Category: Philosophy


The Suppressed Binary Opposite

**This post follows in a series according to this outline.

To define the “suppressed binary opposite” is to say that behind whatever someone might be arguing for, there is something that is left unsaid, usually the very idea which the argument being made is trying to protect. So for example, in keeping with the argument of this blog as of late toward a non-foundationist way of seeing the world, there hasn’t been a suppressed binary opposite because I’ve been rather clear about what I’m trying to argue against: foundationalism. But, if I were a foundationalist, the suppressed binary opposite would likely be harder to detect. Foundationalists are, in my mind (because I used to be one), trying to protect a certain view of something. Within Christian apologetics and the practice of theology, usually the desired object of protection is a certain view of God, truth, or morality.

Thus these are at least three of the suppressed binary opposites of foundationalism, at least as far as theology is concerned. Here is how they tend to be argued (or assumed) and a few problems which non-foundationalists try to point out.

—–

God is generally held to be a logical necessity. The arguments which assumes this tend to reflect on the Big Bang and Creation ex nihilo, and conclude that someThing had to start everything, someOne had to create from nothing (the operative concept being “had to”), and that someOne or someThing is GOD. In addition, it is argued that for there to be a meaning to life, there must be a someOne to give life meaning or purpose.

The problem here can be identified with a simple question: who is God is this case? Christianity tells the story of who God is by telling the story about God’s Son, Jesus Christ–the very Word of God, God’s self-revelation to the world, God-in-the-flesh, the God-man. We receive the story of Jesus Christ through the Church and through the Scriptures (simultaneously – a theological point that I won’t elaborate upon here).

To say that God’s identity is known in the narrative of Jesus Christ might seem quite obvious to most Christians. As it should be. What stands out in this particular conversation however, is the nature of the issue that the God referred to by foundationalists is a God WITHOUT a particular identity. That God is the so-called “God of the philosophers.” (In case you didn’t notice, that God is also an idol.) It is the platonized God, the God of logical necessity, required by reason to justify a story we made up. What is that story? Well, it is one which claims that the world around us was created. Was it? How do you know? Could the cosmos not be an eternally recurring thing as is argued by some astrophysicists? Or could it not be an illusion, as is argued in the East?

The point of those questions is to point up the debatability or contestability of the particular story which says the world was created. What is argued (or assumed) first is that the world was created. But should that be the first point of argument. Do not the Scriptures begin in another way? They proclaim God’s existence, then His subsequent creation of the world. Why start with the world and then demand a God as its creator simply by logical necessity? Such a claim is not, in fact, Christian.

I mentioned above that the story of the world/cosmos is one we made up in which we invoke a God of logical necessity in order to explain its existence. A second feature of that story is the assumption that there must be meaning to life. That begs the question, must there? Who says? Again, the problem is beginning with a certain story about the way things are and then making up a way to justify it.

It may seem a trifle or a mere nuance to argue that we should tell our stories in the right order, but this works out to be vitally important. If we only begin with the features of the world/cosmos we see around, if we only tell a story which works by simply stating propositions (i.e., there is meaning to life, something can’t be created from nothing, etc.), then we end up formulating a sophisticated means of justifying those premises, justifications which may work out to be nothing but great falsities and problematic stories which future generations will have to work hard to undo (see what I did there?). If on the other hand, we simply tell our stories the way they have been given to us–that is, if we simply proclaim the story of the Christian narrative and go on to make sense of the world through the story it tells of the world, we in fact do not have to deal with complicated fabrications like a “God of the philosophers” because we meet the God of Jesus Christ instead.

—–

Truth is understood to be Absolute, simply because the opposite of Absolute Truth is Relative Truth, and relativism regarding truth is absurd. Thus, truth is Absolute in a self-evident manner, or so it is argued or assumed.

What to do with this…? I’ve written in some of the other posts (as well as noting in personal conversations) that when we deal with truth, we always do so as if whatever we are saying is true REALLY IS TRUE. That’s how we do it. We can’t argue for something being true without this phenomenon (except when we’re doing something different, like pretending, fantasizing, or lying – but that would be SOMETHING different).

I’m making a descriptive argument here. Truth may indeed be Absolute. We tend to operate as if it is. The problem with the above assumption of foundationalism is this: it does not admit that when we speak of truth we are making a claim about truth. Whatever we take to be Absolute Truth is not incontestable (unless of course you think you have perfect knowledge of everything – but why would you be reading this blog?). There may be good or bad reasons for thinking one claim is the truth as opposed to another claim. But our claims to truth are made in faith. There’s no other way about it.

—–

Morality is God’s Will for how we should live. Get rid of truth or God (which foundationalists are afraid non- or anti-foundationalists are doing), and morality falls apart because morality always needs some sort of foundation–an eternal Law-Giver–so that morals are unquestionable and all are accountable.

This argument is simply naive. There is not room to go very far into the issue here, but the naivety of this argument is shown clearly in the written records of the experience of missionaries to foreign lands where the local people’s don’t live like people in the West – their moral code is simply different. Historical studies also show that morals have changed over time – not necessarily on the continuum of good to bad or vice versa. Morals adjust to social situations. Sociological observations of this sort simply demonstrate that morals differ among peoples and among time periods and that it is ultimately within cultures and communities that morals are established, agreed upon, change, and measures for accountability or transgression are constructed.

How does this line up with biblical morality? First of all, is there such a thing? The obvious answer might seem to be, duh, of course there is. How about the 10 Commandments? What about Natural Law? Regarding the 10 Commandments, where is the perfect interpretation of how to carry them out? Consider how exactly one might honor one’s mother and father…What if someone is orphaned? What if honoring one’s parents means respect and doing what you’re told as a child, yet doing what’s best for your parents (as you understand it) when you’re older, even if it’s not what they want (which might still be honoring and respecting them)? Regarding Natural Law, what exactly is it? Natural Laws are human efforts to use language to describe reality. Who’s to say that gravity, a so-called natural law, won’t someday work differently – might not something fall UP? What about murdering someone? What about lying? These may seem more simple, yet there are complicated questions which surround these issues as well, making the interpretation of how to carry them out difficult to sort through (think end of life issues, think of when an ax-murderer shows up at the door asking for someone whom you know is present).

These questions are enough to compel one to rethink the uncritical adoption of such foundationalist presuppositions about morality.

—–

The three assumptions are what foundationalists are AFRAID of losing in the challenge presented by non-foundationalism. Because of such fear, there is an effort in their argumentation to protect these presuppositions. In that way, they stand as at least three of the suppressed binary opposites of foundationalism. They often go unspoken. Apologetics will at times deal with these arguments explicitly, but that is the at times simply the role of a particular kind of apologetics. However, more often than not, these assumptions stand behind a Christian foundationalist view of the world – they are the assumptions that we cannot give up because if we were to do so, we would no longer be Christian. My argument is such a position is hopelessly unChristian. They begin outside of the Christian narrative and are smuggled in the backdoor, as if the Christian narrative were talking about these ideas all along.

The significant issue which compels this writer to challenge the assumptions of a God of logical necessity, absolute truth, and absolute morality is simply this: faith. Underneath these assumptions is a distinct inability to prove any of them, and thus, they are maintained only by faith. If that is the case, they might be at the very least, rephrased or reframed so that if they are going to be associated with the story of the Christian faith, they might be articulated in a manner that shows how they distinctly emerge out of it, and thus are more faithfully Christian. At times (and this is more often than not), truth remains a debatable question in some way, as does morality. The question of God, even though we have a distinct revelation of Him in Jesus Christ, is constantly under fire in a self-critical way. Jesus Christ always comes to us through the Word to challenge our understanding of Him as the revelation of God. Thus theology and theologizing go on, indefinitely, until He returns. Such is the way of non-foundationalism.

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.

I’ve had papers accepted at two more conferences this year. The first, the Truth Matters conference hosted by the Institute  for Christian Studies in Toronto, will be held at Victoria University at the University of Toronto in August. Below you can read the abstract I sent. The paper is entitled “Truth as Far as the Story Goes.”

Narratives provide the supporting rationality for all of life. They make life intelligible at every level, even accounting for what might be considered unintelligible, by making room for mystery or anomaly. Narratives, or what are sometimes referred to as traditions (e.g., in MacIntyre) constitute what has been called the “cultural imaginary” (see Ward, but also Taylor, Ricoeur, and others)—the very fabric of life in society in which actions and interactions are both driven and understood through a “magma” of images, metaphors, myths, and signs.

This paper will explore the phenomenon that truth is carried and constructed, in and by stories. Through a conversation with some of the figures noted above, as well as others, the paper will highlight the situational nature of truth as intimately connected to the narratives and traditions of local contexts. From within these local contexts, particular practices of treating the truth and reflecting on it emerge. Every context has a particular hermeneutical tradition, one which both conceives of truth and provides a normative guide for judging truthfulness and pursuing truth through, for example research and learning. In other words, every context or community has a sense that it knows what it is looking for when it speaks of truth, and it also has some way of judging whether or not it has found the truth.

Yet the above construal raises a serious question. If truth is bound by the limits of narrative or cultural imaginary, and if additionally, each society, community, or tradition has a unique way of construing the truth as well as a means of getting at the truth, then how might we deal with the general assumption that there is an underlying, singular truth definitive of all reality? Certainly, modernistic rationalism and empiricism, which rely so heavily on certain procedures or methods of argumentation, have failed in the endeavor to arrive at a universal conception of truth or any sort of universal method for arriving at definitively truthful conclusions—various sorts of postmodernism make this critique, both Anglo-American and Continental. Some have feared, then, that on this basis we must conclude relativism. But we need not conclude such an “anything goes” perspective.

That truth is carried in narrative is the assumption of this paper. But we are not left to concede that every narrative has an equal corner of the market on truth. As Charles Taylor and others have noted, there are good reasons for accounting for reality in some ways rather than others. Or to speak more in line with the present argument, there are good reasons to believe that certain narratives carry the truth account for reality better than others. This is not to say that these reasons are not up for debate—in fact, Taylor’s argument assumes they are debatable. It is only to say that in the pursuit of truth narratives, traditions, and cultural imaginaries are all semper reformanda. Through debate, conversation, epistemic gain, and persuasion, narratives are both formed and reformed. The paper will pursue this reasoning regarding the plurality of both narratives and truth, as well as how narratives might change.

The paper will also offer suggestions for further reflection: What might these conclusions offer to a new conceptualization of truth? One possibility is the encouragement of a much deeper analysis of our how cultural practices both communicate truth as well as how they form persons of a particular kind to the extent that they are truthful reflections of the narrative which underlies their identity as members of a particular society or people.

Another possibility is a deeper exploration of how individuals come to take certain narratives to be their narrative. Is it a process of indoctrination? What are they deep mechanisms of production which are at work in forming individuals to be particular people? It seems there is also another very important question here: to be aware of these processes, mechanisms, or systems of indoctrination is of value on the epistemic level of understanding, but how does such awareness do further work in forming and informing practices? In others words, what is the point of simply knowing about the phenomena at work in cultural production, as opposed to putting that knowledge to work?

The second paper is entitled “Narrating the City from a Sacred Refuge.” I’ll be delivering that at the Religion and Modernity in a Secular City conference, hosted by the Katholische Academie (Catholic Academy) in Berlin, Germany in September. The abstract is below.

Jaques Derrida has advocated for cities of refuge for writers who were persecuted and silenced in their local contexts of authorship. Might this concept of cities of refuge and the focus on writing and writers be of great importance for a consideration of religion in the secular city? As a refuge from the city but still within the city, the church can bring the marginalized and persecuted voices of private citizens into the public sphere, effectively blurring the line between the realms. These voices write the story of the city as its citizens—not just with words, but with ways of being. Without such voices—voices which have been silenced publicly—the city does not exist, for as Graham Ward has noted, writing and the city are so inextricably linked. The church is the very place which can best write the narrative of the city, from the very beginnings of the city and cities to the narrative of the city as it should be—an image of the eternal city. The church can best narrate the story of the present and local city for, as a place of refuge it is a place which houses the stories of the city in the voices of its people. In so narrating, might not the church offer a transformative politics through the story it tells? This is the story which represents the city as it is and the vision that calls to it, that haunts and has haunted its being since the first city—the story of the eternal city. This paper will argue for such a view of the church in the secular city. The church is a community of refuge which can narrate the city’s present and its future through practicing the citizenship of the eternal city in modern times.

I’m hoping to meet Graham Ward at this conference. I have been particularly influenced by his work. He’ll be the keynote speaker.

The Argument So Far

If you haven’t been following along in this conversation about Absolute/Objective Truth, you can see where we’re been (also here and here), what we’re up to and where we’re going.

The main point of my argument thus far is this: Christians seem to think that to be Christian, they must argue for the existence of Absolute/Objective Truth, which they then proceed to equate with God/Jesus/The Bible. The whole sense of a “requirement” for this kind of argument in Christianity is unnecessary and has dangerous consequences. Two reasons.

First, to make the argument for the existence of Absolute/Objective truth, Christians have to borrow from a grammar that is not distinctly Christian, thus forcing them at times to make arguments that are not distinctly Christian (take for example Intelligent Design, which many Christians wholeheartedly support – it argues for a “god” any monotheist could accept – a “god” who is not distinctly the God of Jesus Christ).

Second, the borrowing of this grammar is done as an effort to defend Christianity (or justify it) usually in scientific or philosophical ways. In the end, the goal of Christians is to argue for the truth of their beliefs and the authority of their worldview over and against all others. However, by making purchases from a grammar that is not distinctly Christian, compounded with the sense that there is a need to justify Christianity to the secular magisterium (that is, philosophical rationality or scientific empiricism, or some combination thereof), Christians unwittingly relativize the authority of the Christian view to the authority of a higher court.

In the end, Christians will fail about both projects–Christianity will not be taken as authoritative because that position has already been granted to the secular magisterium in the decision made be Christians to argue following the magisterium’s rules and using its grammar; and the opportunity to claim Christianity as the Truth Objectively/Absolutely will fail for the same reason, that is, because those concepts are distinctly a part of the magisterium’s grammar, NOT Christianity’s.

In that last few posts, I’ve tried to situate where this argument comes from. In other words, I’ve tried to show how an uncritical commitment to foundationalism has driven Christians to argue for the existence of Absolute/Objective Truth. Christians simply assume we “must” argue this way. My argument is we need not feel so compelled.

As a viable alternative, I presented the idea of non-foundationalism, primarily through links to two well-written articles on the topic from the web–useful resources for Christians. Because non-foundationalism exists more as a “critique” of foundationalism (it tends to specifically reject the assumptions of foundationalism), non-foundationalism does not necessarily hold assumptions that have specific consequences.

For example, foundationalism assumes the existence of Absolute/Objective Truth and thus works toward the end of discovered indubitably “what” that Truth is. Non-foundationalism, on the other hand, rejects such a way of speaking as unnecessary and untenable, preferring to speak more of the provisionality of knowledge rather than certainty, of truths in the plural but not necessarily of truths that are equally valid or even necessarily in contradiction, etc. Non-foundationalism is thus not a “hard” or “strong” way of speaking, in a “last word” sort of way, as foundationalism is. This lack of specific consequences is frightening to some upon a first encounter with non-foundationalism. I will deal with this affective element in my next post.

As an alternative to foundationalism, non-foundationalism offers to Christians the ability to makes claims and the truthfulness of the Christian narrative while not borrowing from the grammar or submitting to the authority of the secular magisterium. Non-foundationalism allows Christians to more effectively critique other views while simultaneously (and importantly) being open to their voices so that conversations can proceed with care, understanding, learning, and humility. Later posts will offer examples of this kind of conversation and engagement.

In order to further situate the conversation of Absolute/Objective truth, it is helpful to review a little bit of the Enlightenment attack on Christianity. While both of the previous posts (here and here) have alluded to this attack, this post hopes to offer a little more specific background information in the form of a narrative. It is important to note that there have been entire books and series of books written on this topic (see here, here, here, & here). The Enlightenment was truly a revolutionary time in the history of the West. Thus, my post won’t do it justice. But, for the sake of this little project, it will hopefully provide a little more information for curious readers and establish our starting point before we move on further into the outlined conversation.

It should be noted, as has been done by many scholars, that the Enlightenment was not explicitly a focused attack on Christianity, nor a necessarily intentional attack. At times, through various thinkers, it was both of these things. However, at other times, thinkers and writers were making very serious and engaging efforts at finding ways to reconcile the thought of the Enlightenment with Christian revelation. They meant to find a way to show that what was coming to be understood through Enlightenment rationality and science was indeed a deeper and further understanding of God’s created world. So, note well that the word “attack” is used with some trepidation, especially regarding the earliest stages of the Enlightenment. As enlightened thinking became more encased in the imaginary of the Western world, the idea of an attack is more justifiable from certain angles. Nevertheless, throughout the Enlightenment up to its birth of modernity and even within our current postmodern (late modern, late capitalist, hypermodern) mood, there continue to be significant efforts to justify Christianity. You can consider this series of posts and effort at severely critiquing one of those methods of justifying Christianity–one which plays by the Enlightenment’s rules and adopts modernity’s grammar. My argument is essentially that Christianity need not justify itself in this way–it has its own rules and its own grammar.

—————-

The Enlightenment was a time in which men thought they were no longer in need of a religious perspective to explain the world. Through the power of their own reason, men believed that they could understand and explain the world better than religious and/or superstitious ideas. This kind of thinking arose probably for numerous reasons, but two come to mind.

First, as man’s abilities in scientific discovery grew, even though science as a discipline was at first meant to be a study of God’s Creation and therefore God Himself (according to Romans 1.20), eventually man’s confidence began to overtake his need for reflection upon God or even the need for God to answer what questions man was unable to answer. Man found himself eminently more able than ever before to answer questions about the nature of reality through his scientific endeavors that even for the questions that remained unanswered, man lived in hope that his abilities or other advances would eventually allow for the discovery of answers by means of his own efforts.

Second, because of the presence of many conflicts based on religion, religion itself came to be questioned. For, in general, Christianity, the religion that dominated the region from which the Enlightenment emerged, taught peace instead of conflict. Yet many of the conflicts were themselves religious disputes, or worse, Christianity was used to endorse certain other disputes. Thus the contradiction between the call for peace by Christianity and the use of Christianity in perpetuating conflict caused some to question religion altogether, in an effort to understand it better (not necessarily attack it, at least at first, although that is eventually what happened) and possibly correct it. However, such investigations into Christianity resulted in a culture of perpetual questioning of religion, to the extent that Christianity itself would eventually be challenged at the most fundamental level—its entire validity as a worldview would be undermined.

Thus science and criticism emerged as the dominant forces uprooting the hold the Christianity had upon the culture at large. Some of the challenges of science came at the level of history, archaeology, literary criticism, and naturalism. Efforts were made at disproving the story of the Scripture one event at a time by claiming that the biblical narrative was untrue, that it was not real history. These challenges took the manifestation of archaeological investigations which sought to prove certain people and places did not actually exist, or that events recorded as miracles did not actually happen or could be explained otherwise. The Bible itself was challenged in terms of authorship, internal contradiction, textual critical problems, and interpretive discontinuities. Naturalism questioned supernaturalism by offering natural explanations for what were once taken to be supernatural events (or by dismissing supernatural events altogether as impossible or mythological). Naturalism took the form of biological arguments in competition with the biblical narrative like evolution and natural selection, or as geological and astronomical/astrophysical arguments that gave alternative accounts of the age of the earth and universe. All of these efforts were thought to be validated by some sort of empirical measure, through the use of the unbiased, disinterested scientific method that, as noted above, had no need of supernatural explanation or a “God of the gaps,” and was therefore significantly more powerful in a simple manner for explaining all that is.

The challenges of various kinds of criticism came at the level of philosophy, like in ethics where the God of the Old Testament is challenged as being different from the God of the New Testament because He is wrathful rather than graceful—this was important because of the religious disputes noted above (such views of a wrathful God perpetuated them because of God’s endorsement of the sword) but also for the simple sake of interpersonal relations and the implications which could be drawn from Scripture on how to live ethically and peacefully as compared to the emerging ethical philosophies that posited man’s ability to live in a peaceful social contract with one another. Moral philosophy altogether was redirected away from the teachings of Christian theology through thinkers like Kant who posited man to be an autonomous moral subject who could know (and do) right and wrong according to his own reason.

The Enlightenment was a time when man believed himself to be illuminated/enlightened in his own reasoning abilities beyond the need for religious revelation. Its influence is still present today in modernism and its flavors—it continues to challenge religion in a general, but Christianity most explicitly.

In my most recent post on Situating the Conversation about Absolute/Objective Truth, I referred variously to foundationalism, non- or anti- foundationalism, objectivism, relativism, subjectivism, and intersubjectivity. I didn’t spend much time explaining any of those terms for lack of space. So, in this post, I offer some citations of various sources for further clarification on those concepts.

Objectivism

By “objectivism” I mean the basic conviction that there is or must be some permanent, ahistorical [meaning non-historical, or outside the bounds of history/creation] matrix or framework to which we can ultimately appeal in determining the nature of rationality, knowledge, truth, goodness, or rightness. An objectivist claims that there is (or must be) such a matrix and that the primary task of the philosopher is to discover what it is and to support his or her claims to have discovered such a matrix with the strongest possible reasons. Objectivism is closely related to foundationalism and the search for an Archimedean point [a kind of God’s-eye-view perspective, a definitive point for judging everything else, THE foundation, if you will]. The objectivist maintains that unless we can ground philosophy, knowledge, or language in a rigorous manner we cannot avoid radical skepticism…”Objectivism” has frequently been used to designate metaphysical realism–the claim that there is a world of objective reality that exists independently of us and that has a determinate nature or essence that we can know. In modern times objectivism has been closely linked with an acceptance of a basic metaphysical or epistemological distinction between the subject and the object. What is “out there” (objective) is presumed to be independent of us (subjects), and knowledge is achieved when a subject correctly mirrors or represents objective reality. This dominant form of objectivism is only one variety of the species. ~~Richard Bernstein, Beyond Objectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics and Praxis (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983), 8-9.

Christians tend to equate the “permanent, ahistorical matrix or framework to which we can ultimately appeal in determining the nature of rationality, knowledge, truth, goodness, or rightness”–in other words, the “objective”, the “out there” as GOD, the object. However, they don’t tend to provide any good theological justification for doing so. And there is a plethora of good theological reasons NOT to do so. There is for example, in Reformation theology (Luther) and in 2oth century theology (Barth) and even up-to-the-minute postmodern theology (various Continental thinkers), a tendency to speak of God as subject (or an event)–as an agent Who does stuff and is actually not done doing stuff. Thus to define Him as an object (like something to be studied) is to limit His identity. Limiting His identity is bad–it’s called idolatry.

Relativism

As I mentioned in the most recent post, relativism is the flip-side, or an opposition of objectivism. In other words, it is the denial of objectivism. Hence, relativism is defined in light of objectivism. The two go hand-in-hand as a pair. Thus, to critique something as relativist, you must by necessity be working within an objectivist system. Otherwise, to speak of relativism makes no sense.

Some days I like the term relativism. If all it means is that each person has a view of the world, simply because to be a person means you see there world in a particular way, then I like the term relativism. There is a view of the world relative to every person. Other days, I don’t like it – those are the days when it’s misused. Those are the days when relativism is thought to refer to any “anything goes” philosophy, that it doesn’t matter what one believes, any take is as valid as any other, etc. I haven’t met a single person yet who really thinks that way. They may talk that way, because it’s politically correct in modern discourse, but they don’t really believe it. Spend enough time and you realize that every person has certain views about life, morals, politics, etc, all of which they think you should agree with.

So the problem with relativism is this: to say there is a view for every person on the planet is NOT to conclude the particular consequence that every view is just as valid as any other. The first premise has no particular consequences–it’s merely descriptive of the way things are. It’s only to say that people can and often do believe and think whatever they want. The challenge really comes in defending why one thinks or believes as they do and then, if possible, persuading them to think or believe differently. Such a transition or conversion has to do with argumentation, persuasion, and conversion, which we’ll deal with in a later post.

Subjectivism

Here we can speak mostly of the mundane sense of subjectivism (there is no need to get into Husserlian Transcendental Subjectivity, for example). Subjectivism is, in plain, the view that every person has their own tastes, opinions, beliefs. It is just a description. Subjectivists need not be considered relativists because subjectivism is a description of how beliefs are held–they are held by subjects. Relativism is a claim (if it can actually be made, and I’m arguing that it really cannot) that all beliefs are valid and there is no final way of judging between them.

Foundationalism

As in my last post, I referenced that foundationalism began with Descartes. Here is more from Bernstein on Descartes’ efforts.

Reading the Meditations as a journey of the soul helps us to appreciate that Descartes’ search for a foundation or Archimedean point is more than a device to solve metaphysical and epistemological problems. It is the quest for some fixed point, some stable rock upon which we can secure our lives against the vicissitudes that constantly threaten us. The specter that hovers in the background of this journey is not just radical epistemological skepticism but the dread of madness and chaos where nothing is fixed, where we can neither touch bottom nor support ourselves on the surface. With a chilling clarity Descartes leads us with an apparent and ineluctable necessity to a grand and seductive Either/Or. Either there is some support for our being, a fixed foundation for our knowledge, or we cannot escape the forces of darkness that envelop us with madness, with intellectual and moral chaos. ~~Bernstein, Beyond Objectivism and Relativism, 18.

What is this journey that we see taking place in Descartes’? Grenz and Franke elaborate.

Descartes lived in troubled times. In the aftermath of the Reformation, which had divided “Christ’s seamless garment” [the unified Church–however it wasn’t actually unified, as the Great Schism between the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox was almost a millennium old] and resulted in the Thirty Years War, questions about religion and morality could no longer be settled by appeal to a commonly held tradition. Further, through his travels Descartes discovered how culturally based and culturally dependent beliefs actually are. Descartes’s response to this situation was to seek certitude within the mind of the knowing subject. To accomplish this task, Descartes brought all his beliefs and assumptions under scrutiny. He doubted everything until he arrived at a belief he could not doubt, namely, that he was doubting. This led to his appropriation of the dictum, “I think; therefore, I am.”

In this manner, Descartes claimed to have established the foundations of knowledge by appeal to the mind’s own experience of certainty. On this basis, he began to construct anew the human knowledge edifice. Descartes was convinced that this epistemological program yields knowledge that is certain, culture- and tradition-free, universal, and reflective of a reality that exists outside the mind (this latter being a central feature of a position known as “metaphysical realism” or simply “realism”).~~Stanley Grenz & John Franke, Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2001), 31.

Here’s more on foundationalism from Grenz and Franke.

In the modern era, the pursuit of knowledge was deeply influenced by the thought forms of the Enlightenment, with foundationalism lying at its heart. The goal of the foundationalist agenda is the discovery of an approach to knowledge that will provide rational human beings with absolute, incontestable certainty regarding the truthfulness of their beliefs. According to foundationists, the acquisition of knowledge ought to proceed in a manner somewhat similar to the construction of a building. Knowledge must be built on a secure foundation. The Enlightenment epistemological foundation consists of a set of incontestable beliefs of unassailable first principles on the basis of which the pursuit of knowledge can proceed. These basic beliefs or first principles must be universal, objective, and discernible to any rational person.~~Stanley Grenz & John Franke, Beyond Foundationalism, 23.

Soft or Modest Foundationalism

I really don’t want to go too far in making all kinds of distinctions–while they are important in textbooks and academic discussions, doing so becomes rather tedious at times. Nevertheless, this particular distinction among foundationalists is particularly important to this conversation and the arguments I’m making. I’ll quote Grenz and Franke again, then comment as to the importance of this view.

Modest foundationalism was first advocated by the Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid (sometimes his thought is called “common sense realism”).

Reid pointed out that our psychological constitution draws us irresistibly to accept certain first principles as self-evident. Because we have no reason to suspect that these psychological processes are misleading, he added, we are epistemically entitled to accept and employ these first principles. Reid’s proposal (which was to play a crucial role in nineteenth-century conservative theology) led to a variant sometimes known as “soft” or “modest foundationalism.” According to Jay Wood, “Modest foundationalists make no claims about the invincible certainty of one’s basic beliefs or about a need to be reflectively aware of which beliefs have the status of basic. Instead of claiming that one’s basic beliefs enjoy infallible certainty, modest foundationalists ascribe only prima facie [literally, ‘first face’ or ‘on the face of things’] certainty” (that is, such beliefs can be overridden but are acceptable unless one has good reasons for thinking that they have been undermined).~~Stanley Grenz & John Franke, Beyond Foundationalism,  32.

Why is this view important? Because of the fallibilistic aspect of it. Fallibilism is the sense that humans can indeed be wrong, or in other words, that human beings are not infallible. Often in my conversations with people about whether or not we should continue using the grammar of absolute/objective truth or play the game of defending the Christian faith by the rules determined within that game, I’ll offer the idea that there is no possible way we can know that Christianity is the truth with certainty–we cannot offer any proof. We’re fallible and we could be wrong. Most of my interlocutors admit this fact–and they should. Even Paul notes that we see through a glass darkly…now we see only in part (1 Corinthians 13.12).

However, my interlocutors tend to come back at me quoting other Bible verses, like John 14.6, or they make references to “Revelation” as certain and definitive knowledge (as opposed to “natural” knowledge, that is, what humans can achieve through various means, either rationalistic or empiricistic). The question there is, “Why make this distinction?” Any theological justification for that distinction plays unwittingly into the rules of the game I’m trying to call into question. Or they appeal to the idea that, whether we can know it with certainty, we must admit to some kind of objective reality “out there.” My argument is, “No we don’t. In fact, we’re not actually required to talk that way at all, and it would be better if we didn’t.” Further posts will elaborate this.

Non- or anti- (or post-) foundationalism

Essentially, as noted in the previous post, non- (anti- or post-) foundationalism is a rejection of the project and assumptions of foundationalism.

Intersubjectivity

I prefer the use of the term intersubjectivity (as opposed to speaking of strictly subjectivity or perspectivalism) because it gets at the reality of our situatedness as individuals within communities. Wherever we grew up, got educated; whatever our family history, ethnicity, religion; whatever our social status, various memberships, skills, experiences–all those we mediated by and understood through our life within a particular community which gave us the language by which to express and reflect upon our experiences.

We are definitely individuals, but our identity comes only from our place within a community. We figure it out so to speak, in conversation with others. Our living together in community thus constitutes whatever knowledge we have as intersubjective–shared and worked through in community with a multitude of subjects.

Communitarianism

This is the view which underlies the brief description of intersubjectivity above. It puts community–rather than the solipsistic individual, the autonomous rational agent–at the center of life and knowing.

——————-

This short list of concepts with clarifying citations should help give a deeper understanding to the last post wherein I used these concepts but did not elaborate a definition of them.

If you’re new to the conversation or following along, please refer to the initial post announcing this series. There you can see the outline of what has been discussed and what’s ahead.

Situating the Conversation about Absolute/Objective Truth

First of all, it will be helpful here to at the beginning to define and distinguish between what is meant by Absolute Truth and Objective Truth. For the purposes of this discussion, there is basically no difference in meaning between the two concepts from within the grammar which I am calling into question. I’ll elaborate that grammar a bit below, and it will be implicit throughout these posts. There will however, be a somewhat different usage of the sense of Truth later in the discussion. At that time, there will be no more use of the adjectives “Absolute” or “Objective.” The way Truth will be used will be significantly changed, as it will exist within a different grammar. What I mean by “grammar” is a way of speaking, but not just speaking, also a way of being and doing. It refers to a deep connection of life in community – a key concept which will be important in the future discussion. What I see myself as being “up to” in this series of posts is presenting a different grammar, one which better suits Christians in their use of the word “truth” as it will be more faithful to our lives as members of the community of the Church.

The grammar which I intend to call into question, I’ve already called into question on different occasions (primarily here – do read that one for more on what I’m up to – and here). This series of posts will be more elaborate in that regard. I intend to deal with many “basic issues” that undergird some of my published arguments so that my readers (and live conversation partners) can in a sense, “catch up” with some of my thinking. In other words, I’m hoping to lead you along the same path I’ve followed, noting the important stops along the way.

The grammar which I intend to call into question is that of contemporary apologetics. This grammar is shared in many ways with theological methods that might be considered foundationalist.

Foundationalism

In order to describe foundationalism, it is appropriate to use an analogy. If one thinks of mathematics as that field of study which can be practiced anywhere in the world, at any time, by any person, the results would always be the same. If one adds 7 and 9, the answer will always be 16. In the same way, foundationalism, whether in philosophy or theology (since it is a methodology and a system of presuppositions, it works the same in both fields), assumes that as any individual seeks to know the world, by following a particular method, that one will come to the same conclusions at all times and places.

Foundationalism is a doctrine of philosophy – a particular philosophy (some other kinds of philosophy don’t subscribe to the doctrinaire methods of foundationalism). Foundationalism emerged as a way of coming to knowledge of the world in which we could be confident, sure, and without doubt. Thus, the kind of knowledge desired within a foundationalist system is considered indubitable or objective. Indubitable or objective knowledge is the kind of knowledge that is meant to be exactly reflective of the world as it is in itself. This is the model of Rene Descartes. Descartes taught that when the human mind is able to perfectly picture the world “out there” then the individual who is picturing the world in this way is said to have and indubitable or objective view of the world. To arrive at such a view, one must divest oneself of all biases, prejudices, and other social influences that might distort one’s image of the world. Such a disengaged and detached view is said to be objective, rather than subjective, because the individual has no subjective connection or investment in his/her view. Through the methods given by science, the very methods that are supposed to work like mathematics which I noted above, any person, at any time or place is supposed to be able to arrive at exactly the same view of the world, an objective view which is indubitable.

Foundationalism is supposed to be able to arrive at such a view because of its foundational presuppositions: namely, the divestment of one’s particular biases, prejudices, and social influences. The methodology for such divestment is provided by the scientific method, which eventually makes all conclusions open for confirmation by other, non-interested parties, so that all knowledge is thus established authoritatively via the authorized method of study and the authorized means of confirmation.

Foundationalism goes on to view language as that means of construing the world through words. We use words to describe what is out there, and thus, our words are said to correspond to reality. This formulation about words and their direct connection to reality out there is called the correspondence theory of truth. Thus, sentences that are true are said to correspond to reality. When such correspondence is present, such sentences are said to be the Absolute Truth or Objective Truth.

In a synthetic sort of way, the foundations of foundationalism consist of both the methods and mathematical doctrinairity of the view, but also the assumption of the existence of Absolute/Objective truth. All that is left is in fact to proclaim accurately what the Absolute/Objective Truth is. In the case of Christianity then, Christians claim that Christianity is the Absolute/Objective Truth. The challenge is, there is not a universal agreement with this conclusion, which is the assumed end of the methods of foundationalism. This problem will be addressed below.

Foundationalism and Christianity

There has been assumed within Christianity at least since Descartes’ influence became widespread, the necessity to argue for Christian claims using the methods employed by foundationalism. As a result, especially in the 20th Century, Christians have come to claim that they possess the Absolute/Objective Truth. In a sense, what they mean is that any person, if they would only be humble and willing enough to divest themselves of their biases, prejudices, and social influences, would come to the conclusion – via the scientific method, much like a practitioner of mathematics – that Christianity is the Absolute/Objective Truth. Christians go on to validate that claim via biblical passages such as John 14.6 where Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Further, Christians then claim that constitutive of being a Christian is believing in the existence of Absolute/Objective Truth. Belief in Absolute/Objective Truth has thus become the newest article of faith within the Christian tradition. Before Descartes, this issue of belief was not a concern. If a person who claims to be a Christian claims to not believe in Absolute/Objective Truth, they are considered to not actually be a Christian but in fact a relativist who is confused about what it means to be a Christian. On an altogether different level, such individuals are considered morally “bad” in some sense because of their belief, and thus dangerous.

Non-(anti-)foundationalism

I noted above that even though Christians assert that Christianity is the Absolute/Objective Truth, there is not a universal agreement of this fact. What we see in the world around us instead is a plurality of views. Foundationalism is an effort a reconciling this disparity. It has been an ongoing effort for the last 300 years or so. Some hold out hope that the world will some day arrive at such an agreement. Others however, are trying to find a way to describe the world around us in a way that makes better sense, and is not confined to the grammar of foundationalism which has a problem with plurality and thus would define all those against its system as a relativist. Those who are against foundationalism reject such a label however, because within their grammar, there is no room for the objectivist/relativist distinction. The question that is posed is, “why do we speak that way?” and should we continue with that grammar?

Foundationalism is an effort at gaining certainty, overcoming doubt, and establishing one view as the truth over and above all others. Foundationalism seeks a secure position so that society can be organized well, judgments about moral issues can be clearly and cleanly worked out, and peace can be maintained. This is the project of the Enlightenment and the modernism of the 20th Century. Many philosophers and theologians have called this project a failure and argue that for internal, philosophical reasons, it was bound to fail. This criticism and diagnosis, along with the fact that there is no actual agreement emerging amongst the people of the world about what the truth of reality really is (or that there is any good reason to hope that at some point there will be such agreement), an alternative to foundationalism has emerged.

The alternative to the above view of foundationalism, or better, a critique of it, is non-foundationalism. A better way of speaking about non-foundationalism is in fact, the concept “anti-foundationalism.” (For those more familiarily with the grammar of this view, making the distinction between non- or anti- isn’t so important). Non-foundationalism, does not in fact, deny the existence of foundations. This is why anti-foundationalism is a better term. Anti-foundationalism denies the presuppositions of foundationalism – that is, it denies that it is in fact possible for anyone to have an unbiased, unprejudiced, unsocialized view of the world. It does not however, deny that there are foundations. In fact, one of its primary claims is that there is a myriad of foundations, almost one per person.

Within the anti-foundationalist program, there is a different grammar about truth. There is no need to speak of Absolute/Objective Truth because there is within anti-foundationalism an overcoming of the subject/object divide. Without getting too complicated, anti-foundationalism has no need for objectivist language because of the claim that all knowledge is situated, contextual, communitarian (a product of and local to individual communities, and shared between them), and provisional. This is an intersubjectivity. Individuals are not knowers of the world outside of their community context. Learning about and knowing the world is radically related to one’s place within a particular community (and people are members of numerous communities at once, which informs one about different elements of reality).

But one might object, regardless, there’s still a “reality out there” and whether or not there are myriad ways of knowing the world, or myriad foundations, still only one is right. That may be true, but there is no way of distinguishing which one that is. There is no way of getting at that view. There is no privileged position. We have the view we have. And we’ve most likely inherited it from our community based on where and when we were born, who are parents are, how we’re educated, etc. However, there’s nothing saying that at some point we might not be convinced of a different way of seeing the world. But, howevermuch we might be so convinced, there is still no way of ever having the certainty of being totally right, possessing the Absolute/Objective Truth. There is no possible way of our language hooking up with reality out there in any sort of correspondence with certainty. There is only our take on reality – a take which emerges from within communities and shaped by narratives, like the Christian narrative. Each take does a better or worse job of capturing our experience of life, thus making them more or less persuasive.

To go even further, the concept of an Absolute/Objective truth is a concept that has emerged from within a particular context. As I mentioned above, it has come to us (we have inherited it) from the Enlightenment, a program designed to rescue us from what has been called “Cartesian anxiety”, the radical doubt that emerged from the myriad voices of religious, political, and cultural authority in the 17th century. In a very real way, that way of thinking “has us”. We have been captured by it.

To situate the concept of Absolute/Objective truth in this way also allows us to situate the concept of relativism. Relativism is merely the flip side of objectivism. Yet, if an anti-foundationalist program has no need for objectivism because it admits of the impossibility of objectivism, then there is no need for relativism. In place of objectivism, there is a radical intersubjectivity, rather than simply a radical subjectivity. There is no such thing as a radical subjectivity because our learning and knowing of the world is based in community. It follows then, that to make a critique of an anti-foundationalist program as relativistic (or subjectivistic, which is related to relativism), is to misunderstand anti-foundationalism and the kind of argument it is trying to make. It is still to remain within a foundationalist program seeking after something that doesn’t exist – the privileged position, the ability to critique every other view, the ability to claim to possess Absolute/Objective Truth. This ability for criticism only works within the logic and grammar of foundationalism. It is argued by means of what is assumed to be self-evident logical conclusion. For example, it is said that to deny the existence of absolute truth is to make a statement of absolute truth.  Such a critique is called the self-referential argument. We’ll discuss this bit about logic, self-evidence, and the self-referential argument in a later post. Needless to say, it only works if the foundationalist program is possible and if its assumptions about how language works are legitimate.

There is a great deal more to say, but this post is already quite long. For now, please consider reading these two articles in addition to this post. They are quite illuminating on the topic. Please, if you wish to post critical comments, do not proceed to do so without reading these articles. If you have questions, read these articles before posting as you may find some answers.

“How Firm a Foundation: Can Evangelicals be Non-foundationalists?”, Rodney Clapp. From The Nature of Confession: Evangelicals and Postliberals in Conversation, eds. Timothy Phillips and Dennis L. Okholm (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1996), 81-92.*

“There’s No Such Thing as Objective Truth, and It’s A Good Thing, Too”, Philip D. Kenneson. From Christian Apologetics in the Postmodern World, eds. Timothy Phillips and Dennis L. Okholm (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1995), 155-170.*

*I take no responsibility for the possible copyright infringement of these articles. I simply found them to be available through a Google search. I own the books in which they are found, but didn’t want to post pdf copies because of my own copyright concerns.

I’ve had numerous conversations over the past few years, and even some in recent weeks, which cause me to think that I need to start a long series of more elaborate posts on what I mean when I argue against “absolute/objective” truth. At a deep level, since I speak mostly with Christians, this kind of talk is scary. For me to have reached this conclusion, and still remain a Christian within a strong confessional tradition, appears from the outside to be a contradiction in terms. Yet it’s been a long journey. As such, when I have one hour to converse with someone, there is literally no possible way for me to help a person understand how I’ve reached my conclusion, even worse, to have them be able to share my conclusions.

So, in an effort to extend some of those conversations onto this blog, and in fact, to inspire more of them, I’ve put together an outline of what I’ll be developing in the coming days/weeks/months to lay out the issues in this particularly sensitive and complicated topic.

No doubt, as the list of posts develops, some of the material will overlap. As I write, I may feel the need to amend this outline, which I will simply do without notifying the reader. Every post will be linked to the points on this outline, and I’ll begin every post with a link to this outline, so the reader (whether s/he has been following the whole time, or is new to the convo) can keep up with where we’ve been and where we’re headed.

The outline below is meant to divide the journey up into manageable chunks. Each point is strategically placed so that by the end of each post, some of the questions raised in the reader’s mind will be anticipated within the next post. This will give the reader time to read, reflect, and wrestle with the content before I post again. Thus, not every post will answer everything, but I hope by the end, I will have answered most things and provided both some tools to find other answers and great fodder for further conversation.

So without further ado, the tentative outline. The first post should appear within a few days.

Situating the Conversation about Absolute Truth

–          Foundationalism

–          Non-(or anti-) foundationalism

–          The Enlightenment

–          Trying to argue like science

The Affective Element of the Conversation

–          Fear of real doubt

–          Is morality up for grabs?

–          I stake my life on the promises of God – does all that go our the window now?

The “Suppressed Binary Opposite” – what are you trying to protect?

–          The God who “must” be

–          Logocentrism – words “hook up” with reality

–          Correspondence and Coherence

–          Morality and our way of life

Descriptive and Prescriptive Arguments

–          Logic as a construct

–          The “self-referential argument” accusation

–          What type of argumentation we’re actually practicing here

–          What type of argumentation contemporary apologetics is using

Belief and Presuppositions

–          The intimate connection

–          Faith as fundamental to all knowing

–          The a priori and how we can’t escape it

–          Some examples of the a priori

–          Examining our presuppositions like Socrates

Certainty, Knowledge, Doubt

–          Whether or not Certainty is possible

–          Whether or not we’re stuck with only radical doubt

–          The kinds of knowledge

–          The marginalization of certain kinds of knowledge

–          The provisionality of knowledge

Language, Discourse, Discursive Practices

–          The “Prison-House of Language”? – are we all stuck in language?

–          Discourse as our way of getting along in the world

–          Discursive practices as constitutive of life, learning, knowing

Claiming, Asserting, Believing

–          Exploring what we’re actually up to

–          Tolerance and other beliefs/believers

Persuasion, Argumentation, Justification – Reasons to Believe

–          What makes beliefs believable?

–          If knowledge is provisional, why try to argue?

–          If knowledge is provisional and we can’t be certain, what counts as justification?

Postmodernism

–          Do you really want to understand it?

–          Once you label me, you negate me

–          What postmodernism is actually up to

–          Logically prior to modernism

Pluralism as Reality

–          If knowledge is provisional, there is room for a variety of views

–          Does that mean that all are equally valid?

–          Are various practices within one tradition valid, or must there be uniformity?

–          Does unity equal uniformity?

Christianity as one view among many

–          Is this a descriptive argument or a prescriptive argument?

–          What are the consequences?

Religion and Truth

–          The religiousness of all views (or, all views are faith based, or faith is constitutive of all knowledge)

–          Truth as a concept internally defined by every world view

Radical Faith

–          If there isn’t any absolute truth, what now?

My Ongoing Project

Many of you who know me personally have heard me say out loud that what I’m working on in general is an attempt to bring postmodern philosophy and theology into conversation because I believe both disciplines have something they can learn from each other. As a Lutheran, I believe my tradition in particular has some helpful things to offer to postmodern philosophy (and Lutherans in particular, strangely, seem to be missing from the conversation – the Reformed and the Catholics are already there and they tend to be who I’m reading), and at the same time, that postmodern philosophy can lend us some grammar to help flesh out some of the things that we take as elements of our rich theological heritage.

I anticipate that this may be something of a lifelong effort. It will most likely make me some enemies. As of late, the church is generally afraid of postmodernism, unfortunately as a result of contemporary apologetics which teaches that the primary problem of postmodernism is relativism, and thus that Christians cannot be postmodern because postmodernists do not believe in Absolute Truth. (Apparently believing in Absolute Truth is constitutive of being a Christian these days [and it’s treated as if it’s always been this way – no it hasn’t], but the strange thing is the requirement to believe in Absolute Truth doesn’t appear in the Christian tradition earlier than in the last century or so.) If you don’t believe in Absolute Truth, you’re not a Christian – or so the argument seems to go.

Well, I don’t believe in it. So there.

But as you might expect, I definitely have my reasons for not believing in it. Maybe I’ll post some of them some day. As a thought-provoking statement, consider this snippet from Martin Luther: “When however, the Word of God truly comes, it comes as the enemy of our thinking and desires. It does not allow our thinking to stand, even in those matters which are most sacred, but it destroys and eradicates and scatters everything.” (Lectures on Romans) Anachronistically, Luther was a postmodern deconstructionist.

Back to my original issue however. I recently came across a quote that captures well what I’m up to. My various projects and my upcoming-currently-in-progress dissertation, will each be an instance of the larger ongoing project of bringing the two disciplines into dialogue. Here’s the quote that struck me.

“Systematic theology and philosophy of religion each suffer from a mutual condition of contemporary isolation. The split manifests itself in how systematic theology is largely carried out without taking much notice of what is taking place in post-metaphysical and postmodern philosophy of religion, which tries to develop an interpretation of religious issues without immediate recourse to conditions beyond history [which means only appealing to what has already been said in the church tradition]. Often, it instead develops its insights with reference to past philosophical positions and established church teaching. On the other hand, most of postmodern philosophy, including postmodern philosophy of religion, seems to take little or no notice of the major elements that structure the content of Christian traditions, and instead focuses on the abstract, formal, and/or metaphysical elements that these traditions have brought about [like defining God using strictly Greek metaphysical concepts and reading them back into the Scriptural narrative, like omnipotence, omnipresence, etc]. Can these two disciplines then be brought into a more fruitful relationship with each other, and if so, how? I think they can, and this book is an attempt to make this happen. The major reason for doing this is that I remain convinced that the central content of the Christian tradition has much to gain from a close encounter with postmodern philosophy. By ‘the central content,’ I mean the story of Jesus Christ and how he can justifiably be thought to reveal God (given that we later specify more extensively the understanding of ‘reveal’ and ‘God’).”

Jan-Olav Henriksen, Desire, Gift, and Recognition: Christology and Postmodern Philosophy (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 3-4.

For those of you wondering what I mean when I talk about what I’m up to, maybe that will help.

**These short excerpts come from an article written by Michael Purcell, Senior Lecturer in Systematic Theology at the Divinity School of the University of Edinburgh. I had a chance to meet and chat with him over a few beers at a conference in Rome where I delivered a paper in 2008. He is the doctoral advisor of a friend of mine**

As a migraine sufferer, and as someone who attempts, however ineptly, to empathize with others in their pain, I found these words from an article dealing with a difficult issue in continental thought to be rather poetic on the topic of pain and suffering. So I share. I’ve tried to fill in a few details of meaning in the brackets.

In suffering, there is the submission of the self to that in respect of which the self has no power, the humiliation of the self before its own impossibility [that is, to be without suffering or to control it]. “In suffering reality acts on the in itself of the will, which turns despairingly into total submission to the will of the Other [the cause of suffering, whatever it may be]. In suffering the will is defeated by sickness” (Levinas, Totality and Infinity)…

[S]uffering reveals not only the self’s ultimate impossibility but also reveals the essential passivity of the I before the Other who alone can make my own self-project possible. Despite Heidegger’s insistence on an authentic self which is essentially mine [i.e., my life is not another’s], Dasein’s self-project is impossible when understood in terms of a self which would be origin and initiative; the self is only possible in terms of, and in relation to, the Other. [i.e., I only realize my existence when awoken by an encounter with another; the face of another is a confrontation to which I must respond, but before which I was not aware of my self and the need for a responce. Thus pain is a confrontation, awakening us to the presence of another, whether a person or the cause of pain]…

Here is what is particularly meaningful to me:

The searing pain of migraine is like a spear thrust into the head and coming to a point in the intensity of its pain is something from which we might try to take distance in the reinforcement of gritting teeth or applying intense pressure to our skull to bombard the brain with so many other signals and so lessen the intensity and immediacy of the pain and take some distance from it, but in the end, the pain can neither be reached nor can the self introduce distance. Pain is something other than me which torments me in its immediacy. It is both too close and too far away. It is not that “I have a headache,” but simply pain.

Suffering is so immediate as to be ungraspable, and so distant as to be unreachable.

Michael Purcell, “Grace and the Experience of the Impossible” Blanchot’s ‘Impossible Relation’ as a Prolegomenon to a Theology of Grace” in Philosophy and Theology 10, 2 (1997).