Truths about Truth: being pragmatic, subjective, and relative

 

Christians are quite concerned about truth.

For example, Os Guiness argues that Christian truth is opposed to pragmatism, subjectivism, and relativism.  Yet as I discussed last week, we must be careful to distinguish between pragmatism and being pragmatic; between subjectivism and being subjective; between relativism and being relative.

Why?

The issue is that while certain ideologies are destructive their underlying orientations may be helpful (and even necessary).  For example, the ‘ism’ in pragmatism specifies an ideology—it means that a pragmatic orientation is not simply accepted but is one’s “guiding principle.”  So when someone embraces pragmatism ‘functionality‘ becomes more important to that person than anything, even truthfulness.

Now I agree that truthfulness should be a guiding principle for everyone, Christian or not.1  But we must be very careful not to confuse destructive ideologies with proper, human orientations, especially when such orientations are necessary to assessing the Bible’s truth claims correctly (orientations such as being pragmatic, subjective, and relative).  Why necessary?

Here’s why: Christianity concerns not simply intellectual assent but relational content.

In other words, Christianity is not only thinking rightly about God but being rightly disposed to God, and these two things are reciprocal.  So to be in right relationship with God I must know some true things about God (i.e., that this God alone is God, that the Bible especially reveals this God, that I communicate with God by prayer, etc.).  Yet I can only understand and believe the Bible’s relational claims about God (i.e., that God knows me and loves me) through personal experience.

Further, while right disposition begins with right understanding, their reciprocal relation means that right disposition also creates right belief and understanding!  So Christians generally understand that one cannot rightly relate to God if this God is conceived of (and so is pursued) as Allah, the Hindu Gods, etc.  Yet they often misunderstand that the Bible’s undeniably personal and relational claims (i.e., that God knows me better than I know myself and loves more deeply than I love myself) can only be validated through personal experience.

And validating these relational truth claims—recognizing their truth value—requires being pragmatic, relativistic, and subjective.

This is so because these truth claims are both intellectual and relational, in keeping with a) my human nature as situated and finite and b) God’s nature, who is love, and so seeks to be in relationship with me.  Intellectually, I assess any truth claim from my subjective viewpoint and relative to my finite experience.  Yet relationally I am always seeking my own good (I’m pragmatic because it matters to me how things turn out in my own life), and so claims about being known and loved must turn out to be just that!2

Now having personal experience of God does not necessitate that everyone experiences God in dramatic and undeniable ways.  But my hunch is that it does mean that within current communities of Christians there will be personal experiences of relating with God that validate the truth claim that “God knows and loves us” in deep—and deeply healing and satisfying—ways.

What do I mean?

By “current communities” I mean that it is not enough to read how God delivered Israel, supported David, or even how Jesus healed and fed many.  I believe these accounts.  However, my argument is that the Bible’s claims that God is real and good are validated by experiencing God delivering, restoring and healing now, in the lives of real people.  Literally.3

By “personal experiences” I do not mean that God will appear to everyone similarly or with the same intensity.  Instead, Christianity endorses testimony—understandable accounts from credible people—as a valid way to know and understand God.  Through testimony I understand and am mentored in the relational component of Christian faith.  In this respect I would say that God engages with humanity personally but not individually.

Considering these questions may help:
a) If you are Christian, what relational experiences of God are important within your Christian community?
b) If you are not Christian, what relational experiences have been important in your life?

Taunts abut Truth: pragmatism, subjectivism, and relativism

 

Why should you believe in the Christian God?

“Whereas the Bible and the best thinkers of Christian history invite seekers to put their faith in God because the message conveying that invitation is true, countless Christians today believe for various other reasons.  For instance they believe faith is true ‘because it works’ (pragmatism), because they ‘feel it is true in their experience’ (subjectivism), because they sincerely believe it is ‘true for them’ (relativism), and so on.”1

Os Guiness penned this in his Time for Truth.  But if Dr. Guiness believes that Christian truth is contrary to what he calls pragmatism, subjectivism and relativism, what happens if we re-frame his sentence to reflect that?  If we do, it would look like this:

“Countless Christians today believe . . . faith is true ‘because it doesn’t work’, because they ‘do not feel it is true in their experience’, and because they sincerely do not believe it is ‘true for them’.” (Emphasis added).

Does this make Christianity sound truthful?

Or even vaguely appealing?

I hope not.

Instead, this reframing detaches it from human experience and makes it sound completely false and untrue.  So what’s going on?  If it is reasonable (and true!) that Christian truth is unrelated to pragmatism, subjectivism or relativism, then why does it sound so wrong when we plainly express it that way?

Let me suggest two reasons.

First, we need to distinguish between pragmatism and ‘being pragmatic’, where pragmatism indicates an ideology versus a ‘pragmatic’ orientation or interest.  So where being pragmatic means that it’s important that things function as they should, adopting pragmatism means that “functionality” is your guiding principal (over and above, say, truthfulness).2

So is being pragmatic (instead of embracing pragmatism) compatible with believing Christianity to be true?  I think so.  And more than that, it’s the same with being subjective and relative.  Here’s why:

As human beings we should value our own lives (we naturally care how things “work out”—we are pragmatic).  We are indeed finite (we see things from our limited, subjective viewpoint).  We understand contextually (we make sense of things relative to our background and experiences).

As I’ve argued before, these characteristics are not limitations but are the very basis for knowing and experiencing anything at all.  But valuing our existence, embracing our finitude, and acknowledging that human understanding is contextual (i.e., being pragmatic, subjective, and relative) are also the necessary ingredients for developing and maintaining a thriving relationship with God!

Second, Os Guiness also writes that “the Christian faith is not true because it works; it works because it is true.”3  Yet considering what we have discussed above I believe that this is incorrect.  Or rather, insufficient.  In other words, not only do people experience that Christianity “works,” I believe that Christianity must work in order for belief to be credible.

I would put it like this:

“Christianity is true because it works (as truth-for-me), and it works because it is true (as ultimate Truth).”

Now I maintain that it works (for me or anyone) because it is true (and ultimately so), but in order for me to perceive it as true it must—on some real and tangible level—work for me.  It is the alignment of my fullest / best-reasoned truth (call it ‘truth-for-me’) and the Bible’s truth claims (as ultimate Truth) that convinces me of the truth value of these truth claims.

Back to pragmatics, relativity, and subjectivity.

Aligning Truth and truth-for-me is necessary because humans are finite: bereft of unmediated access to God’s ultimate truth we instead evaluate such truth claims from our subjective, relative position.  Yet valuing my life and how things ‘work out’ for me—being pragmatic—means that it is also necessary for me to substantiate the claim that this God is good and that God’s love for me is real (and not fictional or abusive).

Thus being subjective, relative, and pragmatic are not obstacles to embracing Christian truth but are our very means of doing so.  Next week I examine how.

Christian theology ♥ modernist philosophy: Why do Christians love modernism?

The desire for absolute truth is wrong.

As I’ve sketched it in relation to Christianity, it starts as a wish for absolute access to the Bible’s truth claims, achieved by absolute openness to the Bible through unprejudiced neutrality, with a goal of providing absolute security: certainty about the Bible’s truth values.  But absolute access, absolute openness, and absolute security are all the same:

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

As I hope I’ve shown over my last number of posts, they are wrong because they are simply impossible.  And they are even more wrong for Christians because these views presuppose either the claim of being like God (which is idolatry) or a disparagement of creation (which is a key, God-given resource for validating biblical truth values).

But this is more than overblown aspirations, more than finite humans coveting the absolute.  In Christian terms, if this is sin then it is not simply a sin of commission—acting wrongly.  It is a sin of the mind and of association—choosing the wrong friends, for the wrong reasons.

Specifically, it appears that Christians have developed an entrenched affinity for “modernist” philosophy.

Thus as I argued in my last post, the quest for absolute access to truth claims via absolute, unprejudiced openness and arriving at absolute security (through certainty about truth values) is a portrait of Modernism.

Originating in 17th century Europe, modernist philosophy favoured reason over the senses, experience, tradition, etc., as the best—and only—way accurately to assess truth claims and adjudicate their truth values.  Its goal was to help people to decide on matters that concerned them, and to have certainty about the truth of their decisions.

Modernist thinkers like René Descartes, influenced by Plato, viewed knowledge as stronger (and so better) than belief.  But how could he be sure that was basing his decisions on knowledge and not just mere, unfounded belief?

Viewing reason to be the ultimate arbiter of truth, Descartes’ “method” involved doubting our customs and former beliefs until they pass the test of reason (and so can be considered true knowledge) and rejecting our emotions and passions as outrightly deceptive.  In effect, by starting anew from this neutral “view from nowhere” we would be free from false beliefs and reliant upon true knowledge alone.

The similarities with how some Christians approach the Bible could not be plainer.

So is Christianity bankrupt as a result?  Not at all—at least not on this count.  For again, these ideas are not inherently Christian.  The question is, Why have these views been so broadly (and unwittingly) embraced, and what can be done about it?

As to why, I believe that many Christians have embraced Modernism not only as a hedge against relativism but because it is easier than the alternatives.

First, the finite, contingent nature of human existence implies that we live with various tensions (knowing versus not knowing, presence versus absence, present versus past and future, etc.).  Part of our “job” as human beings, then, is to maintain a flexible and variable relationship between the poles of these tensions.  For example, on some matters we know more (and so can be more confident of our views), whereas on others we know less (and so must be more humble).

Modernism is easy because it effectively collapses the tensions into hierarchies—by following its method we avoid struggling with the hard questions of how to balance these tensions, and with the resultant hard work of possibly revising our beliefs when the balance shifts.

Second, however, Christians who embrace Modernism even collapse key tensions in the Bible!

For example, many over-emphasize how much the Holy Spirit aids Christians in understanding the Bible and under-emphasize (or ignore?) the detrimental and universal effects of sin on the same.  As a result, such Christians are often overconfident concerning how well they know the Bible.

As to what can be done, Christians clearly need to move beyond Modernism.  Next post looks at how.

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.

Experience, creation, and interpretation

God sees things as the truly are; people interpret.

Given this, we should not be surprised to encounter a myriad of different views on the Bible’s content—its truth claims—where neither the most important of which can be stated uncontestedly nor their truth value substantiated indisputably.  For example, we have a variety of views on who the God of the Bible is (i.e., various interpretations of the Bible’s claims about God), and the very notion of God’s existence is itself deeply contested (i.e., different interpretations of the value of such claims).

At its heart, the tension here is between claims that are ultimate in nature yet whose verification is necessarily down to finite individuals endowed with limited faculties, perspectives and experiences.

But in trying to protect ultimate truth from becoming relative truth—in trying to avoid a take-it-or-leave-it model of truth where everything is down to the individual’s preferences and so, seemingly, “anything goes”—have some Christians betrayed their own, dearest beliefs?

I think that they have.

In my last post I equated this betrayal with idolatry.  For in their efforts to protect against relativism regarding the Bible’s truth claims, many Christians contend not to need to interpret (“maybe you interpret the Bible, but I just read what’s there”) or to interpret flawlessly (“my interpretations are right; theirs are wrong”).  They profess to access the Bible’s claims and truth value absolutely, or with certainty.  Yet this amounts to seeing and knowing things as only God can.  And professing equality with God is idolatry.

But there’s more.

In their efforts to protect against relativism regarding the Bible’s truth values, many Christians are often selectively suspicious of the value of experience.  So where non-Christians might conclude that Christianity is a lie because they do not to experience its claims to be true, Evangelicals often insist that non-Christians must first accept and believe in Christianity in order to understand its truth.

Later we’ll examine this view more closely.  For now I note two, glaring contradictions.

First, if a Muslim insisted that non-Muslims must first embrace Islam in order to understand its truth, would Christians do this?  I doubt it.  Second, many Christians maintain that God is quintessentially personal and that belief in God means experiencing God in and through personal relationship.  So clearly certain experiences are essential to Christianity.

And this is the second betrayal: denigrating experience actually disparages the goodness of creation.  The God of the Bible has pronounced creation “good,” and importantly so.  For our created world is the environment that provides experiences necessary to knowing God, and our own created nature (as our unique personality and viewpoint) are crucial for entering into relationship with a personal God.  Denigrating experience, which is our human perspective on the created order, calls God a liar and disowns the truth of knowing God in and through relationship.

So where does this leave us?

On the one hand, for both Christians and non-Christians, we neither have—nor can have—certainty about the Bible’s claims nor about their validity.  Indeed, I think that “certain knowledge” is a myth born of modernist philosophy.  Instead, while God sees things as they really are and knows truly, human interpret and know with varying degrees of probability and according to particular perspectives.

On the other hand, interpreting implies neither a lack of truth (as though interpretations are mere unfounded opinions) nor a weakness (as though, if we were only smarter or more Godly, when reading the Bible we would just “read what’s there”).

Rather if we who are finite must interpret, we who are finite also may interpret.  In other words, while we do not have God’s absolute / ultimate perspective (and Truth), we are not left without any perspective (and no truth).  Far from being “stuck” in a fog of relativism, the good news is that we can actually better evaluate truth claims / values by becoming more competent interpreters.  How?

I’ll examine how this may be in my next post.  Stay tuned ‘til then.