Saturday, April 28, 2007

Vanhoozer's Epistemology

So I have this dilemma. I believe I have a call to be a vocational theologian, but I have trouble recognizing theology as knowledge – at least anything more than natural theology. It’s like playing FreeCell when you get stuck, so you keep looking and looking at the board trying to figure out how to get that last ace free – then suddenly you find a way to move the cards you need to move, and suddenly half the deck’s gone. I keep struggling to find a defense of Christian theology that I think is epistemically sound.
Last semester I approached my theology professor, Kevin Vanhoozer, for an answer. “I don’t believe theology is really knowledge,” I quipped. He offered to share with me the epistemology he had developed that he felt provided a satisfactory answer. Unfortunately we ran out of time, and he invited me back a different time. I tried to meet again but missed our appointment because of traffic delays. It hasn’t worked for me to reschedule this semester, so instead I went to his article “The Trials of Truth: Mission, Martyrdom, and the Epistemology of the Cross” in To Stake a Claim (1999). I was very hopeful, but I finished the article disappointed.
Vanhoozer believes the task of the theologian is to stake the truth-claim that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” He believes that a proper epistemology must be concerned with wisdom in addition to knowledge. If epistemology is concerned with how we know the things we claim to know, then I take it he means that we should also be concerned with how we know how to apply what we know. He goes on to say that proper epistemological task is hermeneutical: to interpret the ‘text’ of reality. Following Kierkegaard he allows that the proper starting place may rightly be labeled hermeneutical fideism – we must accept the authority of the scriptures in order to understand. He cites Kierkegaard approvingly that if this were not the case, if we could make a philosophical case for the authority of scripture, then “God and the Apostle have to wait at the gate, or in the porter’s lodge, till the learned upstairs have settled the matter.”
It is exactly here that I have always strongly disagreed with Kierkegaard, and therefore with Vanhoozer. This approach would maybe work if the only other options on the table were atheism or agnosticism. (He is primarily arguing against Van Harvey, a modernist; Nietzsche, a post-modernist; and Socrates, a rationalist.) But the Christian missionary mandate forces us into dialogue with Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, or neo-Paganism. If Koranic-fideism were to produce a similar wisdom, then would that not similarly count as evidence for the veridicality of Islam? In fact, John Hick makes essentially the same argument in defense of Normative Religious Pluralism: all the major world religions produce an equal proportion of ‘saints,’ (we could call them ‘people of wisdom’), and therefore they are all equally valid religious traditions.
But Vanhoozer argues that his system can resist collapsing into normative pluralism. He notes the need for an ethical dimension in epistemology: those who interpret reality must have epistemic virtues like passion for truth, humility, and courage to stand for one’s convictions; they must likewise avoid epistemic vices, like intellectual pride or ignoring inconvenient evidence. He notes that the wrong actions can refute a truth-claim more effectively than an opponent’s counter-argument. Through a play-on-words where the Greek root of martyr means witness, He argues that the Christian truth claim is best defended when Christians witness to the truth of their faith and are consequently persecuted for it, perhaps leading to martyrdom. Martyrdom confirms the veridicality of the doctrines of Christianity but not of Socrates or fanatics, he contends, because Socrates offered no answers, only questions; and fanatics have only a desire for truth, but lack other epistemic virtues like humility.
But again, this is not a compelling defense for the particularity of the Christian faith. Christians are not the only ones who possess these virtues. Even if it can be shown that Christians have a greater proportion of ‘true’ martyrs than other religious traditions, why this is anything more than an arbitrary standard remains a mystery. But even more disturbing is the counter-argument that follows: if epistemic vices count as evidence against one’s truth-claim, then there is significantly more evidence against Christian truth-claims than there is for it.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Evangelical Epistemology

I have been looking for an epistemological foundation for my evangelical beliefs for several years now. When I first became a Christian, I was able to dismiss all epistemological questions related to my faith because of powerful experiences with God which were based on submission to Biblical teachings, not on theological or philosophical reflection. I think that position was important during that period of my life, but after a few years I yielded to the fact that mature Christian belief should involve theological reflection if it is to resist devolving into mere superstition. Since then I have never come up with an Evangelical epistemology that I have been satisfied with.

I am currently taking a Religious Epistemology course, taught by professor Keith Yandell. The course mostly follows his book on the same topic. I am hoping to use this as an opportunity to finally hammer out my own religious epistemology. My course grade will be based entirely on a twelve-page paper, due in two weeks. I am supposed to use formal logic, which I am about as comfortable with as I was doing geometric proofs in High School (not much). I’m hoping to use this blog to sort through the issues I want to deal with in that paper, or at least to lay the groundwork in my personal thoughts so that I can write something else.

Before I begin, I shall define my terms. By Evangelical theology (E), I mean theology that is based on the authority, infallibility, inerrancy, and inspiration of the Bible. I take it that E entails the following:

E1. God exists as Trinity, one substance consisting of three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
E2. Jesus Christ is God incarnate, both fully God and fully human.
E3. Jesus Christ rose bodily from the grave.
E4. Humanity is enslaved to sin and destined to spend eternity alienated from God in hell.
E5. Jesus Christ made atonement for the sins of humanity on the cross, so that those who believe in Him will receive salvation.

By salvation I mean (a) having communion with God, and (b) receiving eternal life rather than eternal damnation.

When I first began my critical reflection, my defense of E ran somewhat like this:
1. I had powerful experiences of God after believing in Jesus. (A subject for another post.)
2. Having an experience of God entails (is dependant on) having received salvation.
3. Therefore I received salvation after believing in Jesus.

4. E entails that those who believe in Jesus will receive salvation.
5. Therefore E is correct.

There are several problems with this logic, however. First, premise 2 is based on E4 and E5, but these premises are themselves based on premise 5, which they are being used to prove. E4 and E5 would need to be supported on other grounds. Perhaps with some imagination I could reword the premises in such a way that would be logically sound. But this is not my primary concern with the syllogism.

A more critical error is that Premise 5 does not follow from 3 and 4. It is a fallacy that follows the form A entails B; B; Therefore A. For example, “Someone who has an M.Div. degree has necessarily taken at least one theology class; I have taken a theology class; therefore I have my M.Div.”
One possible way to avoid this fallacy is to change it to an argument of inference to best explanation:

5*. Based on Premise 4, E provides the best explanation for Premise 3.

But it is not at all clear that E is the best explanation. Many people in contrary religions have also had experiences of God. At the very least we would need comparisons with the explanations offered by other religions. Perhaps this is best way to proceed, but it requires significantly more knowledge than I currently have (or am particularly excited about taking the time to acquire). Instead, let me propose an alternate theological system that I shall call Soteriologically Pluralistic theology (SP), which is essentially Deism without the anti-supernatural bias. SP is based on the following premises:

SP1. God exists.
SP2. God has interacted, and continues to interact, with various people at various times (i.e. through prophecy, miracles, etc.)
SP3. Individual eschatological salvation (receiving eternal life rather than eternal damnation) is available through a plurality of religions.

SP is not pluralism in the sense that it entails that the major world religions are equally correct. Rather, it is pluralistic in the sense that salvation is not limited to a particular religion. Put simplistically, SP is the idea that God is more concerned with our deeds than our creeds.

Taking account of SP, my revised defense of E looks somewhat like this:

3. I received salvation after believing in Jesus.
4'. Belief in Jesus is a religion (namely, Christianity).
5'. Therefore I received salvation through a religion.

6'. SP entails that salvation is available through a plurality of religions.
7'. Based on Premise 6' and Premise 4, SP and E provide equal explanatory power for Premise 3.

I began looking for another defense of my faith. Christian apologetics seem to place a large focus on proving the Premise, God exists, but the connection from theism to Christianity rests entirely on the Resurrection. This argument runs as so:

R1. Jesus rose from the dead.
R2. If Jesus rose from the dead then E is correct.
R3. Therefore E is correct.

R1 was easy to accept when I thought my argument from experience confirmed E. When I am trying to use R1 to establish E, suddenly the arguments seem significantly weaker. It is easy to believe in the resurrection if I already have good reasons for being an evangelical, but when those reasons start to break down, the resurrection seems much less plausible. It is definitely not plausible enough to become a foundation for soteriological exclusivism! And even if we accept R1, I’m not entirely convinced of R2.

In contrast, SP has several factors that make it epistemically preferable to E. It accounts for positive aspects of other world religions in a way that is difficult for E. It avoids the problem of declaring large swaths of humanity (especially those who have never heard, or those who lived before the time of Christ) to be eternally damned. Finally, it has the support of some strands of Biblical narrative, such as Melchizadek and the Magi.

Again, I ask for your comments. I am not very happy with what I have written here yet, but it’s good enough for the blogsphere.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Exclusivism and Pluralism

There have traditionally been three ways that theologians have attempted to deal with differences between religions, which I will try to briefly summarize.
1. Exclusivists, or more accurately called particularists, believe all other world religions but their own are wrong. (Most particularists would not exclude other denominations within their own religion. This is perhaps self-intuitive, but many Roman Catholics I have talked with refer to other Christian churches such as Baptists or Presbyterians as different religions.)
2. Inclusivists believe their own religion is ultimately true, but other world religions contain elements of truth that are ultimately compatible with their own. Examples would include the Roman Catholic conception of “anonymous Christians” among other religions, or Hindus who accept Christians as constituting another caste within Hinduism.
3. Pluralists believe that all religions are equally true. The main proponent of religious pluralism is John Hick, who argues that The Real (which is more-or-less synonymous with “God”) is ineffable, or unable to be described. As each world religion attempts to describe the Real, they inevitably describe It/Him in culturally relative terms. Therefore no religion (or at least no “nice” religion) can make a claim to exclusive truth; they are all equally true.

The more I think about these categories, the more I think they are not really getting at the heart of the issues I think are important. Though I am aware that some argue that any truth claim is oppressive, most people I have talked with seem to have no problems with truth claims in themselves. It seems obvious to me that truth claims made by proponents of various religions are at least theoretically testable, even if we don’t have any ways to test them in real life. The real issue, as far as I see it, is soteriology: who will be “saved?” I suggest making a distinction between theological exclusivism and soteriological exclusivism. Then the categories would be redefined as such:

1A. Theological exclusivists claim that their own theology is correct and contradictory claims are false. In other words, they believe Aristotle’s law of non-contradiction must extend into the realm of religious beliefs. (I include anyone making a religious truth claim in this category, not just those who affirm the existence of God. I’m not sure what word to use that would mean what I mean by theology and still encompass atheistic Eastern religions.)
2A. Theological pluralists claim that all theologies are equally correct. At the popular level, this is the belief that “what’s true for you may not be true for me.” But when I talk to people who claim to hold this view, they typically retreat to a position of theological agnostic pragmatism: since we can’t really know what is true about God, what is important is what helps you in your personal life.

1B. Soteriological exclusivists claim that there is no salvation outside of their own religion. For many, the obvious and loathsome conclusion of this position is that large swaths of humanity will be damned eternally to hell.
2B. Soteriological pluralists claim that salvation can be found in a plurality of religions.

This is where I disagree with the position of my M.Div. advisor, Harold Netland. In Encountering Religious Pluralism, he singles out two forms “pseudopluralism”: the Hinduism of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, and the Buddhism of the Dalai Lama (213-218). Both systems appear to be pluraslistic, he argues, but on closer inspection they are really just forms of inclusivism. Now I will freely admit that I am not terribly familiar with either of these systems so I may well be misrepresenting them. But it seems that the attractiveness of them lies precisely in their soteriological pluralism, not in any form of theological pluralism. They are not claiming you will go to hell if you disagree with them.

The problem many of my friends have with Evangelical Christianity, I would suggest, is not its claim to theological exclusivism. It is rather in the fact that traditional evangelical theology includes a harsh pronouncement of soteriological exclusivism. I am not convinced that our faith has a strong enough epistemic foundation to make such bold exclusivist claims. I think what people find offensive is not when we claim “Jesus is Lord,” but when we claim “if you don’t believe the gospel you will go to hell.” To conflate the two forms of exlusivism and then defend theological exclusivism seems to me a rhetorical sleight-of-hand which does not really address the issues my non-Christian friends typically have.
I don’t know that all this really makes sense like I want it to, but I think it’s good enough for blogging. I would appreciate any feedback you would like to give. Thanks!