Saturday, December 03, 2005

On realizing our captivity to a tradition

In my last post, "A Little Knowledge," I talked about the tendency people have (including myself sometimes) to make overly confident claims for the intellectual certainty of their beliefs, based on the use of reason, logic, scientific evidence, or even their own reading of scripture. In this post, I'd like to explore further a subject I touched on in that post but did not explore very far. This is the issue of how it is necessary to enter into a tradition and submit ourselves to it before we can truly and fully understand or accept its truth claims. My particular interest is with the Christian tradition and the way in which some people seem to think they can dismiss certain doctrines or parts of the Christian tradition based on some knowledge base which is itself external to that tradition. This is most obviously the case among Christians of a more theologically liberal persuasion, who often wish to reshape Christianity according to more recent trends in cultural thought and practice. (I am thinking here of people like John Shelby Spong, who is admittedly an extreme example, but who serves as a good general representative of the school of thought that wishes to change traditional Christianity based on something external to the Christian tradition.)

We often hear claims to the effect that great advances in human learning, moral progress, etc. have shown us that such and such a Christian doctrine or traditionally held moral belief can no longer be taken seriously. These claims nearly always seem presuppose that the source of the critique against the Christian tradition is an objective source which is untainted by any possible influence from a "point of view" of some kind. But is this really possible? My thought is that these claims themselves represent an allegiance to some other tradition of thought which is itself historically rooted and shaped by the unfolding inner logic of its own presuppositions. Those who make critiques of the Christian tradition based on the claims of some other tradition have simply submitted themselves to the presuppositions and truth claims of that other tradition, whether they realize this or not. Often it seems to me they don't realize it and they then mistakenly assume that this other tradition somehow represents objectivity in a way that the Christian tradition doesn't. This is especially the case in the modern world, where the Enlightenment notion of the autonomous rational individual, unbeholden to any tradition and making objective judgments based on logic and an objective assessment of available evidence holds great sway. It is worth pointing out that many conservative Christians also seem to accept something like this view when they feel the need to offer proofs for the truth of their faith, or to appeal to evidence from science and reason as affirming the truth of Christian faith. This seems to suggest that the Christian tradition itself is not a living, dynamic thing to be entered into, but rather an object to be held out at a distance and subjected to rational scrutiny.

In my last post, I mentioned St. Paul's telling the Corinthians (1Cor. 2) that he did not come to them with "persuasive words of human wisdom," but rather in the power of the Holy Spirit, determining to know only Christ and Him crucified. I observed that one can't argue with Christ and him crucified, but that one either accepts it and enters into the life it offers or one doesn't. If one does accept it, then one enters into the flow of a tradition that has been going on for two-thousand years and will continue to go on until Christ returns. The longer one actively inhabits this tradition, the more one comes to understand the doctrines and beliefs that are part of it, to see their unfolding logic, and to see how they make sense of the world. On the other hand, one may continue to demand evidence for the truth of the Christian tradition or make judgements about what parts of it are valid or not, but any assessment of the evidence or judgement that is made will be based on the assumptions of some tradition, whether one is aware of it or not.

My point here is not that logic, reason, argumentation, and evidence do not have their place. Nor is it that the Christian tradition can never be critiqued or changed in any way. It is rather that any critique based on logic, evidence, etc. must always be carried out in a way that recognizes both their dependence on the assumptions of some tradition for effectiveness, and that grants the established Christian tradition equal respect in the discussion. Otherwise, we end up judging the Christian tradition based on the accepted truths of some other tradition. We end up falsely believing that we are standing outside of any tradition and are somehow being purely objective.

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