Friday, July 17, 2009

Crossing the Threshold of Divine Revelation, Pt. 2...

Last time, I provided an overview of the first chapter in William Abraham's book, "Crossing the Threshold of Divine Revelation." There, he offers an outline of what he considers to be the standard strategies employed by Christian scholars attempting to develop an epistemology for their beliefs. Abraham is not content with any of the options he finds, and intends to offer an alternative perspective. In Chapter 2 of "Crossing the Threshold...", he begins to sketch his alternative epistemological vision.

First, Abraham is very adamant that we must do all that we can to resist both the desire to develop a full-blown systematic theory of knowledge (p. 24) and the temptation to become relativists or skeptics. (p. 25) He does not believe modern hermeneutical attempts will be epistemologically successful, because in the end, if theology is subjected to hermeneutical inquiry, it will lead to skepticism, since it becomes a process that "is unstable... thoroughly dependent upon the reader... necessarily incomplete, and permanently revisable." (p. 26)

What Abraham is saying here is simply an echo of his previous assertion that no epistemological theory can supersede our theology. And while his statement is valid, it also seems important to remember that all of our beliefs are, at some level, an interpretation of reality. This recognition does not automatically necessitate skepticism. It is merely a reminder of the limits of our knowledge. Abraham would certainly agree, and the struggle he describes is a vital warning to theologians about the danger of relying exclusively upon any system of knowledge.

But Abraham's main goal in Chapter 2 is to provide a series of "epistemic platitudes," statements that are not worked out logically in the situation, but rest upon epistemological foundations that have been previously established as "relatively secure." (p. 29) Abraham does not see any reason why theologians should be less obliged to use a variety of epistemic tools than scholars in any other field of inquiry. Just as historians and scientists can rely upon everything from empirical evidence and cumulative case arguments to "hunches" and "intuitions" (p. 28) so too can theologians. Abraham places before us his 'tool box' (if you will) of epistemic options under the umbrella category of epistemic platitudes.

'Appropriate epistemic fit' is one of these platitudes. Others include: "We can and should accept the general reliability of our senses...", "We should also rely on memory," "We can and should accept testimony, "Some of our beliefs are rightly and properly basic," and so on. (p. 36-38) Now, I have no wish to discredit Abraham with regard to his description of the epistemic platitudes; in fact, I think his approach here is quite valuable. But it does raise several interesting questions, not the least of which is this: Where does all this get us? Is it merely question begging, or is it genuinely beneficial to Christian theology?

I want to pursue this query by looking specifically at one of Abraham's platitudes: "Particularism is to be preferred to methodism." (p. 30) Here, Abraham does not mean denominational Methodism; rather, he is describing once again the tendency in both philosophers and theologians to create a "method" that will serve as a universal epistemological system. He explains in some detail why this statement deserves to be included in his list of platitudes. First, methodism results in an epistemological stalemate between competing methods. This happened with rationalism and empiricism until Kant finally broke the deadlock by creating an entirely new method - which soon fell prey to the same dilemma as Hegel created his system in response.

Second, as more and more methods have developed, epistemology has become "person-relative" - that is, we have so many methods that any theorist can claim their method is valid, and then we are stuck trying to discern which methods are in fact valid, and are once again tempted to start looking for our own method which will break through the impasse. This, of course, is a perpetuation of skepticism, since we can never get to THE method that will finally prove impenetrable.

Abraham's call to particularism alleviates the maddening search for a perfect method by shifting the focus: Instead of trying to pacify the skeptic and defend this or that method, the theologian or philosopher focusing on specific epistemological claims, and soon realizes that she/he really does have a wealth of knowledge upon which to rely. This realization frees them to examine this host of epistemological questions using the variety of tools (the platitudes) available in the epistemic tool box.

As much as I appreciate Abraham's philosophical vision here, I am left with the concern that what the particularist approach leads us to is a distant desert oasis that, upon arrival, proves to be a mirage. What I mean is this: Is it not the case that each of the epistemic platitudes leads to series of philosophical questions that can be questioned? Are not many of them still unresolved? Isn't the problem precisely determining how much we actually know? Abraham seems, many times, to concede that there will be many unanswered questions, and he appears to be content with that reality. But here he is much closer to Barth than he seems willing to admit, at least in the present text.

For, choosing to believe in Christian theology in the face of a series of irresolvable epistemic issues is precisely where faith comes into play. The only major difference I can see here between Abraham and Barth is in the amount of epistemic issues each one is willing to accept as irresolvable before leaping entirely into faith.

Additionally, might not the desire to build upon a series of epistemic platitudes eventually reveal itself to be just another system, albeit one with many more twists and turns? Does an approach that leads to 1,000 particular impasses really give us more, in the end, than an approach that leads to a few major methodological impasses?

I realize I'm sounding here exactly like the skeptic which so frustrates Abraham; it is not my intention to write off his approach, because I do in fact see much value in appropriating the various platitudes. I'm just not sure that at the end of the day what Abraham is doing is really providing an endless series of distractions from the fact that we are really still dealing with a series of impasses. And if, in fact, it is a distraction, then it is a methodological distraction, I think. (Though, I'm open to correction here, if I'm misunderstanding!)

Nevertheless, I am in full agreement with Abraham on this point: We need to abandon the assumption that there is a "network of canonized or constitutive epistemological commitments [which are] essential to one's theism..." (p. 42) This is vital for theology - we are much better off if we hold loosely to our methods and systems and attempt to deal with questions of knowledge as they arise using the epistemic tools best suited to that particular situation. Our primary source of truth is faith, and we must take care not to replace our faith in Christ with a method for ascertaining truth. None of them will take us far enough.

Up next... chapter three!

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