Thursday, September 18, 2014

My Journey, Part 7: Explorations in Epistemology

This is part 7 of my rebooted series on my journey from Evangelicalism to Eastern Orthodoxy. The full series can be found here:

1Back to the beginning
2Cracks appear
3Questions multiply
4Questioning the "gospel"
5The big question
6A better hermeneutic
7Explorations in epistemology
7.5Excursus on oversystematization
8Back to the gospel
9The new direction
10Ecclesiological foundations
11.1Sola scriptura
11.2The insufficiency of Scripture
11.25Addenda on sola scriptura
11.3Holy Tradition
12Bridging the cracks
13.1Orthodoxy and Genesis 1–3
13.2A Better Atonement (Against Penal Substitution)
13.3Faith Alone?
13.4The Colour and the Shape of the Gospel
14Worshipping with the Church
15Mary, Saints, Baptism, and Other Odds/Ends
16Looking Back, Coming Home

My changes in perspective on Scripture and hermeneutics (especially the realization of Jesus as the ultimate Truth) could not but spill over into my more general idea of how to handle truth itself. I didn't (and really still don't) see how to apply this idea consistently, so I still kept talking about small-t truth, but in ways that diverged increasingly from the rationalism that used to characterize my faith. In doing so, I moved into postmodern territory, learning from its critiques of rationalism while (I hoped) avoiding its skeptical excesses.

Beyond rationalism

Specifically, I realized there was probably more to reality than things that could be rationally known or proven; humans are far more than reason engines, after all. Looking back, it's shocking how I could have been blinded to this given how important it is for any kind of faith to be able to transcend rationality. I assumed that if something really was true, then reason had to be able to prove it, even if it was initially known by other means. But now, having personally realized that my faith went beyond the understanding of my intellect, I started to become open to the existence of nonrational truth. Why did modern reason have to be all there was to understanding reality, especially spiritual things? Could it prove its own all-sufficiency?
Are the laws of rationality just a big box so many are content to think inside? What makes a logical fallacy a fallacy? Can something have more than one explanation? If something can't be proven by 'rational skepticism', maybe we should expect arguments for it to look like logical fallacies. (2013-3-2)
I realized that attempting to fit everything in the Bible into this box of Enlightenment-influenced rationality that it was never meant to go in was probably a big reason why reading it kept giving me so many doubts.
Our different, modern context causes many parts of the Bible to raise questions that the authors weren't aware of and make no attempt to answer. (2013-9-29)
Instead of viewing everything through my rational, modern perspective, I have to be willing to step outside it and realize it's not the right way to view the supernatural. Modernism tends to stick its nose where it doesn't belong. (2014-2-23)
This brought me closer to a sound definition of "mystery" in the Christian vocabulary; not something that doesn't appear to make sense which you insist really does make sense, but something too high and vast for our to comprehend fully, even though we get tantalizing glimpses. The kind of mystery that the Psalmist wrote of when he said "such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain it." (Psa 139:6) In my insistence on everything about my faith making rational sense (allowing me to exert a kind of self-centered control over it), I had shut such mystery out.

Kaleidoscopic truth

I also started seeing truth itself as more dynamic and multidimensional—not simply "statements accurately describing reality" to be grasped with the mind, but as more coterminous with reality itself, to be experienced and lived more holistically. There is far more to truth than anyone can say. This rules out the reductionistic, proposition-focused epistemology which I saw a lot of evangelical theology tending towards.
There are different kinds of truth. Not all of life—surprisingly little, actually—can be broken down into simple propositions, at least not in language. (2013-2-7)
Truth is not merely absolute facts—truth has height, depth, and breadth to be explored (Eph 3:18). [The difference between truth as statements corresponding to reality and as the fuller definition is] like the difference between studying a map and realizing that the map represents a real country to be explored. The map is necessary, but it is by no means sufficient. (2013-9-2)
The non- (or trans-) rational dimension to truth, I realized, was even more important to me than the rational dimension (again, in the excitement of these realizations I was a bit overzealous)—and in my efforts to believe the gospel teachings I was given, I'd been neglecting it. No wonder why I had so much trouble developing a "passion" for the gospel.
I don't need the gospel to 'make sense' logically so much as I need it to capture my heart and imagination. (2014-2-7)
Not long after realizing I was an INFJ, I identified this wider definition of truth as including meaning—the answers not just to the questions of "What?", "When?", "Where?", and so on, but the fuzzier, more complex question of "Why?" We tend to answer this question with mechanical explanations based on natural laws, but this is not the "Why?" the Bible usually concerns itself with, especially in the prophets. My concept of truth would have to expand further.
Even if we now have mechanistic explanations of things, without a teleological explanation they are simply senseless, meaningless phenomena. No one perceives the world this way—the 'story' for life we've adopted casts meaning on them like shadows. Connecting this story with the divine was second nature for the ancients who knew so little of how the world 'works', but our increased understanding doesn't preclude us from walking in a God-haunted world. In other words, the bare fact of God 'doing' something must never be taken apart from its teleological significance even if He 'does' it through means we would consider mundane. … So God's actions should primarily be understood in terms of their final cause—their efficient cause need not be explicitly miraculous. In this sense, our scientific worldview does not mean God is no longer active in the world. (2013-7-21) 
When I was on vacation in the UK last Spring, I had a problem with purchasing books. Specifically, I'd only brought a small messenger bag and a carry-on suitcase so I couldn't take many souvenirs home, but I kept visiting cool book stores and all the books were in English! One such book I stumbled on was Surfaces and Essences (described on my blog here) by Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander, one of my favorite authors. Their reflections got me thinking a lot about language and how it correlated with reality—but loosely, not neatly. They deploy a visual metaphor of a three-dimensional "conceptual space" of possible concepts/meanings, with each language filling part of this space as a fuzzy blob. Not every language has convenient language to a given concept, and the correlations between languages may be tenuous. This model compellingly illustrated the conclusions I was coming to about the underlying fuzziness of the reality that our words refer to.
The interesting challenge of language is that words are discrete, but the concepts and categories they refer to are not. (2013-4-29)
The seed of the postmodern realization of the difference between reality and the descriptions we apply to it had sprouted.

Beyond modernism

Returning to think about Calvinism and Arminianism a year later, I saw in my treatment of the providence debate how this fledging view of truth could, in a sense, be considered more modern than the modernist one; that is, truth-as-reality was more faithful to the modernist ideal of seeking to know "the way things are" than positivism, even if by questioning our ability to know truth it started to move into postmodernism. By this self-suspicion it avoided the false finish of naively thinking our descriptions of reality exactly corresponded to it.
I see [the Calvinism-Arminianism debate] as more about our descriptions of reality and how they must fit into our chosen logical frameworks than about the underlying reality being described itself, which stubbornly remains the same whatever we say about it. Deep down Calvinists and Arminians do know this, I think/hope, even if they don't acknowledge it. (2013-7-11)
In the modernist paradigm, truth is something external or other to reality that is applied to reality to describe it in the language of propositions. I would say that I take the existence of external reality more seriously than a modernist by allowing this reality an epistemological 'life of its own' independent of what I say or think about it. I peered through the cracks of my modernist faith and saw a greater vision. (2013-7-12)
I believe truth is intrinsically bound up in reality itself, not something separate and neutral we use to describe it. If truth is a body of rational statements, we have privileged access to it as rational beings. But it truth is tied into reality, then we have access to it inasmuch as we are 'native'/at home in the world. (2013-7-12)
The posture of studying reality is quite different from that of simply living in it, but I believe the latter is much more Christlike. These realizations helped me to give up the idol of rational certainty that had been at the heart of so much of my doubt.
Certainty and complexity are mutually exclusive. We have 'mathematical certainty' only about things that, like math, fall entirely short of the full complexity and richness of reality. (2013-7-16)
Things, I might add, that we can completely get our heads around—but no one thinks about God this way.

A new way to disagree

All this thinking about epistemology was also partly motivated by a desire to see past the controversies that divided so many Christians—Calvinism and Arminianism, eschatological disagreements, atonement theories, denominational divides. I was saddened by how so many Christians, supposedly led by the same Holy Spirit, could disagree on so many things, and in such an un-Christlike way, each claiming the high ground of truth. By shunning simple dualisms and binary thinking, I hoped to be able to transcend these squabbles and see how both (or all) positions could fit into a grander reality than any of them could have guessed.
A side-taking, 'us vs. them' outlook doesn't work for Christianity because you can't know whose side anyone is on for sure—even yourself. (2013-4-28)
I saw something I called "epistemological arrogance" in many of these debates, a refusal to admit weakness in your position, backed by a conflation of your own reading of Scripture with its God-given authority as an "inspired" book. I instead sought after "epistemological humility" (which I now realize has much in common with healthy postmodernism), a way to read and stand on the Bible with a Christlike attitude, acknowledging the dangers of overreacting:
There is also an opposite error to epistemological arrogance, on the other side of epistemological humility—an unwillingness to hold to crucial truth, to 'just get along'. But how do you decide what truth is worth holding to—or is that even the right question? (2014-2-2)
I drew a closer parallel between beliefs and actions, and realized that evangelicals (perhaps in our rush to emphasize "faith" over "works") tended to treat them differently, with high standards for beliefs (because they could be easily changed) and comparatively lax ones for actions (which, because we're sinful, are hard or impossible to change). Unpacking the implications of this:
Why do we expect each other to have perfect theology, but not perfect deeds? Because we think we can freely change our theology—but a belief that can be changed at will is not really held at all; it is just an arbitrary mental assent. My beliefs, like my actions, are fruits of who God has made me into. (2013-10-22)
Could we even, sometimes, be sacrificing Christlike conduct for the sake of upholding "Christian" beliefs? Or defining our faith by what we don't believe rather than by what we do?
Is correct belief the point? Do we care more about catching wrong beliefs than affirming right ones? (2013-5-10)

Bridging dichotomies

I became increasingly suspicious of the simple contrasts and dichotomies that I kept seeing in evangelical theology. One of the most obvious of these was the incompatibility I'd seen for years between my agency and God's agency, which I think also lies at the heart of the perennial Calvinism-Arminian debate. I finally began to realize a way past it.
When debating providence, it's important to remember that an action need not be solely God's doing or ours; rather than God regenerating us independently before or after we repent, they can be one and the same action. (2013-5-14)
More generally, I started noticing how often issues in theology in were framed in terms of dichotomies and spectra. These were of two kinds: one where one side was obviously better, so we should reject one and go as far in the other direction as we could (law vs. grace, faith vs. works, low vs. high views of Scripture) and one where both sides represented unhealthy extremes to be avoided (license vs. legalism, God being the author of sin vs. God not being sovereign, tolerating sin vs. not loving sinners as Christ would).

Both kinds of dichotomies made it all too possible to define one's position in terms of what you reject; I saw the second kind in particular behind a lot of thorny contemporary theological conflicts. I saw promise in reframing my thinking about these dichotomies (the second kind, at least) to avoid such negativity, so that they represented two desirable things which one had to embrace at the same time.
I'm learning to refuse to make (unnecessary) choices—or rather, to choose both options when people say it's one or the other. (2013-4-8)
It was with tentative conclusions such as these in mind that I continued thinking about the all-important gospel.

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