Sunday, January 20, 2019

Panentheism and Hegelian Controversies

One other reason I was so long in writing here is that I was working on an article for my doctoral mentor's festschrift. His celebration was in May 2018. The volume came out December 2018. My article is entitled: "Panentheism and Hegelian Controversies." The book is edited by Dennis vanden Auweele and is called William Desmond’s Philosophy between Metaphysics, Religion, Ethics, and Aesthetics: Thinking Metaxologically. It was published by Palgrave Macmillan Press.

A hermeneutic of suspicion or a hermeneutic of generosity : On Doubt Part III

We cannot know everything.  We must rely always to a large degree on the expertise of others.  I don’t know much about pharmacology, but I trust my pharmacist.

As believers we have doubts.  We should go to a “doubt doctor”, so to speak. This takes humility and this is something honestly which those who doubt are often duped by.

There is a more than subtle tendency among those who doubt and leave the faith to suppose that they know better.  They are enlightened.  They are advanced.

Again, I think of a Lewis reference.  In the novel Perelandra Professor Weston has become the “Unman.”  Weston was seduced by “forward” thinking.  He believed that he controlled the future of the human race and eventually the whole universe.  He was seduced by his “advanced” thinking.  He was the expert.  He was the master.  All others were caught in darkness or were too unevolved to understand.

Too late Weston realized that he had been seduced by Satan.  Though he wanted to fight back, it was too late once he had become the Unman, once he was animated by the devil.  The spirit who animated him allowed only glimpses of the old Weston to appear.  Weston had given himself to a lie and in the end the lie consumed him.

Am I saying that all doubt is satanic?  Yes!  What else would it be?  Someone desperately wants us to give up our faith.  That same person wants to paralyze us with doubt or make us ineffectual in our faith.

I don’t mean to be irrational.  I have a PhD in philosophy. (That certainly taught me the difference between truth and foolishness.) However, there is also a spiritual battle going on.

It is not irrational to believe in the devil.  The devil uses pride as one of his chief tools with intellectuals, though not solely with intellectuals.

Perhaps intellectuals are more prone to a sort of scholarly pride than other folks.  Certainly, Christian intellectuals who work on doctorates at state universities face challenges to their faith all the time.

From my own sphere of philosophy there have been many challenges to faith.  The current major contender is “Postmodernism.” 

Postmodernism has many faces.  It appears in literary criticism and hermeneutics (literary interpretation), as well as in philosophical epistemology (theory of knowledge) and anthropology, sociology and ethics. 

The main thrust of “Postmodernism” is that we finite humans located in space and time (limited not only by our human sense organs, but also bound to one place and a certain era or time period) cannot know truth objectively, if at all. There is no “true truth”, to borrow a phrase from Francis Schaeffer.  The gist is that since we are so bounded, limited we cannot know truth.  All we know is our own viewpoint, what we think truth is.

In biblical and theological studies this spills over into questioning how we could know whether any revelation is true.  All revelations are the work of some author(s) limited in space and time and reflect their values and desires.  Worse, following some thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche and Michel Foucault, all such “revelation” or revealed truth is nothing more than the attempt of the priest craft to control a society.  There can be no objective truth which applies to all.  All such attempts to define such a universal truth are attempts at “power ploys,” attempts to control others. This sort of literary criticism of the Bible, then, becomes by its very nature a “hermeneutics of suspicion.”  While Postmodern hermeneutics says that we cannot know what the author intended when he wrote, we must at the same time, incoherently, identify what “power ploys” are at work in the text.

In terms of theology there can be no “objective” arguments for the existence of God. Most Postmodern thinkers follow Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud and Ludwig Feuerbach saying that all “gods” are merely products of human imagination, “projections.” “God” is either a father figure who protects us and gives us what we want or “God” is a projection of our twisted fantasies and fears.  “God” might, according to some like Ludwig Wittgenstein, be a word which has meaning to theologians, but which has no meaning outside the discipline of theology.  There is no way to reach God epistemologically, that is through sense perception or thought.

As I was wrestling with these subjects while pursuing my MA in Philosophy, I came across an article by Douglas Groothuis, who is a Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary in Colorado.  Groothuis entitled his article “Apologetics, Truth and Humility.”[1] In this article and elsewhere Groothuis has explained the limits of human knowing (epistemology) and the role of humility in our knowing.  I usually refer to it as epistemic humility.

Obviously, I am a human and limited.  Again, it’s clear that I am located in a certain place and time.  I tend to think like the people around me and see the world as they do. However, a normal response would be, “OK I have a tendency to be biased in these matters. So, I’ll try to take that into consideration.”  However, with Postmodern epistemology the stakes are much greater.  Postmoderns argue that NO ONE can know THE TRUTH.  We only know something which is biased and we cannot escape that bias.  There is no “God’s eye view”, that is no one has a universal third person observer stance.  Everyone is biased and limited to the point that no one can know THE TRUTH.  There is my truth and your truth and her truth and his truth.

The Postmodern view or epistemology is very persuasive and tenacious once it gets a grip.  Some of its tenets seem true: I am finite. I am located in time and space.  I do have biases.  However, the idea that I cannot know any “true truth”, to borrow a phrase from Francis Schaeffer, is patently absurd. I know what I had for breakfast.  I know who my wife is. I know who my children are. I know that my feet are cold since I don’t have socks and shoes on.  We may not know everything and there may be some things we will never know or know with absolute certainty, but it is a mistake to expect anyone ever did or could know everything truly.  The issue is: Do we know some things certainly, truly?

Don’t get me wrong. I think Postmoderns are worth listening to.  They hold a lot of beliefs which technically they shouldn’t, but which are true: love for minorities, support for women’s rights, care for the oppressed, love of democracy, and other issues.  However, this may be a case of “Do as I say, not as I do.”  While being sure there are no absolutes, Postmoderns hold some things absolutely.

Which brings us back to Postmodern biblical interpretation.  We should beware of our biases and prejudices.  We should listen to the other and take the other’s views into our accounts.  We should protect women, minorities, the oppressed and work for democratic society.  However, the rejection of revelation as a possibility would exceed even the Postmoderns’ claims to knowledge.  The best they could say is, “I can’t prove or disprove that any revelation is true.”

However, we have a right to affirm biblical revelation based on our experience of God, Jesus and the Bible to use a “hermeneutics of generosity” when we read the Bible.  Our experience and our research have shown us that the Bible is true in so far as we can test it.  Clearly we cannot test every statement.  That would be absurd and we do not trust or distrust anything else in this way.  If challenged by a defeater we look for a rebutting defeater.  We do not easily give up our biblical faith in the face of every supposed challenger.  We seek truth as we can and have faith (not blind trust, but reasonable trust) that we can find answers.  Our knowledge is more like an asymptote, a curved line approaching an axis.  We never have “absolute” knowledge, but we have knowledge beyond a reasonable doubt which is ever approximating, getting closer to truth.

So, a “hermeneutic of generosity” towards the Bible will usually  bring us closer to the truth.  A “hermeneutics of suspicion” may be useful to identify our biases and power ploys, but it cannot explain why we believe anything at all and it cannot produce any “truth” or even any pragmatic goals.

How then should you handle doubt? Turn to a trusted friend.  Hang on to your faith and seek a “rebutting defeater.” Resist pride.  Don’t believe you and you alone or at least you and the small group of illuminati have the truth.  Exercise a “hermeneutic of generosity” and don’t take any wooden nickels.

Wolterstorff or Nietzsche The web of belief: On Doubt Part II

The second thing I have thought about in relation to my friend’s doubts is that our beliefs are not all of the same importance.  This is called the “Web” or “Mosaic” of belief.  This is an idea of Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff. Some beliefs are central to our worldview, to our Christian belief.  If Jesus did not rise from the dead, there is no Christianity. Christianity is not merely a philosophy or set of moral teachings.  Christianity is the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus.  Similarly, the Bible is the basis of our faith in a profound way.  If the Bible is not true, then our faith is vain.

Again, I admire my friend in that he felt he had reason to reject the Bible as true, and so felt that he must reject Christianity.  If the Bible does not give us correct information, then we believe a fraud.  It would be a reason to reject Christianity.  If a “hard-core” belief (an essential belief) is attacked and fails, then the result should be to reject one’s faith.  However, when a hard-core belief is challenged, we should seek a “rebutting defeater.”  An argument lodged against our faith is a “defeater.” A “defeater” is an argument which seeks to unfound our faith.  We should look for a counter-argument, a “rebutting defeater” to answer that charge against our faith.

I usually give my students the following illustration.  Someone comes to me and says, “Your wife is being unfaithful to you.”  My first reaction would be to laugh.  If that person continued and said, “I saw your wife at the university library having lunch with a guy!” I would respond by asking what he looked like.  If they person responded, “He was blond, had glasses and they were laughing a lot.”  Again, I would laugh relieved.  He would have been one of our tenants, a Master’s student in Old Testament at the university here in Leiden. The extra details would give me my rebutting defeater.  My love for my wife and her love for me might not end my worldview, but it would end my world and I would not entertain doubts about her faithfulness lightly.

In my friend’s case, I could not see why the objections he gave were of such a magnitude that he would have to give up his faith.  I will give a couple examples.

He told me that the Hebrews could not have had a literary language (such as is in the Pentateuch) because the only evidence for western Semites having written language were some legal contracts found from that period.  In other words, until the seventh century there was no evidence (outside the Bible) that the Hebrews would have had a developed enough language to write about such things as law, poetry, creation, etc. The only evidence for western Semites having writing came from walls of caves of mines which the Hebrews worked at the time of Moses, and the contracts were not sufficient to support the sort of literature in the Pentateuch.

I was honestly rather mystified by this argument.  When I was in seminary Dr. Gleason Archer used the proof of the western Semites (Hebrews) having writing at all to show that Moses indeed could have written the Pentateuch.

It seems that the question is one of a “hermeneutics of suspicion” or a “hermeneutics of generosity.”  Not willing to give up 19th century liberal biblical scholars’ rejection of Moses’ ability to write in Hebrew in 1450 or 1200, current scholars take that same evidence Archer took to support Mosaic authorship and use it to attack Mosaic authorship.

If we use a “hermeneutic of generosity”, the Bible tells us that Moses was a “son of Pharaoh’s daughter.”  He would have been educated in the languages of the area and period (Egyptian hieroglyphs and other Ancient Near Eastern languages and literature).  Surely if this was so, then Moses could have written the Pentateuch.  However, if we will only believe the Bible when what is outside the Bible attests to it, we will have little to believe.  If on the other hand, we accept that the Bible is a trustworthy historical document in so far as we can test it, there is no problem with Mosaic authorship (whatever we think about Ezra’s “redaction”).

My friend also said that there were no “-iah” (-yah) names (Hezekiah, for instance) until the seventh century.  I remembered that in the Book of Job which is supposed by some to be one of the oldest books in the Bible that one of the main characters was Eli[ya]hu (the vowel pointing could be disputed).

He felt that there was clear proof of the Pentateuch being written in the seventh century.  Again, I think most evangelical OT scholars would accept that Ezra or the “Chronicler” carried out a redaction about that time. My friend’s objection seems more like a “hermeneutics of suspicion” than a cause for doubt.

He felt that it was clear that Second Kings had been written to trash all other contenders for the throne of Judah, except Josiah and that it was unthinkable that the priests and kings would have “forgotten” the Law and it would suddenly be found by Josiah.  But is that not what the OT text says? Why is it hard to believe that those who repressed the true priests of God and persecuted them, who murdered them, and worshipped the Baals, would not pay attention to the Law?  I recalled at that time how Jehoiakim cut up the scroll of Jeremiah and burned it in the fire. Jer. 36. It doesn’t seem too strange then that the knowledge of the Law would fade under such rulers or that they would be godless.  Kings of Israel and Judah were to read from the Law every day, even to make their own handwritten copy, but many obviously did not. 

It seems highly believable that some priests might hide a scroll of the Law in the Temple would also not be strange.  They would want to protect it. 

There is a somewhat similar story in Leiden in the Netherlands from World War II.  The Nazis had a tendency to take over universities in conquered lands.  They granted themselves doctorates from prestigious universities like Leiden.  When Leiden was about to fall, the beadle’s staff disappeared.  The beadle is the university official who presides over doctoral defenses.  Without the staff no doctorates could be issued.  After the Nazis were defeated someone found the beadle’s staff hidden in the rafters of the Pieterskerk...

I don’t mean that we should “explain away” all doubts.  That would be fideism, but I want to say that we must think carefully, long and hard before we give up a hard-core belief.  I will examine evidence of any sort, but I am unlikely to accept something just because another liberal scholar casts one more doubt.  It’s not about one “smoking gun”, it’s about the general and overall trustworthiness of Scripture.

The first line of defense should be turn to your community, your church, your colleagues and friends.  The second line of defense is hold onto your hard-core beliefs and look for a rebutting defeater, an argument which answers the doubt.  The final line of defense is humility.