable from goals, even unconscious goal, to transform it. I wanted my friend to see my vacation, but to see it in a certain way.
Religious Knowledge Systems
The converse of the assumption surrounding history appears in the area of knowledge embodied in religious systems. Religion is commonly thought to forward an alterative view of the world; it aims to transform the mind of the participant rather than simply describe the world. Let’s consider the example of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. T. Ware (1997, p.8) introduces his book, a classic on the Orthodox, with the following:
The Orthodox, therefore, make what may seem at first a surprising claim: they regard their Church as the Church which guards and teaches the true belief about God and which glorifies Him with right worship, that is, as nothing less that the Church of Christ on earth. How this claim is understood, and what the Orthodox think of other Christians who do not belong to their Church, it is part of the aim of this book to explain.
From the start, Ware claims a number of goals that center on transformation: to convince the reader of a surprising claim, and to help the reader understand it. Ware, writing in the area of religious knowledge, aims to transform.
But do we not find description in religious knowledge systems? Indeed, the Orthodox Bible itself, the New Testament as also accepted by Roman Catholics and Protestant Christians, reveals an approach to knowledge not exclusively transformational. One of the gospel writers, Luke, opens his account (Luke 1:1–4):
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.
He seeks to write an ‘orderly account’ and ‘compile a narrative’ based on eyewitnesses. Is that not description? However, Luke’s aim is not either/or; he wishes that Theophilus ‘may have certainty’ concerning what he has been taught. Luke wishes to describe and transform his world.
A. Louth (2013), another main voice in Eastern Orthodoxy, underscores two extremes in religious systems of knowledge, what he calls the philosophical and the devotional. In Western Christianity, he claims, some sought to express a ‘comprehensive philosophy— the scholasticism of the Western Middle Ages is a striking example’ (p.xix). On the other hand, ‘other movements have sought to reduce Christianity to a non-dogmatic devotionalism’ (p.xix) which emphasizes the adherents action, in mysticism or pietism. Thus the history of Christianity displays the extremes of both knowledge aims: description in the Middle Ages and transformation in the ‘devotionalism’ movements. However, for the Orthodox, ‘it is in prayer and worship of God that our faith is defined and redefined’ (p.xx). Louth joins the aims in his terms ‘define’ and ‘redefined’. I other words, Orthodoxy depends on description and transformation.
I have visited churches of all sorts and found that these experiences indeed transform my world. However, they also aim to describe the world, for preachers that I have heard claim that people hurt and need help, that things are imperfect but will eventually be set right. I do not intend to agree or disagree with these statements here, but I do intend to say that based on my religious experience, advocates in this area of knowledge both describe the world and aim to transform it. And I have, consequently, sometimes agreed with them. For some of their descriptions resonate with my perception of the world. However, I also found myself changed from the experience: whether a temporal peace of mind or a fresh perspective on the world’s problems.
Thus neither history nor religious areas of knowledge aim to only describe or only transform. Conscious or not, both describe their world and transform it. H. G. Wells (1971, pp.895–896) offers a pointed concluding comment: ‘All the things that men and nations do are the outcome of instinctive motives reacting upon the ideas which talk and books and newspapers and schoolmasters and so forth have put into people’s heads’. All things in history or religion do indeed say ‘what’ something is; however, they also say or imply ‘what ought’ to be or is.