The Nature of Knowing

As a part of a reading assignment for my Theological Confessions class I have been going through Lesslie Newbigin’s The Gospel In A Pluralist Society. There are a number of reflections that have been pertinent thus far:

  • Everyone has presuppositions that are accepted a-critically. Newbigin critiques modernism’s claim that science reveals “facts” while religions are aimed at communicating “beliefs.” This dichotomy between “facts” and “beliefs” is false. Facts are facts based on the theory that one brings to the table. All knowledge begins with an act of faith.
  • This begs the question “What are the assumptions of modern science?” Two things are taken for granted in the modern scientific worldview: 1) The universe is rational and 2) The universe is contingent. In other words, “the scientist starts with the conviction that the world is rational and that events at different times and places in the natural world can be related to one another in a coherent way. Without this conviction, which is a matter of faith, he could not begin his work” (94).
  • If reality is essentially what you make of it based on your specific tradition of rational discourse then does complete relativism not inevitably follow? Newbigin’s response to this question is heavily dependent on the work of Alisdair MacIntyre in his Whose Justice, Which Rationality? First, despite the fact that reality can only be understood within a particular tradition, the tradition itself is not ultimate. It is not uncommon for someone to leave a tradition for a rival tradition in light of new experiences. Traditions can be compared, then, in respect of their adequacy to enable human beings to know and cope with their experience of reality. Secondly, if the relativist claims that truth cannot be known since all reasoning is embodied in a particular social context, one must ask for the basis on which this claim is made. The claim that reality is unknowable is itself a statement about reality.

The most troubling thing about Newbigin’s reflections on the nature of knowing is that they have caused me to realize how much of a sucker I am for the modern scientific worldview. For too long have I bought the lie that we have access to a pure, objective reality by means of the scientific method. For too long have I allowed the presuppositions of modernism to be left unchallenged. For too long have I taken an a-critical approach to the assumptions of the modernist agenda.

Woe is me.

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

With the close of the semester I’ve been able to find more time to do things that are fun…like read. I’m currently in the middle of J. Richard Middleton and Brian Walsh’s Truth Is Stranger Than It Used To Be: Biblical Faith in A Postmodern Age. It’s been a great read so far. Here are some thoughts:

Middleton and Walsh quote Jean-Francois Lyotard’s famous statement in order to define postmodernity: “…incredulity towards all metanarratives.” Essentially, this has come in response to modernism’s grand narrative of progress which has basically turned out to be bankrupt and nothing more than  a cheap power grab by those who propagate the story. Anyone who has not adhered to the grand narrative of modernism has found themselves on the margins and often in places of oppression. For example, the Native Americans could be viewed as victims of the of modern story of Manifest Destiny and expansion. Because they do not adhere to the story, they are demonized and oppressed. They are, according to the myth of modernism, the enemy for the simple reason that they don’t fit into or are found opposing the overall thrust of the narrative. Women could be placed in the same category. Ultimately they are victims of a story that has historically favored men.

The response of postmodernism is, I would say, twofold. First, it attempts to give voice to the other. The rise of feminism makes sense in light of the postmodern critique of modernism’s suppression of female voices. Secondly, it opposes any story or myth that is universal in scope because, according to the postmodern critique, totalizing or universal stories will always become oppressive towards those who do not adhere to the story. The problem is that as humans we lack the ability to properly navigate life without some sort of overarching narrative: “Right and wrong can…only be discerned from within a particular tradition. Ethical action is dependent on indwelling a socially embodied narrative, on membership in a concrete community oriented to a distinctive perspective, heritage and vision of life” (Middleton and Walsh 68). In short, we all tell a story in order to know how to function. We can’t know how to act before discerning which story we fit into. Due to this reality, postmodernity would typically have us favor local, less universal or totalizing narratives in order to avoid the oppression that usually results from grand stories.

The problem is, as Middleton and Walsh rightly point out, that local narratives have the ability to lead to just as much oppression and violence as metanarratives do. Incidents of tribal violence in places like Rwanda in the 90s or even the constant struggle between Israel and Palestine could be cited as examples.

Thus, it seems that narratives, whether local or universal, are not the problem. Indeed, even if it were the problem it would be impossible to avoid the telling of some sort of story. We must discern, then, which metanarratives are inherently violent and which, on the other hand, subvert the human tendency towards violence and oppression. It is Middleton and Walsh’s contention that the Biblical metanarrative is not inherently violent despite the violence that it has caused in the past. Their reading of the Scriptural narrative undermines any attempt to legitimate oppression or demonization of the other.

Discussion of their reading of the Scriptural narrative will have to wait for another post. Until then, think about the story that you tell about the world.  Who are we as a people? Where are we? What’s the problem? What’s the solution to this problem?

Narratival neutrality is impossible. In other words, we all tell a story. What is yours? Continue reading