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Top to Bottom and Bottom to Top
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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 conclusion.

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 spiritual craze.

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.

Undoubtedly, in 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).

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