Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Well, What Do You Know?

Written by: on October 20, 2022

The Tacit Dimension by Michael Polanyi contains a clear and concise premise, namely, “we can know more than we can tell.”[1] The book primarily addresses knowledge management, more specifically, tacit knowledge. Polanyi, a Hungarian-British author, and a professor worked in physical chemistry, economics, and philosophy. The book is divided into three sections, containing his Terry lectures delivered in 1962. Polanyi illustrates how people, whether they know it or not, use tacit powers of knowledge to solve problems, intuition, comprehend the meaning of signs, use tools, and the awareness of objects around them and forces within them. Gestalt psychology greatly informs Polanyi’s concept of tacit knowledge. A fundamental tenet of Gestalt psychology includes holism, a belief that the whole is great than the sum of its parts.[2] Gestalt theory also introduced the concept that perception includes more than merely seeing objects in the world but get influenced by one’s motivations and expectations.

Hilda Werschkul blogged, “Polanyi presents an insight about preconscious, unarticulated knowing, which shows that perception constructs an integrated unity of our sensory experiences in order to construct meaning.”[3] Certain aspects of knowledge reside in one’s conscious and unconscious mind but are not transferred to others easily. He uses the example of recognizing a face in a crowd of even millions to illustrate constructed meaning of the whole based on parts. While on a deep philosophical level, Polanyi sounds a lot like Daniel Kahneman and System 1 thinking informed by heuristics which are mental short-cuts based on assumptions. Kahneman points out that most of the time, System 1 thinking is correct and helpful. Polanyi helps the understanding of how those heuristics get established in the conscious and unconscious. If I had more time, I would try to understand if Kahneman’s heuristics align with Polanyi’s tacit knowledge or if they differ in specific ways. Agrawal also dealt with bias in her book, Sway, primarily from the negative perspective of ways prejudice forms. [4] Reading both the positive aspects of what we know and how that helps and the negative ways our assumptions can go awry call for a careful tension between the benefits and the detriments of what we bring to the application of knowledge.

As I process Polanyi’s deep and powerful argument, I think of what it means in a faith community context. A few applications and implications stand out:

  • A frequent question in the church asks, “how does one’s faith grow?” I fear that for too long, the church has put its discipleship “eggs” in the content “basket.” By that, I mean a belief that transferring certain information to people through print or lecture will mature the faith of many. Unfortunately, I believe the church in America is reaping the poor harvest of those sparse seeds. Applying Polanyi’s thought to faith would call for a dynamic approach to spiritual growth. Content would accompany communal expressions of faith, deep and ongoing relationships with others, personal faith engaged in real life, and shared traditions/markers of faith steps. Spiritual growth contains numerous dynamic elements that create a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts.
  • I also find Polanyi arguing for a human purpose larger than oneself. “Men need a purpose which bears on eternity.”[5] That line made me think of Jesus’ words in John 12:25, “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (ESV) Humanity exists to live for something bigger than itself. This bigger purpose calls for a faith that leaves room for mystery, knowing that finite humans cannot comprehend all aspects of an infinite God.
  • Also, faith grows in some theological truths that cannot be completely known. Rather than hard and fast explanations of profound truths, a growing belief will contain a willingness to journey with what is known about God and understand that there is more than we can know. For example, how can someone explain the Trinity to fit into human categories of understanding? Perhaps a church culture more recently born of a rational age can learn from the mystics to recapture a needed element of faith not easily fitting into human dimensions.
  • Finally, I wonder if the future of theological study best pursues Biblical Theology rather than Systematic Theology. Beyond static categories, an unfolding work of God continues that invites people to journey with a God bigger, better, and beyond our comprehension.

Polanyi sounds like a member of the “Society of Explorers” he encourages and, perhaps, a spiritual leader when he writes, “It is the image of humanity immersed in potential thought that I find revealing for the problems of our day. It rids us of the absurdity of absolute self-determination, yet offers each of us a chance of creative originality, with the fragmentary area which circumscribes our calling.”[6]


[1] Michael Polanyi and Amartya Sen, The Tacit Dimension (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009), 4.

[2] Kendra Cherry, “What Is Gestalt Psychology,” September 28, 2022, accessed October 19, 2022, https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-gestalt-psychology-2795808.

[3] Hilda Werschkul, “The Tacit Dimension: Perception, Language and the Construction of Meaning,” The Art Trainer October 28, 2018, accessed October 20, 2022, http://www.art-trainer.com/blog/2018/10/28/the-tacit-dimension-perception-language-and-the-construction-of-meaning.

[4] Pragya Agarwal, Sway: Unravelling Unconscious Bias (London: Bloomsbury Sigma, 2020), 13.

[5] Polanyi and Sen, The Tacit Dimension, 92.

[6] Ibid., 91.

About the Author


Roy Gruber

Husband, father, pastor, student, and sojourner in Babylon

10 responses to “Well, What Do You Know?”

  1. mm Troy Rappold says:

    RG: I like the point you bring out: “Polanyi argues for a human purpose larger than oneself: ‘Men need a purpose which bears on eternity.'” It sounds like something out of Proverbs or a Pauline epistle. Polanyi comes at truth through such a logical, philosophical approach, yet he does not discard faith. The combination made for an interesting, although difficult, read. How does faith grow? reading this book is one way…

  2. Kayli Hillebrand says:

    Roy: I appreciate the direct implications from Polanyi this week. Specifically with your first one regarding how faith is grown, is there anything in the immediate that you’d like to change or address with your congregation in light of the reading and processing this week?

    • mm Roy Gruber says:

      Kayli, I feel like we’ve made a number of changes over the last few years in this direction. Research around my NPO also led me to conclude that learning is more diverse than transferring information from one source to another. We talk about loving God (worship), loving people (small groups), serving the world (spiritual gifts), and inviting a friend are multiple ways God grows our faith. I love theology and I have come to appreciate the example of Jesus’ time with His disciples – it was not a content dump but it included content. So much was learned “on the job” as they lived out their faith.

  3. mm Eric Basye says:

    This is a great blog. Way to dialogue with the text and make all those connections. Well done!

    I would love to hear more about this statement: “I fear that for too long, the church has put its discipleship ‘eggs’ in the content basket.” Am I right in understanding that you are suggesting that “we know more than we can communicate,” so in a sense, discipleship is much more than the transfer of knowledge?

    • mm Roy Gruber says:

      Eric, your question similar to Kayli’s so I will cut and paste part of my answer to her here: Research around my NPO also led me to conclude that learning is more diverse than transferring information from one source to another. We talk about loving God (worship), loving people (small groups), serving the world (spiritual gifts), and inviting a friend are multiple ways God grows our faith. I love theology and I have come to appreciate the example of Jesus’ time with His disciples – it was not a content dump but it included content. So much was learned “on the job” as they lived out their faith. I do believe there is also some tacit knowledge present in the faith arena. I wonder if the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit fits in that category too?? I’ll have to think about that…

  4. mm Denise Johnson says:

    This was a well thought out blog. I too wrestle with the apparent lack of dynamic growth in the church. Keeping Polanyi’s thoughts in mind, what might it take to activate the seeds that God has already planted in the hearts of the people? Is it possible for a leader to do it or does it rely on the Holy Spirit’s work?

    • mm Roy Gruber says:

      Denise, great questions! I believe in the power and work of the Holy Spirit for sure. I also believe God works through gifted leadership, so it’s a both/and answer on that question. I fear we’ve often made growth equal to knowing information. That’s a good thing but it’s not the end goal. As I look at the early church, it was lived faith that made a profound impact on the world around them. If we pictured the situation in the American church, it would have a large head (filled with information) and a skinny body (lack of application). Just one man’s opinion…

  5. mm Nicole Richardson says:

    Roy, thank you for offering your questions that arise from the task of this reading.

    I myself struggle with Gestalt Psychology. Perceptions people have seem to be constructed out of biases…and often perceptions just are not reality. What sense do you have regarding how Polanyi might respond to this statement?

    Biblical theology? I am curious what this looks like to you?

  6. mm Roy Gruber says:

    Nicole, very good and large questions. On the first, I think Polanyi totally bought in to the idea of the “whole is greater than the sum of the parts.” There’s always more present than what we see or comprehend. I feel your tension with Gestalt psychology which also places a lot of understanding on our expectations. How do we regulate that without getting off course? Based on what I read (and I’ll admit this was a tough read for me), I think Polanyi would accept the reality of never being able to keep ourselves out of the process of learning and knowing. As for the second question, to me Biblical Theology is a study of the unfolding plan of God, unlike Systematic Theology. Systematic takes categories of theology and examines everything the Bible says about that. Biblical Theology studies themes as they emerged within the chronology of the Bible. There is some overlap between the two but Systematic Theology can result in a false belief that “we know everything there is to know about that” versus Biblical Theology that traces God’s story with an implication that His story is still in process.

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