Category Archives: Philosophy
As I’ve argued before, the rise of modern science came about from the conviction of the Bible’s presentation of metaphysical realism teaches that the external world was really there, not merely a projection of our minds, and detailed study of it could lead to a true understanding of the world rather than merely biographical insights (opposed to eastern influenced worldviews that teach reality as maya, illusion.). This is grounded in the Biblical notion of a Creator/creature distinction.
Naturally, this may lead to an objection: What of those who practiced a kind of science before the rise of modern science? What about Lucretius? What about Democritus? Didn’t they say the same kinds of things?
Well, let’s ask a couple of question. Did Lucretius believe in a Creator/creature distinction? Great! Wait…no? Did he believe that the external world was really there? Great! My point isn’t that non-Christians don’t believe in an external world. The nub of the issue is whether their worldview provides a basis for believing those things. The issue is worldview. The rise of modern science is owed to Christian theism.
It’s not enough that someone, somewhere (ex: Lucretius) agreed with a single point that Christians later held. Rather is was a collection of beliefs that made modern science possible. Even Alfred North Whitehead, not exactly a friend to historical Christianity, said in Science and the Modern World:
Faith in the possibility of science, generated antecedently to the development of modern scientific theory, is an unconscious derivative from medieval theology.
The point? Even those who reject Christianity acknowledge its role in the development of modern science.
Let’s think of some other problems for naturalism. Epistemologists for centuries have noted what I’ve called the problem of the knower. That is, how do we know that our measuring, thoughts, etc. match up to the external world? Our measuring, observations, etc may work (they may provide pragmatic usefulness), but how do we know that they lead to truth? Personally, I can understand how on a materialistic worldview they lead to the first (pragmatic usefulness), but not how they can secure the second (truth).
You see, this is also called the subject/object problem. But, one of the reasons for the problem (and the issue here, again, is how does one justify, integrate, harmonize, provide the philosophical preconditions for these assumptions. I’m not doubting that the assumptions (i.e. that our measurements reflect the external world, etc.) are valid, I’m questioning naturalism’s philosophical foundation for such beliefs. Naturalists have failed to provided an epistemological norm or standard for these foundational beliefs. For Christians the standard is the Bible. Lots of work has been done to unpack the philosophical implications for metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, etc from the teachings of the Bible, like John Frame’s Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (P&R Publishing), and Alvin Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford). This “norm” serves as a presupposition in the sense that it acts as the filter, lens (insert analogy here) through which evidence will be understood. This norm isn’t easily refuted or correct by a simply appeal to “the facts” either, because it’s the standard by which evidence is interpreted. So the battle between naturalism and Christianity is a clash of worldviews. This clash was made explicit in the now infamous book review by Richard Lewontin:
Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, IN SPITE OF its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, IN SPITE OF the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a A PRIORI adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is an absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.
- Richard Lewontin,”Billions and Billions of Demons,” The New York Review of Books, Jan. 4, 1997, 31. Emphasis in original, though they were italicized, not caps
This speaks volumes, and I’m convinced that this worldview clash is what dictates so many of the arguments against, for example, the intelligent Design movement. It’s a commitment to methodological naturalism, and as Lewontin notes, and a priori commitment at that.
Conclusion. What’s the Christian response to the philosophical issues noted above? In a nutshell, it’s found in biblical doctrines of creation and anthropology. Since the same God created both me and the world around me, there’ s a correlation between the two. God has created the world with a rational structure and likewise has modeled our thinking to match this rational structure (not perfectly, but truly).
What do Reformed apologists mean by a presupposition? Too often it is mistakenly believed that Van Tillian or presuppositional apologists use the word ‘presupposition’ to refer to either a starting axiom or a mere assumption. John Frame helpfully parses out the nuances of a Van Tillian usage of the term:
A presupposition is a belief that takes precedence over another and therefore serves as a criterion for another. An ultimate presupposition is a belief over which no other takes precedence. For a Christian, the content of Scripture must serve as his ultimate presupposition…This doctrine is merely the outworking of the lordship of God in the area of human thought. It merely applies the doctrine of scriptural infallibility to the realm of knowing. - The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg: P&R, 1987), 45.
Frame elaborates further:
The lordship of Christ is not only ultimate and unquestionable, not only above and beyond all other authorities, but also over all areas of human life. In 1 Corinthians 10:31 we read, “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (cf. Rom.14:23; 2 Cor. 10:5; Col. 3:17,23; 2 Tim. 3:16-17). Our Lord’s demand upon us is comprehensive. In all that we do, we must seek to please him. No area of human life is neutral. -Apologetics to the Glory of God: An Introduction (Phillipsburg: P&R, 1994), 7.
Critique. I have several criticisms of W. Jay Wood’s book, not all of them substantial. I’ll start them off from what I find the least important to the more important.
First, though his way with words is fantastic and normally his arguments flow together kind well, a difficulty with the structure of the book is that essentially it seems as if it were two books in one. The first half of the book focuses on the nature of epistemic virtue and vice. Here Wood has some truly wonderful things to say. His elaborations on seeking knowledge in the wrong way, as well as his discussion on how our biases effect our evaluation of topics, is well worth the price of the book. Often I was lead to serious contemplation regarding my thoughts and attitudes toward those with whom I disagree.
Unfortunately, the second half of the book, that which deals will more technical epistemological models, seems to start off abruptly. A helpful “segway” chapter would have greatly prepared his readers for the craggy twists and turns of academic epistemology. Throughout the second half of the book Wood continually refers to the virtue epistemology taught in the first half (as to not allow the readers new-found knowledge to fall by the wayside), nonetheless, I find these ocassions insufficient to overcome the rather harsh transition from the first to second half of the work.
Next, I think the jump from ancient “virtue” views of epistemology straight over to foundationalism without taking the time to define at least the classic schools of thought in epistemology of rationalism and empiricism (the former whose numbers include Socrates, Plato, Augustine [somewhat], and Descartes, with the latter including Aristotle [somewhat], Aquinas, Locke, and Hume). Both fall under foundationalism, yet broad brushing the movement without acknowledging the difference may serve to confuse readers later on down the road, so to speak. I also wished he would have, at least briefly (though it would indeed be quite a task to be brief about!), Immanuel Kant’s transcendentalism.
My chief object to Wood’s presentation of a Christian virtue epistemology is what seems to me as an inconsistency between his statement, “Altered affections thus often bring an end to one way of seeing and thinking and the beginning of a new one,” and the manner in which he presents case for virtue epistemology. As Christians we believe that all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Christ (Col. 2:3). All systems not build on the rock of God’s word are ultimately foolish and vain attempts to escape the authority of their Maker. Wood’s statement above indicates some level of awareness that one’s epistemic pursuits are driven by the passions of their heart, yet the need for regeneration in one’s thinking (including ever other aspect or faculty of man) is not mention until the eighth chapter and is discussing the views of another thinker, namely Jonathan Edwards.
A biblical epistemology acknowledges that the reason people establish godless and false worldviews, which are intricately tied them with their epistemology, is chiefly for moral concerns (sinful rebellion to God’s rightful rule). The epistemological issues are logically subsequent to the moral (see Rom. 1:21-23). When one rejects God as the epistemological bedrock for all intelligibility then naturally another foundation for knowledge will be sought. Scripture calls these idols. Wood rightly expounds the teaching that there are oughts to epistemology, right ways and wrong ways to seek knowledge and wisdom. Unfortunately he does not say that these norms are found in the Bible. Rather it seems, to this author at least, as if Wood calls Christians to think “Christianly” simply because we ought to live within our professed tradition.
Perhaps it is simply my own apologetic disposition that causes me to desire Wood to expand on the antithesis between Christian and non-Christian epistemology. We as creatures of God have an innate knowledge of our Creator. Yet, we sinfully suppress this truth (Rom. 1:18). Though many people profess an epistemological agnosticism toward God, everyday their unguarded actions actually prove that they do know10 the God of the Bible. For instance, the infinite personal God of Scripture is the only logical and coherent ground for laws of thought, the uniformity of nature, the dignity of humanity, love, and moral absolutes.
The non-believer’s epistemological assumptions must be challenged. Any epistemology that does not presuppose the truth of God’s word in Scripture will render any form of true knowledge nonsense, and unintelligible. The non-Christian is not only spiritually but epistemologically lost.
Wood seems to blur this epistemological antithesis, perhaps for the sake of political correctness, when on page 72, “In the lives of devout Buddhists there is a consistency, and integrity if you will, between what they sincerely believe to be true and what they profess and do.” Just before this he sets up this statement by saying, “…we don’t call a committed Buddhist a fool.” Yet for apologetic and philosophical reasons I cannot fully broach here, I can indeed call a committed Buddhist a fool, at least in the sense in which Scripture uses the term. Buddhism in its mainstream form is generally atheistic, denying the necessity or existence or any God, let alone the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Scripture states the “the fool has said in his heart there is no God.” Secondly it is impossible for any religious or philosophical system to attain 100 percent systemic consistency. This is because we are God’s creation, made in His image, living in His world. At any and all points in which non-Christians affirm a truth (regarding anything at all) it is because the are borrowing “Christian capital.”
Conclusion. Despite of differences of views regarding Biblical epistemology I may have with the author, nonetheless I would fully recommend Epistemology: Becoming Intellectually Virtuous. The author’s emphasis on moral virtue being vital and crucial to intellectual pursuits is a message that we need to hear more often. Wood’s chapter on the relationship between proper thinking and proper subjectivity was quite reminiscent of C. S. Lewis in his The Abolition of Man. As opposed to a common misunderstanding by those who follow after intellectual pursuits Wood draws our attention to the fact that feelings can be viewed as value-laden seeing. Without proper feelings one cannot be said to truly understand a given situation.
In 1998 W. Jay Wood, associate professor and chair of the philosophy department at Wheaton College in Illinois, released Epistemology: Becoming Intellectually Virtuous. The book is an introduction to the philosophical study of knowledge, or epistemology, and, more specifically, a primer in what has come to be known as virtue epistemology.
Few Christians seem to believe that the benefits of studying epistemology outweigh its difficulties. It seems dry and detached from everyday life. Wood sets out to shows that a proper understanding of epistemology leads one to consider intellectual virtues as intricately woven with moral virtues.
What is Virtue Epistemology? Our pursuit of knowledge has a profoundly ethical dimension. In fact epistemology is properly understood as a subdivision of ethics. This is a crucial. While worldview thinking has become quite popular in Christian circles, unfortunately few see thinking itself as subject to the teachings of the Christian worldview. John M. Frame argues a similar point in his Doctrine of the Knowledge of God. As opposed to a generic virtue epistemology both Wood and Frame call Christians to view our intellectual lives as subject to the authority of the Bible.
Truth-seeking is a matter of seeking it in the right way, for the right reason, using the right methods and for the right purposes. A completely unbridled quest for truth- one indifferent to right motives and means- is degenerate from its inception…Knowledge, like wealth, cannot be sought at all cost but is itself subject to moral restraints.
Wood reminds his readers that this is nothing new in the history of philosophy. Prior to the Enlightenment all acclaimed philosophers believed that, “…we should situate the life of the mind within a larger framework of motives and ends.”
As opposed to foundationalists and internalists who state that S is justified in believing p if they have fulfilled epistemic duty X, and reliabilists and externalists who argue that S is warranted in believing p if S is in such and such an environment suited for X type of epistemic output, virtue epistemologists argue in this fashion, “S is justified in believing that p if and only if S’s believing p is the result of S’s intellectual virtues or faculties function in an appropriate environment.”
Content. Christians who want to think clearly about their faith will find this book a great service. It is also a good introduction to epistemology. With all the literature piling up yearly one hardly knows where to begin. Epistemology: Becoming Intellectually Virtuous is an excellent place to start. The book is not overly long, in fact it is a barely over 200 pages (a good week’s read). Within the span of this short work the author plows through issues such as intellectual virtue and vice (what are they, how do we obtain them, and how they can help or hamper our growth, etc.), foundationalism in its various forms, epistemic justification, reformed epistemology, and the battle between internalist and externalist camps of epistemic justification.
It was this last debate that I found especially helpful. Before I had read Wood’s work I was aware of the distinction between justification and warrant (Alvin Plantinga’s term), but wasn’t t aware of the content of that distinction. Wood’s explanation is brilliantly done. Simply put justification normally is thought of what gives the person a right to hold a certain belief. Knowledge has historically been defined as justified, true, belief.
The debate between internalists and externalists is in whether this justification should be see as the knower fulfilling certain “epistemic duties”, i.e. the knower’s right to hold certain beliefs because they formed in a reliable, belief-producing environment. The latter is what the externalist asserts. Externalists such as Alvin Plantinga desire to distance themselves from the historical baggage of justification language, since it is almost always tied together with an internalist view of duty, and instead offer the term warrant.
Method. Wood’s writing style is very clear and his arguments flow into one another very well. His target audience seems to be college students (such as his own pupils) as well as educated laypersons who seek to integrate their faith with intellectual sophistication and articulation. He reaches his goal quite well. He normally doesn’t spend too long on one school of thought, and, quite consistently, shows how a virtue epistemologist, such as himself, would respond and critique the competing schools.
Next I’ll offer my criticisms of the book and provide a conclusion.
I just finished reading John Caputo’s What Would Jesus Deconstruct?. Below is the posted book review that I put up on my Facebook account. My opening comments are referring to this review:
Caputo’s other books have been light in a dark place, and this series of books looks promising. But this particular volume strikes me as poorly written and poorly reasoned, surprising for Caputo. He rails against an undefined “religious Right” in a way that Brian McLaren, in the preface, describes as “hospitable” but which I can only describe as straw-man hostility. He takes Derrida to have something to say about religion, which is fair enough and true, I think. But he never here makes the case for why we should listen to Derrida, or why Deconstruction is a desirable Biblical hermeneutic. In the end, he has very little to offer other than his opinion. I say this as one who usually finds his opinions interesting and his philosophy worth reading. This time, however, I think Caputo writes sloppily. He either does a disservice to the views he espouses, or else exposes them as largely empty of _theological_ content. When he talks about the key themes in Derrida’s work, he’s lucid; when he talks about what they mean for us, his wordplay seems to mask a lack of argument. This is unfortunate
The review above is superb and right on target. I read this work because I do believe that deconstruction can be appropriated in useful ways by Christians. When Caputo is explaining what deconstruction is and it’s concerns, the work is insightful and helpful. The 2nd half of the work is nearly useless (at least to me). Rather than writing a long of a review, allow me to bullet point my areas of concern:
- Caputo seems to have a difficult time speaking specifically of Christianity without the discussion soon degenerating into a discussion of ‘religion’ in general.
- His disgust with the ‘Christian’ or ‘religious’ right is evident on every page, while he has nearly nothing to correct on the Left.
- He pits Paul against Jesus, and nearly always isolates Jesus from the overall biblical narrative, especially the Old Testament (i.e. the Hebrew Bible).
- Many of his arguments aren’t arguments at all but not-so-subtly hidden biases against traditional Christian views (on human nature, homosexuality, abortion, penal substitution, etc).
- He, at least in this book, shows no familiarity with discussions on his chosen topics that come to conclusions other than his own.
- Most of his arguments against the “Christian right” are aimed at a straw-man fundamentalism. I kept asking myself, ‘who believes that!?’ The classical Christian position on abortion and homosexuality, for instance, should be represented by it’s best thinkers, not by extremes…if Caputo doesn’t appreciate it when this is done against Derrida (and I agree), then he shouldn’t do it against Christianity.
- The audience of the book isn’t completely clear. Baker academic is primarily an evangelical Protestant publishing house. Caputo slips back and forth between attacks on Evangelical views, and then attacking Roman Catholic views (many attacks of which Protestants would agree). The lack of focus is very frustrating.
- Tying in with point 4, Caputo’s writing also suffers from the ‘saying it’s so doesn’t make it so’ fallacy. Saying that Jesus would probably endorse homosexual love if he lived today (while ignoring Jesus high view of Scripture with all that it approved and condemned) doesn’t make it so.
So many logical and theological problems plague this book that i’ll have to stop here, lest I go on for several pages. There are paragraphs here and there are that so good that they push you on to finish the entire work, but overall i’m a little surprised that Baker decided to go ahead and publish a book like this. Eerdman’s I’d expect, as well as Brazos (Baker’s more ‘radical’ imprint, but not Baker Academic. James. K. A. Smith’s first volume in this series was fantastic. Smith endorses much of postmodernism, but is nevertheless critical. Caputo, on the other hand, would change the very face of historic Christianity if he had his way.
Summary: This book is for the discerning. Read it with care. But, if you believe the Bible is the actual verbal revelation of God Himself, brace yourself for a pretty high dose of frustration as you trek through it.
In the first part of my review of Crystal Downing’s How Postmodernism Serves (My) Faith, I noted what I think are the strengths of the book, and why I think it’s one of the most helpful introductions on the subject for Christians to read. Now, I point out what I think are the weaknesses of her work.
Let it be known now, before I say any word of critique, that I thoroughly enjoyed this book and learned a good deal from it. It’s among my favorite Christian books on postmodernism by far. But, the book does have some weaknesses, and they’re not minor.
Insufficient view of Scripture. In a nutshell, I strongly get the impression that Downing denies the inerrancy of Scripture. That is to say, she does not necessarily believe that the Bible contains no errors (whether historical, scientific, etc.). She seems to equate the doctrine of inerrancy with the modernist worldview that undergirded much of Christian fundamentalism. There’s one major problem: the teaching of the errorless-ness of Scripture (though the term ”inerrancy” wasn’t used until relatively recently) dates far, far before modernism. Augustine, living in the 3rd and 4th centuries spoke of God’s word as true in all that it teaches.
The sad part of Downing’s portrayal of inerrancy is that she nowhere interacts with the vast literature on the subject by competent, historically informed evangelicals. here I’m thinking of works like Scripture and Truth, God’s Inerrant Word, and Inerrancy (edited by Norman Geisler), and more recently (just released) Greg Beale’s The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism. Perhaps the best single work refuting the view that inerrancy is a later theological development from modernism-influenced Princetonians is John Woodbridge’s Biblical Authority. Ironically, considering postmodern’s emphasis on justice toward the “other,” Downing (at least in this work) pays no attention to “other” approaches to this important issue.
Inclusivism. Inclusivism is the view that states that while salvation cannot be found apart from the work of Christ, someone can be saved apart from a conscious knowledge of Jesus Christ. Recounting the ending of C. S. Lewis’s work, The Last Battle, Downing implies that a fundamentalist Christianity insists on exclusivism (the view that says salvation comes only through a conscious knowledge of, and faith in the person of Jesus Christ), while an open, postmodern-chastened Christianity will realize that salvation doesn’t come through a formula (i.e. the baptist, pentecostal, presbyterian [etc] understanding of the gospel) but instead will be inclusivist. But, no one I know that maintains an exclusivist faith reduces the gospel to their particular confession of faith. And few (read: none) of the people with the educational background and interests to be reading Downing’s book with make the error of believing that salvation depends on a “formula.” Maybe some do reduce salvation to a particular creed, but Downing should interact with the best presentation of a view. I for one think that the Westminster Confession of Faith is perhaps the best and most precise creed ever developed in the history of Christianity, but I would never presume to say that those who do not adhere to it aren’t saved (of course, some chapters in the confession of more essential to salvation than others. For instance, if someone rejects it’s teaching on the person and work of Christ they cannot rightly be called a Christian.).
Another sad thing in this regard is that Downing doesn’t really engage the texts that are most often cited against her position (Acts 4:12, and others that place a heavy emphasis on the name of Jesus). D. A. Carson has addressed this issue pretty exhaustively in his book, The Gagging of God. Inclusivism simply cannot be made to fit the whole texts and plot-line of the Bible without forcing upon it a number of postmodern sensitivities.
Truth. Now, this issue is a bit sticky. Groothuis and others have made the truth issue central to all discussion on postmodernism. This, of course, isn’t a bad thing. Many “postmodern Christians” find it much easier to speak of Christ as the Truth (cf. John 14:6). So far, so good. But it normally stops there. Unfortunately, many times a sad reductionism of the truth issue is employed when we choose only to affirm the absolute truth of the incarnate Word, but shy away from confessing the same of the written word of Scripture. The propositions of the Bible are divinely given propositions, it’s questions are authoritative and demand to be answered, and it’s declarations demand to be believed. We need to reject a false dichotomy between the incarnate and the written word. Jesus Himself said to the Father in John 17, “Your word is truth.” Paul develops arguments regarding the work of Christ based on the form of a particular word (“seed”) in Galatians (showing that the very words of scripture, and not merely it’s broad message, were crucial for hearing God), and Christ said that those who did not heed His words will be like a house built on the sand.
She may very well believe in the absolute truth of the words of scripture, but she isn’t very clear on the matter. And her troubles with inerrancy makes the matter worse.
Idiosyncratism. In her discussion on the various forms of relativism, her final form in described as building relativism. This is the kind of relativism that states that we access to many truth is relative to a number of circumstances (gender, location, intellect, biases, etc, etc), but is still compatible with a belief in absolute truth. But, once you finish the book you realize that she never mentions “building relativists” (what I would call perspectivalists) that hold to views different from her own. So, it would seem, that building relativists are open to theistic evolution, opposed to the “modernist doctrine” of inerrancy, and are inclusivists.
But is maintaining these views necessary to be a serious Christian thinker that can fairly, and without hostility, access competing worldviews? What about those that believe in a 7 day creation? Surely she doesn’t believe they are all dumb fundamentalists. I most certainly give her the benefit of the doubt in that regard. Does everyone who believes that the text of the Bible contains no errors have to be influence by modernist foundationalism? If so, what about Augustine?
Conclusion. Perhaps her positions are formed as a (over)reaction against forms of Christianity that presented the above mentioned doctrines in an unattractive manner. I cannot say. But, she should have spent more time engaging her fellow brothers and sisters in Christ who sincerely, and strongly disagree with her on such vital matters.
Like I said, these are not minor errors. And they serve to mar an otherwise fantastic book. Is the book worth the time? Certainly. But even a helpful book like this one demands that it’s reader search the Scriptures “to see if these things are true.”
Just a week ago, I finished reading Crystal Downing’s work, How Postmodernism Serves (My) Faith. The work represents a shift in Christian writing on the topic of postmodernism. Though Downing’s work isn’t the first in this trend, the trend is that of works that see postmodernism as a boon for Christian witness. Many books published 10-12 years ago have an us vs. them feel about them. Mostly noticeable of the “older” books on pomo is Douglas Groothuis’ book, Truth Decay: Defending Christianity against the Challenge of Postmodernism (ironically, also published by InterVarsity Press). Groothius has many helpful things to say, but overall he find little helpful about postmodernism and links it to some of the strangest aspects of contemporary culture. What Downing brings in her book is a take on the issues from someone who’s actually read the key thinkers of this movement (and this isn’t meant as an indictment against Groothuis). Also, she moves (somewhat) beyond the typical impasse of so much Christian analysis, epistemology.
Clarity, flow, and readability. One of the greatest strengths of this book is Downing’s ability to take complex topics, like the deconstruction of Jacques Derrida, and explain it in a) concise terms, and b) in thought-forms that Christians are familiar with. For instance, in discussing Derrida’ notion of binary opposition, she uses the modernist binary of reason/faith, science/religion, and fact/feeling. Christians are used to hearing these oppositions in our culture, and for that clarification Downing should be applauded.
Familiar examples, and reoccurring stories and references make the flow throughout the book very smooth, and helpful. It’s a fun and easy read (of course, by that I mean about as easy as your can imagine given the subject matter!).
Sympathetic Approach. I will continue to use Groothuis’ books as an example. Personally, I found his book, Truth Decay, to be very helpful on a number of issues related to postmodernism. His appendix on television was alone worth the price of the book in my eyes. But, one thing that hurts the work overall is that he doesn’t seem to have any sympathy for postmodernists and their “plight.” Nearly everything in our culture that he finds disturbing is labeled as a result of postmodernism. But, as a scholar on Blaise Pascal, he should know that it is sympathetic analysis that’s most helpful. Imagine how he would appreciate a book on Pascal written from someone who’s worldview is radically opposed to that of Pascal himself (and I’m sure Dr. Groothuis has had to read more than a few of those)?
In How Postmodernism Serves (My) Faith, Downing lays her chips on the table in the very name of the book! She finds pomo helpful to her faith, and believes that many of it’s teaching, understood at their best, can aid in developing a stronger Christian faith. Largely, I agree, though I have some strong disagreements with what she believes is a robust Christian faith (see part 2). Only be tracking along with a thinker’s concerns and arguments can we be opened to the way they perceived the world, even if initially it seems strange and foreign. If we do not do this, 9 times our of 10 we are prone to dismiss someone’s thought and find them to be crazies.
Next we’ll look at the negatives of this otherwise helpful book…
Though in our day we must wrestle with the postmodern expression of relativism, relativism itself is nothing new. Protagoras of ancient Greece, philosophical nemesis of Plato, held that “man is the measure of all things.” So, if relativism is an old enemy of God’s revelation, why tackle it here…again? Crystal Downing, in her recent work, How Postmodernism Serves (my) Faith, notes that speaking about relativism is a tricky matter. Not all forms of relativism are opposed to the Christian message. She notes at least three forms of relativism, with the second having three expressions.
The first form of relativism that Downing mentions is what she calls Bird relativism. This view approaches the matter from a bird’s eye view, assuming that it can understand the nature of truth from a non-situated position. This is the type of relativism that most people fear and denounce. It’s the view that says all views are equally true, or equally false.
The second form of relativism is Brain relativism. This form acknowledges that because of the plurality of human experiences, cultures, religions, etc., people think differently (“Brain”). There is therefore no way to enter in sympathetically to another’s perspective. In effect, we are trapped in our sphere of interpretation. Downing notes three sub-divisions of Brain relativism, namely the bouncing, bombardment, and lastly, the boundary form. Bouncing relativism calls us never to settle on a particular interpretative community, instead calling us to bounce around and “find ourselves” through multiple identity-forming communities. Since no one true interpretive paradigm has it all right, any attempt they make to totalize life under their scheme is inherently oppressive. In order to free oneself from the tyrannical control of just one worldview, the bouncing relativist must free themselves and “dip and dab” in various schools of discourse.
The bombardment relativist, like Stanley Fish, holds that discourse is always played according to the language games of our community. Since we live in a particular ideological commune our ultimate commitment is to that party, and we should radically defend our view of the world. While from a Christian perspective, at first glance this view may seem appealing, we must recognize that Fish’s sword cuts both ways; for a Muslim to question their towers of influence is inherently wrong. There is seemingly is no way to mediate between perspectives, we simply think about the world differently (this is way it is a subdivision of brain relativism). “If we endorse the bombardment position of Fish, we cannot say the that the actions of al-Qaida are universally immoral; we can only say that they are immoral according to our tower’s language of morality.” They took the notion of bombardment quite seriously.
Richard Rorty, the (im)famous American neo-pragmatist philosopher, is Downing’s representative of Boundary relativism. Immediately one will notice the parallels with the boundary and bombardment schools of relativism. Boundary relativism argues that one ought to cultivate the virtue of solidarity with one’s community. Why do Americans prefer freedom and democracy? Because those are American values. To break solidarity with the society’s paradigmatic view of the world is to be immoral. We ought to remain within our society’s boundaries because they work for us. Rorty is not concerned with the “how do you know?” question that has plagued western philosophy for centuries. He freely admits to parasitically feeding off of the Judeo-Christian worldview when he condemns cruelty and injustice. Were we to ask him why should he hold these standards as opposed to others, he would simply reply, “These are the values that have shaped America. And I’m an American.” Before moving on, I note that such a view of truth, morality, and solidarity, the notion of a social, intellectual, or ethical reformer is rendered unintelligible; by definition to reform is to break solidarity according to Rorty, and hence is immoral (i.e it doesn’t ‘work’). Martin Luther King Jr., William Wilberforce (who fought to end the slave trade in England), and Einstein (who rejected the Newtonian scientific paradigm of his day) would have to be remembered with disrepute rather than honor.
Lastly, Downing writes of Building relativism. Here she makes use of the word building as both a verb and a noun. As a noun the term building speaks of the structures, or towers, as she likes to call them, that act as ideological paradigms (such as fundamentalist Christianity, Reformed Christianity, Roman Catholic Christianity, progressivist Christianity, etc.). These towers serve as our worldview forming communities. As a verb, it speaks of the action of moving upward toward a truth that transcends our perspective. Thus, Building relativism is not mutually exclusive with a belief in absolute truth.
I find her distinctions compelling. Her nuanced presentation of relativism fleshes out the notion that not all postmodern relativists are of the same stripe. Rorty is of the boundary stripe, while Fish is of the bombardment type. Though I would be less inclined to call this last type a form of relativism, and more to call it a form of perspectivalism. But, I would argue that behind much of the reactionary rhetoric of so many evangelical responses to postmodernism is a genuine recognition that without a transcendent God- One who is not subject to the limitations of human finitude- and His perspicuous verbal revelation- to serve as our ultimate presupposition-there is no way to escape enslavement to a creaturely authority structure. But, these power structures, these “truth regimes,” need not always be our only suzerain.
As has been expounded time and again by Cornelius Van Til, and other thinkers, our slavery is often to our own sinful passions. Relativity reigns when standards of truth, beauty, and goodness fluctuate from individual to individual. Unfortunately, many advocate an aggressive acquiescence to just such an enslavement.
I’m now reading through Heath White‘s Postmodernism 101: A First Course for Curious Christians. Many books over the last decade put out in response to postmodernism, have, in my humble opinion, have been fairly reactionary. They usually have pointed all things perceived as wrong in the movement (if we call call postmodernism a movement), while acknowledging the “benefits” in an almost pat-on-the-head manner. in this work, White sets out to trace 7 themes in postmodern thought, while contrasting them with premodern and modern thought.
One of the benefits of White’s book is his charitable explanation of views he doesn’t hold. In laying out the postmodern position on a number of topics, White is careful to try to show his reader at least why people who hold these positions find them appealing. There is none of the flippant dismissals I’ve seen in other works.
Another helpful aspects of this book is it’s language. As can be gathered by the title, Postmodernism 101 is an entry -level book, and probably the most helpful one on the market today for laying out, in fairly popular language, what postmodern theorists are saying. So, with maybe 1 or 2 exceptions, in the entire book you rarely read White say, “According to Derrida,” or “According to Foucault, Lyotard, Rorty,” etc. He’ll just explain the themes that are most common amongst postmodern writers. This makes for clearer, and faster, reading.
I have about 2 chapters to go, and no major complaints. At one point, White seems to advocate an allegorical interpretation of some parts of Scriptural. I can understand how he may want to move away from so much of the literalism that pervades works like the Left Behind series. I would advocate a typological method to many of the parts White may apply allegory to, but that’s another issue for another day.
If you’re a Christian who’s ever wondered what exactly is thing phenomenon that is called postmodernism, pick up Postmodernism 101.
One reoccurring critique by postmodernists is this: the dominant epistemological model of modern period, classic foundationalism, is a hopelessly doomed project. Many analytic philosophers have conceded the fact that foundationalism, in the sense critiqued by postmodernists, is not workable or realistic. In response to this critique many such epistemologists have proposed a modest foundationalism. This approach opens up space for for defining a “properly basic belief.” Is Cornelius Van Til’s epistemology subject to the postmodern critique of classic foundationalism? Is it even accurate to categorize Van Til’s position as foundationalist? I am tempted to say both yes and no.
First, let’s examine what I mean what I answer “no” to the question above. Classical foundationalism seeks some epistemological bedrock upon which their entire epistemological structures could be erected. Traditionally, there are 2 major camps under the larger foundationalist umbrella (though, in reality, there are literally dozens of ways of cutting the foundationalist pie). Theses schools of thought, empiricism and rationalism, despite their differences, shared methodological commitments to certain and indubitable knowledge. The rationalists rooted their position in clear and distinct ideas, while the empiricists looked to basic sense impressions on the “blank-slate” of human consciousness. If some aspect of human knowledge could be proven to be beyond doubt, self-evident and subject to open inquiry the trustworthiness of human knowledge would be maintained. The problem with this project, from a Van Tillian perspective, is that both schools seek an epistemic pou stou 1) apart from the God’s word, and 2) as a way of preserving sinful autonomy (i.e. intellectual independence from God and His authority).
Van Til clearly rejects this project and instead presents the self-attesting revelation of God in the Scriptures as our epistemic bedrock. We shouldn’t look to anything in creation to ground knowledge. No finite thing can provide epistemic certainty. Instead, despite our finitude and sin, we are to turn to Scripture for guidance and be content with the supernatural certitude that comes only by the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit.
But does Van TIl’s approach leave us hopelessly agnostic, lacking any kind of confidence regarding the veracity of our knowing? No, Van Til was no relativist. Instead, he presents us with a theological framework for making sense of our everyday confidence in our cognitive faculties. This leads me to the affirmative aspect of my answer to our original question.
Is it even accurate to categorize Van Til’s position as foundationalist? Perhaps, but not in the sense open to postmodern criticism. Recall that classic foundationalism is an epistemological position. But, we’ve seen above that Van Til rejects the modernist’s notion of rooting certitude in anything in creation. Instead, we find our confidence in the living God. Van Til’s position is that knowledge is “saved” because God exists and we are created in His image (in fact for VT this fact is turned into a powerful theistic argument. For handy summary of VT’s “argument from unity of knowledge,” see James Anderson, “If Knowledge, then God: The Epistemological Theistic Arguments of Plantinga and Van Til,” Calvin Theological Journal, April, 2005.).
God providentially guides and preserves our knowledge to an overwhelmingly great degree. Thus, for theological reasons, we can have confidence in our knowledge. But this is no onto-theological leap by which VT calls God into the picture simply to fill in the gaps of his philosophy. Instead, this lies at the very heart of VT’s philosophy. Functionally, because of our creationally constituted knowledge of God, we are always, whether believer or non-believer, in contact with God. The reason why VT’s epistemology escapes the postmodern barbs against modernist foundationalism is because, though we have metaphysical confidence, epistemologically we have no direct or unmediated knowledge of the world. We all have baggage, whether that manifests as misleading worldviews or inconsistent heart-commitments. Of course, this is not to say that our situatedness in an inherent impediment against obtaining true knowledge (cf. Vern S. Poythress, God-Centered Biblical Interpretation, 66.), but this is a point against attaining the impenetrable, philosophically certain knowledge modernism sought. Secondly, how the surpressed knowledge of God concretely plays out in our lives is very difficult to express. It’s so common to our everyday experience that reflective contemplation of it is akin to a fish examining the water it swims in. Though this is a rough-and-ready term, perhaps we can call this cognitive intuition.
Instead, we can categorize Van Til as a soft foundationalist, which is not open to postmodern critique. So, our confidence is in the power of God, and not our epistemic equipment. Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.
Responsibility. Here is somewhere that I think Sartre can be a great help, his notion of personal responsibility. But even here, I think that his overall existentialist approach undermines his intended goal, which is to spring people into action. Sartre taught that we are all radically responsible for our actions. We cannot blame chance, desires, human nature, or God for our choices. Like I said last time, we can’t “pass the buck.” We, on Sartre’s account, must acknowledge that we create who we are by way of our personal choices, and must stand up and own them. Now, before I support this notion, a word of critique.
Responsibility implies two factors, 1) persons and 2) a relationship. I can only be responsible to a person. I have no ultimate responsibility to a rock, a tree, or a knat (I, as a Christian, believe that I have some level of responsibility to them, but more on that shortly). No non-personal thing or force can bind my conscience or demand my allegiance. Likewise, responsibility implies a relationship. The level of the intensity in a relationship and it’s “closeness” determine the level of responsibility I owe. I am responsible to my boss up to a certain degree, I am responsible to my brother even more so, and my mother and father even more. But to what, or more appropriately, to whom is ultimate responsibility and loyalty owed? Well, if responsibility implies relationship and persons, then ultimate responsibility implies a relationship with an ultimate person. This of course is exactly what the Bible teaches.
And this is exactly what Sartre rejects. But, in rejecting this notion, he has effectively cut off the branch he’s been sitting on. With no ultimate Person to whom we are responsible, we have not derivative responsibility to each other. This is especially true of Sartre’s golden rules (live in good faith and be authentic). Why should we think that Sartre has tapped into some metaphysical law that (ethically) governs human behavior? We shouldn’t, these are Sartre’s rules, or better yet, his preferences. Ultimately, on his wordview, they reduce to no greater than a hunch.
Nevertheless, I agree that we ought to treat people as ends and not as means, and as subjects rather than objects. I agree that we cannot “pass the buck” regarding our actions, and that we need to “own up” to our decisions. I affirm all these things, but I do them not because of Sartrean existenialism, but rather because I reject Sartre’s project and affirm Christian theism.
I believe that because there is a Creator, rather than because He doesn’t exist, that there are objective moral laws. Sartre wants binding standards without God; I say this is impossibility. He may reduce the number of obligations, but that misses the point.
I affirm the notion of a human nature; the Bible affirms this notion as well. Now, of course, the Bible doesn’t teach human nature in the same way we may be accustomed to think of the subject in our western, scientifically advanced world. So, to hold the Bible up to this standard is to force an alien standard upon the Biblical writers, one that they were never seeking to hold themselves up against. Many who deny Christian theism would quickly point out that human and primates share over 80% of bodily mechanics and biological makeup. Is this true? Well, insofar as we’ve been able to discover via genetic research, Yes, it is. As a Christian, I have no problem affirming this. The Bible doesn’t make any claims on this matter to the contrary that modern science has “disproven.” What marks out humanity as special in the creation account is the status of mankind, not it’s genetic fingerprint. Humankind is the only creature that is created in the imago Dei, the image of God. Chiefly, this points to humanity’s position as vice-regent of creation (under God, the supreme King). In the Ancient Near East, the vice-regent was the embodiment of the primary King’s authority. So, much more could be said here, but some of this has been covered elsewhere in my brother’s entries. (Here, here, and here).
As a last point of critique here, it should also be noted that something else is basic, and essential to human nature (at least since what Christian theologians have called The Fall in Genesis 3), and that’s our moral proclivity to do things we know aren’t good, i.e. sin. With this in mind, we need to acknowledge two senses in which something can be considered “natural” for humans. I’ve dealt with this briefly here.
Now for my support of this notion of responsibility. I think Sartre was unto to something here. Once placed on a Christian footing, human responsibility makes perfect sense. And here I’m not speaking primarily of the notion that if we don’t obey the “Big Man upstairs” is going to throw a lighting bolt down on us. Far from it. The concept of responsibility is rooted in our humanity, in the very imago Dei itself. God has placed me in this world to reflect his love, glory, and justice. Since this world has fallen into sin, we need this ever more so. We are stewards of God’s realm. We are to beautify and develop this world in order to present it to God as an offering of devotion and love. Other human beings are likewise God’s vice-regents, and I should treat them as ends in themselves and not simply means because they aren’t sludge or some other morally insignificant thing, but royalty. Likewise, I have a responsibility to be a good steward over the earth, and how I use it.
People aren’t “things,” objects to be moved around and manipulated like so much furniture. As Sartre said, we are subjects! We have hopes, dreams, aspirations, and in classical Christian language, we have vocations, callings to which God has given us both desires and abilities. I am responsible to others because the development of human flourishing is essential to what it means to be human. When I act in irresponsible ways, when I pass blame for my actions, and fail to acknowledge how my choices shape both who I am, and as a result, who others will become, I’m not living up to my full humanity. In fact, it’s flat out dehumanizing.
This is one of the main reasons why when someone becomes a Christian, that is to say, they are born again because the Spirit of God graces them with new spiritual life, the Bible speaks of them being “renewed in the image of Christ.” Christ is the image of God, par excellance. He walked as God’s man, healing the sick, loving the outcasts, feeding the needy, atoning for our sin and brokenness, etc. While on earth, Christ lived a fully robust human life, and to this we are called.
Several months ago, I revised my summary of John Frame’s perspectival approach to both theology and philosophy (from Wikipedia, though what’s up now is slightly different from what was originally posted.). I don’t think it’s half bad, but of course you can’t beat getting it straight from the the man himself. Here’s a great primer to his overall approach, written by Frame himself. In his summary, Frame shows the greatest implications and foundations for his approach, as opposed to mine which stuck closer to the realm of epistemology.
Now that I’ve quickly sketched out some main themes in Sartre’s thought, I think it’s safe to begin a critique. I say “begin” because I don’t intend on dragging this out into a long response to everything with which I either agree or disagree. These are simply some quick thoughts.
Atheism. First, Sartre never truly argued for his atheism. In fact, as I mentioned in part 1, he would have preferred God’s existence over his nonexistence. Why? Then at least it wold mean that someone, somewhere, has imbued the universe with some cosmic significance. Yet, strangely, Sartre taught that if God did exist, his constant gaze would turn us into objects, would dehumanize us. This was too much for the brand of subjectivity Sartre so highly prized. But again, just because the notion of an all-knowing, all-perceiving God bothers Sartre and caused him great unrest doesn’t mean that this God doesn’t exist any more than saying that because it bothers me that when I eat chocolate I tend to gain weight means that chocolate doesn’t exist. Neither my, nor Sartre’s, likes or dislikes determines what exists apart from our preferences. This is all to say that Sartre never sought to argue for atheism per se, he simply assumed it. And that’s a huge deal, because so much of his system (though he would never have called it that) is dependent upon atheism’s truth. Take that away and, for all his positive insights into human interaction, etc, what we’re left with is a few floating truths here and there, not a coherent worldview.
Morality. My second critique is built off of what I began to say in the last post, namely that combined with a lack of belief in objective ethical norms Sartre’s notion of authentic living mix to make a dangerous and deadly combination. In Sartre’s scheme, no one can say that torturing babies for fun is wrong, no one can say that Hitler’s actions against the Jews was evil, and no one can say that the slavery of Africans was reprehensible. All we can say is we don’t like those choices. That’s a nice little bit of autobiographical information, but that’s hardly a denunciation of evil. Hitler was simply being the person he wanted to be, he was “authentic.” And, if Hitler rejected passing the buck for his actions, then he was living in good faith. Therefore, he passes both of Sartre’s litmus tests and is therefore a perfect Sartrean existentialist!
Authenticity. Sartre, as I mention earlier, gave pride of place to his notion of authenticity, of “good faith.” I see a major problem here. In order to “be all you can be” we need to know what we’re supposed to be. That is, the notion of authenticity, rather than existing within a framework where essence is excluded, actually presupposes the notion of human essence. If not, on what basis on Sartre say that a person is living inauthentically? I can only know if person A is not living according to the way they should if I already have an idea of how they should be living.
Rules and norms. Likewise, and this touches on Sartre’s rejection of moral norms, it is arbitrary to oppose any rules given his rejection of a Creator God and human nature. You cannot say on the one hand, “there are no rules that bind our conscience,” and then, on the other hand say, “but you must live authentically and in good faith.” Given Sartre own philosophy this reduces to a power play, a way of him imposing his own philosophic “laws” on us while ruling out the authority of any others. It’s purely arbitrary and thus without warrant.
Next I’ll develop both my critique of Sartre’s doctrine of radical responsibility and offer some thoughts based on a Christian worldview.
Existentialism is a particular school of thought in the history of philosophy that greatly interests me. This is because I believe that –in it’s Sartrean form- existentialism both gets so much right and gets so much wrong. But first, it’s helpful to step back and take a look a the basics of existentialism. What are its basic assumptions about reality? What are it’s motives and goals?
French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre developed his brand of existentialism building off of the teachings of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. But, unlike Kierkegaard, and following in the footsteps of Nietzsche, Sartre rejected the notion that God, especially the God of the Christian Scriptures, exists. Interestingly, Sartre admitted that his belief in atheism distressed him. He wished that there was purpose, direction, and a loving hand guiding his life. But instead, all he found was the cold, hard, “thrownness” of human existence. This gets at one of the foundational tenets of Sartrian existentialism, a denial of any objective human nature or coherent pattern for the world around us.
There is no God to create us in His image, so human life is not inherently sacred. There is no God to tell us what is good and beneficial for human flourishing, and neither is He there to warn us of which actions dehumanize us and harm others and our world. In summary, there is no objectively “given” code of ethics and behavior, nothing inherently evil or good. Likewise, we aren’t the special creation of a loving Creator, but instead the products of blind, natural forces; an infinitesimally small bubble of sea foam floating in the infinitely large sea of nothingness and meaninglessness. So, if there is no human nature, there is no “pattern” or end toward which we should strive. Here Sartre flips the ancient philosopher Aristotle on his proverbial head. Aristotle taught that we all have an essence, something that determines what we are, and our entire existence is defined in terms of “becoming what we are.” We fulfill our potential by becoming fully human. Essence precedes and guides existence.
For Sartre, just the opposite is true; existence precedes essence. Since we have no human nature, our essence is determined by our lived life, the actions we take and the choices we make. Thus, if someone was to ask, “Who is Joe?” We couldn’t really answer that question while I was still living, since my time period to define who I am (my life span) isn’t over. Only after my existence comes to an end can we determine my essence. Now, this can have both good and bad ramifications. On the one hand, it means that I cannot be defined by the poor choices I’ve made. Essentially, I can remake myself by altering my decisions and taking another course of action. My failures don’t define me because the “whole story” isn’t in yet. On the other hand, we cannot ever, if Sartre is correct, say that we “know” a person’s character, since they are radically free to change their “essence” with any given decision. This leads to the next major foundation to Sartre’s thought, one already hinted at thus far, radical freedom.
If no God exists, and we have no human nature to direct us how to live, then, according to Sartre, we are “radically” free. The freedom that Sartre speaks of is radical because we are ultimately accountable to no one but ourselves. The responsibility for our actions cannot be passed off to something, or someone (or someOne) else. This is what Sartre speaks of as “bad faith.” Bad faith is the label Sartre uses to categorize the actions of someone who explains their choices in terms of causes or influences other than their own will. To say that I had to make decision X because of my heredity, environment, human nature, or divine will is, essentially in Sartre’s mind, to “pass the buck” and avoid responsibility and ownership for my own life. Instead, we are to be “authentic” persons, people who embrace our actions and take ownership of our lives.
Notice here though that I have spoken nothing of how one is to life their authentic life. That is because Sartre himself wasn’t aiming to tell us which actions we are to take. In fact, in principle Sartre only lays out two “rules,” 1) Be authentic, and 2) don’t live in “bad faith.” So, if my method of authentic living is to become a tyrant, that’s fine (remember, for Sartre, there are no moral absolutes), likewise if I choose to serve others to my dying breathe. Objectively speaking, there is no moral difference between the actions of Hitler and Mother Theresa. In fact, thinking in terms of “objectivity” is a no-no to Sartre; it denies the ultimacy of subjectivity that he prizes so greatly.