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.