Profitable Discourse

The Pursuit of Theological Clarity

INTRODUCING RECONSTRUCT—A THEOLOGICAL PODCAST

     More Christians than ever are growing suspicious of the faith with which they were brought up; they are deeply questioning everything they once held as true. Moreover, those who are more or less free from doubt nevertheless find themselves living in a world of ever-increasing theological complexity and obscurity. And with good reason, for on one side, countless churches and leaders have fallen into oblivion and left people destitute, and on the other side, secular thought and challenges have seemingly torn holes in the supposedly unified fabric of ordinary Christian faith. As a result, Christians have radically deconstructed their faith, wrestling with questions and convictions with fresh perspectives, but sometimes without a plan for putting the broken pieces back together.

     I can relate. I have and still am deconstructing my faith, I’ve had my foundations shaken to the core, I know that theology isn’t simple and that a faithful life isn’t easy. But God hasn’t abandoned me. I still seek to know him, and more, he still seeks to know me. That’s why my friend Dan Koch and I started the Reconstruct podcast—where we can share our theological and philosophical perspectives to help others find clarity in the midst of complexity, to find unity in the midst of disagreement, to find an emerging edifice in the midst of rubble. Head over and have a listen, I hope you enjoy.


     John Raines is a Master of Arts in Theology student at Fuller Theological Seminary, co-host of the podcast Reconstruct, and blogs at Profitable Discourse. He lives with his wife in Seattle, Washington.

CERTAINTY ISN'T PROUD & DOUBT ISN'T HUMBLE

THE DESIRE FOR HUMILITY

   There is a growing desire for a humble Christian attitude of proper self-assessment in which one refrains from pursuing certainty on theological issues. Many rightly argue that such certainty is often a product of pride, a result of a closed mind, and a hindrance to respecting any different perspective. The humility hoped to replace it is marked by an attitude wherein one admits they do not have everything figured out, where one no longer claims to be certain about their theological conclusions.

     The irony is that this desire often assumes what it denies: the speaker is certain of their conclusion and that they have gotten this right—and they are seldom open to reconsideration. Of course if the point is that Christians ought not make claims with certainty, then perhaps this one ought to be omitted as well. Or if they are supposed to admit that we cannot have figured out the truth regarding any theological issue, then perhaps they should refrain from claiming to have figured out the truth regarding this theological issue, namely, the proper attitude one must have before God and others. 

     Of course none of us are without sympathy for this point of view, and indeed agree that a proper Christian attitude ought to be marked by humility—but we must pay attention to the details. I say this not only to discover possible slips of logic, but also to reveal the wider implications of such a position. The irony that claims which denounce certainty do so certainly is one indication that this issue is more complex than we might first have thought. Indeed, the question seems to shift from “Ought we be certain or not?” to “About what ought we be certain?” and “How ought we express that certainty?”

CHARACTER & CONTENT

     If we are going to navigate through this complexity, we need to establish a differentiation between the quality of certainty and the method or expression of certainty. Or between the object of certainty and the actions of one who is certain. The same holds of one who is uncertain or open-minded. We need to individually identify both right statements or beliefs and the behavior of those who adhere to them. If so, this means we will most likely find that some right beliefs are held proudly, and that some wrong beliefs are held humbly. We cannot any longer conclude that those who hold to their beliefs with prideful certainty are wrong, or perhaps more dangerously, that those who hold to their beliefs with humility are right—this avoids the issue completely. The change ought to be primarily affected towards character rather than content. How ought one present their convictions? Or their skepticisms?

TRUTH & CONDUCT

     Imagine we have before us an aged gentleman whose life experiences have moved him into an ever-increasing position of equal respect for all religious traditions. Full of undeniable wisdom he tells us stories of learning empathy from devout Buddhists, of learning sacrifice from Christians, of learning respect from Muslims. He explains how his wisdom, knowledge, and character have been enhanced by the manifold riches of each individual from each religion he has encountered, and thus he reasons that we cannot really be certain about which one conveys the final truth. The safer, more humble, and more mature conclusion, he says, is that while each religion claims exclusivity of their own system or divinity of their own leader, one must come to see that they all equally, in their own way and with similar capacity, illuminate the truth of reality through their love and devotion. But imagine also with us the presence of a brilliant young woman who, though she is doubtless less experienced in life than the other, proclaims boldly the uniqueness of the risen Christ. She discounts the gentleman’s words with condescension, demonstrating at every point the weakness of his various conclusions, the irrelevance of his experience, the nonsense of his rampant pluralism. She casts off sympathy in exchange for designating absurdity; all in the precious name of Jesus. What is so obviously discomforting about this situation is the simultaneous, polarizing stances of admiration and revulsion we hold for both individuals at the same time and yet in opposite ways. How dare we dethrone the unfathomable God in Christ like the aged gentleman, and yet how dare we treat others with such heartless pride like the young woman? Who among us will concede that Christ is not distinctly divine, and who yet also would not look upon this gentleman's life and witness with admiration and submissive respect? And who among us would deny the uniqueness of Christ as the risen Lord who loves us beyond measure, and who yet also would not look upon this woman’s inclination with justified disgust? In the most counter-intuitive of ways, we are forced to declare the falsity of the former’s claims and the truth of the latter’s. But not in even a breath’s moment later would we exhibit our unflinching support of the former’s disposition and our unapologetic rebuke of the latter’s. This leads to a couple reflections.

First, though it is not readily apparent, both individuals actually maintain certainty. 

     The gentleman has concluded, from his experiences and reasoning, that knowledge is an unfolding journey rather than a still set of decided positions. He has concluded that each system of knowledge or belief is one equal perspective amongst all others of the truth to be found in the universe. But these are conclusions about which he is certain or to which he is committed, contrary to his own instruction, or else he would discount them. What I mean is that if he was not already uncritically committed to the belief that knowledge was an unfolding journey rather than a still set of decided positions, then he would toss that exact decided position out with all others. Or if he was not already uncritically committed to the belief that each system of knowledge is one perspective among many, then he would admit that his is just one perspective and thus would cease to pronounce on the whole. Though he feigns humble uncertainty and wise non-commitment, he is actually entirely certain and committed; only about different issues than those of the religious adherents. This is an extremely important point: certainty is unavoidable, for even doubting our capacity to attain certainty is only justified if we certainly confirm our doubts. In a similar way, commitment is unavoidable, for even asserting that we ought not commit ourselves to particular conclusions is itself a commitment to a particular conclusion. The desire for a Christianity without certainty and commitment, for a Christianity without some things having been figured out, is thus a vain pursuit. The question, again, is no longer “Ought we be certain or not?” but “How ought we be certain?” and “How ought we express that certainty?”

Second, we must distinguish between the objects of certainty or humility and the actions of one who is certain or humble. 

     We need to distinguish between objects and actions or qualities and expressions, but this needn’t lead to the conclusion that these two categories are unrelated, parallel realms. On the contrary they are very closely related, but nonetheless they are not identical. They each influence one another and flow from one another, for knowing is a moral stance, and it thus bears upon the knower to act in particular ways. For being certain about something will imply you ought to express that certainty in a particular manner.

     Therefore, it is entirely inconclusive to think that those who hold to their beliefs with certainty are wrong while those who hold to their beliefs with humility are right. Instead, we need a richer theology that confidently holds to truths while doing so with the utmost humility. We need a theology that contends both with those who claim to have it all figured out and with those who claim only to be on a fluid, open journey subject to exhaustive change at any point.

I’ve written an extended essay outlining this particular theological perspective available here.


     John Raines is a Master of Arts in Theology student at Fuller Theological Seminary, co-host of the podcast Reconstruct, and blogs at Profitable Discourse. He lives with his wife in Seattle, Washington.

JUDGING BELIEFS ON THE BASIS OF THEIR MORAL IMPACT

     The question of determining the truth or falsity of theological beliefs has a long and complex history, but one modern proposal has become increasingly more popular as of late. According to this proposal, theological beliefs ought to be judged on the basis of their moral impact. And this conviction lies upon a deeper philosophical assumption, namely, that the truth or falsity of beliefs is less important than the impact beliefs have on someone's life.

     Now I happen to be convinced that this proposal is deeply flawed, and I want to explain why, but first it’s important to understand the proposal better and to notice its obvious benefits. The philosophical assumption behind this proposal is essentially part of a pragmatist epistemology, which essentially means a theory of knowledge whose highest values are usefulness and utility. The primary argument is that one ought to be less concerned with the correctness of a belief and more concerned with the practical ramifications of a belief—and this is actually very helpful. It has the benefit of immediately eliminating the philosophical partition between theoria and praxis, between orthodoxy and orthopraxy, between beliefs and practices. Both ideas, values, and convictions on the one hand, and habits, actions, and practices on the other ought to be conjoined into a holistic vision of epistemology and ethics. 

     However, this is where the proposal’s problems begin. It ends up eliminating this partition not by bringing epistemology and ethics together, but by absorbing epistemology into ethics.Yet for many Christians, especially post-evangelicals, progressives, and liberals, who all rightly oppose fundamentalism and value intellectual humility, this seems almost automatically true. I'll admit it isn't too difficult to criticize some parts of rigorous theological traditions for all too often manifesting in platitudes instead of hard action. And if you've grown up in such a tradition, the path to the pragmatist framework can practically be traversed in a single step. That being said, allow me to share my concerns.

THE ARGUMENT 

     So this proposal on which we’re focussed claims that beliefs ought to be judged on the basis of their moral impact, which is to say that the impact a belief has on someone's life is more important than the belief itself. My argument is that this claim is self-referentially incoherent and circular.

     Essentially, to argue that this claim is self-referentially incoherent and circular is to argue that it fails on its own terms. This becomes clear once one realizes that this position, “that beliefs ought to be judged on the basis of their moral impact,” is itself a particular belief. So if the claim “all beliefs ought to be judged on the basis of their moral impact” is itself a belief, then it ought to be judged on the basis of its moral impact—but it can't be. See, actively believing only those beliefs which produce positive moral impact is one ordeal, but believing that those beliefs which produce positive moral impact are the correct beliefs is an entirely different ordeal. One is concerned with immediate moral pragmatism, the other with general truth. One can’t move to the latter from the former, one can only assume the latter to move forth into the former. At some point one has to provide some sort of justification for why the claim “all beliefs ought to be judged on the basis of their moral impact” is even worthwhile, and this is where the problem emerges. This is because if its justification is based on its moral impact, then the argument assumes its conclusion and thus engages in fallacious circular reasoning. But if its justification is based on its being true, then the argument’s very thesis itself is denied.

     Look at it like this. Let's say it’s false that the impact a belief has on someone's life is more important than the belief itself. If it's false, then we shouldn't believe it, we shouldn’t judge other beliefs accordingly, and we shouldn’t live accordingly. But let's alternatively say it's true that the impact a belief has on someone's life is more important than the belief itself. If it's true, then we should believe it, we should judge other beliefs accordingly, and we should live accordingly. But do you see the problem? If this is granted, then the primary motivation and justification of this very belief would stand in direct contradiction to its conclusion—namely, one would believe it not on the basis of its moral impact but on the basis of its truth. Yet to proceed from this foundation (beliefs are judged by their truth value) and then turn in the opposite direction (beliefs are judged by their moral impact) is like cutting off the wings of a jet plane while it’s still rushing down the runway—it'll never get off the ground. Therefore, this proposal seems to rest on the inescapable horns of a dilemma between circular reasoning and self-referential incoherency—and I don’t see a way out.

     Holding this argument in mind, I think the wisest way forward is to return to a process of judging beliefs on the basis of their truth or falsity rather than on the basis of their moral impact. But as I mentioned at the outset, this needn’t cause anyone to establish some sort of separation between epistemology and ethics, between beliefs and practices. On the contrary, we should accept the initial benefit of this pragmatic proposal and hold to a theory that gives balanced attention to beliefs and practices without absorbing one into the other. 

You can find my extended essay on this subject here.


     John Raines is a Master of Arts in Theology student at Fuller Theological Seminary, co-host of the podcast Reconstruct, and blogs at Profitable Discourse. He lives with his wife in Seattle, Washington.


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