Friday, January 13, 2006

Get Real . . .

One of the many longstanding debates in the world of philosophy is over the nature of existence (metaphysics) - do things exist in total independence from our senses, or can they be said to exist only in light of our perceptions of them? This philosophical scuffle can be called "the realism/antirealism" debate, and (as you might expect) it's got tremendous import for doing theology.

This has been noted most recently in light of the postconservative/emerging/purple theology move being made by several evangelical theologians in which some notions of anti-realism have influenced their understanding of the theological task. In particular, the idea that our language refers to the world the way it actually is has been challenged on a number of different levels. The world, instead, can only be viewed from various perspectives within their theory-laden observations. These observations can genuinely say something about the world, but there is no genuinely objective "way it is". An example I recently heard about this idea was as follows: suppose I have a number of items on a table, and I ask you to tell me how many items exist on the table. The number you give will depend upon things like the way you group the items (you may choose to view the cell phone and the detachable clip as one item; you may choose to count a muffin and it's wrapper as two items) and what you choose to count as an item (you probably wouldn't count individual crumbs as an item; you'd likely not count each molecule as a seperate item). In this case there is no "the way it is", as multiple answers will be correct from different perspectives. Merold Westphal and John Franke are two examples of contemporary evangelical theologians who have adopted some version of anti-realism.

Obviously most traditional theology assumes so measure of realism. Most contemporary evangelicals who have responded to the anti-realist tendencies of postmodern theology might consider themelves noetically specific anti-realists - that is, they deny that the minds of anti-realists exist. What are your thoughts about the validity or significance of realism/anti-realism in doing theology? How would this affect what theologians could call "true" or "false"? Is it possible for an anti-realist to preach an authoritative Gospel, or does this view constitute heresy?


Ephraim said...


Your post reminds me of the story of Samson's parents encounter with a heavenly messenger. You know the text so I won't repeat it here, but it brings up some interesting questions along the lines of the ones you asked.

At the end of their conversation, to prove to the husband and wife that he was indeed sent from YHWH and that what he told them was true, that messenger stepped into the fire that had been built for the couple's sacrifice, and rose in the ascending smoke until he was out of sight.

So back to your example of the items on the table. What did the couple see? An angel rising up off the face of the earth in the smoke of a fire? The reality of the fire for the humans was obviously quite different than it was for the heavenly being. I personally think he went up in the smoke for dramatic effect, not because he "had" to.

Anyway, you have the intersection of two distinct realities described in scripture. As we read the account we become third party observers. We may, by faith, claim that the entire story as written happened "just that way" and never give it another thought. Or we might be inclined to question further what exactly took place at that point in our understanding of historical realities.

Well, I've wandered off there. What I meant to point out is that, as believers, our perception of reality may be influenced by our knowledge as well as our beliefs. Studying quantum physics will bend your head a little and cause things which seemed very solid to begin to move, but it would only cause someone to question the reality of their surroundings if they were on a quest to do so in the first place.

I have spent many years looking into what you have briefly mentioned. Illegally in the early years, philosophically in the latter. Nothing I have learned or experienced would prevent me from preaching a sound, authoritative gospel today. In fact, I find it quite helpful when relating to people of a "new age" persuasion.

I have never been to India. But I believe that it exists and that many people live their lives there. Here we would start down the road of speculating about the relationship between truth and reality. Is everything that I believe to be true real? Is everything that I perceive to be real true? Must the two always coincide for my "faith" to be real?

I like this topic. It's kinda floaty.


Call Me Ishmael said...

And, of course, this brings up the much-debated question: if blogs cease to exist when we're not looking at them, who re-writes them just in time for us to look at them again?

Sameer said...

I'm not sure I'm seeing from your post why the question is so important for doing theology.

In what ways do you think that the realism/anti-realism question impinges upon theology? Do you have different concerns about the impact of the epistemological variety than about the metaphysical variety (you shift back and forth a bit between the two in your characterization)?

Are you concerned about the impact of *global* realism/anti-realism on theology, or some local realist/anti-realst dispute that affects theology? If the latter, then what is it that you think is particularly theologically important to take a (anti)realist position on?

TheBlueRaja said...

Not being a philosopher myself, I can't get too sophisticated here without sounding like a yammering indigent, but it sounds to me like the distinction between metaphysical and epistemological (or even moral) anti-realism are deeply inter-related. The idea doesn't seem to be a denial of a concrete physical world (that would be stupid), but a denial that there is a "way the world is". Metaphysical and moral ssences are really just our way our conventions of carving the world up. This affects epistemology because of how this plays with the definition of truth as correspondance to reality.

This affects theology, then, in that theological traditions can't be said to refer to spiritual realities in any fixed or stable way. Instead theology can be viewed as ever-changing Kuhn-like paradigms that don't necessarily get us closer to the truth as much as they provide different ways of explaining the same phenomena. Functionally this would make theology more of a heuristic tool similar to a Lakatosian view of mathematics than an authoritative description of spiritual realities. While this opens opportunities for the ecumenical task, it seems like it might be problematic for defining orthodoxy, setting boundaries, identifying heretics, etc.

HZ said...

Raja, I have just been reading Owen Barfield (Saving the Appearances) - have you read it? It deals with some of this in a very interesting way, so I have been thinking about this too lately.... The same color appears completely different to a dog than it does to me; and what the dog sees is as 'real' as what I see. We can only interpret out of what we are. Perhaps I am way off, but that seems to me to be very key in all of this. It has to matter how we approach theology because the Bible itself tells us that not all appearances are morally neutral and equally valid, like colors. There are deceptions, lies. Which means of course that we do not define truth by our perception of it - truth exists outside of our analogical box, and our analogical box stands for- not as? - the truth. Truth is defined by a Person who entered into the box. & because He told us that we are corrupt - that out of our hearts proceed all defilements - what we are, that we are interpreting out of, is not reliable. We can get theology wrong..... And we can also, because we can stand in right relationship to that Person, and be given the Holy Spirit, get it right.

I think I do understand the dilemma. Scripture is the authority of the independent, given to us inside the dependent. We can only approach it through ourselves. But it is different than anything else out there.... It judges us. It partakes of the autonomous and authoratative nature of the Word that formed us. We can only receive it out of what we are. But we do not form or judge it. It completely blows my mind. But I believe absolutely that everything hinges on getting it right.

TheBlueRaja said...


Thanks so much for your comments, HZ.

I'm unfamiliar with Barfield's writings, though I know he was very influential in the life of C.S. Lewis.

It's funny that you'd mention the absolute autonomy of the Word of God, since it features so prominently in Barth's nderstanding of revelation; it's these sorts of themes in Barth that are in some cases fueling some anti-realist conceptions of theology. Part of the autonomy that Barth attributed to the Word of God is the fact that humans can never "own" it or "master" it through the "bagging and tagging" of theology. "Getting it right" in this view is experiencing the transformative power of the Word when confronted with it.

HZ said...

Raja, I guess I am concerned that unless we are 'realists' - there is an objective truth and we can know it - the 'transforming power' becomes something so random and unquestionable that anyone can be transformed into anything and claim to have 'got it right'. Systematizing comes naturally to us: it is something we do with our brains naturally from the moment we begin to put concepts together: it follows naturally upon the fundamental character of God, and the image that we are made in: our Creator does not change, He cannot do certain things, because He cannot be A and ~A at the same time: and we are analogies for our Creator. I don't think that systematizing our understanding of truth has to partake of an 'owning it' attitude, any more than any other attempt to understand it - for instance an attempt to place it in a historical context. But I agree that 'getting it right' has primarily to do with whether we are doers of the transforming Word. If I have all knowledge, and have not charity -- I do not even really have knowledge, do I? Because if we know God, we love our brother.

TheBlueRaja said...


I have the exact same intuition that you do here. I'm not sure what it would mean for revelation to be meaningfully "reveal" anything without giving us some reliable contact with God that supercedes our inability to percieve it.

You said: "I don't think that systematizing our understanding of truth has to partake of an 'owning it' attitude, any more than any other attempt to understand it - for instance an attempt to place it in a historical context."

I think that's a great point in that systematization seems inevitable. That's a very useful observation as long as we recognize the distorting tendencies and inherent weaknesses that belong to any systematization of revelation (or any observable phenomena, for that matter).

The question becomes how to hold in tension this affirmation of divine revelation while taking sinful human finiteness seriously and at the same time attribute the status of "knowledge" to our theology? How is theological knowledge justified (i.e. warranted)?

Thanks so much for your helpful comments!

HZ said...

This is where I have been getting stumped.... but I found a post by Doug Wilson very suggestive and helpful - I was wondering if you had seen it yet:

It seems to suggest that our confidence comes precisely in recognition of our limitations and our place as creatures. We were made to receive.