Archive for April, 2011

Truth in Walsh/Keesmaat, “Colossians Remixed”

April 21, 2011

Letter to Brian J. Walsh and Sylvia C. Keesmaat,

on their treatment of truth

in Colossians Remixed (InterVarsity Press, 2004)

This is written as a personal letter to Brian and Sylvia, based on a letter I actually sent to them shortly after their book came out.  In part I take this approach because I know Brian, and have dialogued with him on occasion.  Also, I think it is important for us as scholars to model critical and loving dialogue.  This letter will focus primarily on Part II of  Colossians Remixed, where the authors deal with the topic of truth. 

 Dear Brian and Sylvia:

Brian, I know that you have been wrestling with the epistemological implications of post-modernism for quite some time.  In 1995 you wrote Truth is Stranger Than it Used to Be, co-authored with J. Richard Middleton (IVP).  I studied this book carefully and benefited enormously from your treatment of  “biblical faith in a postmodern age,” a phrase you used as the subtitle of this book.  I found myself in essential agreement with your critique of modernism.  You want to affirm the insights of post-modernism while avoiding the relativism that often follows such an affirmation.  Again early in Colossians Remixed you explicitly say that you are not relativists (p.48).  But, it seems to me that you have not quite overcome the relativism that invariably seems to accompany post-modernism.  You use an imaginary critic to raise some possible criticisms of your treatment, but because you are in “control” of the dialogue (a power regime?),  I felt that you silenced your critic too soon.  So I want to push his/her criticisms a little further.

Why do I believe you are still relativists?  At times you explicitly reject absolutes (p.34; cf. p. 200).  You seem to be in agreement with Phillip Kenneson’s article, “There’s No Such Thing as Objective Truth, and It’s a Good Thing Too” (p. 128).  Further, even though you say that you are not relativists, you really don’t spend a lot of time showing how you are not relativists.  I felt that each time you seemed to be showing why you are not relativists you tended to skirt the central issue involved.  For example, while Chapter 7 is titled, “What is Truth?” you skirted the problem of the status of truth by moving to the topic of incarnating the truth.  I agree that truth needs to be embodied in a person.  But that is not a definition of truth. On page 130 you explicitly reject a definition of truth as correspondence between ideas and reality.  But, why can’t truth be defined as correspondence with reality, and be embodied in a person at the same time?  You seem to fall prey to the either-or fallacy in this passage, as you do elsewhere.  For example, on page 119 you suggest that we should be committed to Jesus Christ, not to rationality.  Why can’t one be committed to both? 

Back to the importance of incarnating the truth.  I agree that Christ was the incarnate word of God (p. 130).  I agree that the Christian community is called to incarnate the truth of Jesus Christ.  But, if you place all the emphasis on Christians incarnating the truth, and if we as human beings are always situated, finite, and fallible, then you are still stuck with relativism.

On page 127 you agree with Richard Rorty when he suggests that there are no external criteria by which final vocabularies can be evaluated.  You then provide some criteria by which to evaluate “any” worldview.  That sounds pretty universal to me.  However, you then go on to make the criteria of such evaluation internal to the worldview itself.  Not only is this inconsistent, but the latter claim commits you to full-blown relativism.  We need criteria that anyone can use to evaluate his/her and other’s worldviews. 

I want to return to your claim in page 130 where you say that “from a biblical perspective, truth is not a correspondence between ideas and facts.  Truth is embodied in a person.”  Where do you get the idea that the Bible does not affirm the correspondence theory of truth?  You need to prove this.  I think a good case can be made that from a biblical perspective, truth is viewed as correspondence between human ideas and objective reality.  Jesus warned his disciples not to be misled by people who would claim that they are the Messiah, or by false prophets (Matt.24).  Error and falsity surely must be measured in terms of what is objectively true.  Jesus also talked about knowing how to interpret the appearance of the sky but not being able to interpret the signs of the times (Matt. 16).   “Get it right,” Jesus is saying.  Indeed, Jesus repeatedly uses the expression, “I tell you the truth” (e.g. John 10:1, 7).  “Speaking the truth” is different from Jesus claiming, “I am the way, the truth and the life.”  John is described as testifying to the truth, but Jesus qualifies this by saying that human testimony alone is not sufficient to establish truth (John 5:33).  Paul talks about suppressing the truth by wickedness (Rom. 1:18).  He urges us to think about “whatever is true” (Phil. 4:8).  Again and again Paul is concerned with sound doctrine, urging Christians not to pay attention to Jewish myths or to the commands of those who reject the truth (e.g. Titus 1:9, 14).  I find these and many other passages suggesting, at least implicitly, that truth is correspondence between what we say and objective reality.

This is not at all to reject your notion of an embodied, relational epistemology of love (p. 129).  I agree that these are additional descriptions of the meaning of truth as found in the bible.  But, these don’t preclude the notion of truth as correspondence between our ideas and reality, which I believe must in some way be the basis of these other descriptions.  I agree that all too often appeals to the truth of the gospel have served as a means for the church to evade its responsibility to live faithfully before the world (p. 128).  But, this isn’t necessarily the case.  It is possible both to affirm truth with a capital “T” and to embody the truth by living faithfully before the world.  Faithful Christian disciples affirm and practice both.

I would also suggest that you are over-reacting to the notion of absolute truth (pp.34, 157, 162, 200).  I think I know what you are really after – you want to get rid of humans mistaking their claims as absolute.  So do I.  But the psychological fact remains that no-one can escape absolutizing what they say.  As Wm. James puts it, we all absolutize like infallible little popes.  This is part of the human condition. Further, we still need an ideal, or a heuristic principle of Truth with a capital “T”.  To reject the absoluteness of the human grasp of truth is not the same as saying that there are no absolutes.  In the end I also think you contradict yourself.  On page 170, you correctly identify a contradiction in the postmodern imagination.  A statement of postmodernism cannot be made without sounding absolutistic.  With regard to ethics, you clearly advocate one way of life as good and the other as bad.  Two themes running throughout your book are a rejection of oppressive empire and consumerism.  I appreciate the way that you develop these themes and agree with you.  But are you not proposing that oppressive empires and consumerism are wrong, really wrong, and when you do this are you not affirming “absolutes”? 

I can hear you, Brian and Sylvia, objecting to my critique by saying that I am still suffering from a modernist hangover, or that I am still a foundationalist, or that I suffer from Cartesian anxiety (p.117).  My reply to this is that I am not at all a Cartesian foundationalist.  I am not looking for an absolutely certain starting point.  I admit that we cannot reach absolute Truth.  I acknowledge my own uncertainty and doubt.  I agree entirely with your critique of foundationalism and modernism.  But I think you are over-reacting.  Your critique does not entail that we need to dismiss modernism entirely.  Here is where I believe that you again succumb to the either-or fallacy.  I believe the insights of modernism and postmodernism can be reconciled, and indeed, need to be reconciled.  So how can this be done?

It seems to me that you need to distinguish more sharply between the human search for truth, and Truth as an ideal.  Here I include a section of my book In Defence of Religious Schools and Colleges  (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001, pp. 212-214).

            Emphasis on the particularity of human reason is not without its own pitfalls, however.  It does away with the notion of truth and the search for a common truth.  What postmodernists reacting to the Enlightenment fail to realize is that without the notion of truth, they have in fact undermined their own critique of the Enlightenment.    Why listen to postmodernists if they are merely one voice among many other relative voices?  Postmodernists further invariably contradict themselves!  They seem unable to avoid talking about their post-modern viewpoint as better than that of old-fashioned modernism.  Better in terms of what?  It seems difficult not to talk about objective and universal truth in some sense. 

            It is here where I see the need to arrive at a more thorough reconciliation of the epistemological insights of modernism and postmodernism.  Yes, there are limitations inherent in our search for truth and we need to be honest about these limitations.  However, I in no way want to do away with the notion that human beings must, and invariably do, attempt to transcend these limitations in their search for universal truth.  Without balancing the emphasis on limitations with an equal emphasis on the need to try to transcend these limitations, we end up with epistemological relativism.  While the human search for truth may be relative, we still need a notion of Truth with a capital “T” (see Figure #1:  Ladder of Truth – as found on p. 214 of my In Defense of Religious Schools and Colleges, and on p. 69 of my The Ethics of Evangelism)                                

        Here it might be helpful to return to [Thomas] Nagel [1986].  Although we cannot get a view from nowhere, according to Nagel, there is within each of us an impulse to transcend our particular personal point of view.  This occurs because we recognize that it is merely a point of view, a perspective, and not simply an account of the way things really are.  “The recognition that this is so,” he writes, “creates pressure on the imagination to recast our picture of the world so that it is no longer the view from here” (1986, 70).  In other words, each of us is aware of the possibility that our particular perspective might be wrong, and so we aspire to “the view from nowhere,” to a view uncontaminated by any perspectival factors.

            This aspiration which drove the Enlightenment is admirable, but what we cannot do is transcend our particularity in any absolute manner, and it is here where we need to listen to what the postmodernists have to say.  For Nagel, this quest for self-transcendence is bound up with a realist account of human knowledge, that is, an account in which “the universe and most of what goes on in it are completely independent of our thoughts” (92).  Without this approach of “critical realism” (i.e. a critical search for truth about objective reality) we remain stuck in the quagmire of relativism or scepticism.

William James captures the heart of my diagram when he says that the absolutely true is “that ideal vanishing point towards which we imagine that all our temporary truths will someday converge” (1968, p. 170).  I concede that we as human beings are stuck with temporary truths.  But, we still need a goal of absolute truth. 

Where does this absolute truth reside?  In God.  Why the need for Truth with a capital “T”?  Why the need for James’ notion of “the absolutely true” as an ideal vanishing point?  Here are some suggestions:

            a.  Epistemological need:  This is the only way we can do justice to the realization that our particular perspective might be wrong, and that we aspire to “the view from nowhere,” a view uncontaminated by any perspectival factors.

            b.  Logical need:  Why do we argue with one another?  We do so to correct error.  And how do we recognize error?  We can only do so in relation to some ideal that is not in error.

            c.  Psychological need:  We cannot avoid treating our temporary truths as though they were, for the time being, absolute truths.  We treat our convictions as functional absolutes.  At the same time, we feel the need for an ideal of absolute truth.

            d.  Proselytizing need:  We are by nature proselytizing animals.  In writing your book, you were trying to persuade the reader that your point of view was in fact true.  Indeed, you end the book with a plea to readers never to give up their tenacity for truth (p. 233). 

            e.  Theological need:  Contrary to what you say on p.130, I believe the bible teaches that truth is somehow correspondence between ideas and the way things really are.  The omniscient God is an absolute reference point.  God speaks.  God spoke creation into being.  He calls us to adjust our lives to the way in which he created all things. 

Can I prove the existence of this Truth with a capital “T”?  No.  Here I think you will agree with me.  Ultimately this is an item of faith, but not blind faith.  I have just given several reasons why we need the notion.   And even post-modernists acknowledge this need in their “weaker” moments.

Enough for now.  As you can see, I have read your book carefully.  And again, I want to say that I found your work very inspiring.  The above criticisms are offered in love and in our common pursuit of a more complete truth.

Blessings on you both,

Elmer       

Review of “Death of the Liberal Class,” by Chris Hedges, and “Hope in Troubled Times,” by Bob Goudzwaard et. al.

April 11, 2011

Review of

Death of the Liberal Class, by Chris Hedges (Alfred Knopf Canada, 2010)

and

Hope In Troubled Times:  A New Vision for Confronting Global Crises, by Bob Goudzwaard, Mark Vander Vennen and David Van Heemst (Baker Academic, 2007)

If you are at all prone to depression, you should avoid both of these books.  Each of them devotes a good deal of space to showing how troubled the world really is.  Hedges focuses on the failure of the liberal class in our society, on their having been co-opted by corporate power elites.  Goodzwaard et. al. provide a detailed description of worldwide poverty, environmental degradation, and widespread terrorism.

Hedges identifies the pillars of the liberal class as the media, the church, the university, the Democratic Party, the arts, and labor unions (p.10).  He has a very exalted view of the liberal class.  “In a traditional democracy, the liberal class functions as a safety valve.  It offers hope for change and proposes gradual steps toward greater equality.  It endows the state and the mechanisms of power with virtue.  It also serves as an attack dog that discredits radical social movements, making the liberal class a useful component within the power elite” (p. 9).  But the tragedy is that the corporate state has claimed the liberal class as one of its victims.  The liberal class has itself sold out to the corporate power of capitalism.  It is now anemic, decayed and frightened, unable to function as it was meant to.  The book is a long catalogue of the betrayals and failures of the liberal class.

But this raises a central question.  Why has the liberal class degenerated in the way in which Hedges describes in painful detail?  Why did it become such a helpless victim of corporate power?  Why did it sell out to the forces of global capitalism?  Surely such a colossal failure should make us begin to think that there is something fundamentally wrong with liberalism itself.  Michael Sandel has suggested that liberalism’s “vision of political discourse is too sparse to contain the moral energies of democratic life” (Democracy’s Discontent 1996, 323).  Indeed, there are problems with the very foundations of liberalism.  What is the basis of the moral values espoused by liberalism?  I would suggest that without a transcendent foundation, the moral vision of liberalism collapses. 

One can begin to see this when one looks at who is included in the liberal class.  Along with journalists and academics, Hedges includes the church.  Now this is interesting! Liberals are typically very hard on the church.  The church is most often associated with the Christian right, which has been recently demonised by Marci McDonald in The Armageddon Factor:  The Rise of Christian Nationalism in Canada (Random House Canada, 2010).  So how can Hedges include the church in the liberal class?  Clearly he has a very particular segment of the church in mind – the liberal church that is preoccupied with such liberal values as tolerance, rights, equality, diversity, and inclusivism.  But, as many a survey has shown, the liberal church is on a downward spiral.   And this again raises the question, why? Is there perhaps also a weakness in the very foundations of the liberal church?   Indeed, the foundational weaknesses of the liberal church are parallel to the weaknesses of liberalism.  Without an affirmation of orthodox Christian doctrine, the moral vision of the liberal church is in fact hollow, and the church will not be able to withstand the forces of power elite within a society.

Hedges’ book concludes with this pessimistic analysis.  “We stand on the verge of one of the bleakest periods in human history, when the bright lights of civilizations will blink out and we will descend for decades, if not centuries, into barbarity” (p.196).  The only ray of hope, and it is slim indeed, is for individuals to engage in acts of rebellion.  But, how can the individual stand up against the collective powers of corporate capitalism?  And is not the call for individual resistance simply another expression of faith in the very liberalism that Hedges has found to be anemic and decayed.  And again, what are the moral foundations of such resistance? 

It is here where the analysis of Goudzwaard et. al. has so much to offer us?  I found the final section of this book dealing with hope most inspiring.  After a careful treatment of the problems of the world, you have an equally careful analysis of the theological underpinnings of hope.

While some of the problems identified in this work are the same as those identified by Hedges, the analysis of these problems is very different.  Goudzwaard et. al. talk instead about ideologies and idols.  Indeed, a fundamental tenet of liberalism, its belief in the inevitability of progress, has itself become a problem (pp. 24-5).  Thus we find that many of today’s problems seem to have developed immunity to our well-intended solutions.  “They have become like viruses that resist medicine or like pests that have developed a defense against pesticide”  (p. 31).  This book analyses four areas of spiraling problems in our world today – revolution, nationalism, global capitalism, and violence/war.  In each case we find ourselves becoming “more or less trapped inside the cocoon of an extremely narrow, reduced view or perspective that considers acceptable only the solutions that fall in line with the way Western society defines its further ‘progress’” (p.25).  Indeed, the language of “obsession” or even “possession” becomes appropriate as persons or societies place their faith or trust in things or forces that their own hands have made (p. 27).  But, unfortunately, these idols that we ourselves have made cannot deliver.  The gods we have created have betrayed us.

But there is room for hope according to Goudzwaard et. al.  The good news of the gospel is that after Jesus’ resurrection, “one can speak about evil only as a temporary counterpower, one whose effectiveness depends solely on enticing and seducing people with things like money, power, and the longing to survive” (p. 172).  These seductions occur in the hearts of people, and the hearts of people can be changed.  Idols can be smashed.  Ideologies can be individually and collectively undermined.  We are not at the mercy of fate or evil underground forces.  “In our view, this simple insight into the fundamentally limited scope of evil throws the door wide open to genuine and living hope” (p. 172).  Here it is important to note that this hope is not just a human creation.  We are not left to our own resources.  Instead, this hope rests ultimately in the God whom Christians confess and who has already fundamentally conquered the power of evil through his Son.  “Jesus is therefore worthy to hold ‘the whole world [including our future] in his hands’” (p. 172). 

What we need to do is to make sure that we see the bigger picture, and in so doing unmask the gods of our times – economic growth, technological progress, the free market, and even democracy (p. 181).  The Christian believes in instead in justice, love and truth, and he or she knows that these belong to the basic nature of reality itself (p. 182).  The Christian does not get caught up in the dead-end spirals of the idols and ideologies of our time.  Instead, with God’s help Christians move slowly, and patiently, and step by step, upward to a better way.

Creation, Evolution and Schools

April 5, 2011

 

The classic creation/evolution debate seems to have considerable staying power, though over the years it expresses itself in new ways.  There is, however, an added dimension to the current dispute, which unfortunately, is not always clearly separated from the debate over evolution versus creation. (I am using “creation” to cover a range of approaches, including creation science and Intelligent Design. I personally accept theistic evolution, which attempts to combine the theories of creation and evolution.) In this article, I wish to limit my comments to the oft-neglected aspect of this debate – the teaching of evolution versus creation in our schools.

Throughout the U.S. and Canada, attempts have been made to challenge the general pattern of science instruction in our schools, where the theory of evolution is presently given almost exclusive attention, and where it is taught as scientific fact. In response to this established approach, attempts have been made in various states to pass laws requiring that “equal time” be given to the teaching of evolution and “creation science.” These laws, however, are themselves being challenged in the courts by those opposed to any kind of creation theory.

For example, a few years ago some devout members of the school board in Dover PA wanted to have a disclaimer read out to all ninth-grade students in schools at the beginning of their biology classes.  The disclaimer would say that Darwin’s theory is “not a fact” and has inexplicable “gaps,” and would direct them to a book about intelligent design. Eleven parents took the board to court, and on Dec. 20, 2005, U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III, sided with these parents.  He said, among other things, that the disclaimer “presents students with a religious alternative masquerading as a scientific theory, directs them to consult a creationist text as though it were a science resource, and instructs students to forgo scientific inquiry in the public-school classroom and instead to seek out religious instruction elsewhere.”           

 A central component of Judge Jones’s objection to the teaching of creation or intelligent design in the classroom has to do with its alleged non-scientific status.  Creation is understood to be a religious theory and so is thought to be inappropriate for a public school classroom. But, what exactly is a religious theory, and how does it really differ from a scientific theory? It is generally assumed that religion and science are very different from each other. But there are an impressive number of anthropologists, philosophers, and scientists who argue that religion and science are to some extent similar in aims, methods, and criteria used to evaluate the claims made.

 Both science and religion try to explain or make sense of that which we observe around us. Both move beyond experience and make assumptions about the metaphysical nature of reality. The claims of both are ultimately tested in the crucible of experience. A careful consideration of the nature of scientific and religious theories will show that it is very difficult to draw a sharp distinction or separation between the two areas. That is why logical positivism in philosophy is now “stone dead,” as one writer puts it.

 Thus, although I have some reservations about the Creation Science Research Center of San Diego, and the Creation Science Association of Canada, I am sympathetic with their approach of trying to justify the theory of creation scientifically. The teachings of the Bible do have scientific implications, and therefore can, at least in part be tested scientifically. Thus also my sympathies with Intelligent Design.

 I would suggest that the exclusion of creation or ID from the classroom on the grounds that it is a religious and not a scientific theory can be dismissed as another one of the many prejudices of a society committed to the religion of secularism.

 It can further be argued that the distinction between religion and science is not even relevant to the question as to whether the theory of creation should be taught in our schools. Our schools are, or at least should be, concerned about truth, or the search for truth, wherever it is found. The key question, therefore, is not whether creation is a religious theory, but whether or not it is true.

 Considered from this vantage point, the argument for excluding creation in our schools is again unsound. Let us grant that creation theory (or ID) cannot be conclusively established, and that there is an element of faith involved in accepting this theory. But, this also applies to evolution. Both theories cannot be finally established as “scientific fact,” whatever that might mean. Both theories begin and end with a leap of faith.

 The generally accepted aim of education is to promote rationality. Where there is not general agreement as to what is true, where there are theories competing for acceptance, whether in history, social studies, or science, the way to promote rationality is to present evidence for both sides, and to let students rationally weigh the evidence. The approach is not, or at least should not be to prejudge the truth, but to cultivate rationality in trying to arrive at truth. Thus, students should be exposed to any significant contenders for truth, in all areas of study. Creation theory is a significant contender for truth in explaining our origins. Therefore, it should be taught in our schools, and all children should be allowed to weigh the evidence for and against this theory.

 (This blog is adapted from an article that first appeared in “A Christian Mind” column, in the Mennonite Brethren Herald, Jan. 15, 1982.)