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Friday, May 17, 2013

A New Faith Paradigm -- Part VI

After a five-month break, finally, I'm back . . .

Sixth in a series inspired by Kenton L. Sparks’ Sacred Word, Broken Word: Biblical Authority & the Dark Side of Scripture.

First post here.


Sparks' Chapter 8, "Christian Epistemology: Broken Readers of Sacred Scripture," was, perhaps, for me, the most important and gratifying in the entire book.

Funny: I wrote a couple of papers about epistemology back when I was in high school. This stuff mattered to me. And it still matters. What do we know and how do we know it? Do we really know what we say we know?

At the time--and, honestly, since then--I never acquired the kind of vocabulary (much less gained familiarity with the concepts) that Sparks discusses. But as I read his chapter, I sensed he offered the most honest and humble--not to mention realistic--account of epistemology I have ever heard of. I found myself nodding in agreement throughout Chapter 8. But it wasn't merely that I found something to agree with. It was my sense that Sparks was expressing, in a very brief, tightly-reasoned space, what I have been groping towards for years.

If someone can help me improve upon what Sparks has offered, I will be delighted. But at this point, I find deep satisfaction in his advocacy--and, now, my concurrent advocacy, following Sparks--of the view he espouses.

Sparks opens his chapter with the following question [emphases mine]:
If . . . Scripture . . . is an adequate and useful book written from fallible human perspectives and includes diverse and sometimes conflicting viewpoints on the same subjects--and if we ourselves, as readers of Scripture, are in turn fallible readers, how can we know when our interpretations of Scripture are correct? And how can we be certain that we have arrived at the proper theological conclusions?
Answer, according to Sparks: We can't.

BUT . . .

And that "but" is huge.

Sparks explains five different approaches to epistemology, five different perspectives on knowledge. And when you get to the end of his explanations, I believe he offers us reason to believe that, even if we can't be--as he puts it--infallibly, incorrigibly, indubitably certain of the things we claim to know or believe, we can still be confident enough in what we know or believe to move forward--in life and in faith.

Five Different Perspectives on Knowledge

Tacit or “Simple” Realism

Basic perspective: Unstated, unexamined epistemology. As Sparks expresses it: this is where we start when we are infants. "All of us tacitly and unreflectively assume we have the capacity to know the world around us as it really is." (p. 74)

Reflective Realism

Basic perspective: "[H]uman perception and tradition provide a generally trustworthy understanding of reality. . . . [W]e should think critically about our grasp of reality." (p. 74; italics added)

Modern Realism

Basic perspective:
  • "[W]e can only know ‘the truth’ when we overcome human tradition by ‘rising above it,’ so to speak, in order to see the world ‘as it actually is.’" (p. 75)
  • "[B]y carefully interrogating and setting aside tradition, we can achieve an infallible, incorrigible, and indubitable grasp of the truth. . . . [O]n those points where we are very careful, we simply cannot be wrong." (pp. 75-76)
Sparks notes that "Modern Realism is still alive and well on the contemporary epistemic scene. It is especially prominent in everyday life and in some quarters of Christian Fundamentalism. . . . Paradoxically, the necessity for this theological move was engendered by Modernism itself, whose quest for indubitable, incorrigible certainty was adopted by Fundamentalists as the only appropriate basis" for confidence in the Gospel and/or assurance of salvation. (p. 76)

Postmodern Anti-Realism

Basic perspective:
  • “[K]nowledge only counts if you can demonstrate that it is incorrigibly certain.” (p. 78)
  • “[T]radition inevitably shapes us and . . . also blinds us to the truth. [Therefore,] it follows that human beings simply do not know the truth: we do not know reality as it is. What we mistakenly embrace as ‘reality’ is nothing other than invention." (p. 77)
  • "[W]e cannot overcome tradition and hence we cannot see 'reality.'" (p. 78)

Postmodern Practical Realism

Basic perspective:
  • "[W]e need not prove that we are right in order to have genuine knowledge. This is why young children . . . can have knowledge without proving it to themselves or others." (p. 79)
  • Cultural traditions do not necessarily--nor most of the time or primarily--blind us to the truth; rather, traditions are "right about the world (generally speaking) because, by [their] nature, tradition[s are] the product of humanity's successful engagement with a real world and real people." (p. 79; italics in the original)
  • Despite its generally positive outlook on tradition, Practical Realism believes that we ought to be "suspicious of tradition, since tradition is always warped and always wrong in some ways or others. . . . [T]his goes double for something like theology, where our goal is to describe God and his dealings with humanity." (p. 79)
  • "[T]radition can provide a useful and adequate grasp on . . . reality. The grasp is not on a toggle switch that is either right or wrong. Rather, it lies on a continuum between better and poor: it can be very good or very bad, . . . some cultural traditions [can] be 'better' or 'healthier' than others, . . . but [none will be] perfect." (p. 79)
  • Despite its imperfections, "[i]n the best cases, human knowledge is wholly adequate for the needs of our situation." (p. 79; italics in the original)
How is this possible?
  • "Practical Realism accounts for interpretive success in terms of analogy and metaphor." (p. 79) Thus, "in a satisfying conversation with a friend about my feelings and thoughts, the result will not be that my friend has at any point actually understood my thoughts and feelings as I understand them. Rather, my friends understanding will be similar or analogous to what I have tried to express, so that I feel understood in some way or other. . . . [M]y friend undoubtedly errs in some ways as he tries to understand me, and, make the issues clear, I will undoubtedly err in understanding myself." (pp. 79-80; italics in the original)
I don't know if this is why I was particularly drawn to Sparks' perspective, but knowing my own manner of thinking, in which I consistently look for analogies to explain what I am thinking, and having long believed that analogies are the best way to explain a subject, I imagine it is understandable why I so strongly embraced Sparks' comments about conversing with his friend.
And as for his last point, about erring even in understanding himself, I cannot help but give a hearty Amen: “Yes! That’s correct. I often don’t understand myself. I try to understand myself. I often interrogate myself. But, at root, I know I fail. I cannot fully, completely, ‘incorrigibly and indubitably’ determine my own motives. Or, to quote Jeremiah, ‘The heart is deceitful and desperately wicked; who can understand it?’ (Jeremiah 17:9) But that doesn’t mean I need to despair of ever understanding myself to a significant degree. . . .”

"In the final analysis," Sparks concludes, "the fundamental differences among Modernism, Anti-realism, and Practical Realism can be expressed with the commonly used metaphor of ‘capital T' versus 'small t' truth. Modernists believed that human beings can attain the 'Truth,' Antirealists maintain that 'Truth' does not exist, and Practical Realists believe that 'the Truth,' though it exists, is accessible to human beings only by analogies that yield partial, useful, 'small t' truths." (p. 81)

Sparks has several other insights that I found useful in this chapter.
  • "Practical Realism does believe that there are such things as 'right' and 'wrong,' 'correct' and 'incorrect,' 'certainty' and 'uncertainty,' 'knowledge' and 'ignorance.' But these words have different nuances for Practical Realists them for Modern Realists. 'Knowledge' means that we have an understanding of the world that is analogous to, but not identical with, the realities that we seek to understand. 'Correct' means that our judgment yields practical success rather than precise and perfect understanding. As for 'certainty,' Practical Realists regard this as the perception that 'We must be right.' The trick is that, while this perception is absolutely essential for our everyday hermeneutical engagements and generally serves us well in the practical sense, in the final analysis it does not yield capital T 'Truth' or guarantee that we are right. We can be both quite certain and quite wrong. . . ." (p. 82)
  • "Shared beliefs and opinions are actually adjacent overlapping concepts and perceptions." They are not identical. They cannot be identical.

    Sparks avoids going into great detail about the idea, but I think most of us can understand that no two human beings think exactly the same way. We have different experiences, different emotional predilections, different personalities; a taste or smell or color that excites one of us will create a negative response in another. (These observations are mine. However, I have no doubt Sparks would agree with my observations.)

    As a result of these differences in perspective and the way we think:
    Real differences are . . . inevitable and lead inexorably to the internal conflicts and disagreements that arise in human institutions and traditions. . . . [T]hese cultural limits are true, not only of me and you, but also of those who wrote the Bible. A case in point appears in 1 Cor 11:14-15, where the Apostle Paul incorrectly assumes that 'nature itself' proves that men should have short hair and women long hair. He did not realize that this inference was drawn through a cultural lens rather than incorrectly from the natural order. Errors of this sort are in direct to human judgment. Try as we may, we simply cannot avoid them. (pp. 84-85)
  • "If Practical Realism is a good description of how human beings actually conduct our lives, then we can anticipate that its basic contours are implied in many sources and places, including in biblical thought. And this is indeed the case. The Bible is introduced by an epistemic commentary. I refer to the Fall of humanity in Genesis. . . . Whatever insight the first couple gained from [their] pursuit [of knowledge] ( . . . 'knowing good and evil'), the result was not suited to them, nor did it entail all divine knowledge. So as we begin to read Scripture, it immediately steers us away from the idea that human beings can or should see the world as God sees it.

    "The author of the book of Job provides a fuller explication of this principle by deftly sketching out the profound contrast between divine and human knowledge. . . . As the story unfolds we learn that Job's theology is 'right' and that his friends were 'wrong.' . . . But the author's epistemic point runs much deeper, I think. For it is quite clear that Job was right only in comparison with his friends. . . .

    "We would more precisely say that Job and his friends were partly right and partly wrong, but in a way that made Job’s partial understanding of human suffering more complete and healthy and that of his friends. But in the end even Job repented, for in this biblical story about epistemology, only God gets everything right. . . ."


    "At best we find ourselves in Job's epistemic position. That is, perhaps we have a better understanding of things than someone else, but we never have it spot-on and, if pressed, must repent in dust and ashes. This is Christian Practical Realism in a nut shell: God has it perfectly right, while human beings are partially right and partially wrong, but in a way that admits some human perspectives are better or more adequate than others. . . . " (pp. 86-87)
  • "Scripture is beautiful and broken, and it is being read and studied in the church, and sometimes outside of the church, by beautiful and broken human beings. Nevertheless, Christians have theological and philosophical reasons to suppose that, when we read Scripture well, we are able to understand it. And as we understand it, we shall find that God's truth and beauty run deeper, and are more potent, than the brokenness that God is healing." (p. 88)
I would like to bring my commentary and observations about Sparks' book to a close at this point. However, before I sign off, I want to make two observations.
  • First, I sense I have hardly done Sparks justice by stopping at this point. It is in the chapters that follow this one that he explains the practical implications of the foundational work he has done in the first eight chapters.

    In Chapter 9, for example, he addresses the issue of the perspicuity of Scripture. (Is the Bible really understandable to anyone but a scholar?) –If you have paid attention to this post so far, I expect you ought to be able to make a reasonable and fair guess at Sparks' answer. Extremely oversimplified: Yes, it is understandable. But the less educated and less thoughtful one's reading, the more likely one is going to understand it less well. Similarly, of course, the scholar who approaches the Word with "all brains" and "no heart" is going to do a far less creditable job of interpreting the Bible than will he or she who reads it with both heart and mind (not to mention training and experience!)!

    Chapters 10 to 12 address the difficult fundamental questions that any honest evangelical or fundamentalist Christian must ask if we grant Sparks his thesis. In other words, if his thesis is correct and "Scripture speaks the truth through perceptive yet warped human horizons," and if the Bible is, as Sparks claims, "a diverse and broken book," then "how can we use it to weave a useful and coherent understanding of God and of his relationship with us? How can the Bible . . . serve as a primary source of our theological insight?”

    Then there is Chapter 13: "Validity and Biblical Interpretation" . . . in which Sparks demonstrates how we can use the insights of a Practical Realist epistemology in order to properly interpret Scripture in all its multi-voiced wisdom and beauty.

    And then, finally, a brief, not-quite-two-page afterword, "Final Thoughts."

    Sorry! I'm saying no more about the book's content. Read the book.
  • Before I completely leave this book, however, I wanted to comment a little about a matter--perhaps the matter--that has held me back from posting until this time.

    As I think about this new perspective on the Bible, and, especially, as I think about the way in which Sparks speaks of Practical Realism as the most--what I am calling--honest epistemology, I am bothered by the following thought. I am disturbed by the thought that, if we "buy" these views, we will not--I will not--follow in the footsteps of our "elder brothers and sisters" in the faith. Specifically, if this is how I believe (or, perhaps, rather, how I disbelieve), doesn't that mean I will not be willing to give my life for the Lord? Won't I be unwilling to become a martyr, if called upon to do so? Or, even--far short of giving up my life--doesn't it mean I will make few if any sacrifices for the faith--my faith? Doesn't it mean I will not (as I have found, already, I do not) boldly, "in season and out," seek opportunities to "share my faith" as I once did?

    And these thoughts bother me for numerous reasons.

    1) Because Jesus said, "He who is not willing to give up his life for my sake, will lose it" (Mt. 16:25). "For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels" (Mark 8:38).

    2) Because I used to be willing to knock on people's doors (when I was a minister of evangelism). I used to be quite bold. But now--for the last many years--I have found myself quite reticent to initiate conversations with non-believers about Jesus. (I am happy to discuss just about anything at any time if the subject is out on the floor for discussion. But I can't remember the last time I actually initiated a conversation with a non-believer about sin or salvation or new life in Jesus.)

    3) Because I find myself, more and more, "simply" less sure of myself, of my interpretations, and/or of my opinions than I used to be. --And isn't my attitude, my reticence, my lack of conviction, obviously different from people like St. Paul and St. John who could (and did) say things like, "we know that God, in his justice, will punish anyone who does such things" (Rom. 2:2); "we know how dearly God loves us" (Rom. 5:5); "we know we will . . . live with [Christ]" (Rom. 6:8); "we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose" (Rom. 8:28); "we know that when this earthly tent we live in is taken down (that is, when we die and leave this earthly body), we will have a house in heaven, an eternal body" (2 Cor. 5:1); "we know he hears us when we make our requests, we also know that he will give us what we ask for" (1 John 5:15); etc.

    The question that has been haunting me: Aren't all of these things partially a result of my faith having been shaken, my loss of stalwart assurance that I can understand the Bible and be absolutely sure of the capital-T TRUTH?

    . . . I have been meditating on this question--these questions--for weeks . . . maybe even months.

    So, I ask myself--and I place it before you now, publicly: Am I risking a greater loss of faith, a further erosion of confidence, by adopting a Practical Realist epistemology?

    My conclusion: No. Because the Practical Realist epistemology is, ultimately, the epistemology I have held as my own for as long back as I can remember. I couldn't have named my epistemology. I couldn't have summarized it as Sparks has. But, even during all those years I have been pursuing the Modern Realist epistemology of my spiritual forebears, the fact was, it was a pursuit. It was a hope, a dream. It was a desired conviction. A "faith statement" I was taught I had to hold if I was to hold onto my faith.

    But the truth is, I believe, that during all that time, I kept finding myself wondering in the back of my mind: "How does this work? Is this true? Has ________ [whoever the latest-and-greatest teacher was] really mastered [this particular text . . . let alone the whole counsel of God]?"

    And I realize that, although I am not likely to be the very first man to run out and get himself killed for the cause of Christ, if and when push comes to shove, by God's grace, I intend to stand for my convictions. And even though I am not likely to do any more knocking on neighbors' doors the way I once did, I do seek to speak carefully and thoughtfully and with consistent integrity of conviction if and when the opportunity arises (according to my best understanding of what an opportunity looks like). My "preaching," as it were, has changed, but it isn't as if I no longer (or will no longer) "preach."

    Finally, while I find myself far less sure of myself--or of my companions (or, should I say, of my companions' statements of faith and/or conviction)--than I once was (or, at least, than I once was willing to permit myself to believe or pretend to believe): I am not convinced it is a bad thing to admit, forthrightly: "I see your point. I understand the evidence you have garnered for your view. But I see there is evidence that points in a different direction as well."

    And so--as I was meditating just yesterday--I am thrown back on a statement of conviction first expressed by St. Paul and subsequently made into the centerpiece of one of the hymns of my youth: "I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep that which I have committed to Him against [i.e., until] that day."

    Ultimately, I say to myself, that is the bedrock of my faith.

    I find myself shaking and questioning. "Is that really You, God? Did You really say that? I mean, did you say what I think You said? Have I understood? Or . . . ????"

    And I believe that is an okay place to be. Indeed, it is probably a better place, a more open and honest and useful place than if I were to speak with undoubted conviction: "Yep! I heard Him! I know what He said! I've got that one covered. . . ."