Wittgenstein told us that we were under the influence of a picture, one repeated to us endlessly by our own language. He had in mind a certain image of knowledge, representationalism (and related, correspondence), where “inside” images/ideas/beliefs are true if they accurately represent or correspond to entities “outside” of us. On this view the basic form of knowledge is the proposition: the cat is on the mat. This is an apple. Verifiable statements are the highest form of knowledge, because most clearly able to be true or false. Indeed, by this account a whole host of sentences we speak turn out to be nonsense, or manipulation, or emoting. This was seen to be a clearing away of detritus, a purifying and courageous step into the clear, cold light of facts.
Knowing-that is here the prized aim of human inquiry. But among its many problems, there are several forms of human knowledge which are obscured by this account. There are things we know and say that do not neatly map onto true/false verifiability, without reducing out the core of the reality we are trying to express: the taste of a watermelon on a hot summer day; our ability to balance on the two wheels of a bicycle while weaving through traffic and thinking about what to buy for dinner; the trusted intimacy of friendship. None of these are reducible to propositional statements about the state of entities “outside” us nor to impressions or beliefs “inside” us.
This is especially true when we consider that these kinds of meanings — which are usually the ones we consider most important — have their significance in relation to a wider, unlimited background of historical awareness. So the watermelon means not only its taste, but endless childhood summer days, red-and-white gingham picnic blankets and the innocence of youth. And these themselves have significance within a wider social web of meanings we have constructed as a people, meanings we are born into and know how to navigate before we can articulate them.
What comes into view here is that we are not the kind of creatures who have minds, behind a screen, as it were, forming beliefs about the world and checking them (if such a thing is even possible — this turns out to be very difficult, impossible, to do). Rather, we are beings thrown into the world, immersed in experience and developing intimate, engaged knowledge of our surroundings long before we are forming propositional statements about cats on mats. Prior to this and primary in our experience is know-how, our ability to cope with the world as we find it.
This is a messy, engaged knowledge with infinite directions of fuzziness as our environment careens away from us in all its complexity, and impinges on us with all its mystery. But it is what we somehow manage to do.
It is this background that we must bring with us when we engage the practice of reciting creeds in the church. The creeds, like all things in our modern age, have been reduced to know-that. When we say, “I believe in God the Father,” it seems to us that we are saying, “I have inside myself a belief of a certain state of affairs, such that God that Father exists, which (theoretically, on the right circumstances, even if these are in principle impossible) could be verified as true or false.” This is all such a statement can mean on a correspondence theory; if it intends meaning in any other way, it can only be nonsense or emoting. (Many people do understand the creeds in just latter sense, as a way of avoiding the clash of differing dogma — we are all just expressing what we feel about the world, these propositions being impossible to verify anyway.)
But the creeds are not (primarily, anyway) a form of knowing-that. They are a practice of knowing-how, a re-narrating of our experience that helps us live into and cope with the world in a certain way. “I believe in God the Father” is not a proposition, but a performance. It is the act of entrusting oneself to God the Father; it is also the act that constitutes us as a community of people who choose to live inside the narrative handed down to us by the church. We perform this, even when we doubt the propositions, because we are living into them. The lines of the creed, like poetry, reframe our experience of the world. If we live in a world with Father, Son, and Spirit, then we (in Charles Taylor’s illuminating words) cope with this world in a certain kind of way. In fact we may come to know-that there are Father, Son and Spirit , but only after practicing a certain kind of life. This is not after all so very strange; I come to know-that my friend is trustworthy only after knowing-how to entrust myself to her. Most of our propositional, know-that knowledge is parasitic on knowing-how coping with the ordinary world.
So we perform the creeds to tell us what kind of world we live in, so that as we cope with the world in light of this story, we come to know-that (increasingly and always incompletely) the story is true.