A brief interlude on propositional knowledge: Through the River

Continuing my ongoing full disclosure, there's a nice moment here to make a quick comment on propositional knowledge - something that most people don't think or care about, but which is extremely religiously significant. Following on my last post, Paul suggested that I'm still quite concerned with developing propositional beliefs - in (my own) other words, I'm still quite concerned with the religious significance of "truth statements", as opposed to (or in addition to) feeling, meaning, life-change, experience, relationship, etc. There's a bit of a yes and no to Paul's observation. Coincidentally (maybe?) I've been reading a generally helpful book called Through the River by Jon & Mindy Hirst with Dr. Paul Hiebert. It's essentially about just this propositional truth thing we've been talking about. You should read it. One of my favorite books by Evangelical authors that I've read in a while.

To understand the emphasis that's been put on 'propositional truth statements', consider the significance of Romans 10:9: "That if you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." Or the idea that the Bible is the Word of God (an extrabiblical (or at least extra-New Testamental) concept, by the way). You have to believe that certain words are 'absolutely true' or you're in the wrong religiously.

The new stereotype of pop-post-modernism has been that there are no propositional truths and that truth's all relative. Propositions like "Jesus is Lord" are just sonic representations of abstractions created by subjective creatures interpreting according to limited abilities. They can't be salvific in and of themselves. In response, the post-modern church says that it's not about the propositional truths - it's about the deep mysterious ungraspable meaning behind them. Or something like that. For the contemporary liberal church, this has meant that it's not such a big deal if, for instance, we say the Apostles Creed but don't believe it literally. We're grasping for some deeper truth behind the Creed that binds us all together in God, or something like that. The important thing is participation in the ritual and faith and community and ethics. (Funnily enough, some liberal Episcopalians, I think, would consider you a heretic if you took the Creed out of the liturgy, but not if you just didn't believe it.)

I'm sort of into that, but not exactly. Along with the Hirst's from the book I mentioned above, I'm a Critical Realist. As Wikipedia says, I think that

"some of our sense-data (for example, those of primary qualities) can and do accurately represent external objects, properties, and events, while other of our sense-data (for example, those of secondary qualities and perceptual illusions) do not accurately represent any external objects, properties, and events."

In words that hopefully make at least a little bit of sense, Critical Realism is the middle ground between total postmodern relativism ('humans can't really know anything because we are limited and subjective creatures! Woe is me. Stare into the abyss but do not flinch!') and modernist positivism (The human mind is so brilliant and powerful as to be able to usefully comprehend and define everything in the universe, if given the chance. WE COMPREHEND GOD). Critical Realism says that we really can figure some things out about reality, but we shouldn't be too cocky about it. The ideas we form in our brains are at best limited and slightly inaccurate representations of reality, no matter how helpful they are.

Following on this, I think that we actually can and should do our best to come to something like 'propositional truth', even in the religious arena. I believe in a healthy level of agnosticism - I am happy to identify as an Agnostic Christian - but I also believe religious believers need to be as honest as possible about what we believe to be true. I think, for instance, that it's quite an important propositional belief that you can't grasp God. 'Humanity Grasping God' is the definition of idolatry, and is something you'll learn you can't do if you think too long about it. Athiesm and Fundamentalism both put too much faith in the human ability to grasp absolute truth, but anything beyond a fairly strong agnosticism is presumptuous, if you ask me.

Along these same lines, I think that it's quite important that our religious practices allow us to participate not only a subjective quest towards a mysterious God, but really do facilitate an ongoing movement towards a better grasp of reality, and help us to live into that reality in increasingly healthy, effective, and honest ways.

It might be confusing for some (though I'm sure not all) as to why I'm still a Christian in the midst of all of this. Hopefully I'll get a chance to answer that question before too much time passes. When I do that, I'll also point towards some of the 'propositional truths' that I think I sort of believe in.

Comments

Karen S said…
Christianity is a way to the Truth, which is beyond our comprehension. I believe that everthing we think sbout God is wrong, simply because we put it into words and symbols, try to tie God down. I need those words and symbols though for comfort.
Ms. Rev. (Shelly F,) said…
Here's something written by a Jesuit that states this also - that God is like "x" in algebra - a mystery. And that while Christianity cannot say *everything* about God, we can say *something* however falteringly. And that we assert that the least wrong way to talk about God is love. Don't be thrown off by the title. It's really good. http://www.bc.edu/offices/mission/meta-elements/pdf/catholicism/himes_living.pdf
I'm more surprised that I'm surprised you still consider yourself a Christian given that I have come to similar conclusions as you have and still consider myself one.

I have always felt comfortable in Anglicanism in the very British way of emphasizing deeds over beliefs. What does it mean to "believe", anyway, and everyone doubts some or all at given times of the life so it's a bit of folly to not conclude that's "how God made us".

I've been pondering recently the role and value of liturgy. There clearly is value and it clearly isn't directly related to the content of the script. I hope you'll blog more of your thoughts as you continue deeper into it.
I was just reading what Karen S commented. That reminds me of the old precept that funerals are for the living, not for the dead. To paraphrase Karen, religion is for us, not for God.

That's actually something very interesting. I'll have to think about it.
John Powless said…
Hey Tim,

It's been interesting reading your recent posts, I'd love to get together and hear more about it.
Tim said…
John, I'd definitely be into getting together - it's been too long. Shoot me an email or something before that kid gets here!

RE: the mystery aspect of Truth and God, I agree totally. I also think it's only one important part of the religious picture though, and I hope to elaborate on that a bit more soon!
bob said…
"It might be confusing for some (though I'm sure not all) as to why I'm still a Christian in the midst of all of this...."

Not confusing at all, actually having read a lot of what you write it's clear you *aren't* a christian. Anyway, for a fellow that at least has a past of being helpful in theology, why not consult Alan Mack who goes to the cathedral. See what he thinks of your opinions and being a layman. You have every chance of becoming a bishop in the Episcopal Church with that theology, though little chance of even being called a layman anywhere else. Give it a shot.

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