Don't Let the PM's Spoil Your Christmas
On 25th December - an arbitrary date in the calendar - most Christians celebrate the coming into flesh of the Eternal Word. We remember and rejoice in what has happened, without trying to turn the clock back and attempting to re-enact it as if it had not yet occurred. We cannot relive that moment of redemptive history. Then the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Our salvation is nearer than when we first believed.
The Church confesses that this mysterious event really occurred. Or if you prefer it, that it objectively occurred, occurred in a transcultural sense, whether people care to believe it or not. Or even whether or not they understand anything of it. This belief is grounded in various data, in the united testimony of countless Christians, in the transforming power of the person and work of Christ, in corroborative evidence from history, but above all in the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit who illuminates our minds and hearts to receive the evidence, the testimony of the Scripture. This divinely-attested, transcultural event is a pivotal point of our faith.
But the unalloyed joy and worship at Christmas, prompted by reflection on the significance of this momentous event, is in danger of being spoilt by the occurrence of an affliction of the mind that we shall call postmodern dyspepsia. If this is not checked, it can threaten the feast. Instead of our hearts burning as we remember the Incarnation in the way that the Emmaus disciples' hearts did as they realised that Jesus had been raised, postmodernism can give us heartburn of a different kind. Intellectual flatulence, loss of appetite, nausea, dizziness. Ulcers, even.
For - the postmodernists ask - what if the Incarnation is only the "Incarnation"? Not the objective event of God becoming flesh for our salvation, but a social construct, a product of the belief-making mechanisms of the Christian community. Perhaps the story of the Incarnation has emerged from contextual conditioning by the prejudices and biases of Christians. After all, there are other communities, with other stories. What is so special, so privileged about the Christian story? Isn't it the part of epistemic humility to qualify the objective claims of the faith in our pluralist society? After all, isn't humility a Christian virtue? And doesn't preaching about the Incarnation amount to verbal abuse? Perhaps Paul's affirmations - "Great is mystery of godliness......" "I know in whom I have believed" are not a solemn confession of the truth, but an ill-disguised bid for power. Such suggestions, when they are made often enough, and come from unexpected quarters, when they come to us as confessions of "post conservative" Christian thinkers, can take away the appetite for the solemn yet joyous feast of Christmas. Are the pews and hymnbooks, the turkey and the plum pudding, more objective than the Incarnation itself?
So here is offered - as a pre-advent cordial - a prescription to ward off the nausea and heartburn of such post-modern insinuation; four mental disciplines which we can practice before the 25th in an effort to tone up our minds and spirits. In a sense, to reduce PM tension, and to enable us to celebrate Christmas with appropriate joy and thanksgiving.
We may think that the postmodern's accusation of arrogance and ignorance at the Christian's confession of faith in the Incarnation is a new viral strain, like the much-feared avian flu. But in fact it's barely a mutation of a bug that's being going around for years and years. If we go back as far as Sextus Empiricus (160-210 AD) and perhaps further, we can find claims that in the face of the pluralist opinions in society the proper philosophical attitude is detachment. In the face of the competing claims of a pluralist society we are to suspend our judgment. If we don't, we are being unacceptably "dogmatic."
"If the same objects affect men differently owing to the differences in the men, then, on this ground also, we shall reasonably be led to suspension of judgment. For while we are, no doubt, able to state what each of the underlying objects appears to be, relatively to each difference, we are incapable of explaining what it is in reality. For we shall have to believe either all men or some. But if we believe all, we shall be attempting the impossible and accepting contradictories; and if some, let us be told whose opinions we are to endorse." (Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism)
So the scepticism and relativism engendered by postmodernism is merely warmed-over ancient scepticism. If you don't care to go back that far, but only to the Idealism of the 19th century, we find there the repeated claim that all human knowledge is partial and fragmentary, distorted and limited attempts to grasp the ungraspable Absolute Idea. (There is a danger in neglecting history. As George Santayana put it, 'Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.' Why have we been persuaded that the study of history, especially of the history of philosophy and theology, is irrelevant?) Postmodernism is not a new thing, like Asian bird flu; it's a viral infection that recurs. So here's the first mental discipline, cultivate the thought that we've been here before: this is nothing new: this is déja vu all over again! Keep in mind that in modern philosophy, and most certainly in post modern philosophy, there is very little that is new.
But what about the actual claims that the postmodernists make? This "perspectivalism," this appeal to context and prejudice? Of course Christians - the Church - are not infallible. This too is nothing new
The recognition of human fallibility is of the essence of Protestantism, a corollary of acknowledging the supreme authority of Scripture: "Councils may erre, even in things parteynyng unto God," and we are no different. God alone is infallible. And if we are strongly inclined to add "and his words, the utterences of God, are also infallible," nevertheless we readily recognise that our interpretations of his word are infected by our own sin, partiality, ignorance, context-ladenness - the whole business.
All this is true. However, here's the second anti-peptic antidote - to remember that our fallibility comes in degrees. The mere recognition of fallibility does not entail scepticism. All that it entails is the need to think more than once. Watch.
I know that I have a head. There's not much that I am more certain of. I expect also that you, the reader, are pretty certain you have a head. You may even be caught saying, in an appropriate situation, "I know that I have a head." But might you not be mistaken? Might you not, in the very act of thinking and saying that you know that you have a head, be under the malign influence of the evil genius made famous by René Descartes?
"I shall then suppose, not that God who is supremely good and the fountain of truth, but some evil genius not less powerful than deceitful, has employed his whole energies to deceive me: I shall consider that the heavens, the earth, colours, figures, sound, and all other external things are nought but the illusions and dreams of which this genius has availed himself in order to lay traps for my credulity."(Meditations)
Or, to update the example, while you blithely think you have a head, and even say that you know that you have, might you not all the time be a brain in a vat under the influence of a correspondingly malign scientist who provides the brain with misleading electrical impulses? Yes, all this is possible, or at least it seems to be possible.
In the same vein, you may be the Archangel Gabriel or the ghost of Adolph Hitler. All these things, and myriads more things, seem to be logically possible. And the Cartesian sceptic, followed at a short distance by the postmodernist, does not hesitate to draw them to our attention.
But apart from the fact that it is possible that you are in fact the Archangel Gabriel, have you any reason to think that you are? After all, it's possible that you are the Archangel Gabriel and also possible that you are the Archangel Michael. (But not possible that you are both, of course.) Which of these, and of the myriad of other possibilities, is true? Which of these possible individuals is in fact you? Obviously the one that you have good grounds for thinking is true. And of course you have not the least grounds (I take it) for thinking that you are the Archangel Gabriel or that you are the Archangel Michael, or that you are the ghost of Adolph Hitler etc. etc., but very good grounds for thinking that you are the person whom you in fact are. Because something is thinkable, this does not mean that it is credible, that it should be entertained even for a moment.
When the Christian church confesses the truth of the Incarnation of course it is possible that she may be mistaken. She may have made the whole thing up in a bid for power. So is it offensively and unwarrantably dogmatic to assert one's confidence that the Incarnation really occurred? Is to recite the Creed to engage in the verbal abuse of those who cannot recite it? Am I being dogmatic when I assert that I have a head, or that Oliver Cromwell was the Lord Protector of England, or that the Word was made flesh? Such "dogmatism" is only offensive if whoever holds it is unwilling to entertain a good reason why one should not believe any of those things, or a reason that might turn out to be a good reason, if and when such reasons are produced. But in their absence, only a kind of neurosis would lead the Christian to question the Incarnation.
So, the second dose of the antipeptic cordial is - distinguish carefully between entertaining a sceptical doubt and having a real reason.
But - someone may say - this is altogether too cavalier an approach. We are not taking epistemology seriously. Or - as they say in the US - "What's your epistemology? You haven't told us."
So let's think for a moment or two about epistemology. What is it? "The study of knowledge and how to acquire it." Something like that. What does an acquaintance with epistemology reveal? Quite a lot. It reveals that there is not merely one theory of knowledge, but umpteen theories. First there's foundationalism, Cartesian and classical, if these are not the same. Such are reckoned to be infallibilist foundationalisms. And then there's weak foundationalism in its various varieties. And then, in contrast to such internalism, there is externalism in all its varieties . And we must not forget there's coherentism in its several brands and kinds.
But that's only a start. There are assorted combinations: foundationalism but with a touch of coherentism; coherentism with a touch of foundationalism. As well, of course, as the varieties of scepticism, global and other, that we have already mentioned. Not to mention the noble (and ignoble) army of fideists. There are particular epistemological enquiries, such as the search for the holy grail of the "fourth condition" which will enable us to turn justified true belief into knowledge: the proposals here are somewhat numerous. So all in all the isms, singularly or in combination are almost endless, the spectrum amazingly wide. This is the world of epistemology: these are the theories of knowledge.
However, if this were not enough, behind this rainbow of "isms" lurks a deeper question. What is epistemology for? What are all these isms for? What is each of them intended to achieve? What's the name of the game? It is not always clear.
One thing that each might be attempting is to codify and rationally reconstruct our ordinary knowledge, the knowledge we have and accept unquestioningly outside the epistemology seminar room. So the epistemologist might be attempting to say: "When you say, 'I know that I have a head' what you mean and what justifies you in asserting this is..."
On the other hand, what the epistemologist may be doing is proposing, or recommending, or prescribing (in the spirit of Descartes' response to the evil genius) what we ought to believe. The epistemologist is arguing that we ought only to tolerate beliefs and knowledge claims that meet a certain standard, the standard prescribed by some version of strong or weak foundationalism, say. That is, on this view - the prescriptive view - the epistemologist offers to reform our beliefs, and their relationships to others, and to recommend that we discard those that do not come up to snuff. Describing or recommending? It isn't clear. But I suppose that each of the theories of knowledge can be taken in each sense, so roughly doubling their number.
So what is clear is that there's a free market in epistemologies, with lots of choice. ("Are you troubled by your noetic structure? I have the very thing for you." Or maybe even: "I can fit you out with an epistemology that will take away your worries") - Bespoke epistemology, as it might be.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not against epistemology. It's a central spine of philosophy, and something that the guild of analytic philosophers does particularly well, perhaps too well. Besides, it's great fun. But with all these "isms" milling around, it might occur to you to ask: isn't it more likely (given this plethora of theories) that I am more justified in confessing that I know that God was manifest in the flesh, than I am in adopting an epistemological theory that calls the possibility of making this and such like confessions into question, even if that theory seems plausible? Isn't there something weird about suspending my affirmation, or being willing to consider doing so, while I wait for the latest number of Religious Studies or Faith and Philosophy to appear, or for what next emerges from Notre Dame or Oxford or Yale? Given that each theory is incompatible with all the others (though perhaps not fully incompatible) which is more likely: that one of them is the correct one, and I can know which one (for this, I'd have to develop an epistemology for epistemologies - a meta-epistemology. You see the problem.) Or that my affirmation of the Incarnation is safe and that I should (in the spirit of Sextus Empiricus) suspend my belief in any of the current epistemological offerings?
In this spirit, R.M. Chisholm, in discussing the problem of "the criterion," drew attention to a distinction between what he called the "methodist" (nothing to do with John Wesley) and the "particularist." The methodist searches for a method, a criterion, in terms of which he sorts out his belief into the acceptable and the unacceptable. Rationalism, and empiricism, and the other "isms" noticed earlier, are cases of such methods. But the particularist identifies certain beliefs, and in effect takes it that we know most of what ordinary people think that they know.
There is no reason why I should not confidently assert that I do really know some external facts, although I cannot prove the assertion except by simply assuming that I do. I am, in fact as certain of this as of anything, and as reasonably certain of it.
It is in rather this spirit that in his Confessions Augustine at one place says: "I would have found it easier to doubt whether I was myself alive than that there is no truth 'understood from the things that are made' (Rom.1.20)." You may think that is rather extreme, but you see the point. Why should not the Christian have as much confidence in the truth of the Incarnation as he has in his own existence? Or perhaps a little less?
So the third anti-peptic Christmas discipline is: Ask, Am I not more justified in confessing the Incarnation than in adopting some epistemological theory that claims that I am not justified?
As already noted, we all have prejudices. The postmodernists (and even those post-postmodernists, the Radical Orthodox) love to point this out. There is no secular, neutral , autonomous reason. (The neo-Calvinists make the same point, of course.) We all have "presuppositions," which is a grand word for "prejudices." ("Autonomous reason," you'll note, is rarely defined, and no distinction is made between the nature of reasoning, inductive and deductive, and the use to which such reasoning may be put). The idea that we are all fully rational, thinking in accordance with the Logos (or reason) of God, is of course a myth, an expression of hubris. So the postmodernists and the others have a point when they draw attention to our failings in this regard, even when they stress that these prejudices have a social dimension, a "context."
But the trouble is not that they point this out, but that they indulge it. They roll over and allow themselves to be tickled by the thought. They are totally taken in by what they take to be the relativistic consequences of this fact. (But as we saw earlier, this is not a new idea). But what's wrong with this? Well, here's what.
There is no such thing as pure love, pure justice, pure wisdom, pure reason, a perfect straight line, a perfect soufflé, and so on. But what follows from this? Do we as a consequence put up with second best? Do we indulge our failings? Surely this is not the Christian way. The old-fashioned, ugly term for such indulgence is "antinomianism." We can indulge not only our moral failings, as is usual, but any failing.
That is, we must make an important distinction between what is and what ought to be. We are hateful, and hating one another. Is this all right, then? No, it is not at all right. As Christians we are bidden to strive for the "renewing of our minds." We have prejudices, unexamined assumptions: we are ignorant, partial, self-deceiving. All right, then? No, not all right. Scripture sometimes calls what follows from this the lusts of the mind (as distinct from the lusts of the body). Is it all right then, to indulge these lusts? No, not all right. And similarly with any idol of the mind. (Our minds are a factory of idols, according to John Calvin). We are prejudiced, Are we happy with this state of affairs? We ought not to be. What can we do about it?
We should not overdramatise the position. As we saw, we can have knowledge of many things, despite our prejudices. Our prejudices show themselves most often and vividly where our interests are at stake. As Thomas Hobbes sharply remarked, "I doubt not, but if it had been a thing contrary to any man's right of dominion, or to the interests of men that have dominion, that the three angles of a triangle should be equal to two angles of a square, that doctrine should have been, if not disputed, yet by the burning of all books of geometry, suppressed, as far as he whom it concerned was able."
We might think that all we can do is to replace one prejudice with another, for are we not necessarily prejudiced? Perhaps we are necessarily prejudiced. But does it follow that we cannot adopt regimes or strategies, which will (if not entirely remove, which perhaps can never happen) at the least minimise, diminish, or alleviate their effects? Why should this follow? Why may we not rather develop a passion for objectivity and as a result become less prejudiced, if not entirely unprejudiced. We can do this by striving to conform our minds to what manifests itself to us as being true at some time, even as we can revise our idea of what is true at some later time in the light of the way in which these regimes help us. (Don Carson has sensible advice on this point in Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church (Zondervan, 2005, Ch.4)
Shall we ever arrive? Not soon. Shall we know even as we are known? Perhaps one day we shall. May we begin that process here and now? Why not? Shall we have some success? With God's help, we can hope for it, as we strive to conform our minds to his mind, he who is the Truth and the source of all truth, and as we seek to think his thoughts after him.
So, our fourth maxim is: By using appropriate methods, do what you can to cultivate objectivity and to diminish your prejudices.
Have a great Christmas!