Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Epistemological Elephant in the Room


...the essence of Christianity (or real or authentic Christianity) is itself an essentially contested concept, one that by its very nature cannot be agreed on by all sides.
James McClendon, Doctrine

10% of the things I believe are wrong. The only problem is that I don't know which 10%.
John Goldingay, Old Testament professor, Fuller Theological Seminary

Those who want absolutes tend to accept authority only if it speaks the absolute claim to which they are already disposed before anything has been said.
Walter Brueggemann, Texts Under Negotiation

Sean McDowell (Capistrano Valley Christian School) and Jim Corbett (Capistrano Valley Public School) squared off on Friday to debate the role of God and morality. McDowell summarized his perspective with two contentions:

1. If God does not exist, we do not have a solid foundation for moral values.
2. If God does exist, we do have a solid foundation for moral values.


Corbett, on the other hand, viewed his role as sowing doubt in the audience by positing that morality actually comes from certain "authorities" who interpret "God" (or other sources) for others. Without getting very much into the specifics of the debate, the night was most important, I am convinced, because it awkwardly unveils key differences in epistemology: a scholarly term which simply refers to how we come to know the truth. While Corbett openly acknowledges the perspectival nature of truth and that all "facts" are interpreted, McDowell is enmeshed in the modern rationality of timeless truths and universal principles. He is a philosophical descendant of Rene Descartes (photo above) who is considered the father of the Enlightenment, a time characterized by a quest for certainty to stave off the confusion and violence of religious wars in Europe. Like jenga, Enlightenment Christianity builds truth on top of an unquestioned, certain foundation: the inerrant Bible. In addition, the "worldview" for a Christian with this "foundationalist epistemology" is black and white (dualism) and self-evident (clearly interpreted for anyone with "common sense").

McDowell displayed this throughout the night by describing morality as something that is either "objective" or "subjective." He quoted Dostoyevsky: "If there is no God then all is permissible." The fallacy of this position is that those claiming objectivity position themselves on the higher ground of "absolute truth," safe from the "relativism" of competing perspectives that crash on the jagged rocks of this complex world below them. McDowell reasoned that moral outrage comes when an objective moral standard is violated and if there is an objective moral standard then there must be a God. But can't a moral objective standard, like raping one's daughter, come from different sources (and epistemologies)? And some of these sources do not believe in a god.

As a Christian with postmodern sensibilities, I do believe that God, as interpreted in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament through a prophetic Anabaptist lens, is the source of my particular morality, but I do not think that my particular view of God has the monopoly on what is moral. The "postmodern Christian" appreciates the diversity of moral convictions within the Body of Christ. For instance, Jesus told his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount to love their enemies and pray for those who persecuted them. Most Christians (but not all) would take these words at face value. It is one of the aspects of Christian faith that is quite unique (not sure if there is anything in "nature" where animals instinctively love their enemies and history is the tale of humans taking revenge on those who threaten and harm them). John Howard Yoder calls the emphasis on enemy love, service and forgiveness "the scandal factors" of Christianity. Theologian Walter Wink calls it the "litmus test" of Christianity. Serious scandalous morality.

However, when it comes to living out enemy love, many Christians disagree with each other on what that actually looks like, especially in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. A great example of this was the recent Fox News dialogue between two Catholic Christians: Michael Moore and Sean Hannity. I would say that when our "Christian" President and mostly "Christian" Congress was supported by a mostly "Christian" American constituency to invade Afghanistan and Iraq and drone bomb Pakistan, they were acting immorally.

In addition, many Christians in the US are debating and even breaking up existing denonminations over LGBT issues. For foundationalist Christians like McDowell, the Bible clearly says that homosexuality is a sin. No interpretation needed. But of course, the Bible also clearly says the interest on a loan is a sin and that slavery is legitimate. Plenty of Christian voices, like Walter Wink and Jeffrey Siker, are questioning the tradition of the church on LGBT issues, bringing history, science, experience and original languages into the conversation. We could spend all day highlighting the debates over morality within North American Christianity today: marriage and divorce, drugs and alcohol, various economic issues like poverty, corporate power and the national budget, immigration, abortion, the death penalty and women's rights. All of these moral issues start with a critical reading of the Bible which involves complex "interpretation."

I concur wholeheartedly with Corbett's emphasis on "authority" and the harmfulness of "experts" as avenues of access to "God." This is the real debate. I am compelled by dialogical truth, or what Yoder called "practical moral reasoning." This means that individuals and church communities should come to find truth by talking it out, praying about it, weighing it and coming to a decision. This is how the first Christians sought the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It is what the Reformers called "the rule of Paul" (Acts 15 and I Cor 14) some 400 years ago. They reacted to the Pope's authoritarian stances on key moral issues of the day which led the "Christian" people of Europe to live immorally.

Corbett claims, and I would agree with him, that nothing has changed. Most Christians in North America today find "truth" by uncritically listening to their pastor or a small cohort of "experts" who all echo each other. When foundationalist Christians propose that the only objective, certain source of truth is reading "the Bible alone" they are naive, albeit sincere and ignorant (most often). No one reads "the Bible alone." We come to the text (as any text) with assumptions and presuppositions, handed down by parents, pastors, authors and others. The real issue that desperately needs to be acknowledged (and is not) in the foundationalist Christian world is that when we ask key questions like "who is God" (theology) and "what does it mean to do God's will" (ethics), different authorities give their congregations different answers. Who will presume to speak for Christian morality: Jeremiah Wright? John Piper? Greg Boyd? Cornel West? Rob Bell? Jim Wallis? John MacArthur? Brian McLaren? Tim Tebow? ALL of these "Christians" have competing agendas--financial, theological, social, familial, political--as well as fears, expectations and other psychological complexities that muddy the "objective" waters.

When referring to the Church's historical baggage, McDowell acknowledges that "people are wicked and evil and capable of bad things" and that there have been plenty of warmongers who are "perverting a beautiful religion." McDowell agrees that these represent "Christians who have misinterpreted the Bible." But history is not just back then. It is here...now. The above list of famous American Christian leaders have different perspectives of the Christian faith. Whose morality is right and who is wrong? Who is "reading" the Bible and who is "misinterpreting" it (those seem to be the two options for McDowell)? However, Corbett's position (and mine) does not embrace relativism. He is not shrugging his shoulders and throwing his hands up in the air and saying the answer is blowing in the wind. As Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann writes, "the threat of unbridled relativism is not, in my judgment, much of a threat. In reality, the dispute boils down to a few competing claims on any issue, and this is not the same as ‘anything goes’." Like Brueggemann, Corbett is proposing that we come to all moral questions with humility and critical thought, listening to the voices of other truth seekers that have gone before us and journey with us.

Until foundationalist Christians confront and admit epistemological differences, debates that consider questions like "Is God necessary for morality?" will feature scholars who talk past one another. Corbett and McDowell come to truth differently. McDowell proves. Corbett compels. Corbett and McDowell are two quite different epistemological species. They do not represent (analogically) two humans from different cultures. They represent two beings from different planets. It's not like translating a foreign language into another language. It's like translating a foreign language into an algebraic equation.

Full Disclosure:
My morality (lifestyle) is greatly influenced by my belief in God.

Full Disclosure, part II:
My teaching is greatly influenced by my colleague, Jim Corbett.

--Theological Autopilot

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