See my previous posts here, here, here and here, as well as my initial outline of this argument to get caught up.

Today was the end of the 21st Theological Symposium at Concordia Seminary. This year the topic was on Scripture, asking whether it was “formative, or formality?” Clearly the question was rhetorical, but the challenge of the Symposium was to think critically once again about things we generally take for granted. Regarding Scripture, we know the right answer is of course, “formative,” but the challenge is to go on to further answer, “in what way?”

One presentation in particular, which argued about the fact that there will never be an objective, certain, absolutely correct interpretation of Scripture–an argument that extends from a non-foundationalist approach to theology, which I have argued for in previous posts–really bothered some people. That’s not surprising for a couple of reasons. First, to even begin thinking about theology from a non-foundationalist approach is not really something one can do after only an one-hour-long presentation, especially when that presentation simply assumes non-foundationalism (which this presentation did–it simply operated within that kind of framework). To think as a non-foundationalist about theology, one must take the time to wrestle with it. Second, and this will constitute the topic of this post, a non-foundationalist presentation of theology seems to beg certain questions for foundationalists which cause certain visceral, emotional responses. In so many words, for foundationalists, non-foundationalist theology freaks them out.

What do I mean? Well, in the course of the presentation on interpretation, which argued that in the end, all we really have the is ability to argue persuasively through offering our good reasons for holding a particular position or adopting a particular interpretation, some hearers felt like they were left with NO means for arguing or establishing their positions. Why did they feel so helpless? My sense is because for so long, they have lived with the assumption that there is a perfectly correct interpretation of Scripture (God’s interpretation, the author’s intention) and if we all just act sensibly everyone would simply come to accept the “right” interpretation, which is what we believe we have. I’m not sure what thinking sensibly would mean. Remember, it cannot mean jettisoning our biases and approaching Scriptural interpretation objectively because that’s simply impossible; our presuppositions are what we think WITH and without them there would be no thinking.

What I believe those people felt–the ones who were disturbed by the implicit non-foundationalism in the presentation–is a sense of loss, and further, a sense of not being grounded anymore, of not having an anchor, of not being able to defend their position, and quite possibly, that all theology is now thrown out the window and maybe God is gone too. I don’t blame them. I think that’s a perfectly natural reaction to something so unfamiliar. And I must admit, there was a time when I had that feeling too. That feeling scared me. It made me worry. It haunted me. And for a long time, I was a foundationalist, if only to avoid having to feel that feeling. I was worried about relativism, anything-goes interpretations, and lacking the ability to adequately defend what I believed. How could I even hope to convince other people of the truth of Jesus Christ, the existence of God, and the promises of the Gospel if I didn’t have the foundation of Objective Truth to cling to? How could I go on arguing for and exhorting people to a certain way of life–morals and an Absolute Morality–if there was no such thing as Absolute Truth?

These are all valid concerns and questions. And there are answers. Many of them have been hinted at in the previous posts. But, in this post, I want to address the valid emotional and visceral responses that are raised in a presentation of non-foundationalism or one in which non-foundationalism is operating.

For foundationalist, the operation of non-foundationalism, and many of the conclusions that one might draw as a non-foundationist (for example, that there is no “correct” interpretation of the Bible that is at least available to us, thus we’re left with a particular interpretation which we assert, argue for, defend, and try to persuade others to share), seems to be the very thing that Christians are meant to guard against. Non-foundationalism is the danger of the devil, we’ve been taught. It’s all postmodernist relativism, that Parisian perversion that proves Paris has nothing to do with Jerusalem.

All this thinking results from the fact that the foundationalist has read the non-foundationalists wrongly, but because he couldn’t do otherwise. Trying to present a non-foundationalist argument to a foundationalist is like trying to send a fax to someone who doesn’t have a fax machine–there is absolutely no way to translate the message so that it is received properly because the appropriate apparatus, namely the fax machine, doesn’t exist. The foundationalist simply cannot understand the non-foundationalist because he doesn’t have the proper apparatus. His terms, his concepts, his logic makes the non-foundationalist seem like a living contradiction who is merely oblivious to his “error.” So, common reactions of foundationalists to non-foundationalists include dismissiveness and a superiority complex that adopts the stance of, “well, once they let go of all that mumbo-jumbo, they’ll come to their senses and see that they’ve been wrong all along, then they’ll come back to our sensible position.” Foundationalists act as if everything is perfectly clear (or at least, that it can be if you think like them)–and that’s the problem. So much of the world does appear perfectly clear, both to foundationalists and non-foundationalists. The difference is, one group knows how to handle things when there is disagreement (the non-foundationalists can account for it–basically, they already know it’s gonna happen); and the other doesn’t. The foundationalists scoof, shake their head, rub there eyes, and wonder if they’re really seeing what they think they’re seeing (that is, a whole bunch of people who don’t think like they do, as if it’s a logical impossibility; but there it is, right before their eyes)–they’re always making an effort to get everyone to join some universal point of view, as if it’s obvious and sensible, and they just cannot understand why people disagree.

Hence, when Christians, who stake their very life on what they believe, teach and confess, run into non-foundationalism, they often react in highly emotional ways. Non-foundationalism opens the door to doubt, agnosticism, and demands at the very least an effort a re-accounting for the beliefs they hold. That’s a lot to face down. It’s ominous and threatening. Foundationalism is safe. The tendency is to be reactive, retreat, or hunker down and hope that big bad devil will just go away.

But what if foundationalism really is wrong. Further, what if it’s theological unfaithful? What if certainty, the “correct” interpretation, and our “sensible logic” has become an idol? Well, those are threatening questions too.

How do we work through those questions? How can we face down the challenges of non-foundationalism? How can we try to listen with a hospitable spirit to non-foundationalist presentations from people who purport to be Christians (that is, people like you and me, who share the same convictions about God, Jesus, salvation, hope, the end of all things, etc.) without reactively dismissing them? How can we seek to understand, so that maybe somehow, we can develop the apparatus of translating our understanding of them into something other than sheer dismissiveness?

My answer, which is also my own experience as someone who has been through it, is this: Listening. Patience. Humility. And by clinging to the promises of Jesus through prayer. Moving from foundationalism to non-foundationalism is undoubtedly a bit of a traumatic experience. It is very much a “conversion.” And I treat it with that sort of sensitivity. This isn’t just a game about logic, or different kinds of logic, or about one person being smarter than another. It’s serious business, especially when the emotional and visceral responses center around the fact that all of these ideas directly impact our faith convictions, the very beliefs we stake our lives and our eternity upon.

This post has been an effort at highlighting and taking seriously the emotional/affective elements of our journey toward non-foundationalism and the ability to give up concepts like “Absolute” truth and “Objective” truth–yet not Truth, but still admitting that what we call truth is our claim, our take, our conviction based on good reasons. I cannot in one post, or even in one conversation (but perhaps over the period of many) sooth all the fears, questions, doubts, frustrations, etc., that come with the challenge posed by non-foundationalism to foundationalists. I cannot in one post rid Christians of the sometimes haunting sense that to be a non-foundationalist means God, morals, and truth go out the window. I can only tell you that such conclusions are not warranted–you don’t have to give it all up. But in order to see whether or not I could be right, you have to stick around long enough, you have to participate in the conversation long enough, to see that it only means re-situating those beliefs within a framework of faith and confidence (rather than certainty). That transition (or if you wish, conversion) is not easy. This post is a means to freely admitting that fact. Been there; done that. I’m with you.

I leave you with these words from Lesslie Newbigin, British missionary to India for more than a quarter century and highly respected missiologist, who wrote them upon returning. It’s one of my favorite quotes because it demonstrates with humility a non-foundationist Christian perspective.

If we are in search of the kind of indubitable certainty which Descartes claimed, the Bible must be set aside. The Bible claims to be a true interpretation of universal history. Since we are not yet at the end of history and since it may yet contain many surprises, we cannot have indubitable certainty. The only possible responses to the claims that the Bible makes are belief or unbelief. There can be no indubitable proofs. No one has seen God so as to verify the claim that he exists. No one has seen the end of the world so as to be sure of the direction in which we have to go. There is no scientific way of testing the claims and promises that the Bible makes. There is no way of being indubitably certain that this is what history is really about and that this gives us the direction of our lives. It must be, as the church has always said, a matter of divine revelation accepted in faith (John 1.18). Proper Confidence (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 54–55.