Briefly Noted: Note to a College Freshman

[Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on October 28, 2013.]

As we mentioned recently on BtT, I stumbled upon Henry Stob’s Theological Reflections while browsing the “used books” selection at a bookstore. Which, in case you wondered, is one of the reasons why I consider used bookstores one of the great delights of the modern world. (Thank you for having been about to wonder.)  One never knows what sorts of epistolary treasures might be found if one takes a few minutes to browse.

But to the point: Theological Reflections includes an essay which Stob entitled, “Note to a College Freshman” and which I think is worth noting briefly.[1] Stob, a former professor at Calvin College, encourages college freshmen to make the most of their college experience by transcending certain reductionist or otherwise misguided views of college education.

He begins by addressing the college freshmen. “You have come to college and you have taken a mind with you. . . . Mind is intellect, will, and feeling fused into one. Mind is what you are on the deeper level of your being. It is the spiritual measure and size of you, the conscious center and core of you.” (229) A freshman’s mind is more than the sum total of his thoughts. Further, Stob the college freshman is responsible and accountable for his mind. “The mind that is in you as you enter college is the product of many historical forces and influences. . . .This means that you have been an agent in the making of the mind you have. For its present set and temper you must, in consequence, accept the responsibility. And you must accept the same responsibility for its future form and texture.” (229)

Continue reading…

Briefly Noted: On Rowan Williams, Christianity, and the Public Square

Things have gone badly enough lately for Archbishop Rowan Williams that he might want to wear his mitre sideways (as a rally cap). Or so say the commentators, who blame Williams for the Church of England’s failure recently to approve female bishops.  During times like this, when the church’s stance on an issue conflicts with the broader society, television commentators and political pundits bloviate endlessly about how Christians should not bring their religious beliefs into public discussion.

Such bloviations are precisely the target of Rowan Williams’ recent book—Faith in the Public Square—which Roger Trigg reviews in a recent edition of The Times Literary Supplement (Nov 30, 2012). Williams’ book is an intriguing collection of lectures given to various audiences, some of which were religious, some of which were not. The thread tying those lectures together is the issue of religious faith and public discourse.

In the Western world, one set of voices say that religion is an entirely private endeavor. It should be kept in the closet and not brought out when company is present. “One solution to all this,” writes Trigg, “is that religion be seen as a private pursuit, and the result of individual choice. It should not attempt to engage in public, reasoned debate, let alone suggest it has any reason on its side.”

Williams, however, is not among those voices. Although Williams does envision a secular society, he envisions one in which religious adherents come to the public square with the full wealth of their religious conviction. “Williams,” writes Trigg, “distinguishes between what he terms a ‘procedural’ secularism, of which he seems to approve, and a ‘programmatic’ secularism of which he does not. Procedural secularism, he says, as a characteristic of the public domain, means that there is no legal privilege for any specific religious position, but does not imply that such positions are simply private convictions. He fervently argues for the right of ‘larger commitments and visions’ to contribute to the public debate and provide much-needed moral energy.” Williams’ ‘procedural secularism’ allows for a sort of interactive pluralism in which various communities of discourse (religious or non-religious) interact between themselves, and between them and the government. His secularism works precisely because it does not illegitimize religious voices in political debate.

By way of response, I’ll note that Williams’ book speaks to two discussions which are very significant for Christians living in the 21st century USA: (1) religious language and argumentation in the public square, and (2) the failure of a majority “Christian” nation to build a society that reflects their vision for the common good.

In relation to the first discussion, we should note three models for interaction in the public square. The first model is John Rawls’ naked public square. Rawls argues that we should decide political matters from behind a “veil of ignorance.” He argues against “thick” theories of the good, which would utilize religious, moral, and philosophical arguments in the public square. Rawls wants people to set aside their most deeply ingressed beliefs when arguing for the public good.

Rawls’ model fails, however, because (1) it is not possible to set aside our most deeply ingressed beliefs; (2) Rawls evidences this by holding deeply and religiously to his most ingressed belief, which is democratic liberalism. Indeed, no voice—especially not that of the atheist—is stripped naked of religious belief. All people, including atheists, have deeply held presuppositions or faith commitments and therefore all people, including atheists, are worshipers; (3) this model tends to muffle or stifle appeals to any authority other than the state; in so doing, it robs religious believers of the very religious convictions that allow them to hold the state in check when the state becomes tyrannical; and (4) this models “shuts up” the various religions and in so doing allows all of them—both good and bad—to lurk beneath the surface unchallenged by public discussion and debate.

A second model is provided by Richard John Neuhaus, who argued that “naked squares” are not possible. We are always and necessarily making arguments that are “thick” in nature. We come to the public square wearing our ideological clothing. We cannot sever our public selves from our private selves. For this reason, we should come to the public square wearing our ideological clothing, and work for the common good by working for public consensus. Christians have motivation to do so because we believe that Christianity, by its very nature, fosters the common good.

A third model is provided by Lesslie Newbigin, who is more similar to Neuhaus than to Rawls. Newbigin agrees with Neuhaus that naked squares are not possible, but unlike Neuhaus does not think that we should seek public consensus. He argues that we should endorse public pluralism. Newbigin’s context was different from Neuhaus’, in that he was primarily interested in situations in which Christianity is a minority belief, and in which the Christian’s role in society is clearly and obviously one of a “missionary.”

With Neuhaus and Newbigin, we agree that the naked square option is an illusion and a failure. Instead, of coming to the public square “naked,” we may come fully clothed. In relation to Neuhaus’ and Newbigin’s disagreement concerning pluralism and consensus, I say that we should work for political consensus when possible, but recognize that we increasingly live in a post-Christian context where consensus will not be possible on many issues (in spite of the fact of a law written on the heart). Further, we should practice wisdom in deciding when to draw primarily upon general revelation to provide a compelling case on some matter of public significance (“thin” discourse), and when to draw more explicitly upon Christian Scripture and doctrine (“thick” discourse).

One more note: when God’s people buy into a “naked public square” model, in which they lay aside their distinctive beliefs during public discussion, they sometimes never pick back up those very beliefs. Political liberalism of the “naked square” sort often leads to theological liberalism  of the “naked sanctuary” sort. A Christian who goes to the public square naked tends to go the sanctuary naked also. When this happens, God’s church becomes little more than a useful weathervane, slavishly following in swan step the dominant social and cultural trends of the time, loyally echoing what society is saying rather than critiquing it.

Instead of forsaking her prophetic calling, therefore, God’s people need to come to the public square “fully clothed,” drawing upon the full wealth of conviction in order to contribute to the common good.

Doing Theology as a Servant of Jesus (14): Christian theology aims for truth.

In the past several decades, certain philosophers, literary theorists, and other intellectuals have put forth intellectual programs that are (more or less) relativist. While metaphysical relativists (there is no such thing as truth) are rare, epistemological relativists (we cannot know truth) are on tap in nearly any department on a given American university campus. The central problem with such relativism is obvious (and has been pointed out repeatedly)-the assertion of relativism is itself a purportedly true assertion. In other words, this assertion is self-referentially absurd (difficult to sneak this one past the epistemology police). If we’ve given up on knowing “truth,” we can’t deign to offer relativism as a “truth.” You can’t have it both ways (or, as my grandfather would say, “Let’s not go peeing down both legs”).

In light of the varying shades of relativism that can be found in our Western intellectual context, Christian theology’s claims to have truth (and even “Truth”) are often met with skepticism or even ridicule. Indeed, for many Westerners, this entire blog series lacks even minimal plausibility because the series has been written under the belief that Scripture is revelation from God which provides the true story of the whole world. As we noted, Christian theologians recognize Scripture, tradition, reason, experience, and culture as sources upon which they draw. They integrate the insights given by historical, biblical, philosophical, systematic, and practical theology in order to build an integrative theology which remains in conversation with philosophy, science, and other fields of knowledge. All of this is done in order to provide a unified and coherent account of the truth about God and the world. “The church’s affirmation,” writes Lesslie Newbigin, “is that the story it tells is the true interpretation of all human and cosmic history and that to understand history otherwise is to misunderstand it, therefore misunderstanding the human situation here and now. . . . From age to age, the church lives under the authority of the story that the Bible tells, interpreted ever anew to new generations and new cultures by the continued leading of the Holy Spirit who alone makes possible the confession that Jesus is Savior and Lord.”[1] But what does it mean to say that something is “true”?

Some philosophers set forth a coherence theory of truth.[2] Under this theory, any coherent system of belief counts as a “true” system of belief. Any belief that coheres with the rest of one’s beliefs counts as “true.” The problem with this theory is that one can construct a coherent set of beliefs that has no connection with reality. While the logical coherence of a belief system is a factor one takes into account when judging whether or not such a belief system is true, coherence is not itself constitutive of truth. Other philosophers set forth a pragmatist theory of truth.[3] Under this theory, whichever beliefs prove to be invaluable instruments of action can be counted as true. However, not all true propositions are immediately useful and not all useful propositions are true. Adolf Hitler’s belief system proved to be a valuable instrument of action for him and for Germany’s economy, but his belief system was built upon deeply inhumane falsehoods. While the pragmatic value of a belief system is a factor one takes into account when judging whether or not such a belief system is true, pragmatism is not itself constitutive of truth. In contrast to these theories, Christian theologians traditionally have espoused a correspondence theory of truth. In this view, truth is what corresponds with reality. Truth is independent of the human mind. Even if the human mind cannot recognize a particular truth, the truth of a matter still stands. This view of truth is pre-theoretic and intuitive, rooted in the human experience. We believe this view tallies with the biblical testimony, which teaches that God is truth and that God speaks truth (e.g., John 14:6).

Related to the question of truth is the question of knowledge (epistemology). Can human knowers access objective reality? Some philosophers have espoused naïve realism. In this view, it is assumed that the human knower can directly access objective reality. Naïve realism is called by this name because it naïvely overlooks the obstacles to knowing truth, obstacles such as human idolatry, and the historical and cultural location of the human knower. Other philosophers have held to epistemological nonrealism. In this view, it is assumed that the human knower does not have access to objective reality. In contrast to these two views, we believe that Christian theology best fits with a view known as critical realism.[4] In this view, human knowers are constrained by the limitations of our rational and empirical faculties and by the historical and cultural locatedness of our attempts to gain knowledge. But Christian theologians recognize a further reason that human knowers are limited and fallible: the distortive, corrosive, and ultimately subversive effect of human sin on the mind’s ability to know. In other words, sin has epistemological consequences. While God’s knowledge of reality is comprehensive, therefore, our human knowledge of reality is partial, inadequate, and dependent upon God. N. T. Wright puts it well when he writes that critical realism “acknowledges the reality of the thing known, as something other than the knower (hence, ‘realism’), while also fully acknowledging that the only access we have to this reality lies along the spiraling path of appropriate dialogue or conversation between the knower or the thing known (hence, ‘critical’).”[5] We believe that a critically realist theological method is necessary in order to take full account of the biblical testimony concerning truth and knowledge. What humans can know and say about God is not comprehensive, but it is true, trustworthy, and sufficient for faithful living.[6]

[1] Newbigin, Proper Confidence, 77-78.

[2] Brand Blanshard, “Coherence as the Nature of Truth,” in The Nature of Thought, 2 vols. (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1948), 2:264-269.

[3] William James, Pragmatism (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University, 1975).

[4] Some of the foremost theological proponents of critical realism are David K. Clark, Lesslie Newbigin, and N. T. Wright. See Clark, To Know and Love God; Lesslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995); N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 47-64.

[5] N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 35.

[6] This way of putting it is a slight modification of Spykman, Reformational Theology, 74.