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The New Christians

Recently, Stanley Fish wrote about the problems with the way the liberal intelligentsia thinks about religion vs. science — or reason vs. faith. He was, of course, slaughtered in the comment section of his NYTimes blog by, um, the liberal intelligentsia of Times readers. So this week, he defends himself against their onslaught, referring to Barthes and Foucault specifically, to harp on a subject he often revisits. To summarize: Get over it, people — science is no more objective than any other human endeavor.

Why this strikes me as particularly interesting today is that yesterday I appeared on the internet radio show of John Chisham, my long-time nemesis. John’s a conservative (he might even say fundamentalist) Nazarene Christian and Missionary Alliance pastor from Southern Minnesota who, among other things, has mentioned that he may protest outside of the Christianity21 event in October. John also appeared in a video about my book:


“The Church Is Broken” Episode 5 from tony jones on Vimeo.

The video gives a sense of the disagreements between John and me. And if you listen to the radio show, you’ll get even more of it.

What I find most intriguing, however, is putting Fish’s proposal about liberal’s liberals’ (my term, not his) blinding commitment to the objectivity of science in connection with conservative’s conservatives’ (like John’s) blinding commitment to the objectivity of the Bible. Time and again on the show, he and his co-host, Rusty, spoke as though their hermeneutic position on the Bible was the sole, objective, and self-evident version of the text.

For instance, when we were debating whethter an ontological change takes place when someone is “saved — John asserted that a person’s “very nature” is changed at the moment of salvation — they appealed to Rusty’s conversion. Rusty said that, upon his conversion, God immediately made him hate the drugs to which he had formerly been addicted. This, they said, is evidence that God changes someone’s nature at the moment of conversion.

I countered that Rusty’s experience, while valid, doesn’t prove anything, any more than if I presented to them a person who went cold turkey off of drugs and, without God’s help, went from loving drugs one day to hating them the next — and we’ve surely all heard of cases like this.

The response from John was interesting. He basically said that Rusty’s experience was valid and the other former addict’s invalid. Why? Because the Bible says so. That’s it.

Here’s Fish:

To bring all this abstraction back to the arguments made by my readers,there is no such thing as “common observation” or simply reporting thefacts. To be sure, there is observation and observation can indeedserve to support or challenge hypotheses. But the act of observing canitself only take place within hypotheses (about the way the world is)that cannot be observation’s objects because it is within them thatobservation and reasoning occur…

So to sum up, the epistemological critique of religion — it is aninferior way of knowing — is the flip side of a naïve and untenablepositivism. And the critique of religion’s content — it’s cotton-candyfluff — is the product of incredible ignorance.

Fish’s post really deserves a full reading, but he’s trying to say the same things about his liberal readers as I am about my conservative interlocuters: we’re all boxed in by our hermeneutic presuppositions. The only real danger is to pretend that we’re not, to pretend that science is “objective” or that the Bible’s meaning is “self-evident.”

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