“Relational truth” explained

What is “relational” truth?

Several posts ago I argued that the Bible is mainly concerned with relational truth (as opposed to mathematical, physical, or logical truth). Today I want to expand on the notion of relational truth and connect it with the need for Christians to understand in order to believe, rather than “simply believing.”

Relational truth comprises both factual and relational knowledge of entities. On the one hand, it is information about someone as understood more objectively: knowledge of past deeds, situations, and other facts that can be itemized or listed. On the other hand, it is the intimate knowledge that one only gains through ongoing relationship with that individual. This type of information is always personal (though it need not be individual).

To clarify this last point, relational knowledge is information derived from personal involvement and that reveals not just what someone did, who that person is. Yet this information could come via someone else, who has had close involvement with the person in question—someone who “testifies” about this person on the basis of his or her personal experiences.

So relational truth is comprised of factual and relational knowledge. Yet because these words seem overly similar I tend to use French verbs instead, savoir and connaître, in place of “factual knowledge” and “relational knowledge.” Savoir refers to information about someone (date of birth, passport number, employment record, etc.) and connaître refers to knowing someone through relationship (understanding personality, character, preferences, etc.).1

Savoir is knowing details about someone’s life; connaître is actually being a part of that life.

An important characteristic when evaluating savoir and connaître knowledge is what I will call “relational symmetry.” Relational symmetry exists where the the outward characteristics and markings (the factual, savoir knowledge about the individual) are mirrored by the inner qualities that one perceives through the connaître experience of relating with the individual—where the external and visible is consistent and consonant with the inner and private.

Examining this notion more deeply, relational truth must necessarily be attuned to the nature of the parties involved in the relationship: those to whom this truth pertains. In the case of Christianity, we are first dealing with relationship between humans and God. As a result, relational truth is also related to / comprised of anthropological truth (or human-related truth) and theological truth (or God-related truth).

Now one of the reasons that Christians are meant to understand in order to believe (rather than “simply believing”) is that the very nature of Christian faith, as a relationship between human beings and God, requires assessment that is both related to and distinct from how we might assess a human-to-human relationship. In other words, understanding the Bible’s truth claims (and validating them, by determining their truth value) is a process similar to everyday human activities and yet also different.

A couple things bear mentioning here.

On the one hand, this tension between what is similar and what is different is normal and good. More specifically, human beings make use of this sort of tension all the time: we learn how to do new things on the basis of having done other, similar things in the past. And most times the dissimilarities are small or easily accommodated, so on most occasions humans integrate the differences without need to attend to them overly (or even without paying conscious attention to them).

On the other hand, when people “simply believe” Christian truth claims without validating them this has a negative effect both on them and on those with whom they interact. For example, if I “simply believe” that Jesus is God then my belief lacks the complexity and internal structure needed to stand up to evil and despair, nor have I developed the intellectual and emotional acumen to engage well with people who have experienced such. Further, because I have not understood how Christianity integrates with real life I will actually have understood Christianity, and so my presentation of the Christian God will typically be flimsy and uncompelling.

Thus Christians both short-change themselves and others by not engaging with the process of understanding themselves, God, and the relationship between the two, both through the biblical portrayals and through other, valid, information sources.

How we validate the Bible’s truth claims in terms of relational truth must await my next post. Instead I will finish by summarizing two key points.

First, relational truth in comprised of factual and relational knowledge (or what I have called savoir and connaître) and requires a good understanding of both parties within the relationship both (including anthropology and psychology, as the study of humanity, and theology as the study of God).

Second, a key component to relational truth is the alignment of savoir and connaître: relational symmetry. This is crucial to Christianity, both because the biblical text claims that God is good and is involved with humanity for their good / flourishing, and because human beings require consistency within relationships in order to maximize their ability to flourish.

Assimilation, accommodation, and phronesis

A friend raised a helpful point by distinguishing between assimilating situations as cases of what I already know or have experienced versus accommodating / making room for the new by expanding our knowledge and re-mapping our categories of experience.

I wondered about the role of several factors in this process. The first one is recognition.

So on the one hand, certain new experiences / understandings simply impose themselves upon me. Such was certainly the case when it came to some of the experiences and knowledge about both God and myself that were pivotal to my return to Christianity. In this sense I was not so much faced with a choice of assimilating or accommodating but rather with a choice of how to accommodate, and to what end.

Thus I think that “the new” can overtake us and impose itself upon us. This was certainly the case for me in terms of my experiences at Swiss L’Abri in 1996.

However, on the other hand, perhaps there is something to having cultivated a disposition of enquiry or accepted that I have a degree of dissatisfaction with my existing situation. So in the case of the events and understandings which developed, again at Swiss L’Abri, in 1999 I had already had my experiential categories ripped wide open and was in a state of needing to resolve (or maybe better, reconcile) my understanding with my experience.

Specifically, this was not simply better to understand what I had experienced but to allow for the inherent message of these new experiences—that “the world is far larger and better that I had ever conceived”—to be put in motion as a form of ‘research project’ where the subjects were, quite literally, myself and the “meaning of life.”

So while I do not think that setting the stakes that high will always be necessary, I wonder if one must not always be willing to have these stakes at play, sometimes more and sometimes less. Stated differently, I wonder if we must literally be willing to put ourselves “in play” and also the meaning that we attach to life / what would constitute living it rightly.

This leads to the second factor I would consider in this process of assimilation versus accommodation.

Second, I wonder about the necessity of understanding myself (as self-awareness and self-understanding) and understanding what constitutes “the good life” or the purpose of living. Now surely my experiences and understandings can impact, and so alter, these understandings, but I do begin with a starting place. Further, this form of understanding is always embodied to varying degrees of completeness as I live out (or shy away from) what I believe.

Thus there is, or should be, a vibrant interaction between participating and observing—between theory and practice. Yet I think that this too, while not a technique that I can learn like how to prepare a meal from a recipe, is nevertheless a form of embodied knowledge that must be acquired. I would tend to use the ancient Greek notion of phronesis, or practical wisdom, to describe this integration of participating and observing, theory and practice.

Phronesis is not a matter of applying particular skills in a memorized sequence but, instead, requires developing one’s ability to perceive the subtleties in a given situation and to develop responses that are both fitting to that situation and, where appropriate and possible, create tension and / or resolution toward a richer integration of action and understanding, or a better understanding of oneself, the other, the situation, or some combination of these three.

Phronesis similarly involves assessing the outcome of engaging these tensions and / or resolutions. So it gauges “success” not according to how well one followed instructions but to what degree the outcome represents a “fit” with / an improvement upon (or perhaps even the least degradation of) the original setting. Nor is the notion of “success” simply my own or attributable to my action but is always potentially a shared reality. For example, the success of understanding life better, knowing oneself / the other more truly, having persevered (or relented) as was necessary, etc. Similarly failure is not necessarily attributable to me or even the other but is always potentially a mutual or general loss.

In this way, phronesis is very much about the importance of becoming sensitive to context, much like becoming a good reader in order to get the most out of a finely crafted and nuanced text. In this way phronesis is hermeneutical, and the results of phronesis are not often the binary yes / no of “success or failure” but represent outcomes according to a graded spectrum, as “better or worse” (and where the spectrum itself, and how it is graded, require re-interpretation and fine tuning according to the situation).

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.

Atheism’s “religious” significance—Part 3


Recently I have suggested that Christians need first to listen to atheists (before critiquing them) in order to see what we hold in common and to see atheists more as God sees them.  Now I want to take that a step further:

Listening to atheism’s critiques can help Christians better follow Christ.

Come again??

Nope, I mean it.  Literally.

Nor is this some nifty footwork born of Reformed theology.  In other words, I am not suggesting that atheists are some “canonized group” that God has destined to live and die as God’s adversaries, to test and refine the character of us “true believers.”

No.  I firmly believe that God loves all humanity equally and desires that all—all—humans come into right relationship with God.

Instead, the issue is deeper and more complex.  The issue is that the church is not what it should be because it has adopted postures that wrongly collapse tensions necessary to right Christian living into rigidified hierarchies.  Further, because these same hierarchies are presented as articles of faithfulness within the church, the church is effectively blinded to the problem.  In such cases I believe that it takes critically informed outsiders to awaken the church to these unbalances.

So what are these postures?

First, the theological tension between the Holy Spirit’s assistance of believers and the unavoidable effects of sin1 is often collapsed.  The upshot is that many Christians over-emphasize the Spirit’s benefits to the point that it all but obscures the fact that we remain finite humans apt to turn our backs on God (often by deceiving ourselves about how–and how much– we embrace the very practices and beliefs that we claim to disavow).

Once this first tension is collapsed into a hierarchy it becomes all too easy similarly to rigidify confidence over humility, such as in situations where Christians engage with non-Christians, particularly hostile non-Christians or atheists.  Typically these Christians preemptively (and to their detriment) disparage the insights of non-Christians regarding Christian practice, belief, and Scripture because they “know more (and better)” than the non-Christians.

Second, the interpretive (or hermeneutical) tension between biblical truth and lived experience in knowing God (and to live the Christian life) is often collapsed.  The upshot is that many Christians over-emphasize biblical truth to the point that it obscures how love (as central to God’s character) and Christian living both find their fullest expression in committed engagement, not mere examination.

Once this second tension is collapsed it becomes all too easy again to rigidify (attachment to Biblical) truth over love (of neighbour) in situations where such Christians engage with fellow Christians who read the Bible differently.  Typically these Christians disregard the insights of their fellows, such as Liberation Theologians,2 but in doing so they fail to love they neighbour as themselves by failing to respect his or her ideas and texts as their own.

So what does this all mean?

In both cases it means that the church is no longer what it should be.  On the one hand, setting confidence over humility encourages exclusion of other views such that Christians risk falling “into a situation of interpretive arrogance, . . . thinking our words are God’s word.” (Reading in Communion, 110, italics mine).  On the other hand, setting textual explanation over lived understanding (and valuing [biblical] truth over love [of neighbor]) is reductionistic, with the consequence that Christian communities risk being “at best introspective and at worst sectarian.” (Reading, 110).

So what should be done?  Instead of dispute, we need dialogue.

For Christians, dialogue begins by believing that if all truth is God’s truth then we need not fear truth, wherever it may be found.  Dialogue also involves loving the other by listening to them—engaging with their perspectives not by “trying to discover the weakness in what is said, but in bringing out its real strength.” (p Truth & Method, 367).

Dialogue as loving one’s neighbour does not imply uncritical acceptance of another’s conclusions, but rather means prioritizing listening to critique by perceiving their appraisals of Christian practice and belief as “gifts” which may allow Christians to see themselves more truthfully.3

Atheism’s “religious” significance—Part 2


Q:  What might happen if Christians first dialogued with atheists about our points of agreement, rather than disputed our disagreements?

From the average Christian, stunned silence.  Or questions like: What would be the point of that?

The point, actually, would be learning something.  And not simply something trivial about “those poor atheists” en route to witnessing to them, but something deeply true (and perhaps even essential) about ourselves as Christians.

More stunned silence, I wager.  But consider this:

Where the Bible indicates that Christians (and all people) “know in part”1 it is calling for Christians to hold confidence and humility in flexible and variable tension.  Thus “knowing in part” implies that all truth is God’s truth (and not ours, as Christians)2 and therefore that Christians should welcome truth wherever it is found (even, as Augustine notes, within “the teachings of the pagans”3).

Hence the need for “tension”: maintaining suppleness regarding how much confidence versus how much humility we apply in any given situation, with the practical upshot that we cultivate the flexibility to adjust this proportion based on new contexts and new information.

In the most general sense, the result of maintaining this tension (and not assuming that we know all that we need to know about atheists) is that we hold off our criticism long enough to listen.  And in listening we find some shocking similarities.  For example, we learn that even the most ardent atheists are concerned about the same things we Christians are.

So where Bertrand Russell vouches that “‘the good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge’ ” (of which he claims love is the greater)4, a discussion with such outsiders to Christianity embraces considerations (like love and truth) with which Christians may competently and enthusiastically engage.  Moreover, when we attain Bertrand Russell’s goals we are actually faced with “the problem of good:” having to account for and express wonder at truth, and at the reality of being loved and in love.

Next, where Christians can acknowledge that the atheist’s demand for proof of God’s existence amounts to a common need to “taste and see” God’s goodness (“common” because such experiences of God not only strengthen but create faith), Christians learn not to subordinate experience and sense perceptions to theology.5

So rather than disputing atheists with Scripture Christians can agree, in our post-Shoah world, that God’s love must “show up” in opposition to evil.  Thus instead of disdaining the human need to validate–and the created ability to perceive–goodness in our lived experience, Christians can foster dialogues about what counts as goodness in the ‘here and now’.

Last, given that “no one is born a Christian”6 and that God approaches humanity in creative and surprising ways, Christian must not insist that atheists “think like them” before these outsiders can understand or love aright.

Rather, productively dialoging with outsiders requires Christians to recognize their own conversions (i.e., the situations and understandings that enabled new experiences of God’s truth and love for them) as the gold standard that underwrites their arguments and validates their theological viewpoints.  Thus defending our Christian convictions requires not theological but personal explanation (which in turn contain theological, philosophical, psychological, historical elements and so forth).

This personal content is not superfluous but is intrinsically necessary as that which renders our philosophical arguments and theological viewpoints plausible and enticing to those outside of Christianity.

So by listening to atheists Christians first understand that they have misjudged how much we share in common with them.  Second, the conversations arising from an awareness of shared interests are less disputes fueled by our need to defend God’s truth (and to present biblical truth claims) as dialogues explaining our experiences of God’s truth and love (as our personal, embodied examples of biblical truth values).

To conclude,

When we first dialogue with them, Atheists then become people that need to be understood and loved rather than enemies that need to be contradicted, defeated, or converted.  In other words, we are able to treat them as God sees them: tremendously valuable and worthy of respect… just like us.

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.