Stretching Our Epistemology as We Consider Our Witness

by Scott Bessenecker

Scott Bessenecker, Intervarsity, word and deedThe initial shock of living in a place where animals, rubbish, and people co-existed had worn off. Olfactory habituation is the process of growing accustomed to a constant, yet potent smell. This had occurred for most of us with the odor of the decomposing trash which surrounded us. But a sort of social habituation had occurred as well—we were becoming accustomed to the indignities of life on the margins of society.

My family and I, along with a dozen university students, had just spent the summer living and serving in a garbage collector’s community in Cairo, Egypt. I was growing uneasy as the time approached to call these young people to give a portion of their lives to live as agents of change in this community and communities just like it around the world. Many of the people among whom we lived seemed fairly content with their lot in life. Those who grow up on the margins face hardship and suffering with great equanimity and even a measure of peace. Who was I to call young, North American college students to relocate long term as catalysts for change in these places? People here seemed content with the situation; perhaps we should be as well.

A couple days before I was to challenge students to relocate, I experienced a powerful dream.

As I drifted in and out of sleep, I could see and even smell the dung truck. Because many of the residents of the garbage community raised animals on the compostable trash, large quantities of dung piled up in this urban poor community. Every so often, a flatbed truck pulled up to various residences to haul out animal waste. Men shoveled dung into baskets and carried it on their shoulders up a wooden plank, dumping it into the truck. The sweet, rancid smell of freshly shoveled dung baking in 110 degree heat was overpowering. The men who performed this task were covered in dung and sweat.

In my dream, our three children were sitting atop the heap of dung on the truck. They, too, were covered in dung from head to foot. It was the look on their faces which shook me. Rather than distress, my children appeared content. They were not disturbed in the least that they were sitting in deplorable conditions.

Then, I sensed God speaking to me: “As their father, are you content with their situation?”

The dream rocked me out of my complacency with the indignities that so many of us become content with. Friends on the margins who believe that poverty is their destiny, or who have no hope left for change, can become accustomed to indignity. That does not mean that God becomes accustomed to their indignity. The dream gave me new passion to call students to become catalysts for change. It also gave me new eyes to see the many ways that I have become content with garbage in my own life.

Now I could well have discovered this truth in scripture. But this time, truth came to me in the form of a dream. I have had other such dreams or even visions where God has spoken to me. God has also spoken through my experiences, through the action of others, and even through nature.

Epistemology is the study of how we come to know, understand, or believe something to be true. In the West, we base our understanding of truth primarily on those things which can be tested, observed, and measured. This Western, or modernist, way of knowing has deeply impacted the Church. Reacting to medieval superstition, most Western Christians have scrubbed our epistemologies (at least the ones we admit to) of anything we deem subjective.

As a new Christian I learned that ‘fact’ was the engine of the train of truth, and that emotion was the caboose. We cannot base truth claims on things so slippery as dreams, visions, or emotions. Sola Scriptura is the modernist, Calvinist epistemology. There is little room for us to encounter spiritual truth outside of scripture—thus, the importance of word over deed in the evangelistic approach of many Western Evangelicals.

Words do indeed represent a powerful tool to understand truth. God spoke the world into existence with the words, “Let there be…” Jesus is called the “word” in the Gospel of John, and he told his followers “… by your words you will be justified and by your words you will be condemned.”

But words, even the words in scripture, are simply one slice of how humans are designed to understand truth. People can be led astray by so-called “objective truth” just as they can be by so-called “subjective truth.” Modern science gets it wrong quite often. Even the Pharisees missed the Messiah in their obsessive focus on scripture (John 5:39). The psalmists often incorporated an epistemology which included nature: the heavens declare the glory of God, the trees of the field clap their hands, and everything that has breath praises God.

A modernist apologetic which looks exclusively to words will fall short in a postmodern world and will not make an impact in the world outside the West. We need to stretch our rigid epistemology steeped in the individualistic, modernist culture of northern Europe, the birthplace of Protestantism.

Native American epistemology, on the other hand, is much closer to a full-bodied epistemology (and also closer to ancient Hebrew epistemology) and will more likely appeal to the postmodern person. Author Barbara Deloria expresses it this way:

In an epistemological sense, there is no question that the tribal method of gathering information is more sophisticated and certainly more comprehensive than Western science. In most tribal traditions, no data are discarded as unimportant or irrelevant. Indians consider their own individual experiences, the accumulated wisdom of the community that has been gathered by previous generations, their dreams, visions, and prophecies, and any information received from birds, animals, and plants as data that must be arranged, evaluated, and understood as a unified body of knowledge. (Deloria 1999)[1]

It is time to recognize the disproportionate place Evangelicals from the West have given to word over deed and acknowledge that we have dismissed other ways of knowing. God speaks to the postmodern and Majority World through dreams, visions, experiences, and the environment. Let us hold our northern European cultural lens of truth in tension with the ways God created much of the rest of the world. He desires for people to encounter Him and His truth in multiple ways—through word, deed, dream, vision, history, nature, and community.

[1] Barbara Deloria, Kristen Foehner, and Sam Scinta, ed., Spirit and Reason: The Vine Deloria, Jr. Reader. Golden, Colo.: Fulcrum Publishing, 1999, p. 66.


Scott-Bessenecker-2Scott Bessenecker (@Bessenecker) is associate director of mission forInterVarsity Christian Fellowship. Each year, he helps to mobilize thousands of students to high-crime, high-poverty neighborhoods in the U.S. and to dozens of nations around the world. He is author or editor of five books, including his new release Overturning Tables: Freeing Missions from the Christian-Industrial Complex. Scott also blogs at