Sunday, July 12, 2009

Crossing the Threshold of Divine Revelation, Pt. 1...

Ok... here we go!

In chapter 1 of "Crossing the Threshold...", William Abraham begins his discussion of divine revelation by laying out the basic structure to, and reasoning for, his epistemological approach. Of course, it is a truism that there are many competing claims to revelation. So what makes the Christian claim to revelation worth taking seriously? Abraham states that, throughout the 20th century, three general theological responses to revelation were developed (p. 2-4) in this regard.

First, there is the "conservative" response, that is, the first-order belief that God's revelation is clearly present in Scripture (primarily) - and so the two-fold goal is simply to defend that presupposed revelation from attacks and harmonize any conflicting claims in light of what Scripture already says.

Second, there is what might be called the fideist response of Karl Barth and others, who, according to Abraham, "outlawed the very idea of providing any kind of rational defense for the identification of divine revelation." (p. 3) While I think this is an overstated misrepresentation of Barth's views, since Abraham does not directly engage Barth in the present text, I will leave that issue for another time. Clearly, though, Abraham does not find this approach valuable, calling it "a disaster" (p. 3) because it leaves theologians with no way to properly address the opposition. I think his outright dismissal of the Barthian approach ultimately is unhelpful to his own case; the reader will have to judge for herself whether this is so.

Thirdly, says Abraham, there is what essentially amounts to the response of ignorance or avoidance: some theologians focus on other issues - tacitly accepting skepticism - and avoid dealing with the question of revelation altogether, or turn it into a footnote that needs no serious discussion. This is not only present in some streams of theology but is very prevalent in philosophy, which should not be a surprise.

Against these three responses to revelation, Abraham intends to argue 1) that divine revelation does, in fact, exist and 2) that "our possession of such revelation constitutes knowledge" that is rational and justified. (p. 5) Of course, these are two major theses that must be pursued in connection with other theological and epistemological claims. So, his first step in this direction involves "clearing the decks" (p. 5), that is, pointing out flaws in the current epistemological approaches to theology. Once we realize that the current models are insufficient, he hopes to offer his model as a preferred option.

Having essentially disregarded the second and third responses (fideism and avoidance) from the outset, Abraham presents the "standard strategy" which is used to establish any sort of rational belief in God. (p. 6) This strategy typically finds a general theory of knowledge/thought, develops that theory, and then applies it to belief in God. Examples of this strategy include the classical theological "deductive proofs," the justification of "ultimate language games," establishing a "universal human experience" and/or perception + testimony, the formulation of "cumulative case arguments (whereby belief in God is deemed rational once the total amount of positive evidence outweighs the total negative evidence)," and warrant (in which belief in God rests upon beliefs which are properly basic, making it rationally warranted. This approach has gained wide recognition due to Alvin Plantinga, perhaps the greatest living Christian philosopher.) (p. 7-8)

It is not that Abraham finds these approaches necessarily incorrect or useless. In fact, as we will see, he makes use of many of them within his own epistemological approach. But his real disagreement is with the priority given to the general theory, which - he suggests - results in the subordination of theology to some particular epistemological approach which determines theistic viability. (Ironically, Abraham - as I'm sure he is aware - is sounding quite a bit like Barth at this point!)

In addition to leaving theology open to criticism from a supposedly superior epistemological theory, the standard approach also generally fails to be directly related to the core Christian beliefs, which Abraham prefers to call Canonical theism. In other words, all of these theories may provide some evidence for theism, but none of them can tell me whether I should place my trust in Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity, as the Savior of humanity. Abraham also points out that the standard strategy doesn't seem to really fit with the epistemological commitments that Christian believers actually make when they decide to follow Christ. He suggests that we not blithely toss aside these commitments merely because they seem to lack sense within a particular systemic approach.

Because of these problems, Abraham asserts that Christian theologians (and believers in general) ought to adopt "a very different epistemological principle... the principle of appropriate epistemic fit." (p. 11, emphasis mine) Essentially, this amounts to a move from deductive to inductive reasoning, although this is an admitted oversimplification. Rather than beginning with a general theory to which belief in God is subjected, we begin with a specific belief and see what a fresh appraisal of that belief might look like. Then, once the particulars have been assessed, we might be able to see a picture of proper theism as an outworking of our specific beliefs.

According to Abraham, what he is proposing is a simple reversal, which is more in keeping with the way our thinking naturally proceeds. (p. 13) So, he will attempt to take a particular type of theism - the aforementioned Canonical theism - and apply a series of epistemological approaches to it, in an effort to secure a better understanding of its rationality or lack thereof. This avoids the reduction of belief to some general theistic model, and it offers the possibility of working with various epistemic theories rather than relying upon just one.

Note: Abraham does make clear that Canonical theism should not be viewed as some sort of dogmatic set of principles, rather, it is simply a series of theses that refer to the set of beliefs which have traditionally been the "canonical heritage" of the Church. The Church has never canonized any theory of knowledge. (p. 16) This is well worth remembering.

Because there is no canonized theory of knowledge, the Christian believer (Canonical theist) has a wide array of resources to which they may appeal when developing an epistemological response to inquiries about the rationality of their beliefs. Abraham states that most Christians do not have a developed theory of knowledge, and there is no need for one - people can make rational statements about any number of beliefs without having to appeal to some overarching theory. (p. 18) In fact, says Abraham, the various attempts to canonize epistemological theories have been the source of many schisms within the history of the Church. (p. 19-20)

However, in spite of Abraham's correct assertion that epistemology is not a theological, but a philosophical, sub-discipline, the fact remains that we are all - believers and unbelievers alike - heirs of Descartes, Kant, etc., and the subjective turn within philosophy now affects us all, such that we cannot help but ask questions of knowledge and truth, because we are oriented such that those questions are now understood to directly affect me. This is not a criticism of Abraham; it is simply a statement about our understanding of reality as it now stands. So, epistemology clearly remains vital for us, even if it is not a primary theological category.

So, to sum up this post, Abraham rejects the need for any "divinely authorized" theory of knowledge. This does not mean that Christian theologians have no need of epistemology. Rather, Abraham wishes to "relocate the appeal to divine revelation within a wider vision of the epistemology of theology." (p. 23) This vision highlights the mistake of relying upon any overarching system, and begins with the specific form of Canonical theism, to which a variety of epistemic approaches will be applied. In the next post, we will encounter some of those approaches, and see how Abraham responds to those skeptical of his reversal of the standard approach.


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