C. Michael Patton’s recent attack on Roman Catholic scholarship from the perspective of an evangelical caused me to think a bit more about the language he used regarding epistemology. In his first post “Embracing Doubt or Why ‘Roman Catholic Scholarship’ is an Oxymoron” he spoke positively of Rene Descartes’ starting point in doubting everything. Also, in a single sentence, he affirmed that “no one is completely objective in their studies” and then criticized Roman Catholics because “when it comes to their defined dogma” they “cannot really study objectively”. This has forced me to ask whether or not we are cautious enough when discussing “objectivity”, open-mindedness, and scholarship. These are my brief(er) thoughts:
(1) There is no such thing as so-called “objectivity”. Let’s examine this sentence: “JohnDave Medina examines his new piano.”
Who is the subject? JohnDave Medina. What is the object? The piano. Is it possible for JohnDave Medina to know the piano in such a way that he somehow embodies the piano making himself “objective”? No. He will always be the subject when he is examining something. Everything he sees and learns while accurate and true is still from his subjective perspective.
JohnDave Medina is wearing glasses. This means he may see the piano differently that a sibling with weak eyes who is not wearing his or her glasses. He senses the texture of the keys through his hands (no one can share that unique moment). There are a million ways in which this is a subjective moment.
I am not denying the reality of the object. I am saying that “objectivity” seems to be a misnomer. I know why we use the word. We want to indicate that we are open to exposing our own bias. We are willing to suspend our presuppositions as much as is possible. These are worthwhile exercises, but they are not examples of someone being “objective”.
(2) We should not deny our presuppositions. We must acknowledge their existence. We must hold to them cautiously.
Marc Cortez commented on my second post written in response to Patton titled “The inconsistency of an evangelical apologist (or stop trying to insult our Roman Catholic friends).” In this post he asked me if my own preference for a less set-in-stone confessional stance meant that I basically agree with Patton’s overall thesis while only denying how he applies it to the differences between Roman Catholics and evangelicals. I think the answer is “yes” and “no”.
Obviously, even if I were qualified (I’m not), I would not be able to be hired at a Roman Catholic institution where I would have to teach particular Roman Catholic doctrines. Why? Well, I don’t agree with those doctrines so it would make it a bit odd. I can say the same thing about The Master’s Seminary (sorry, I affirm women leading in the church and I think professional counseling is a good thing) or Dallas Theological Seminary (dispensationalism still confuses me after all these years) or Reformed Theological Seminary (do I have to explain?). On the other hand, there are some institutions who either (A) have a shorter lists of affirmations for those seeking employment or (B) have a list of affirmations that I can affirm.
If Fuller Theological Seminary or George Fox Evangelical Seminary has a shorter list of things that need to be affirmed than Denver Seminary or Wheaton College does that make the former institutions more “open-minded” than the latter? If an evangelicalism allows for more divergent thinking without penalty than Roman Catholicism does that make it more “open-minded”? Maybe, but to say that it does for sure is to miss something.
Whether or not one is “open-minded” can be (1) subjective and (2) not necessarily good. First, let’s say James McGrath suddenly came to hold some conservative evangelical doctrines like the infallibility of Scripture and the doctrine of the Trinity as evangelicals hold to it. Let’s say he suddenly sees the gospels of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the only message of salvation. In his next class he tells his Buddhist student that without Christ she is separated from God. When all this comes to the forefront will he maintain his position as the Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University? Probably not without a fight and I am sure that if he affirmed these things before he was nominated to this position he would not have earned it.
Is Butler University “open-minded” to conservative evangelicals? I assume most honest people would say “no”. Is this a good thing, a bad thing, or just a thing? I guess it depends on whether or not you are a Buddhist student wanting to take a class on the historical Jesus this next semester or an evangelical wanting a job at Butler University!
We can argue that certain guidelines make for better scholarship. We can say that some so-called “rules” of historiography allow scholars of early Christianity ranging from confessional evangelical to atheist to have a meeting point and that for that reason alone we should maintain particular guidelines for order. That being said, I don’t know that we are correct to say one way is more “open-minded” than another.
On the other hand we may say that the Society of Biblical Literature is more “open-minded” in some ways that the Evangelical Theological Society. An evangelical can deliver a paper at SBL in San Francisco in Novemember. An atheist historian will not be presenting at ETS. Of course, when it comes down to it, even SBL must not be “open-minded” about everything. They reject paper proposals and they do not allow high school seniors to give talks.
Everyone has presuppositions. We all allows certain things to count as legitimate knowledge within our paradigm and we all reject other things. At the end of the day the best we can do is ask everyone to do their best to admit their presuppositions (e.g. Someone may not be able to accept the resurrection of Jesus as a historical event because that person does not think good historiography allows for an explanation that assumes anything beyond naturalism), without pretending that somewhere in the universe their presupposition is set in stone as the only way to see things.
(3) We must enter the so-called “hermeneutical spiral” allowing our presuppositions to be challenged at times. So while I am cautious about saying one group is “open-minded” while another is not, I do agree with Patton that we must enter some form of hermeneutical spiral to test ourselves. We must be willing to ask whether or not what we believe makes sense. This may be where he appealed to Descartes. As a fellow Frenchman I am not against Descartes doubt though I must appeal to my friends Derrida, Foucault, and Lyotard (and many others) in my skepticism that doubt will someone make sure better at reaching some form of pure knowledge.
This is where my statements about institutions with more wiggle-room come to play. It is not that I am “open-minded” so I prefer “open-minded” institutions. It is that I want to test my understanding of this or that and be free to change my mind within reasonable limits!
What are “reasonable limits? Well, you guessed it…that’s a bit subjective. I could not teach somewhere were I had to deny my Christian beliefs. I think I could teach in such a way that allows my students to reach their own conclusions, but if I were asked if I thought about subject A, B, or C I’d like to be able to answer. Likewise, this means I’d like to teach somewhere someday where if I change my mind on a fringe doctrine (e.g. the historicity of Adam and Eve) I won’t have to fake it to stay employed. So when I say I appreciate those institutions with wiggle-room it may be because they are more “open-minded” or it may be that they are open where I am open!
(4) There are many reasons for maintaining presuppositions. One reason for Roman Catholics is because they have concluded that the Magistrate has a particular kind of authority. They are open-minded to that possibility that the Pope of Rome can speak ex cathedra while I’m closed to this. If Pope Benedict XVI makes one of these declarations tomorrow most Roman Catholics will submit because they have reached particular conclusions about the Papacy, the church, and authority.
Is there anything superior about my evangelical, low-church “yes, I like tradition when it agrees with me and no, I don’t like it when it disagrees” approach? Not really. Any Roman Catholic is free to change his or her mind and face the consequences. I am free to change my mind and face the consequences. Whether this relates to where we worship or where we are employed the similarities are more than the differences.
I maintain some presuppositions because I don’t think I have the right as an individual to redefine certain things. That is a presupposition as well. I don’t think I have the right to deny that the church speaks of the Christian God as Trinity. If I struggle or wrestle with that doctrine at times it is my struggle, but the Great Tradition of Christianity affirms it so I will affirm that it is orthodoxy. If I were to ever feel like the doctrine of the Trinity doesn’t make sense or explain God very well that would be my problem, but I wouldn’t say that the church should change.
One of my presuppositions that leads to this presupposition is that I don’t think the Holy Spirit would allow the church to get something this essential so wrong. So even where I struggle with this or that nuance of the doctrine of the Trinity, it is orthodoxy in part because I trust that God sent his Spirit to lead and guide his church into truth.
Do I lack the consistency of my Roman Catholic and Orthodox friends in this area? Yup, but it is what it is and I know it. There are some presuppositions I must maintain for my Christianity to exist (i.e. God is good; God is love; God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself) and there are other things that I don’t need personally (i.e. the nature of communion is A).
(5) To be open-minded is usually a good thing, but extreme forms of open-mindedness are not a virtue. I cannot find the exact source of the quotation, but I think it was G.K. Chesterton who wrote, “Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”
I am not a fundamentalist because I would starve since my mouth would always remain closed to new insight, truth, and perspective. I am not a relativist because I don’t want to gag to death on lies and error. Somewhere, like eating, we must learn when to keep our mind open and when to shut it; when to chew and swallow and when to choke and spit.
“sorry, I affirm women leading in the church and I think professional counseling is a good thing”
Also, I like my friend Adam’s saying: If you are too open minded, your brains will fall out!
I love the last paragraph. Well put!
@Rod: That does a fine job capturing my Chesterton’s point as well.
“I don’t think I have the right to deny that the church speaks of the Christian God as Trinity. If I struggle or wrestle with that doctrine at times it is my struggle, but the Great Tradition of Christianity affirms it so I will affirm that it is orthodoxy. If I were to ever feel like the doctrine of the Trinity doesn’t make sense or explain God very well that would be my problem, but I wouldn’t say that the church should change.”
The amen is for your whole article…the portion I centered on applies to my whole (kinda sorta) thoughts of church orthodoxy (as I see it.)
Brian, amazing. I did not comment yesterday. Because this question (today’s subject) came to mind. I’m not going to weigh in. I’m stuck for now. Without an answer in a friendly moot court argument over the definition – “theologian: professional” – and I’m comparing professional objectivity to non-professional dogma-preservation (dogma preservation at the cost of objectivity defined as changing dogma-theory in the face of new facts) inside the medical community. See the book, “Etiology.” Excellent book on dogma and professional canon and objectivity (medical in this case). It covers the contours of objectivity and open mindedness. Analogies to theology (imho). Like I said, I’m stuck. For a response to a friendly agnostic on my blog. I’m thankful for your subject today. I’m looking for help in peripheral visions. Good job, yesterday and today. ~ Jim
@Nancy : Thanks! I tend to be willing to let central points of orthodoxy remain unchallenged while admitting where I may struggle with them. Secondary points are worth challenging though.
@Jim : Thanks! You’re correct, this does have a different impact on those whose vocation is at stake and those who feel these questions put their very worldview at stake.
I think I know what you wanted to say, but I also find the way you actually put it problematic. Butler University has Evangelical students galore and Evangelical professors. And the fact that some are not Evangelicals and/or conservatives does not mean either that they have not had a born again experience or that they are not people of faith. In some cases it means that even having come through such a context their views have changed.
I don’t think Butler would be supportive of any professor using class time to proselytize, in a way that uses the professor’s authority and control over grades to pressure students towards religious conversion. I would hope that even at most Evangelical schools they would realize that that is not an appropriate way to go about things. But if you are suggesting that I am not free to talk about my faith, and that others who are more conservative than I am are not free to do the same, then you are badly misinformed.
@James: I assumed that there were evangelical students. I am surprised, but pleased, to hear that there are evangelicals professors (in the religion department?) and a freedom to discuss your own faith (which can be complicated in state funded institutions and organizations as I’ve learned from past jobs).
But as you know from your interaction with evangelicals many would feel obligated to emphasize their perspective of Christianity with the desire to convert others. In most evangelical seminaries one cannot e a student without some faith commitment and most evangelical professors likely prefer to teach where they share that starting point with their students.
Whether or not you fid it wrong to proselytize students is secondary to my point. My main point is thy if you did begin behaving that way there would be consequences for acting in a way that many evangelicals would celebrate.
You specifically said that, in your imagined scenario, I would not merely be sharing my faith with a student, but urging them to convert in class, presumably in the presence of other students (otherwise it wouldn’t be a class), which is a very particular setting and one in which I think even many Evangelicals would recognize that not merely faith but power and coercion come into play. I have talked about my own faith publicly on campus at events organized by campus ministries.
I think a lot of Evangelicals think that private secular universities are hostile environments in which to be a person of faith. But that is Perhaps largely because a lot of Americans think that not having everyone agree with you and actively support you is a form of persecution.
@James: I am not saying your willingness to avoid coercion in a classroom setting is bad. If I were in your situation I’d approach it the same way. What I am saying is simply that if you were to do this your institution would frown upon you while if it became evident in a conservative, evangelical seminary classroom that a student was either struggling with faith or losing it I assume the professor would feel the equal and exact opposite obligation.
You may be 100% correct regarding how evangelicals engage society and view interaction, but that is not really the focus of the point I was trying to make. The focus was regarding how we discuss “open-mindedness” and realizing that there is a lot of relativity to what one may consider open-minded.
The Chesterton quotation you paraphrased is from his book on Thomas Aquinas.
The trouble with such a quotation being meaningful is that most people are pretty certain that what they know (or think they know) is true, therefore most people think they are biting down on something solid, including people with different views. Hence, Chesterton’s quotation puts nothing into perspective since most people already think their minds are neither too open nor too closed. So disagreements continue interminably so. It’s always the “other fellow” who just has to open or close their mouths a little more in order to see things “our way.” A more honest quotation would probably be Oscar Wilde’s, “It’s easy to convert others (seemingly so), but oh so difficult to convert one’s self.”
Personally, I was in love with Chesterton till I realized how much of his stuff was simply wank-speak. He wrote an essay on cosmology once, building up toward citing the verse in Job, “He hangs the earth on nothing,” as if the bible contained nuggets of scientific wisdom far in advance of its day and age, something young-earth creationists like Henry Morris also believed. Apparently G.K., like Morris, never studied other sections of Job that are indubitably flat oriented when it came to the three tiered ANE cosmos, nor noted the fact that the sky/heaven is hung above the earth and the earth is hung above Sheol in that section of Job. Typical three-tier ANE cosmology. Sheesh, what an amateur wanker G.K. was. Great at making a point, even ignorant ones.
G.K. pulled the same wankish trick in The Everlasting Man in which he built up to citing the verse in the Gospel of John, “Before Abraham was, I am,” and concluded that anyone who said such a thing was neither this, nor that, but probably God, without pausing to ask whether the historical Jesus might have, or might not, said such a thing. Chesterton’s “argument” was employed forty years later by C. S. Lewis. Thanks, G.K. for making the world dumber! And saving it from “heresy,” or even from asking obvious questions.
And what of Chesterton’s observation in Orthodoxy:
“Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom. I am not, as will be seen, in any sense attacking logic: I only say that this danger does lie in logic, not in imagination.”
Logic is more dangerous for the mind than imagination? I think Chesterton is wrong, an idiot in fact in making such a statement. He should have said that unremitting obsessions and their accompanying stress are more dangerous for both the mind and body than letting things go once in a while. Or as someone else once put it, “One early sign of a potential nervous breakdown is believing that the importance of one’s work is without measure.” Chesterton was a prime example of NOT taking even his own beliefs or his own work all that seriously. He claimed he did, and that his frivolity was hugely serious. But no. He shows little sign of having been as serious in his study of history was H.G. Wells for instance. Chesterton scribbled off The Everlasting Man in response to Well’s serious world history book that had grown to become a huge seller. Chesterton took the easy way out, the slacker’s way, living off his general knowledge and his ability to simply play with words rather than studying much history or biblical scholarship. He loved the fairyland he created in his childhood, loved fanciful tales and playful paradoxes, and medievalism (much like Lewis), and had enough wit to be able to speak on almost any topic engagingly, including writing a zillion essays on everything from “On Chasing One’s Hat,” to the above mentioned one on cosmology and the Bible. One of his early debate partners, Blatchford remarked that debating Chesterton was like debating a Catherine Wheel. GK’s analogies, like all analogies, prove nothing. Much of Chesterton’s defense of “Christianity” is vague or nonsensical. In the end he even hoped to see H.G. Wells and Shaw in heaven, saying in a personal letter to his lifelong friend Wells (when the latter was very ill,) “you shall get into heaven for all you have done for mankind,” and writing about Shaw that “in another age he would have been a great saint.”
On the less gravitas side, one cannot fault Chesterton for his lightness. Or his humor such as the chorus to The Vegetarian’s Song, “No more the milk of cows shall pollute my private house, than the milk of the wild mares of the barbarian, for I will drink my rum and sherry for I am so very very, so very very very vegetarian.”
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