More Reading Notes 1/31/14

I just ordered Pelikan’s volume on the Reformation in his famous ‘Christian Tradition’ series. I have the Orthodox one, and was able to grab the medieval one from the library. The medieval one is great – the discussion of predestination, nature and grace in the 9th century is fascinating.

I also got Rita Carter’s ‘Mapping the Mind’ at the recommendation of a friend, which looks to be a great book – focused, as far as I can tell, on the neurological/physiological aspects of the mind/brain identity. Can’t wait for that one to go along with the more philosophy of mind oriented books on the subject I have.

Wright’s ‘Jesus and the Victory of God’ is slow but good reading. His discussion of the meaning of ‘repentance’ is superb – I’ve gone over it easily half a dozen times and it keeps getting better.

Wolterstorff’s art book is good but slow as well – I’m still in the beginning so it’s still basically a survey of the state of art and how we think about it. I’m reading about the role of contemplation in the rise of museums in western culture right now. ON that same topic, I read Jacques Barzun’s ‘From Dawn to Decadence’, specifically the section about romanticism, which was very informative.

I’ve been spending more time in Torrance’s ‘Incarnation’, lately. His argument for the assumption of ‘fallen’ human nature is pretty tight, but I’m not 100% convinced that it wins out over the Eastern Orthodox viewpoint.


History, Theology, and Methodology

The following post is a guest post from a good friend of mine, David Hemlock, which was originally an answer to a question I asked about the nature of historical method and theological truth, pertaining specifically to N.T. Wright, from an Eastern Orthodox perspective. David’s brilliant blog can be found here:

‘The historical is not “the real” (even Ranke probably didn’t go that far (in the U.S. historians “traditionally” translated the German eigentltlich as “actually” though it really means “essentially,” Ranke’s “geshichte wie es eigentilich gewesen/history as it essentially happened” was widely misunderstood as meaning “history as it actually happened”). It is, rather, the result of an attempt of contingent finite human minds to reconstruct the probable (or in some cases today, expedient) past. The same methodology that can illuminate the ancient landscape can artificially circumscribe it as any basic study of the host of so-called authenticity criteria in the New Quest and Third Quest for the historical Jesus should reveal to the careful student.

The 19th century Quest for the historical Jesus came to its final end (before being succeeded by the New Quest and so-called Third Quest) with the observation that its principle historians were like men peering into a deep well who failed to realize that they were in the final analysis seeing their own reflection. Subsequent methodologies -even good ones!- can also function as a hermeneutical circle where whatever gains in resolutions appear in the center of the image produced also carry a probability of distortion especially along the margins.

To get back to Bishop Wright’s approach, while 2nd Temple Judaism is a good check against Roman Catholic and Reformation ideologies never existing before the medieval period, I think it in a less criteriologically “infallible”) position in application to early Christianity. Early Christianity I think of as being as much a corrective to much of 2nd Temple Judaism as also a fulfillment and outgrowth of Judaism, and as well an *addendum* of progressive revelation that can in no wise in every case be crammed into the old wineskins that preceded it. This was the teaching of all the apostolic fathers (i.e. those directly knowing or directly appointed by an apostle or an immediate disciple of an apostle).

For example I would say “yes” to the NPP but “no” to a rejection (of) Chalcedon. I suspect Nestorius himself could have approved on the basis of 2nd Temple Judaism knowing nothing of “divine nature” talk (which also so happens to be New Testament talk). Yet methodologically these are out-workings of the same horizontal/epistemological/rationalist principle, which was earlier described as “historical” as opposed to “dogmatic”, but might just as easily be termed (correct me if I am wrong) “dogmatic” in its own right, for not even second temple Judaism used historical critical method to circumscribe what God might reveal in the present to what was culturally or theologically conceivable to previous generations. To be sure it should not be radically incompatible, but radically new wine is not per se something that I would regard as a theological problem. And to be *really* nit-picky, should historical method on this grounds (2nd Temple Judaism not knowing the method any more than it knew of medieval ontology etc.) be criteriologically/methodologically be excluded from the theological task? (extreme example -sauce for the goose and all that).

If the NT and the apostolic fathers (by which we mean those who directly knew or were appointed by an apostle or their immediate disciple) seem at points XYZ to possess wine that would explode a 2nd Temple Jewish wineskin, on what grounds should we insist the old wineskins are criteriological for spiritual truth if revelation is progressive?

Bishop Wright is a noble proponent of the Renaissance tradition of foundationalist application of historical critical method. But that is not to my mind the same thing as theology. If it was, the wise and intelligent with the proper method is the group with eyes to see. Where is the wise, or the scribe is to be answered with the raise of the scholar’s hand. Scripture and tradition in Orthodoxy, by contrast, is received as light bearing because it flows through the ancient and continuing lineage of the experience of God-bearing persons, as opposed to more foundationalist approaches which ground truth horizontally, e.g. in an Infallible Book (much of Protestantism -Karl Barth, T. F. Torrance, Donald Bloesch and the like are obvious exceptions), an Infallible Man (Latin Catholicism/officially only since 1870), Infallible (more or less) Historical Method/s etc. Truth is the revelation of the incarnate Christ, the Holy Spirit, experience of God-bearing/illuminated saints rather than methodological application of scientific hermeneutic methodologies whether ancient or modern.

Even within Orthodoxy, with scripture and Tradition at our disposal, truth is living, not methodological, not restricted to any horizontal dimension, and only properly received by a repentant sinner (“open our eyes, Lord, that we might see glorious things from thy Law”). This is *not* to say that the methodological study of historical criticism, hermeneutics, exegesis, etc. are rendered irrelevant; tacitly or explicitly truth of which the Church is a pillar and ground may run congruent with some authoritative method like rabbinical midrash, historical criticism, etc., but never in the sense of truth being reducible to some horizontal reality. Christ is the foundation; Christ is the truth; the Church is the pillar and ground and witness/martyr. Even if a book, an appointed authority, or some presumably infallible method could “speak” infallibly it cannot be heard except by the ears of a repentant sinner, hence the locus of truth is not the “authority” (more of a Latin Catholic/Protestant/contemporary academic preoccupation, I think); Christ Himself is the truth, and the Church as a whole is His body. Apologies for being so lengthy, but the sum of it is that I think of authenticity criteria of any kind, Wright’s included, in the same manner as the ancient Greek tragedies regarded their heroes greatest strength as often paradoxically displaying not only a fatal weakness, but a fatal weakness with potential to actually undo the hero at the end of the day.’

John Searle on External-World Realism

‘At a much deeper level, here is what I think is going on: external realism is not a theory. It is not an opinion I hold that there is a world out there. It is rather the framework that is necessary for it to be possible to hold opinions or theories about such things as planetary movements. When you debate the merits of a theory, such as the heliocentric theory of the solar system, you have to take it for granted that there is a way that things really are. Otherwise, the debate can’t get started. Its very terms are unintelligible. But that assumption, that there is a way that things are, independent of our representations of how they are, is external realism. External realism is not a claim about the existence of this or that object, but rather a presupposition of the way we understand such claims. This is why the “debates” always look inconclusive. You can more or less conclusively settle the issue about Darwinian evolutionary theory, but you can’t in that way settle the issue about the existence of the real world, because any such settling presupposes the existence of the real world. This does not mean that realism is an unprovable theory; rather, it means that realism is not a theory at all but the framework within which it is possible to ave theories.’ (John R. Searle, ‘Mind, Language and Society: Philosophy in the Real World, p. 32)

On Knowledge, Certainty, and Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln once said, ‘Behind every great blog post lies a stupid Facebook comment discussion,’ and I think he was right about that. I got into a debate about the nature of certainty today with a Reformed presuppositionalist, and it inspired this post here.

I did a post some time ago lamenting how hard it seemed to have certainty about anything – this was during my reading of Wittgenstein’s ‘On Certainty’, which is a great work. How can we be certain in any ultimate sense about anything? A less-than-thorough reflection on that thought can lead to despair, and that’s pretty much where I ended up. I realize now that the mistake I made was assuming that all knowledge and all certainty had to be roughly the same: absolute, bedrock-certainty.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from T.F. Torrance, it’s this: that knowledge has to be sought after the nature of the thing under scrutiny or being inquired of. I’ve also learned this: that the personal nature of all human knowledge and inquiry has to be taken into account. If we’re concerned about actual human knowledge had by actual humans, we can’t talk about knowledge in the abstract (well, we can, and we do sometimes). The human as a personal, acting agent in the universe has to be taken into account.

Today at work I wrote down a brief list of all the different kinds of things we can know, or rather the different kinds of knowledge we can have. I wrote down, for example, historical knowledge, rational knowledge, propositional knowledge, personal knowledge, historical knowledge, narrative knowledge, empirical knowledge, tacit knowledge. There’s probably more, but that’s a good start. Now, these things can intermingle and overlap – for example, historical and narrative knowledge, or personal and tacit knowledge all often overlap.

As I see it, each of those different areas is ‘known’ in a different way, despite overlap. One’s knowledge of history is very different from one’s knowledge of a fact of chemistry, and one’s knowledge based on personal correspondence is very different from one’s knowledge of a logical proposition, and one’s knowledge of an a priori truth is very different from one’s tacit knowledge gotten in the context of creative agency. Now, if there are different ways of knowing different kinds of things, that means the different kinds of things – the different kinds of knowledge had –  are indeed different types of knowledge. If this is true, then that means that not only are there different ways of knowing different kinds of knowledge, it means that there are different kinds of certainty one can have about different kinds of knowledge.

Think of it this way: Bob says to Joe, the car is low on gas. Joe remembers filling up the car recently (Bob went out for a drag race earlier unbeknownst to Joe), and so he says, I’m pretty certain you’re wrong. This certainty is obviously not mathematical certainty. Joe is pretty sure that Bob is wrong. He’s even certain of it. He has certainty that Joe is wrong. He could in fact be wrong, but he certain that he is now. There’s also different kinds of knowledge – it would seem that the knowledge he has is an overlap of personal, propositional and historical.

This is merely to demonstrate a very narrow point: that there are different kinds of certainty. Joe’s certainty is common-sense, ordinary certainty, which is different, than, to use the example again, mathematical certainty.

My overall claim, then, is this: that there is not one universal kind of knowledge, and one universal kind of certainty, applicable in all times and places to all things. If there is knowledge, then it is knowledge had by some agent – and thus is not merely ‘knowledge’ in the abstract but knowledge in the active and personal.

As a postscript: I’ve found Polyani to be immensely stimulating in this area, as well as Torrance’s exposition of James Clerk Maxwell’s thought in light of Polyani’s tacit dimension of knowledge.

Texts and Archaeology

‘So why begin with the textual evidence, biblical and extrabiblical? It would also be possible to begin with the archaeological evidence, provided that we limited ourselves to cataloguing the material evidence (perhaps forming tentative judgments about social context and general modes of living) and vigorously resisted the temptation to begin writing our own “stories” about specific events and persons. As is often observed, material evidence alone is il suited to tell a story, except perhaps a very general story about the longue duree. Study of the material evidence is best suited for establishing general conditions and gauging the plausibility of stories that available texts tell. If our interest is in human history, and not just natural history or general social history, texts prove invaluable. Appropriately then, especially in view of our openness to testimony, we begin with the texts. They provide a story, or stories, the plausibility of which we may then test in the light of whatever material remains are known.’ ‘Provan, Long, Longman III, ‘A Biblical History of Israel’,p. 147)

Things I Don’t Care About, But Other People Do, #1

I’m not really impressed when I read ‘deeply honest’ blog posts about people ‘wrestling’ with ‘tough issues.’ Maybe I’m just a cynical jerk, but most ‘crisis of faith’ posts, whether autobiographical or otherwise, just don’t make me care. I’ve tried, I really have. I’ve read a lot of different accounts of how people either left the faith or came to the faith. All of them are ‘honest’. I still just don’t care. People I know in person are a bit different, so maybe it’s just the medium.

Although I am somewhat cynical. When it comes to things like ‘wrestling’, I generally translate that as, asking dumb questions but trying to sound profound – almost without fail, whoever is doing the wrestling ends up making a mountain out of a molehill, or a grand crisis of faith where there isn’t one, and it ends up being lame. Maybe I’m just not very existential.

I don’t recall ever having to wrestle with anything in particular in my personal faith, not science, biblical literalism or any of that kind of thing. I find that most of these issues work themselves out, given enough time. People tend to try and make everything into a crisis of faith, so that it can be wrestled with, dialogued about, a conversation had – let’s talk about it, preferably with people of diverse viewpoints, so that we can be challenged, even if we don’t agree. Whatever it is, dialogue must be had. Then again, I’m pretty laid back. Most things that seem to be the cause of wrestling in others make me just go, ‘huh, interesting. I’ll think about that. Whatevs.’

But, once more, maybe I’m just a cynical, snarky dude who likes to rant a bit every now and then

On Foundationalism in Theology

Foundationalism is basically the idea that knowledge has to be built on certain foundations – typically, self-evident propositions or axiom, Descartes being the most well-known example of this. In theology, its most well-known and capable proponent was St. Thomas Aquinas. In recent years, thanks more or less to the school of Reformed epistemology, led by Alvin Plantinga, Nicholas Wolterstorff and William Alston, among others, foundationalism has been pretty much dismantled. I won’t go into the details because it’s actually a pretty long and boring story like much of analytic philosophy.

“Foundationalism has been the reigning theory of theories in the West since the high Middle Ages. It can be traced back as far as Aristotle… Aquinas offers one classic version of foundationalism. There is, he said, a body of propositions which can become self-evident to us in our present earthly state. Properly conducted scientific inquiry consists in arriving at other propositions by way of reliable inference from these (demonstration). A few of these (for example, that God exists) can be inferred from propositions knowable to the natural light of reason.

…within the community of those working in philosophy of knowledge and philosophy of science foundationalism has suffered a series of deadly blows in the last 25 years. To many of those acquainted with the history of this development it now looks all but dead. So it looks to me. Of course, it is always possible that by a feat of prodigious imagination foundationalism can be revitalized. I consider that highly improbable…” (Nicholas Wolterstorff, Reason Within the Bounds of Religion, pp. 26-27).

However, despite broad agreement with status of foundationalism as dead, there are those who hold to it on theological grounds. This is an example I found earlier today:

‘This view—that the Bible does not provide us with a set of indubitably known propositions—cannot be reconciled with the best of what the Reformation affirmed. As a matter of fact, with all of their good and necessary references to Christ and to Christian, and not just theistic, philosophy, it is not easy to tell exactly how they might know of this Christ, or of what it means to be Christian. Not only so, but, as Richard Muller points out, it was the very problem of epistemology that was the “single most important contribution of the early Reformed writers” to the area of prolegomena (see his Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics. Volume 1: Prolegemona to Theology [Baker Books, 2003], 108). This was the case because of the recovery, during the Reformation, of the central and determining place of God’s revelation for all of knowledge. If that is true, and I think it is, then it seems any “Reformational” philosophy worthy of the name must take its starting point—not simply in an “Origin” (as in Dooyeweerd), nor in “Christ,” but in the inscripturated Word of God, which alone is able to tell us who this Christ is. Without an infallible and authoritative, self-attesting Word, any attempt at Christian philosophy will itself be fraught with dialectical tension.’

As far as I can tell from that review, the authors of that volume are not arguing for a distinctively Reformed viewpoint, but that’s an aside. There’s a deeper issue at play here, which the above passage notes – epistemology.

The issue with the foundationalism here is the idea of self-evident, or indubitably known, propositions. Theologically and biblically, it is quite plain that by reason alone (self-evident propositions, for example) one will not arrive at the Truth of the Scriptures, which is Christ. Truth is not a matter of method, whether reasoning from self-evident propositions, discursive reasoning or any other method. This is not to say that the truths of scripture (Paul writes in Romans about God’s law written upon our hearts) cannot be described by reason or reasoned about. The Psalmist prays that his eyes may be opened to behold the wonders of the Law, and that knowledge of God is too wondrous for him to attain.

What one needs to know God and to know the Truth of the Scriptures is not an infallible book or an infallible method but rather repentance, a continual turning of the whole of man, mind, heart, body and soul, towards God, without which not even the most learned philosophers will know God. Only one who loves God and worships God will know God, not one who has the superior deductive method. Infants and children know that which no method of reasoning can arrive at by its own strength.

The Death of the World

‘They took the body down from the cross and one of the few rich men among the first Christians obtained permission to bury it in a rock in his garden; the Romans setting a military guard lest there should be some riot and attempt to recover the body. There was once more a natural symbolism in these natural proceedings; it was well that the tomb should be sealed with all the secrecy of ancient eastern sepulchre and guarded by the authority of the Caesars. For in that second cavern the whole of that great and glorious humanity which we call antiquity was gathered up and covered over; and it that place it was buried. It was the end of a very great thing called human history; the history that was merely human. The mythologies ad philosophies were buried there, the gods and the heroes and the sages. In the great Roman phrase, they had lived. But as they could only live, they could only die; and they were dead.

On the third day the friends of Christ coming at day-break to the place found the grave empty and the stone rolled away. In varying ways they realised the new wonder; but they hardly realised that the world had died in the night. What they were looking at was the first day of a new creation, with a new heaven and a new earth; and in a semblance of the gardener God walked again in the garden, in the cool not of the evening but the dawn.’ (G.K. Chesteron, ‘The Everlasting Man’, pp.212-213)