Over the past several months I have enjoyed some of the back-and-forth I have been able to have with Public Theologian on this site. Most of all, PT has remained civil and thoughtful in disagreement, and for the most part, we have been able to discuss controversial issues with each other without resorting to flaming. PT commented on my last post, and in response, I decided that an entire post of my own was appropriate. PT’s views expressed in the latest comment highlights, I think, one of the most significant divides in Christendom. Forget Orthodox vs. Catholic-I am talking about a certain kind of fideism vs. a belief in objective truth and the use of reason; a theology that swallows language games whole and a theology that requires transcultural communication of truth.
I will comment on some of the highlights from PT’s latest thoughts, but this post is as much a reaction to what I am reading on the web and in articles and books as any single person’s comment.
I too believe in the reliability of the scriptures, but I do so as a matter of faith, not as matter of reason.
These kinds of sentiments cause me to wonder what kind of hard and fast distinction people have between “faith” and “reason.” Doubtless there are differences in the two means of knowing, but the mistake occurs when people make them mutually exclusive. For instance, I believe astronauts landed on the moon. How do I know that to be the case? It is only because of my trust (faith) in historical record and my reliance on authorities in the field. Those reasons for my belief are reasonable and not a matter of blind faith (the kind of faith I think PT advocates). My faith in historical record actually makes my belief that people landed on the moon more reasonable than the contrary belief. In fact, we consider those who disagree with the historical record to be unreasonable.
Despite pious sentiments to the contrary, faith is not opposed to reason.
My disagreement with those who want to advocate objectivity is that they have no theory which will stand to scrutiny either in language or physics whereby to make such absolute statements.
This is simply not true. Linguistics is by no means a homogenous field of study, and there are certainly those who believe that language is a “game” or a kind of metaphysical trap we cannot get out of, but they are far from the standard. Early in theological and philosophical thought, language was seen as signs pointing to referents. Augustine made the point that language is pointless unless it points (forgive the pun). And he was right. If PT is right that the realities of language cannot admit any kind of objectivity (if it doesn’t really point anywhere significant), then I literally don’t know what PT is saying. Maybe it is some kind of grunt or special mantra those in his linguistic community utter, but it makes absolutely no sense to me.
And though I am not an expert on the latest theory in physics, it is my understanding that a common mistake made by many is taking something like Relativity Theory or Chaos Theory and misapplying them ethically or ontologically. It would be like arguing, “We live in a free country, so I am free to club baby seals with aborted fetuses and you can’t stop me!” And I may be wrong, but I am not sure Rodger Penrose or Frank J. Tipler would agree with PT.
Why isn't it enough to simply say that we share a language game with most people in our environment and that probably 99% of our utterances, verbal or written, are intelligible based upon that shared framework, but that at certain points our experiences differ and agreement cannot be reached on the other 1%? What is wrong with that?
Well, several things. The primary problem with that is that there has been no acceptable definition of what a “culture” or a “social environment” really is. If we are going to limit truth and truth-communicating utterances to cultures or environments, then is it absolutely necessary to adequately define those terms. Unfortunately, no one has been able to do that. Very serious attempts have been made, but they all fall prey to the same kind of simple but devastating critique: we all belong to many of those cultures. So which is actually formative, or important? Which one forms our sense of ethics or language, and what if it is more than one? Very literally, no two people share 99% of their “cultures” with each other.
Secondly, do any of us share 99% of our language game with an ancient Hebrew or a Jew at the peak of the Roman Empire? I dare say not. So how is it we are able to communicate with Scripture-specifically, what ability does the Bible have to communicate the Gospel to us today?
Thirdly, reducing truth-communication to probabilities guarantees the inconsequential nature of your communications. Which leads me to the heart of our disagreement.
There is a lot of fear mongering about what will happen to the world if we can't spell truth with a capital T but no decent evidence as to why it is necessary that we should….Why is it so important for you to be able to assert a universally valid, universally applicable language and logic?
First, it is important because it is true. And while that may sound tautological, it is merely me assenting to the facts of reality. Saying that logic is “universally valid” is not an argument I make; it is a fact of life not all that different from gravity. To say that there isn’t any evidence why we should believe that is just utterly silly.
Second, it isn’t fear mongering; it is trying to teach Christians how to think well. Relativisms based upon the supposed triumph of language games are not much more than self-defeating goofiness. There are sociological lessons to be learned about the facts of how people communicate, but the classic blunder of applying the description of language games to a prescription about reality is committed far too often. If Christians want to think well, they will know the profound and worldview-changing consequences of descriptions versus prescriptions.
Thirdly, and this point has been glossed over so many times it have become almost to slippery to state: if we cannot believe in “T”ruth or some kind of universally applicable realities (accurately communicated through language), than we simply cannot assert that Christianity is true and all other religions are false. This point cannot be made too often, and yet a growing chunk of our evangelical culture today asserts contradictory theses without really grasping the actual consequences. We cannot assert, “Christ is Lord,” not believe in universally valid truth, and believe the simple meaning of Scripture all at the same time.