Top to Bottom and Bottom to Top
Samuel Kuo—Canoga Park, California, USA
In the summer of 2006, I visited
the Vatican Museums. About an hour in, as I was walking through all the
magnificent rooms and admiring the fine art, I was pleasantly surprised to step
into the Raphael Rooms. When I beheld Raphael’s The School of Athens, chills literally went through my body. It was
magnificent. Not only was the fresco beautiful, there was a mental satisfaction
in recognizing it and remembering how my Art History professor expounded on the
Renaissance ideals encompassed within. Soon my eyes gravitated to the two
central figures located near the vanishing point: Plato was the one pointing
up; Aristotle was the one pointing below.
According to popular theory,
Raphael specifically painted these giants of western philosophy with these
gestures to symbolize and distinguish their contrasting ideologies. In many of
his works, Plato essentially questioned reality as perceived by the human
senses. To him, since the senses filter reality, what is sensed is merely
opinion. Therefore, ultimate truth can only be obtained if some being beyond
our senses could tell us what truth really is. This is why he is pointing up.
Plato’s approach to reality can be simplified as Top to Bottom.
Aristotle, on the other hand, is
often known as the father of science. Although he was Plato’s student, he
thought that Plato had it completely wrong—that our knowledge of reality can
only be defined by what is perceived by the senses and what is experienced. To
him, empirical knowledge is the only knowledge that can be trusted, and as a
result, constructs what we know as truth. This is why he is pointing down. His
down-to-earth approach is the basis of and philosophy behind all modern
science. Aristotle’s approach to reality can be simplified as Bottom to Top.
Though idealism (Plato) and
empiricism (Aristotle) are contradictory, they constitute the two ways in which
humans reason. The first—Top to Bottom—is the basis for all deductive
reasoning. This is where we use a guiding principle and draw conclusions from
it. The second—Bottom to Top—is the basis for all inductive reasoning: meaning,
from experimentation, we construct a higher principle and form a more general
Both approaches have their flaws.
In deductive reasoning, if the first principle is assumed incorrectly, then the
resulting conclusion will also likely be false. Likewise, in inductive
reasoning, the result is intrinsically a guess at the truth based on observed
cases. Since it is impossible to test infinite cases or account for all
possible variables, the conclusion may not actually be true, though it is one
with high probability.
We see, then, that one approach
cannot give us a complete picture of truth—we are best served if we think in both
directions: top to bottom, and bottom to top. One cannot and should not be
emphasized over the other. In fact, we should combine them.
Human reason affects all aspects
of life, including our spiritual life. Therefore, combining these two
approaches is critical for both truth-seekers and believers. A premise that
follows is: Believe so that you can experience; experience so that you can
believe. Both are correct and we need to combine them. If we only try one way,
we will be like a person standing on one leg.
This applies to many areas of
faith, but let’s just look at a couple. For example, how can truth-seekers
accept the Bible as the message of God, and not merely human copies of
reproduced ancient Jewish stories? It is usually best to simply encourage them
in the same manner: Believe so that you can experience; experience so that you
can believe. In other words, we should encourage them to believe so that they
can receive the Holy Spirit. Once they experience the Holy Spirit, it would be
easy for them to believe in God and His word. Having believed in the Bible,
they can then go into the storehouse of God’s word to experience His promises
daily. This becomes a positive-reinforcing cycle of faith.
Similarly, this principle applies
to established church members since the Bible contains both of these
approaches. Hebrews 11:6 tells us, “But without faith it is impossible to
please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a
rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.” To complement, 1 John 1:1 tells us,
“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen
with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled,
concerning the Word of life.”
The Hebrews and 1 John passages
illustrate how our faith in God is both top to bottom and bottom to top. We
need to come to God in faith to be rewarded by Him; having seen, heard, and
handled Him, we are able to believe in the Word of life. A healthy faith has
both correct theology and experience.
Emphasizing one without the other
is to be avoided. If theology is overemphasized, what results is a cerebral
faith, a lifeless faith, with little or no servitude, and no Christian living.
It must be a correct theology nonetheless. If seeking supernatural experiences and
Christian living without doctrine is overemphasized, what results is something
like Quakerism or similar religious phenomena. In the seventeenth century there
are records of Quakers gathering at meeting houses waiting in silence for the
Spirit to move them. If there was no inspiration by the Spirit, the entire
congregation would leave without speaking a word. If supernatural experiences
are emphasized without theology, then people will gravitate to the latest
As a final illustration, in Orthodox
Jewish liturgy, the five books of Moses are read together with the five books
within Psalms. The reason falls along the same line of thinking: God talks to
us through the Torah, whereby we receive the Law and instruction (top to
bottom); and we return to God through prayer by praying the Psalms (bottom to
top). That is essentially why Bible reading and prayer are equally important.
Emphasizing one without the other would result in a spiritual imbalance. So let
us neglect neither.
our journey of faith, there will always be more questions than answers.
However, in the True Jesus Church today, this basic philosophical structure is
something we can use for evangelism, apologetics, and cultivating our own
faith. As a preacher once told me, our faith often goes through three stages: a
blind faith, a reasonable faith, and finally an unshakable faith. When we reach
the third stage, we have already explored and experienced God Himself under the
framework of the basic biblical doctrines. Through this unshakable faith,
questions that may have plagued us before are quieted by a natural reverence
for such a personable God, our Lord Jesus Christ, who dwells in us and
continues to guide us. Since we have believed in the living Word, and
experienced how He has fulfilled His promises, we rest assured, for “the secret
things belong to the Lord our God, but those things which are revealed belong
to us and to our children forever …” (Deut 29:29).