Saturday, September 24, 2005

While You're Waiting . . .

I've been working on a follow-up post to my previous discussion regarding post-evangelicalism and its emphasis on community. I'm not done yet so I thought I would throw in a little piece from an article I've been working on. It's entirely too long for a blog post and will probably bore most of you to tears. If you have any interest in epistemology you might find it remotely interesting.

At present, I am not satisfied with either neo or post-foundational epistemologies. Perhaps further study will resolve my discontent, but I offer the following preliminary critique of each. In my mind, post-foundational epistemologies too readily dismiss existential knowing as a legitimate means of arriving at objective certainty, and neo-foundational systems, though utilizing existential (as opposed to non-empirical) sense perception, do not readily assert that knowledge gained through such perception is capable of providing full certainty.

Grenz (a post-foundationalist), following Lindbeck, contends that experiences are always filtered through preestablished interpretive frameworks and language constructs (Renewing the Center, 203). Thus for Grenz, our experiences cannot be objectively grasped, but only subjectively measured through the unique interpretive framework and linguistic categories which have first prepared us for each particular experience. The deck is already stacked in a given direction (The Christian Belief-Mosaic, 122). Similarly, Vanhoozer insists on a necessary circularity between one’s first theology (part of which is based upon experience) and one’s hermeneutic. Consequently for Vanhoozer, one’s theological presuppositions determine one’s hermeneutic and one’s hermeneutic determines one’s theological presuppositions (First Theology, 38).

Though there are differences between Vanhoozer and Grenz, both of these views seem to suggest that our interpretation of a given data set is, in some measure, predetermined by our previous interpretive framework. In my mind this comes close to suggesting that we believe in a thing largely because we have been conditioned to do so. As far as I can see, Grenz and Vanhoozer are correct that much of our knowing takes place in this fashion. Social location does effect—though I think not infallibly determine—the perspectives we hold and many of the truth claims we make. Yet neither Grenz nor Vanhoozer seem to properly account for (or apply) the human capacity to “know existentially” apart from rational/linguistic capabilities.

Contrary to much of postmodern thought, I would suggest that the ability to know something transcends, and is independent of, rational thought, language, or social location (see also Moreland and De Weese who argue similarly in Premature Report, 98). Just as an infant in the womb can know hot, cold, pain, or joy (see Luke 1: 44) apart from any prior social construct or linguistic category, so too our knowledge of Christ transcends language, developed cognition, and social location. The primary object of the Christian faith is not rational/linguistic, but personal/relational. Salvation does not come to us due to our knowledge about God (as a concept), but rather our knowledge of God (as a person). It is the person of the risen Christ we seek—this present, living person who existentially manifests himself to us independent of our interpretive framework or linguistical categories of knowing. Neither John in the womb, nor Paul on the road to Damascus, were immersed in a previous interpretive framework that gave rise to, or helped them adequately interpret, their encounter with the divine. They knew before they understood. It was faith—the epistemological assurance of Hebrews 11:1—seeking understanding. In these instances, interpretation of the event followed the event itself. Certainly resources that lay within their respective interpretive frameworks (e.g., scripture, the Christian community, etc.,) later helped to explain this existential encounter, but these resources did not give rise to what they now already knew to be true—that Christ is. (Similarly, many are the accounts out of the Middle East which suggest that Christ manifests himself supernaturally through dreams quite independent of—indeed counter to— the dreamer’s previous interpretive framework.) Certainly these examples are unique, but they do suggest that it is possible to “know” God through a personal encounter (and even apart from scripture) in a way that runs quite contrary to—and thus independendent of—one’s previous interpretive framework or language categories.

Thus contrary to Grenz and Vanhoozer, I would suggest that it is our existential/personal encounter with the risen Christ that provides the basis for the epistemic certainty of faith that scripture requires (Hebrews 11:6) and serves as the foundation upon which we begin thinking of God. Regeneration/illumination precedes theology. Perhaps what I am proposing could be termed an existential foundationalism—a foundationalism not built upon the finite capacity of the human mind, nor even upon an existential experience that is irretraceable from one’s previous interpretive framework ( nor the collective experience of one’s community—as liberal foundationalism suggests), but rather a foundationalism that is grounded in the infinite capacity of God to transcend our personal matrix and impress the reality of himself directly upon the human soul. Our spirit touches his and faith (i.e., certainty) is born.

Further, contrary to soft/modest foundationalism, I see no reason why this existential encounter with the living Christ is insufficient to produce an epistemic certainty on par with other categories of knowledge about which we have no meaningful uncertainty (such as our own gender, city of residence, etc.). Edwards, discussing conversion writes, “It seems to me, that in many instances, when the glory of Christian truth has been set before persons, and they have . . . tasted, and felt the divinity of them, they have been as far from doubting their truth as they are from doubting whether there be a sun.” (Jonathan Edwards, A Narrative of Surprising Conversions [Finland, Banner of Truth Trust, 1999], 42.) To suggest such an existential encounter with the divine it is not sufficient for producing epistemic certainty seems to be a retreat back to the empiricism of classical foundationalism.

Postmodernity is right to question the sufficiency of man to ascend to the truth of an infinite God. But postmodernity errs in as much as it contends that God cannot condescend to the finiteness of man. Certainty is possible, but God must graciously will it.

So there you have it. Any questions?

No comments: