Reading oneself and the Bible: follow-up 1

I began to reply to the comment that respondent “Listener” left on my last blog post and realized that my reply was itself the size of a full post (larger, in fact). Listener raised some important points so I’ve reprinted the first part of my response here, with the others to follow.

I want to pick up on several points in the comment because I think some important things were mentioned.  First, to clarify, the links that I added to my previous post (regarding interpretation) are actually focused on moving away from the idea of “certainty.” Indeed, I argue that certainty is an illusion (because humans cannot attain certain knowledge) and in Christian terms, an affront to God (because it is idolatrous: to claim certainty is to claim to be like God).

Second, Listener’s comment notes that God’s followers will know God’s voice and be able to identify things that come from God.  Further, “we can be sure of God’s goodness and His character for these things are revealed in Scripture.” True enough, the Bible discloses numerous things about the Christian God.  But the biblical text is just as full, if not more so, of examples of how human beings are apt to deceive themselves.  Further, such self-deception includes not simply committing errors in the epistemological sense or lying in the moral sense, but having entrenched attachments to acting in our own best interest, while both claiming not to be doing so and indeed, being unaware of either our self-interested actions or how we are concealing the whole process (from others and ourselves).

In episode #77 of Untangling Christianity John Poelstra and I explore the notion of scepticism more fully.  In this blog post I will introduce the idea that it is not only (or sometimes, primarily) scepticism that is at play, but suspicion. Now both scepticism and suspicion are essential tools for all human beings: essential modes of interaction with our world and ourselves.  Importantly, however, neither scepticism nor suspicion are isolated orientations but are situated in tension with necessary counterparts. So scepticism is in tension with belief, suspicion is in tension with faith (or trust).

To my mind, the importance of understanding (and so situating) scepticism and suspicion as “in tension” with necessary counterparts should not be underestimated.  But let’s begin with some definitions.

Scepticism is doubt about the evidence: where it came from, how it has been compiled, or what conclusions are based upon it.  Suspicion is misgiving about the person: what his motives are, what he stands to gain or lose here (and how that might impact his decisions). Suspicion is the glance that looks ‘before’, ‘below’, and ‘after’ the supposed facts of the matter to seek to reveal a deeper–and truer–relationship between the person and the evidence.

So where Listener wrote that Christians discounted her claims to have experienced God due to envy or pride, suspicion is the tool that allows us to conclude that someone is really acting out of envy or pride, whereas the person alleges to be simply acting on the “facts” (for instance, in claiming that my approach is unbiblical, my attitude is unchristian, or my claims to have experienced God are bogus).

Suspicion uncovers what we might call “false consciousness.”

It looks under what the person claims (and indeed, honestly believes) to be their real orientation, their legitimate beliefs.  It sees these claims as a mask, under which darker motives at work.  So we may be simply mistaken in thinking that something comes from God when it does not.  Or we may be practicing self-deception through such claims, really being far less sure than we claim to be but asserting the claims adamantly in order to validate our need to feel important, to control others, to fit in, etc.

Now false consciousness is not only symptomatic of non-Christians or “wayward” Christians, or to the sort of Christians that Listener describes as being driven by either ego or envy.

Better stated, the Bible persistently indicates that all human beings are driven by ego and envy, and that the path to living in a manner not governed by these drivers is to adopt the manner of Jesus (in being a servant to all) while living as truth-seekers who identify themselves as beloved by God and who therefore dedicate themselves to loving God entirely, loving themselves rightly, and loving their fellows likewise.

More to come.

More than April’s fools? (aka, Descartes’ unwitting disciples)

 

Confession time:

I began this blog intending to show how Christianity is viable, and how the co-centrality of love and truth is instrumental therein.  But I have certainly not done so.

Why?

Because much about Christianity is problematic or broken and this must first be identified, cleared away, and better understandings / approaches put in their place.  For example, I cannot hope for the notion of truth-for-me to seem meaningful so long as readers continue to believe in such false ideas as being able to read the Bible without interpreting it, or to access the Bible’s (absolute) truth absolutely.

Thus my last nine posts have aimed to debunk false views about how we relate to the Bible.  Particularly, false views about how (and how well) we can know the Bible’s content.  Among them, the concepts of certainty, neutrality, and historical independence.

So where does our desire for certainty come from?  Why do we think that we should (or even could) be neutral rather than having biases and prejudgements ?  And why do we want to read the Bible “free” from the views of the past?

As I’ve shown in past posts, the Bible stands against human certainty and nowhere espouses neutrality or historical independence.  Further, it is important to note that the above are all questions about knowledge: how reliable it is and how we get it.  And knowledge (or epistemology) is the domain of philosophy.

Strikingly then our fascination with knowing, or accessing things, absolutely finds its origins in the philosophical movement known as “Modernism.”

The poster boy for modernist thinking is René Descartes.  A French mathematician and philosopher, Descartes is famous for the conclusion “I think, therefore I am.”  But the problem that precedes this conclusion—and the method he used to solve it—are what interest us most.

Through his studies and travels Descartes found that people held all manner of contradictory beliefs.  Nor did the number or education of people who believed something guarantee the truth of it.  In contrast, Descartes observed that in mathematics the proper use of reason guarantees certainty about our conclusions, and so decided that reason properly applied could grant certainty in other areas of life.

Now he had already deduced that all humans have the capacity to reason and that each person is equally able to apply this capacity.  So with the right method and enough practice, human beings could not only know things truly but could even master the natural world, living happier (and even longer) lives.

So what was his “method”?

He started with reason, which is not simply thinking but is specifically the ability to determine truth from falsehood.  Next, Descartes held that “properly applying” one’s reason meant only accepting things as true that were accessible to the mind in a clear and distinct fashion—things that could not be doubted.

But in order for something to be undoubtedly true it must be true despite one’s best efforts to doubt it.  And this is just what Descartes did.  He went through a process of doubting everything that he believed up to that point.

Having already observed how people typically establish their views on inherited practices and customs rather than reason, his method rejects all past opinions as false until proven–by reason–to be true.  Sense perceptions (what we see, hear, and experience) are likewise false until proven true.

The only thing that Descartes could not doubt was that he was thinking, and this gave him absolute certainty of his own existence, upon which he founded his entire philosophy: I think, therefore I am.

But is this important?

You bet.

For in showing us where these “problematic and broken” views about the Bible come from (and what they are based on), we are more able to replace them with better, more functional views.  Specifically, it seems Christians need a better philosophical orientation than Descartes’ Modernism if they are to do justice both to the real world  and to the Bible itself.  More next post.

Deception in certainty / deliverance in stories

 

Have you ever read a novel or biography and found in it something that you had never been able to articulate, or were even unaware of, but which deeply expresses who you are?

Good stories—fictional and historical—capture the most essential aspects of human existence.  They not only convey our most intimate hopes and fears, but they help form who we are and want to become.  Key to making stories “work” is the imagination.

Yet many people see imagination as the enemy of truth.  Truth is real, imagination is not.  Truth is concrete and certain (and so valuable); the imaginary is fanciful and potentially misleading (and so not valuable, or perhaps even dangerous).

Thus the view that “facts are good but stories are bad.”  Or at best, facts and stories are very different creatures.  And particularly when it comes to beliefs, facts give you what you need to know.  Stories are something extra for those who like or want them—like bonus material on a rental movie.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  (Pardon the pun).  Let’s take a closer look.

Interestingly, stories have led us back to knowledge.  And in an earlier post I noted how people believe that they can “access” the Bible’s truth (or Truth) absolutely so as to arrive at certain knowledge: to be without doubt.

Yet as it is impossible simply to “read what is in the Bible” instead of needing to interpret it (whether we are conscious of doing so or not), the upshot is that human beings cannot have certainty.  About anything.  Through any means.  Only God has certainty; humans have varying degrees of probability.

But let’s look deeper.

People believe in “absolute access” in order to arrive at certain knowledge.  This, then, is a belief.  Why do we hold it?  The answer is there: in order to arrive at certain knowledge.  So why is certainty important?  Two reasons present themselves.

First, certainty brings security.  We can live with other viewpoints without feeling threatened by them.  Second, certainty brings rest.  We can be at ease from nagging questions and can instead devote our energies to the truth, where they are best spent.

Interestingly, the enemy is again relativism.  Relativism implies that other views are just as valid as our own, so we must constantly be maintaining their validity.  To circumvent this, some Christians attempt to fortify their knowledge claims: by asserting that what they know is certain—even unassailable—they can feel secure and at ease.

When acquired in the right way and held for the right reasons, security and rest are good things.

As we’ve discussed, though, they cannot be acquired through certainty: certainty is a commodity that humans simply cannot trade in.  But neither can they be held out of pathology.  Because desiring such absolute security is indeed pathological: we are here again faced with a desire to exceed the bounds of what it is to be human and become like God.

It is pathological, too, in that this desire stems from fear and unmet needs.  The fear of wrong beliefs is really the fear of losing our worldview and our very self-understanding (and thus identity).  Further, if a loving God is not real this threatens one’s need to be loved and valued.

So what about stories?

I believe that stories—fictional and historical—deliver us from these excessive (and destructive) perspectives.  Where a desire for absolute security demands certainty, stories invite dialogue with numerous perspectives through our imagination.  And while diversity implies relativism (and doubt), relativism also includes the possibility that matters may be “more” than we had first presumed.

Ironically, it is through opening us to the possible and the essential that stories keep us from falling under the tyranny of the factual and the real.

Interpretation or idolatry (aka: What’s wrong with claiming absolute Truth?)

 

Many Christians contend that the Bible offers absolute (or ultimate) truth.  But this contention immediately raises two problems.  First, Christians do not know the Bible’s claims to be True (with a capital ‘T’) but rather believe them to be.  Second, there are a plethora of understandings of the Bible: what makes a particular Christian’s view better than anyone else’s?

At stake here is the distinction between absolute (or ultimate) truth and absolute (or ultimate) access to this Truth.1

We can clarify matters by using the terms truth claims (i.e., what is being claimed to be true) and truth value (i.e., just how true a given claim is).  So concerning the nature of its truth claims, Christians point to its content (it concerns matters of ultimate importance for human existence) and its origin (it is divinely revealed) in holding that the Bible’s claims are not simply relative, as perhaps truth-for-me, but absolute / ultimate Truth.

Yet with any assessment of a truth claim—both a) properly determining what the claim is and b) accurately adjudicating that claim: determining whether it is indeed true—we are always faced with the question of how (and how well) we can access this truth claim.  In other words, how (and how well) do we know what is being claimed, and how (and how well) do we decide whether/ to what extent it is true?

Essentially the question of access (to truth claims and their values) depends on our relationship to knowledge: to knowing things and entities.  As such, dealing with truth claims and truth values requires first that we know something about knowing.2

Expressed philosophically, human being are “contingent knowers.”  So our knowledge is limited—but also made possible—by our abilities, situation, and circumstances.  For instance, we know things via our senses, our reason, our experiences, etc.  Expressed theologically, God is infinite and complete, whereas humans are finite and limited.

So what does this mean?

Let’s answer that question by taking these philosophical and theological views about our relationship to knowledge and connecting them with my two, introductory problems with absolute / ultimate truth: the issue of believing versus knowing, and of multiple understandings.

On the one hand, emphasizing that Christians do not know the Bible’s claims to be True, but rather believe them, underscores the need for faith.  But it does so in order to affirm that people (Christians included) are not like God.  God knows things as they truly are; people understand through the grid work of their finite, situated existence.

On the other hand, the upshot of the preceding is that we necessarily have multiple understandings, given our diversity of backgrounds, experiences, etc.  In other words, as limited beings we necessarily interpret.  Only God has certainty; humans have varying degrees of probability.  God knows, people interpret.

Some classic examples of wrong-headed thinking are to claim, as I’ve heard some Christians do, that when reading the Bible they do not interpret but simply “Read what’s there.”  Or again to claim, as I’ve heard other Christians do, essentially that they interpret flawlessly: that their interpretations are “right” whereas those of other Christians or non-Christians are “wrong.”

Philosophically speaking, to claim either that we do not interpret or interpret flawlessly is to claim to know (or access) absolute Truth absolutely.  It is to claim certainty, which is beyond human ability.  Theologically speaking, it is to declare ourselves beyond the limited, situated scope within which God created us and to make ourselves equals with God.  It is to break the First Commandment: it is idolatry.

The point, then, is that even if we grant that biblical truth claims may be ultimately True, Christians do not (nor does anyone else) possess absolute access to this absolute / ultimate truth, nor can they offer such to others.

In my next post I examine the positive significance of finitude for our relation to t/Truth: the importance of interpretation and experience.