In this series of blogs on “post,” today’s post concerns what it means for postmoderns to deny certainty. On this topic I am reasonably convinced that those who are criticizing those who are denying certainty are talking right by one another. I’m not sure listening has taken place.
It is common for some in the Emergent movement, and a good source for this is Middleton and Walsh, to claim that we can’t have certainty and it is quite common to hear typical Evangelicals to counter with scripture references claiming that we can in fact know with certainty. Some of the language is overdrawn, as when some say we are speaking only of absolute certainty (which, if one looks at it carefully, can’t be had by humans because we aren’t absolute) or of others suggesting that everything is merely opinion.
There is then a place to step in and offer some clarifying thoughts about what it means for the Emergent folk to deny certainty. A good place to anchor this discussion is Lesslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence. Though not entirely from him, my thoughts are spurred by reading him.
A good place to begin is to recognize that for most “certainty” is a level achieved on the basis of scientific evidence and indubitable logical process. This, the postmodernist Christian would say, is not objective or universal certainty but the highest level of knowledge achieved within that scientific system of thinking. Christian truth claims (proclaims) are not scientific, but have a different basis. Therefore, that kind of certainty (the kind of science) is not appropriate to the Christian articulation of faith.
A brief explanation: if I surrender my Christian convictions to explain morality and then spend my life examining morality apart from those convictions, I can eventually (probably) achieve a reasonable explanation of morality. But, that explanation is the reasonable one derived from what I am assuming and not assuming. A Christian theory of morality begins elsewhere and therefore ends elsewhere. Certainty, then, in a Christian sense is not “scientific” certainty but a kind of certainty knowable to those who embrace the Christian story.
Now, seven points.
First, the biblical and Christian sense of knowledge is personal and interpersonal and not just “objectivist” or “scientific” or “critical.” The biblical sense of knowing Christ and of articulating faith is a claim that a person knows God as God makes himself known through Jesus Christ. This puts inherent limits on “what” is known because the “what” is a “who.”
Second, a Christian perception of truth is that it is eschatological. Recently my mind has turned to 1 Cor 13:12, where the Apostle Paul tells us this: “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” Interpersonal knowledge, yes. But also eschatological: only in the Eschaton, the full display of God’s kingdom, will humans fully know. All knowledge this side of the Kingdom is partial.
Third, a Christian perception of truth is rooted always and forever in trust. One of Newbigin’s constants is the appeal to Augustine’s line: “I believe in order to understand” (credo ut intelligam). Newbigin draws often on Polanyi’s idea of personal knowledge, that all knowledge is rooted in a faith commitment to a way of thinking or a system of thinking. In other words, genuine knowledge flows from the commitment a person is making. Without commitment, specific items can’t become knowledge; with a commitment, they can become so.
Fourth, delving even more deeply into the trust dimension of knowledge and truth, genuine Christian knowledge begins with and sees everything through the lens of Jesus Christ as God’s Incarnate Word and clue to life. The drive for certainty as an independent ability to discover and draw out “facts” on the basis of scientific systems cannot deliver to humans the meaning of life or the purpose of life or the telos of life. God has revealed this in Christ. A Christian understanding of truth tells the story of life through the story of Christ. For any Christian to pretend that one can “get to truth” apart from Christ is to deny Christ and the revelatory power of Christ.
Fifth, because humans are more than minds and bodies, but also spirits and dead in sins, a Christian understanding of truth is also pneumatological. God’s Spirit, who is promised to the Church by Jesus, is with us to guide us into a fuller and fuller appropriation of God’s revelation in Christ. Truth comes to us as a gift.
Sixth, this also means that a Christian perception of truth is also ecclesiological: if God has designed his redemptive work in and through the Chruch, and if the Church is the Body of Christ, and it is to the Church that promises the gift of the Holy Spirit, any Christian theory of knowledge must be ecclesiological.
Seventh, to bring us back to the hard-ground of reality: all knowledge and truth is culturally-embedded. Truth itself, or better yet Truth as Person, may be transcultural and eternal and objective, but every articulation of that truth is culturally-embedded. Truth claims (or what I like to call truth proclaims) may transcend culture but they are always embedded in that culture.
Therefore, what the Emergent Christian denies is not that there is truth but that our articulation of that truth is always limited. Truth is personal and therefore our knowledge of God as Person in Jesus Christ through the Spirit and the Church limits our grasp until the Eschaton. And, to compound the whole discussion, genuine truth is the story of God make known to us through Christ and the Spirit in the community where that story is performed in such a manner that humans can grasp the true story of the true gospel.