Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Pomo Showdown

UPDATE: I've just read Macht and Joel Hunter's comments on Wilson's review, which both state that Wilson has dodged, missed or otherwise entirely avoided Smith's point - that's what I get for talking about a book I've never actually read. In any case the one thing that Wilson does bring up, which I'd like to hear someone address, is the question I raised in this post: How are people to ajudicate between rival interpretations without falling prey to stock postmodern criticisms? If everyone ultimately can only evaluate other interpretations from the standpoint of their own, what's the way out of that particular cul-de-sac? C'mon, Joel, I said HELP!!!

Doug Wilson just posted a tantalizing review of J.K.A. Smith's book, Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? I've been wanting to pick this one up since it was commended to me by Sir Bryan Lee, my good friend and Captain of the Intelligently Postmodern Brigade. I have to say, at first glance, I have a feeling I'd probably be more sympathetic to Wilson's take.

I'll be posting a bit more about Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue shortly, but Wilson's comments give voice to nagging concerns even as I've enjoyed the book thus far - namely the fear that once MacIntyre has destroyed the blighted secularism which has given birth to the current moral crises of our day, his sociological analysis will be powerless to commend a truly Christian alternative. The questions raised by Wilson are all the same ones I've come up against in reading Lindbeck and Hauerwas - they are so robustly and self-confidently Christian it's positively exhilerating - until the issue of engagement comes to the fore. For all the pitfalls of "cognitive-propositional" models of doctrine, and all the benefits of a narrative approach, how does a particular person's narrative climb out of the spongy morass of pluralism to assert itself without falling prey to the same criticisms as Enlightenment positivism? How can the Gospel be proclaimed without the Sitz im Leben of one hors'dourve being offered from a tray of several equally tasty choices?

I think Reformed resources provide the the only theologically viable raw material for a Biblically sustainable alternative - Plantinga's modest foundationalism, Vanhoozer's chastised version of intentionality, and Wright's critical realism are a good start (yeah, I said N.T. Wright: there's a lot more Reformed people should appreciate about the guy, Piper's latest sermon notwithstanding). The more I listen to someone like Tim Keller, the more I'm convinced of Reformed theology's potential value in navigating the postmodern world.

However necessary and beautiful the call to community formation, these authors inevitably blunt the imperial force of the Gospel, which is wrapped up in Jesus' lordship - or do they? Joel Hunter, the resident postmodern poster-boy at the Boar's Head Tavern, if you're reading this - help!


Macht said...

I commented on Wilson's review here, if you are interested.

joel hunter said...

Dude, I'm blushing that you called me Garver. I'm just Hunter, a wee lad by comparison.

dug said...

I'll take a shot at answering the question, "How are people to adjudicate between rival interpretations..." Actually, more than answer the question, I'll try to dispel it.

The evangelical authoritarians get very worked up over "how are we to speak an 'authoritative' word to our culture," but what is their alternative? If they have such great clarity, why is there so much fighting and so little agreement within evangelicalism? Wilson chants "Van Til! Van Til!" as the solution, but what solution does Van Til contribute to the disputes over paedocommunion or Federal Vision? People on both sides of these debates claim to have "renounced their epistemological autonomy" (how does one, by an act of will, eliminate his own will anyway, and upon what basis {criteria in MacIntyre-speak} does he choose to do this?) and claim to have "obedient access to the one true and unchanging interpretation of reality," so why don't they agree?

It's the demonstrated failure of the fundamentalist, presuppositionalist, and even charismatic forms of authority that drives one to postmodernism. These approaches have not brought unity to the church; on the contrary, they have brought schism. The only thing evangelical authoritarians consistently agree on is the need for more "authoritative" pronouncements. So clearly another approach is needed.

James K.A. Smith summarizes Leithart (noted by Wilson), saying, "The church doesn't have an apologetic; it is an apologetic." This is Smith's alternative to the cacophony of disagreeable yet authoritative voices. If you want to change the culture, forget about "proving" the Bible and work on demonstrative it (according to your own pious convictions), trusting that, when the work of the Holy Spirit takes root in the church, people will be drawn to it. Then, let God sort the wheat and chaff in the end.

TheBlueRaja said...

Yikes! Sorry Joel - fixed the typo. At least I didn't call you Billy Joel.


Thanks for your comments, but I think you've highlighted the question instead of dispelling it - the question was, how are we to choose between competing interpretations of reality? If we can't answer that question it seems to me that we're stuck with a determinism that flies in the face of the Gospel's call to conversion. If communities are self-authenticating, how do people move from one to another, adopting it's way of life and interpetation of the world in favor of one's own?

dug said...


My pert answer to your question, "How are we to choose between [self-authenticating communities]," would be, "the same way people always have, for intensely personal and sometimes idiosyncratic reasons," because the "reasons" people articulate for their choices are mostly post hoc rationalizations.

My more examined response would be to appeal to the bricolage of reasons given in WLC 4: aesthetic ("majesty and purity"), narrative ("consent of all the parts"), transcendent ("scope of the whole"), utilitarian ("light and power"), and mystical ("but the Spirit"). There seems no evidence of modern standards of self-authentication in the Confession, but people seem to have managed rather well somehow.

For all the claims to the contrary, a candid appraisal of the state of evangelicalism shows that it is already a loose federation of self-authenticating communities, each holding forth proofs that no one else accepts. I suspect the "real reasons" people believe (being moved by the moral example of Jesus, finding the philosophy of Paul attractive, desire to possess the fearless confidence of the apostles, the historically transformative effect of Christianity on Europe, the challenge and comfort of the Psalms, etc.) are disfavored compared to more scientific-sounding ones.

My encounters with postmodernism are forcing me to come up with different reasons for being a Christian, but I'm finding myself more comfortable with the new ones than with the old ones. Karl Barth said, "If we do not commit ourselves to any specific philosophy we will not need totally or finally to fear any philosophy." Being an "authoritative" evangelical means being very defensive; if one's eternal salvation hangs on a "golden chain" of propositions, every argument is life-or-death, which I think explains Wilson's evangelical "screaming fantods" over Smith. If one admits that his reasons for believing any given thing are a bit idiosyncratic, then he can: 1) have polite conversations with others about their beliefs, 2) learn from these conversations, 3) influence others through these conversations, 4) not be unduly impacted by presumptuous proof claims, and 5) not carry around the fears Barth describes.

TheBlueRaja said...

I completely jive with the existential tenor of your comments, but how does persuasion fit into that explanation, dug? And how do we speak of those who choose not to believe for "intensely personal and sometimes idiosyncratic reasons" without leaving the impression that our call to believe the Gospel is somewhere between advocating a highly specified personal wish-fullfillment and attempting to manipulate people into the Church's social engineering program? Isn't this just the same kind of emotivism that MacIntyre completely rejects in the opening chapters of After Virtue? Doesn't it lead to a bald power play struggle between competing interpretive communities who are seeking the alligeiance of people within other interpretive communities, and isn't this sort of power mongering the backbone behind postmodern criticism of modernism (e.g. Foucault)?

I'm not advocating any particular alternative to postmodernism here - or any particular view, for that matter; but I would like to understand how postmodern thought responds to these sorts of problems.postmodern framework. My very limited experience thus far is that they're much better at the criticism than they are the constructive ways forward, though I'd be happy to be corrected in that regard.

dug said...

Raja, those are very thoughtful questions.

There are several ways I could understand the MacIntyre emotivism objection. One is, "Is postmodernism criterionless?" (e.g., does it stop us from discussing metaphysics in words?) To that I would refer back to WLC 4, and point out that, although it does not give us objective criteria (How does one prove "majesty" or "purity"?), one can certainly talk about some things being majestic and other things not being majestic, and give heuristics that help us determine the difference. It is generally understood that some people have a better "eye" for majesty than others, since it can't be turned into a mechanical process. Leithart has Flannery O'Conner summarized as, "...the writer must learn to see the world rightly...must learn to 'stare' at reality, even to stare 'stupidly.' Right-seeing is difficult; sight is a moral sense." (C/A 18:2)

Another MacIntyre objection to emotivism is its reduction to social manipulation of all moral claims (clearly a bad thing for Christianity). If "X is good" means nothing more than "I approve of X," and people make claims in the first form solely to give them more authority than a plainly-stated personal preference, this is a form of dishonesty and a way of treating another person as less of a moral agent than yourself. I don't think postmodernism is more or less prone to this kind of abuse than modernism; and MacIntyre shows in Chapter 4 of After Virtue how the claims of Kant, Hume, Diderot, etc. to a "rational" morality were in fact recycled from their culture.

I think I need to hear more from you about the "wish-fulfillment" and "Church's social engineering program" aspects to understand that objection fully. I don't see postmodernism as endorsing manipulative behavior so much as pointing out where it hides. Being made aware of how epistemological claims can be used as a subversive means of social control is the first step to liberating yourself from that control and asserting your individual selfhood. The next step is refraining from such manipulation of others. If we understand the formulation of ontologies as an assertive, and not a neutral act, we can be more circumspect about it.

As for a constructive way forward, many postmodern philosophers have offered self-sacrifice as a creditable impulse and escape from power-mongering relationships. This works well in concert with the New Testament, as Paul paradoxically "boasts" of his weakness in 2 Cor 11, and God comes to earth not to show his power, but to put himself at the mercy of men.

dug said...

I think I've been able to formulate the difference between Foucault and emotivism.

MacIntyre: Historically, morality came in three parts, 1) the observation of man-as-he-is, 2) the idea of man-as-he-could-be if he reaches his telos, and 3) a program with the power to transform him from 1 to 2 by moral disciple.

The Enlightenment, in MacIntyre: There is no telos. Morality has no transformative goal. It's just timeless, contextless rules of conduct.

Foucault: Moral systems are intended to conform man to somebody's idea of the telos. Modern society is a pervasive system of discipline, like a religion. (This takes us back to the pre-enlightenment idea of what morality does.)

James K.A. Smith: Foucault is right, and we can redeem this by injecting the Christian notion of the telos.

Emotivism: There is no telos in moral claims. They mean what they do. There can be nothing other than a bid for power in moral language.

TheBlueRaja said...


The only difference between modernism and postmodernism as you've construed it is that postmodernism cuts to the chase about the power dynamic for competing views of reality. Instead of offering dishonest packaging for our preferences in the form of objective truth claims we're now saying that convincing others of our way of seeing the world must take place according to other means - and what means are those, if they're not manipulation, force, or other forms of control? Stripping away the facade of objectivity doesn't eliminate the power dynamic, it leaves power and manipulation as the only way to conform others to our views. I'm not sure what the other options are - you'll have to say more about how a person can see concepts such as majesty better than others without claiming a definition of majesty not shared by others. If concepts are defined internally, through the relationship to particular narratives, it follows that different narratives will define and recognize majesty differently, and from that it follows that getting someone else to recognize my definition means coercing them to buy into my narrative - but why should they do that? Without criteria to discern between narratives, what's left besides social control? Self-sacrifice doesn't escape the charge of manipulation, either - it's simply another way of wielding power through guilt and creating a sense of obligation through another's suffering. In the end, persuading others to buy into my narrative necessarily involves asserting mine over their's through such manipulation - so how's that less power-oriented than the modern vision? It's the same, except without the God's eye-view deception.

As for the telos in MacIntyre's scheme, the point of conflicting narratives for the world is that they differ as to what the telos is - so I guess my question remains: how do we discern which is the right one? And how do we convince those whose telos is defined differently than ours (necessarily so, because of the difference in our stories of the world), without descending into "a bid for power"?

Forgive me for the beating the same drum there, but I don't see how identifying the need for a telos, as important a step forward as that is, can eliminate the charge of emotivism, since it merely backs the question up to the level of what this telos is supposed to be.

dug said...

Raja, thanks for your responses. You are really forcing me to think about this subject. This is a whole lot more fun than doing the "screaming fantods."

Since you raised a lot of issues, I'll be brief about each one I see:

1.) The whole issue of "dishonest packaging" is a (if not the) major factor in distinguishing non-manipulative power from manipulative power. If I am straightforward about why I want you to believe or do something, I am exerting influence on you, but leaving it up to your discretion as to whether to yield to me or not. Manipulation is designed to make it difficult, expensive, or painful for you to disagree with me, and in ways not materially related to the matter at hand. "We will excommunicate you [spiritual consequence] if you don't recant your heliocentrism [unrelated scientific matter]."

2.) I think postmodernism entails skepticism towards "conforming others to our views" as a telos of humanity. Who says this is what we should live for? What about being convinced of others' ways of seeing the world? Part of being postmodern is disposing of the modernist assumption of the self's privileged epistemological position over others. This undermines the motivation to manipulate. Instead of appealing to "universal truths" and bemoaning an opponent's refusal to accept them, I have to deal with his views, concepts, and experiences being just as privileged as mine.

3.) Modernism seems to recognize only two loci of interpretation: the self and "universal truth." (the "opinion vs. fact" dichotomy). Postmodernism (and modern science, ironically) brings in a third: the community. What if two people get into a dispute and neither convinces the other to accept his view au fond (sorry, little MacIntyrism there), but both, in response, modify their views towards a consensus position? Who "won" this power relationship? Contemporary science often treats with skepticism any model too recognizable as the propagation of only one person's opinion.

4.) Self-sacrifice needs to be understood such that only "pure" self-sacrifice (in the Biblical sense of the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing) counts as honest. If someone "sacrifices" one thing in order inveigle another thing later by sense of obligation, that isn't sacrifice so much as a hidden transaction. Derrida uses dying for another as his example of pure self-sacrifice, but this cannot be directly adapted for Christianity.

5.) "How are we to discern the right telos?" That is the right question, and if I had the answer...I'd write a computer program and use it to plan a world takeover. (Or not.) I think this is where MacIntyre points out the "Protestant and Jansenist" position that the Fall of Man obscured our understanding of the telos such that we get wisdom only through grace. But we can sure discuss it a lot, and come to our own conclusions.

metalepsis said...

As for the telos in MacIntyre's scheme, the point of conflicting narratives for the world is that they differ as to what the telos is - so I guess my question remains: how do we discern which is the right one? And how do we convince those whose telos is defined differently than ours (necessarily so, because of the difference in our stories of the world), without descending into "a bid for power"?

Enjoying the conversation here, but perplexed by your concern here blue.

Let me offer a story that may or may not be of some help.

When I was at university I attanded a christan bible study on the campus of UNL. One friday night a visitor came in and engaged our Pastor in a conversation. The visitor questioned some of the principles of christianity, and wondered how we could be certian that they were true, the pastor in his best imitation of Van Til, told the visitor that christianity was indeed true and that he the visitor already new it was true, and he was just denying it or something, then recited Romans 1.

After the vsitor was gone the pastor was so pumped that he had the wonderful oprotunity of practicing his apologetics. I didn't think much of it at the time, I was young and impressionable.

But when I finally read Van Til I quickly came under the suspicion that he was a complete nutter. But I digress.

So I ponder what difference does it make if you have inclinations to pomo musings, or if you are convinced that your modernistic world view is correct and sure (these to be sure are not the only options), isn't engagment always going to be a problem?

I can tell you, you are wrong, but you will just shrug your sholders, and continue licking your pistachio ice cream cone.

I can live out the gospel as a story and seek to help the widow and the orphan, seek peace and justice, so on and so forth, but the bloke sitting next to me on the bus will still be indifferent.

And concerning what story to live out, don't we just do the best we can anyway and rely on the spirit,and hope beyond hope that somehow our shotty attempts are pleasing...

joel hunter said...

meta, you speak with common sense here. In what are probably my more honest moments, I would echo the sentiment of the entire last half of your comment. However, I retain hope that, as Christ is reconciling the world to himself, the possibility of conversation between those with differing worldviews will sometimes lead to something like Gadamer's "fusion of horizons" (fwiw) rather than a shrug and an ice cream mustache. Life usually interferes enough with this hope that I'm nowhere near any utopian fantasy, but as an existential project, I think it's got gospel all over it.

But on whatever score we may disagree, you have earned yourself a night's worth of special bitter for this gem:

But when I finally read Van Til I quickly came under the suspicion that he was a complete nutter.

I'm not alone! Cheers!

TheBlueRaja said...

Dug, thanks for your patience with me - I'm grateful to not be discarded as completely incorrigible at the first sign of disagreement or confusion (which is more than I can say for other places where these topics are bandied about)!

I see your point under number 1), but I'm not sure I find it very comforting for this reason: at bottom, this seems to make all engagement acts of coercion. The point I was making about Christianity as Freudian wish-fullfilment is that demonstrating Christianity as fundamnetally a more satisfying way of life makes it just another instrument of personal happiness, which significantly distorts the message of Christianity (doesn't it?) - and that's why the charge about emotivism seems to stick.

As for skepticism toward "conforming others to our views", isn't this at least one part (obviously not the only part) of the Church's calling to make disciple among the nations? I think it might be hard to not, implicitly, anyway, claim a "privileged epistemological position" over others and still advocate conversionism or spiritual transformation - i.e. the whole "was blind but now I see" (however dimly) motif in the Scriptures.

Your point about community being essential to interpretation is of course correct and has been noted by skeptics and friends of postmodernism alike. But I think your description of self-sacrifice sort of eliminates the paradigmatic act of the sacrifice of Jesus - doesn't it? Isn't the obligation of faith and repentance contained in the call to discipleship predicated upon Jesus' sacrificial death?

In any case, if the question, "How are we to discern the right telos among competing ends?" is the right question, I'm not sure I've seen the answer hinted at yet.


I was hoping you'd weigh in some time! Concerning Van Til, I think we'd agree that he was something of a chump (and worse, a nearly indecipherable chump) - but as for the question of "what difference it makes if you have inclinations to pomo musings, or if you are convinced that your modernistic world view is correct and sure" - I'd respond thusly:

1) I'm personally not yet sure that postmodernism should be set against modernism as some kind of alternative.

2) I don't think postmodernism has the corner on the market of alternatives to Cartesian certainty, naive realism, Enlightenment objectivity etc.

As for the problem of engagement, it seems as though there are a couple of levels it could be discussed: one is the more theoretical bases of discourse (such as in Lindbeck's analysis), and the other level being about practical models of engagement. I'm not denying the power of the Gospel's existential impact as demonstrated in the life of the Christian community as a practical model for engagement, but I'm wondering how to make sense of the theoretical explanations offered by postmodernism. The fact that theoretical models are in fact offered (we've mentioned Lindbeck and MacIntyre, but you could highlight others, I'm sure) means that it's probably appropriate to grapple with them, doesn't it? After all, it's these superstructures which give justification for taking the approach you mentioned.

metalepsis said...


I had no idea I could win a pint of bitter, how do I collect on that! Or did I read you correctly and promise a whole night worth of bitter!

Blue: Often when I respond to you, I am not really responding to you at all, and your specific concerns. Obviously your serious grappling and concern to read and address certain ideologies, or what ever, is spot on. And I learn much from you thinking out loud. And I would never advocate not working these things out.

I guess when it comes to actually practicing cruciformity I do such a sh@#y job, that I personally just need to tuck in and start living out the Christian story better. As a result I get depressed with talk about adjudication between rival interpretations, within Christianity I really only distaste of the modernistic variety (surprise surprise), and I am sure that after the second pint I would begin to like them better and better as the night went on, anyway. So perhaps my comments were not really warranted, but were friends, and that’s what friends do, right!

But again i am just meandering...

TheBlueRaja said...


Your comments were totally appropriate and I relate, bro - it's too bad I won't be seeing you at ETS this year - with everyone wanting to get you liquored up, it'd be nice to be around you for the odd free pint myself.

Macht said...

"I'm personally not yet sure that postmodernism should be set against modernism as some kind of alternative."

I agree with you. In fact, there is a statement in Wilson's review that I would agree with if, again, he didn't misread Smith so much. That statement is:

"Postmodernity, and all its evangelical explainers and handlers, is therefore hypermodernity. The problem is not autonomous reason, the problem is the autonomous self."

I essentially agree with this - postmodernism is an extension of modernism in that it still holds to the "autonomous self." This, of course, isn't a critique of Smith or his book because he isn't suggesting we become postmodernists. But Wilson is right that the autonomous self is just as problematic for the Christian as autonomous reason is. So, for the Christian, postmodernism can't be seen as an alternative to modernism.

What postmodernism can do is offer a helpful corrective to those things that are wrong with modernism (insofar as postmodernism gets them right).

Macht said...

"I'm not denying the power of the Gospel's existential impact as demonstrated in the life of the Christian community as a practical model for engagement, but I'm wondering how to make sense of the theoretical explanations offered by postmodernism."

I'm wondering if this may not be your problem with coming to terms with this. I offered here essentially what I think you might call a "practical model" (in essence, invite someone to live life as you and your community do and see what happens). But I would be hesitant to seperate the theoretical from the practical (and, indeed, that post was largely based on the theoretical ideas of Clouser and Feyerabend).

You might still object that I haven't answered your question "How are we to discern the right telos among competing ends?" since I haven't established how I can discern that my and my community's interpretation is the correct one. There is a sense in your question that the truth is something we know, but I would argue that the truth is something we live. By that I mean that the truth is something "fuller" than knowledge, something that we find in the heart, not in the head.

TheBlueRaja said...

Thanks, macht - true 'dat. I've been wanting to read Smith's book, and maybe I'll bump it up the list in light of the coming book discussion blog.

TheBlueRaja said...

Thanks again, macht - I'll read those posts. I would point out, though, that I'm not necessarily seperating the theoretical from the practical simply by distinguishing them.

I of course agree that truth is fuller than knowledge - but that means that it's more, not less than knowledge.

Thanks again for the link - hopefully I'll get to it soon!

dug said...

Blue, I know what you mean about "be[ing] discarded as completely incorrigible at the first sign of disagreement." I saw your shabby treatment on triablogue. I often avoid discussing things with Christians in order to avoid the inevitable personal attacks and "calls to repentance" that evidence that a cherished (yet indefensible) belief is being threatened. It's this that gives me the nagging "Christianity as wish fulfillment" doubts. Pomo allows me conclude about them, "they have the truth, but they have no idea how they got there or how to get others there." So, I'm glad this has been a thoughtful discussion.

I don't yet follow the connection you seem to make between coercion, emotivism, and wish fulfillment. Wish fulfillment can be either coercive or non-coercive, depending on how it's employed. Perhaps you are having what MacIntyre calls "Cartesian anxieties": we either have certain knowledge or we have bedlam. Emotivism starts from this and argues that moral claims have no meaning. Postmodernism, by contrast, argues that moral claims have many meanings. I think one has to be something of a Cartesian to argue that these are the same.

You asked if "conforming others to our views" is part of the church's calling, but this is often a kind of wish fulfillment itself ("Look at all these people being converted! Christianity might just be true.") And if I "see dimly" now, would I not be conforming others to my largely erroneous views? I'd substitute the goal of "conforming others to Jesus' views," recognizing that we are all going to err to some degree in recognizing what those are. This goes back to a postmodern respect for where other people are epistemologically: instead of pushing some abstract systematics (i.e., my interpretation of things) on them, I explore the Gospel narrative (the source text) with them and treat my conclusions with the same tentativeness I do everyone else's (epistemological Golden Rule?).

I like what metalepsis said, "I can live out the gospel as a story and seek to help the widow and the orphan, seek peace and justice..." There was a time when the church didn't have "apologetics." It had Bach and Michelangelo and Newton and universities and hospitals and millions of good, charitable followers, and that seemed to work a whole lot better than arguments. Now, it feels like we've been reduced to gymnasia full of young men trying out their Van Til Jedi mind trick: "You should believe Christianity because you already do, you just don't know it yet."

Where you relate "privileged epistemological position" to "was blind but now I see," I think you are describing two incompatible things. Epistemology is the study of belief justification, but if knowledge is a matter of clear seeing, how does one justify it to a blind person? How does one answer the challenge that your claim to see isn't a form of delusion? What about when the person you call blind says that in fact he sees, but that you don't? Who arbitrates this? God isn't tipping his hand yet.

As Christians, we know, at some level, that neither the wheat nor the tares has a secret epistemological weapon to defeat the other before the Second Coming. That's why embracing Christianity is an act of faith, and not a simple computation, which it would be if Christians had a "privileged epistemological position." There would be no "vision" involved. We'd just present our equations, and the discussion would end.

The necessity of vision and grace to Biblical faith is what dooms Cartesian-based belief systems, including presuppositionalism. If you insist that the only truth is an objective or absolute truth, you can't have humans who "see through a glass dimly," you must have infallible believers (or believers who are infallible on key issues). Van Til starts out saying there is no neutrality, but then picks a position and calls it absolute. It's as if to say that worldviews are things unbelievers have, but not Christians. We've taken the God's-eye view. The problem is the magic it took to get there. How do you justify The Presupposition? How does a human "chose" to escape his own autonomy? What knowledge allows a human to escape the limitations of his knowledge? How do we justify our claim that ours is the God's-eye view? Presuppositionalist arguments tend to get really poor at this point.

What does that leave us with? Well, the existing rules of inference and deduction are rather reliable, they're just not absolute nor "objective." (To quote Kermit the Frog: "Somebody thought of that and someone believed it.") Many of what presuppositionalists take to be syllogisms can be better understood as "plausible narratives." Compare the plausible narrative of Christ being raised and our sins being redeemed in I Corinthians 15:12-16 with the implausible narrative of Christ being defeated in death, yet still somehow redeeming human sin. One story just "works" and the other does not. Some ways of conceptualizing the universe tend to lead to reliable knowledge and others degrade into complications. Always, there are exceptions; the equation never balances perfectly.

TheBlueRaja said...


I read your post with interest, and it still seems to me that a person's choice, even after taking the "insider's test" amounts to nothing more than a highly invidualized matter of taste and preference. Am I missing something?


The relationship between coercion, wish-fulfillment and emotivism is that an emotivist argues “I like X, and so should you!” – and for the life of me, I can’t see how that’s not what you’re advocating. While I’m not arguing for Cartesian certainty for what can count as knowledge, it might help me to know what sort of objections you might have against the more modest, non-Cartesian foundationalism of analytic philosophers (!) like William Alston, Alvin Plantinga or Nicholas Wolterstorff (all who could be called something less than postmodern). The relationship of the knower to God, and to evidence, makes much more sense there than anything I’ve seen here, but escapes the charge of na├»ve realism, Cartesian anxiety, or the assertion of Enlightenment objectivity. My comment about a “privileged epistemological position” and conversion wasn’t confused (at least, I don’t think so) – it’s based upon an externalist account of epistemic justification, like that of Plantinga or Alston, who differ in many respects but all see belief in God as the outworking of a reliable belief producing mechanism (like belief in past, in the existence of other persons, and in the existence of material objects). It’s strange that you should invoke Barth, as you did earlier, since he seems to be an ally for Reformed epistemology in this respect. Yet none of this means that beliefs shouldn’t be subjected to criticism, or that rationality isn’t socially and culturally situated (of course it is).

Macht said...

Hmmm, I'd be interested in hearing why you think it "amounts to nothing more than a highly invidualized matter of taste and preference." Because that wasn't the impression I was trying to get across. I am suggesting a way to evaluate rival claims, afterall. But what I'm suggesting is that any evaluation needs to be done on their own terms. This evaluation isn't based on the individual's preferences or tastes but on the community's terms.

dug said...


I have no objection to your externalism, nor would it bother me if you believed it superior to all other epistemologies. If however, you claimed that you could prove it in a decisive manner from a "neutral" position, I would be very skeptical. There are, after all, valid criticisms of every philosophical position. To embrace a view, one has to decide there are some criticisms he isn't going to take seriously.

Historically, it is believers in ideology, rather than skeptics, who have merited worries about coercion. As a postmodernist, I can relate to the rejection of one of my views as something to be worked out between adults over a beer. But, if I reject a view that is believed "proven," I am susceptible to being viewed as simpleminded, deceptive, or even delusional, which means my position is liable to being ignored, ridiculed, or punished. I think this is a serious problem in evangelicalism, where often the reflex response to any unfamiliar point of view is condemnation. New views typically need to have the protection of an isolated community until they reach a support level where they cannot be quashed without discussion.

It is my perception that at least 95% of the moral discourse in society is, in fact, emotivist. I walked by a yard sign today that said, "Put Kids First. Vote for School Bond Issue." It's possible this (generic) sign is being mass produced in a factory somewhere and being sold all over the country. Apparently, the phrase "Put Kids First" has been focus-group-vetted and found to be worth a lot of money in terms of getting people to vote for bond issues, without reference to any particulars of the municipality or the bond itself. Whoever is planting these signs has a sense of moral superiority so great that they don't even bother with discussing the particular issue.

If postmodernism has the effect of desacralizing this kind of "discourse," I'm in favor. Postmodernism arose as a corrective to things like children's songs indoctrinating uncritical acceptance of expert opinion, not as a kind of absurdism (which is invariably how Douglas Wilson relates to it).

I admit lack of familiarity with the work of Alston, Wolterstorff, etc. As a staff researcher at a national laboratory, I'm coming at this more from the perspective of Thomas Kuhn or Karl Popper. Most of my friends have Ph.D's in things like materials science, nuclear engineering, and chemistry, and we've had many conversations that have shown what a slippery concept "the existence of material objects" is. One of the elders at my church described an inertial confinement fusion project where every experiment revealed new laws of physics, and no matter how deep they went, no matter how many orders of magnitude they increased the power, they couldn't find a "foundation." When I ask my physics friends what is "foundational" in physics, I get shrugs. We're a long way from the Bohr atom and the three-particle concept of matter.

To attack postmodernism, a theory is going to have to deal with the quirkiness of human perception as it is, not as we wish it to be. I am very moved with what Lewis says about his experience with "the Joy," but know that hypoxia and controlled substances can produce "experiences of the divine" as well. If one wants to appeal to a person's grasp of the physical universe, he must account for what physics shows us of how limited our perceptions are (like our eyes' ability to see only a small slice of the EM spectrum; how do we know all the epistemologically interesting stuff isn't happening elsewhere?)

I haven't really attempted to describe my own epistemological leanings here, because I can't do them justice in this space. A while back, I put together a chart describing where my ideas are. I tend to view pride as the fundamental epistemological failure, both in terms of prevalence and consequence.

Sameer Yadav said...

Hi Sharad,

I've been lurking on this thread for a bit, and I just wanted to hop in to affirm the sensibilities you've just expressed, because you've summarized very well my own concerns with contemporary discussions of epistemology, especially as they relate to theological discourse.

I especially want to echo your last point that "none of this means that ... rationality isn’t socially and culturally situated (of course it is)." I think that much of what passes for broader epistemological analyses in these discussions more properly belong to the narrower topic of the sociology of knowledge. What you are objecting to is a simple *reduction* of rationaity to its social phenomena. The problem with that reduction is that one who accepts it is never able to move beyond *description* of belief formation to find some non-emotively *prescriptive way* of ascribing normativity to belief. Without this, the charge of relativism sticks.

If sociological considerations surrounding human belief formation and legitimation are ALL THERE IS to rationality and knowledge, then this has to be *shown* somehow, instead of simply reasserted via another sociological description, because it is certainly a radical claim.

Prescribing the social outworking and embodment of certain beliefs in order to recommend them to others implies some sort of instrumentalist construal of rationality. But this "practical" model still faces problems of incommensurability - it's just that the incommensurability has now become embodied in social practices.

So, does anyone care to tackle the question of normativity, both in the epistemological thesis and the practical model of pomo theory?

dug said...

Sameer, what is normativity? Etymologically, "ought" is just the past tense of "owe": a social transaction. If the word originally pointed to a debt to an anthropomorphic, non-corporeal being, but the Enlightenment wanted to make it less "spooky" and more "scientific," they might have doomed the word by creating a discarnate concept of "normativity."

Sameer Yadav said...

Hi Dug. Thanks for your comments. Besides being an historical oddity, I don’t really think that the *etymology* of normative concepts (e.g. ‘ought’) has anything to do with the content and currency of those concepts in philosophical discussion. After all, “goodbye” is etymologically related to the older English benediction “God be with you.” But I don’t therefore take it that the use of that term saddles anyone today with any theological commitments (or any conceptual content whatsoever related to the signification of the term “God”). Although ‘owe’ and ‘ought’ may have been grammatically and semantically related terms in some stage of prior English usage, this doesn’t at all show that normative *concepts* are so related.

I also find it difficult to believe that the Enlightenment conception of normativity derives from a reification of the English usage of ‘ought’ into a “discarnate concept.” Which Enlightenment figures are you thinking of and in which works is this project presented? In the first place, I doubt that the motivation for developing discourse about normative concepts derived from any desire to correct colloquial talk about social transaction. And even if it were, it is even less likely for this to take place by self-consciously assigning new significations for terms already rooted in living practices. In any case, what would have been considered to be “spooky” about the language of social transaction? Even more problematic than all that is the fact that the relevant terms do not find corollaries in the various non-English speaking roots of the Enlightenment (e.g. French).

Setting aside the doubtful reconstruction of the conceptual history of normative concepts, the more important thing to point out is their centrality for any talk about rationality (I do not say the same about knowledge). Normative concepts specify the virtues of beliefs. What characteristics or properties of beliefs make them worthy or unworthy of holding? In virtue of what might we ascribe blame or praise to beliefs? What Sharad has rightly pointed out is that if “communal preference” is the only normative concept governing our ethics of belief, then Christian belief has no greater virtue than Nazi belief, Hindu belief, etc. I am still not clear on how this concern has been addressed in the comments thus far.

Maybe we can achieve greater clarification by starting the other way round. What would *you* consider as normative considerations that might govern the recommendation of Christian beliefs to non-Christians? You mentioned an "incarnate" conception of normativity, but I'm not sure what this means. I suspect it goes back to the idea of an "embodied apologetic," but I'll leave it for you to explicate.

dug said...

Hi Sameer, I think Christianity, like postmodernism, has to be taken as a package, because bits and pieces of it, transplanted into another setting, lose their sense. If you look at the world the way it is, the most evident social ethic is "survival of the fittest," which is what the Nazis where practicing (after defining themselves as the fittest, of course). Much of the (Christian) West was repulsed by this, and we won the war, but if we hadn't, we wouldn't be having this conversation. History is written by the victor. Many Christians want to treat Darwinism as a priori fallacious, but how do you judge the Nazis to be wrong in the abstract? They were living the way almost every other species lives. Schaeffer reported that as late as the 1970's Francis Crick was describing the Western practice of caring for the weak as "making the world safe for senility." Outside of a preexisting moral commitment, how can we reject "improving" our genetic heritage the way we breed dogs for traits we like?

When I described my account of normativity in a group of Catholics, the result was violent anger, so what I'm saying may be a bit controversial, but I believe that norms are ultimately what Yahweh declares them to be, for no other reason than that he has declared them. When God gives the Ten Commandments, he backs them with statements like "the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea and all that in them is" and "I...brought you out of the land of Egypt." I take this to mean, "When I created you, you incurred a cosmological debt to your creator. I therefore have the right to declare your telos and the right to obligate your conformity to it." The commandment of God to "love your neighbor as yourself" alone makes the Nazi ideology wrong. Attempts to create a normativity independent of the creator (as creator) will always be specious.

Immanuel Kant rejected rooting morality in the commandments of God (searching for a public, non-sectarian basis for morality without the "spookiness" of spirituality), saying that humans could independently perceive morality, and God's command was therefore redundant. But, as MacIntyre points our, Kant's defenses of (what turns out to be) conservative, traditional morality are very poor in places: Kant's argument against suicide by virtue of it going against a natural drive would also forbid getting one's hair cut. This is, I think the point at which the word "ought" was torn free from a metaphysical world in which it had life. Far from being an etymological quirk, the "owe-ought" connection reveals the way people originally thought about morals. (The words for ought in Spanish and Latin are deber and debere (etymological ancestor of the English word "debt), respectively, showing that this connection is not present only in English.) Trying to have an "ought" without a creditor proved (I think) impossible, and moral discourse eventually degraded into gibbering.

Getting into your connection between normativity and rationality, I'm not certain one can establish a priority between "the worthy" and "the true." How do you know a virtue is "truly" a virtue and not a fancy? I think "Cartesian anxieties" are still evident. If we know nothing true until we know it certainly true, where can fallen humans end up but in a state of nihilism? If the only choices are geometric certainty or criterionless "community preference," where do Shakespeare, Monet, Song of Solomon, Confucius, and Da Vinci fit?

Pastor Michael said...


Sorry I’m so late to the party; the discussion’s been great.

You asked, “For all the pitfalls of "cognitive-propositional" models of doctrine, and all the benefits of a narrative approach, how does a particular person's narrative climb out of the spongy morass of pluralism to assert itself without falling prey to the same criticisms as Enlightenment positivism?”

My sense is no Biblical approach can be immune to criticism because such an approach is not based on rationality, but on the power of the Gospel to transform hearts and minds. I’m with Meta, we offer what we have and rely on the Spirit. Meanwhile, a near-infinite spread of tasty alternative hors d'oeuvres beckons until the Sitz im Leben sizzles. (Ok, so I can’t finesse metaphors like Wilson.)

“For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength.” 1 Cor. 1:21-23 (NIV)

TheBlueRaja said...

Hey Dug and Macht,

Sorry for the delay on following up - life and ministry, and all that rot.


I think Sameer's questions sharpen a point I've been trying to make here, namely that there must be some arbiter of reality in something other than your concept of community. I'm not sure how you addressed that in your comments. The word "cartesian" seems to be thrown around a bit too loosely, I think - I'm not asking about how to gain rationalistic certainty - I'm trying to understand how what you're saying is any kind of model of accounting for rationality. How does what you're saying not simply descend into one person's preferences asserted over another? I'm sorry for beating a dead horse, here, but you sound like a relativist - and I'm not in the habit of throwing that accusation around. I don't even think Foucault or Derrida were necessary relativists.


I am suggesting a way to evaluate rival claims, afterall. But what I'm suggesting is that any evaluation needs to be done on their own terms. This evaluation isn't based on the individual's preferences or tastes but on the community's terms.

I just don't see how replacing the individual's judgment with that of the "community" carries the weight of justification any better. I'm sorry if I sounded dismissive - I think I agree with you, at least in the fact that claims should be evaluated on their own terms. But even in that bit of wisdom, I wonder if Christianity isn't more totalizing than that; is there a moral obligation for us to evaluate competing claims on some other terms than their own (namely terms that ground reality in God)?


Nice to hear from you! Like I mentioned to Bryan, I'm in total agreement with you - but I think Christian reflection on methodology is worthwhile.

dug said...

I understand that the word Cartesian gets thrown around like a slur in some spaces, but I intend it for no purpose other than to allude to the modern concept that ideas must fall into one of three categories: undeniable or based undeniably on undeniables ("true"), self-contradictory or contradicting undeniables ("false"), or unknown. Since my ideas have gotten lumped in with relativism ("For this is what your folk would call magic, I believe; though I do not understand clearly what they mean; and they seem to use the same word for the deceits of the Enemy. But this, if you will, is the magic of Galadriel. Did you not say that you wished to see Elf-magic?" - Tolkien), I have assumed you have an expansive "unknowable" category in mind that includes both my ideas and those of the "philosophical relativist" (how many of those are still around, anyhow?). So, at this point, let me ask plainly what I have heretofore been guessing at: What makes you think the community doesn't have rationality? Why is community consensus not rational?

Your evaluation that I "sound like a relativist" strikes me as a bit curious when it follows closely my claim that, "...norms are ultimately what Yahweh declares them to be, for no other reason than that he has declared them." Could you untangle this knot for me? Perhaps my position could be summarized as "All things are relative to the Almighty," but that seems a little forced.

TheBlueRaja said...


You've got me a little confused. What are you arguing for? Rationality as divine decree or rationality as historical/cultural paradigm? Do you take issue with all attempts at epistemic justification qua epistemic justification?

dug said...

Raja, sorry to take the questioning exchange a level deeper, but I'm unclear what "rationality as divine decree" means. Does it mean, "God commands us to be rational," "Belief in the divine renders men rational," "Certain things God said form the basis of rationality," or something else?

I have no problems with "epistemic justifications" that are accepted by all, or nearly all, of Christ's church (not to mention a good fraction of the rest of humanity), but seeing that each is contested by some segments of the church, I find it necessary to recognize the inherent sectarian (or "historical/cultural," if you like) limitations of such justifications (since I am unwilling to following a schismatic path). If a discipline claims rationality after the manner of arithmetic, then everybody in the world has to get the same answers to fundamental questions, the way everyone in the world gets one answer to "2 + 2".

metalepsis said...

If everyone ultimately can only evaluate other interpretations from the standpoint of their own, what's the way out of that particular cul-de-sac?

I don't know that this will be of any help, but what if THERE IS NO WAY OUT!

TheBlueRaja said...

Sir Bryan,

That was badly worded. I meant to say that if everyone is deterministically locked into their own community's narrative, what's the way out of that particular cul-de-sac? How do we account for conversion or provide reasons for converting that don't reduce Christianity to something less than the "message of truth" (Eph. 1:13), the rejection of which being worthy of judgment (2 Thess. 2:11-12)?

TheBlueRaja said...


My confusion comes from the fact that you seem to be saying that rationality stems from the ability to hear God's command, which is to say that it's a feature of our being His creatures, and at the same time you seem to be saying that it's completely socially constructed (this is related to Sameer's suspicion that you're reducing rationality to its sociological components).

The question put to you earlier, which might help move the discussion forward, is what you might commend to the unbeliever as reasons for believing. What (non-emotive) perscriptive power can the Gospel have on unbelievers, in your view?

metalepsis said...

Well that is something to chew on now isn’t it?

First I am not sure that anyone is deterministically locked into any narrative. Identity is formed by community and the others, but I am not sure anyone would argue that were are completely determined by our community, and even if some do I think they would at least consent there are many voices to any single community so as to account for varying degrees of difference.

I think that any answer I can summons will end up sounding, at the very least, pragmatic and at the very worst; banal. But what I keep coming back to is the power of narrative and narrative ‘truth’. Does it really matter how we account for conversion, we know it happens. Not that accounting for it is a vain pursuit, but pragmatically what does it accomplish?

Perhaps the explanation of the paradox is that the message of truth is a being in becoming? I don’t know…

dug said...

Raja, I think "rationality" is defined by the agreement of sentient beings (humans, angels, God, etc.) to certain values, so if you include God or gods in your idea of "social," then I agree that rationality is socially constructed. The universe does not reason, it simply does it's thing. Rationality is a product of thinking minds. If there are no gods, then rationality did not exist prior to the rise of humankind.

The same goes for morality. A moral obligation is a social obligation (even if to God). The words for "ought" in Greek (opheilomen), Latin (debere), and English reflect the notion of a debt by one person to another. We "ought" to do something when the creditor of the "ought" promises consequences for our not doing it. The Third Commandment could be formed: "You owe [to God] not to use His name carelessly. He will impose consequences for doing so."

The word "rational" reflects its origin in computation, but you cannot have computation until someone defines a system of mathematics (of which there are many, each with its own rationality). We in the West are often Euclidian thinkers in the large, with the reductionist notion that there are a few basic axioms that everyone can see and which give birth to all the right thinking in the world. "Proving" something is a matter of tightly connecting it to these axioms or to things connected tightly to these axioms.

I think this contrasts the Biblical model where certain people just do not see rightly. If Jesus' claims were "provable" in the Euclidean sense, why didn't he sit down with the Pharisees and work out the math? Why didn't he show their unbelief as ridiculous as disputing 1+1? The Pharisees were not blockheads; they were not impious, except insofar as their blindness made them so.

I do not have a 5-step process for convincing unbelievers that they should believe the Gospel. The reasons one might believe the Gospel are as diverse as the universe itself. I point back to WLC 4 for my answer to this. Those whom God has enlightened will "see" the majesty, purity, and scope of the Gospel when it is propounded, and they will believe. To the unenlightened, no proof is possible. Formal reasoning has no equivalent concept.

In order to account for belief, I would say that a man, pre-conversion, has some sense of his existential dilemma, and the Scriptures talk to that sense. Upon embracing the Scriptures, he gains better understanding of his situation, which in turn gives him better understanding of the Scriptures. (This idea comes from Wright.) Unlike foundationalism, there is no "bottom" to this. It's more analogous to a self-learning Bayesian system, like a modern spam filter. You don't try to "define" spam in the abstract. You show it examples of what is good mail and what is bad mail, and it figures out what good mail "looks" like.

HZ said...

I didn't even know you were back....

Jonathan Moorhead said...

August 8? Are you in a blog coma again?

TheBlueRaja said...

I feel your pain, Jonathan. Here's the short answer.

Nice to hear from you again, HZ!!!!

HZ said...

It's very nice that you're back online.... I was sad to read the entry on Boar's Head that you linked to. Right now Ruben and I also feel, with the things that are happening to our church family-- almost afraid to even pick up the phone when it rings, or to make calls to check up on people. But 'he shall not be afraid of evil tidings: his heart is fixed, trusting in the Lord.' We'll pray for you and your family.

TheBlueRaja said...

I'll pray for you and Ruben today, Heidi. I know exactly how you feel.