Monday, January 4, 2010
The Principle of Fallibility
During the last two decades of his life, the late James McClendon (1924-2000] took on the task of writing a trilogy of postmodern Christian Systematic Theology. McClendon, together with his wife, the acclaimed theologian-philosopher Nancey Murphy, was a pioneer in the nuanced complexity of non-foundationalist Christian thinking which rejected notions of proof, certainty or unquestioned foundations to build truth. These notions of truth are an enigma. Instead, at the beginning of every theological dialogue, McClendon proposed, should be a firm commitment to what he called 'the principle of fallibility':
...even one’s most cherished and tenaciously held convictions might be false and are in principle always subject to rejection, reformulation, improvement, or reformation.
Convictions are those gutsy beliefs that buttress our lives. They are the most important element of anyone's faith or worldview. But McClendon states that we need to embrace a rare humility if we are really going to grow spiritually ourselves, let alone actually respect the diversity of our conversation partners. The principle of fallibility is vital for our present context. It is a litmus test for dialogue because if one cannot admit that they might be wrong about their most important claims, then the conversation is over. It must be rightfully labeled a monologue, which is fine for David Letterman and Stephen Colbert, but not for the edifying practice of truth-seeking dialogue.
A 'foundationalist epistemology' still dominates and haunts Evangelical theology with its emphasis on Absolute Truth and timeless, objective principles mined out of an inerrant Bible. For the Evangelical, McClendon's proposal is relativistic dynamite, blowing truth out of the water. McClendon, though, counters that this position actually transcends both relativism & absolutism (the position of virtually every Evangelical I know). Instead, McClendon calls it perspectivism, an acknowledgment that everyone has acknowledged and unacknowledged agendas that can block us from having a necessary perspective to be truth seekers. This can be a range of sensibilities including one's theological tradition, socio-economic status, social location, ethnicity, gender, job, familial roles & expectations, as well as both good and bad experiences in life. The proper response to this philosophical understanding is not a cynacism or skepticism that truth is impossible to come by. Instead, it is a humble, faith-inspiring dialogical process of two or more people who are committed to learning truth together, no matter what the cost. Christians should know this because we have examples of this in our Script.
In Acts 15, at a crucial juncture of decision-making for the early Jerusalem church, leaders for this new Jews-for-Jesus sect participated in a truth-seeking council together, where they committed to listening to the diverse testimonies of Peter, Paul and the facilitating James [see his icon above]. They prayerfully weighed these and came to a conclusion 'unanimously' [v.25] about the full inclusion of the believing Gentiles. These Messianic Jewish leaders sent a letter of affirmation and guidance only after 'it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us' [v.28]. Hard truth came for the first followers of Jesus as a open, conversational process. Why should it be any different today?