March 21, 2013

Sayonara Humbler Epistemology

Well, that’s easy for you to say anyway.

But it’s true, the days of the kindler, gentler, humbler epistemology are well and truly over.  Like the days of the Celtic tattoo on your upper arm, or the days of Gangnam Style, the days of being less sure about what you believe, or at least less odiously confident in asserting it, are, shall we say, so September 10?!

That the secular culture is not in thrall to humble opinion at all struck me sharply when writer and comedian Catherine Deveny, on the ABC’s Q and A, declared that she would not be tolerant of perspectives that she did not tolerate.  Come again?  And that was in light of comments she disagreed with from the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney. (Cue cheers all round from the Q and A audience – Ed).  But the final penny dropped when I mentioned to a friend that Christian minister, historian and writer Dr John Dickson’s recent appearance on that same show would have engendered some bonhomie from sceptics due to his humble stance, in contrast to his rather haughty scientist protagonist. My friend listened, then (humbly of course – Ed) demurred.

“The days of thinking better of someone’s position because they happen to hold it humbly are over,” he said. And he said it with some – eek – authority!  He is at the coal face of Christian ministry in our local Perth universities, the places where thirty years ago the drive for a humbler epistemology in light of the post-modern, deconstructionist push, was a promise to expose and defang power plays in language, gender and politics – oh and the church.  We were all going to have one big Humble Party, and stand around cheerily eating Humble Cake in the absence of Humble Pie.

Nothing of the sort has happened of course. My friend observed that the average uni student these days, when faced with a worldview contrary to their own is now even more likely to come down harder and more stridently than my lot did back in the 1980s.  Back then, in the days when smoking was still permitted inside Curtin University buildings, everything was about proposing a humbler epistemology, a sense that even if things were there to be known, we couldn’t know them perfectly, so we should tread lightly over others’ viewpoints (despite the fact that group-think was a pre-requisite for uni tenure).   Now, however, it’s as if even the veneer of being humble about one’s own position has worn off in the face of an increasingly abrasive modern world.  It’s dog eat dog out there. No time for niceties.

Now if only someone would tell the Christians that.  The search for a humbler epistemology has been one of the great drivers of the newer evangelicals on the left of the spectrum.  In its finest moments it has been able to disentangle evangelicalism from triumphalistic moralism, but I fear it has gone way too far. And not only that, but like many Christian uploads of secular ideas it tends to arrive after the fad has run out of puff. Think 80s corporate management techniques arriving in 90s churches just as it was running out of steam in the office. Think Hawaian shirts and chinos last Sunday morning!

Hundreds of books, millions of words,  thousands of blogs have been launched saying that the future of Christianity is a “humbler” epistemology, indeed this is the raison d’être of the emergent church.   The reasoning went like this: a humbler Christian epistemology will open the lines of communication with the western secular world in its efforts to create a future that is safer, less extreme, one sheltered from the zeal of fundamentalism. Dialogue will be the happy result.  And if we want dialogue to be the result, then dialogue needs to be the process.  Pulpits came out, bar-stools came in.  “Thus saith the Lord” morphed into “So what does the interpretive community think this passage means?”.

Now perhaps I sound like a crusty old traditionalist, but be assured gentle reader, I still love this tee-shirt:

god said iti

It’s got some serious truths in there, no doubt. But it exposes the primary problem with the understanding of “humble” I am talking about. The slogan doesn’t sound so much “humble” as “uncertain”.  It is an uncertainty that is both paralysing and no match for the certainty emanating from robust hard secularism. All along we thought that if we displayed a humble epistemology then secularism would play by the rules.  This is simply not happening.  Christianity is in danger of thinking like the noble German leaders did when Hitler was elected.  Steeped as they were in centuries of tradition and honour, they thought they could reason with him.  He took them out and shot them.

Recall for a moment GK Chesterton’s prescient observation from the middle of the last century:

What we suffer from today is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert–himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt – the Divine Reason.

Christians should live and breathe humility.  The Christian has much to be humble about. The Christian who is not humble has bypassed the cross, where his or her pride, arrogance, rebellion against God, and hubris, are exposed by the Saviour. Moses is described in Numbers 12 as the “meekest man on the earth”, only to be usurped in the meekness stakes by the true mediator of God, the Word made flesh – Christ himself.

But at the core of this humility, indeed the very thing that is its driver, is certainty. Christians are certain that they are sinners saved by grace. Christians are certain that their own righteousness earns them no merit with God. Christians are certain that they need a Saviour outside of themselves.  Christians are certain that they should not seek vengeance because the Bible states that vengeance belongs to God. Christians are in possession of a “more certain hope” that allows them to approach God with confidence. All of this certainty presupposes a certainty about Scripture, which, if we trace it back, is the problem that the secular culture had with the Scripture in the first place – its sheer certainty.  Hence, first and foremost, as Kevin van Hoozer points out in his book Is There a Meaning in This Text?, all questions about language are theological. If language can be knocked over, God can be knocked over.

In conclusion, Christians are not to be arrogant and certain like so much of the secular world – though many, sadly, are. Christians are not to be humble and uncertain (which I would argue is not all that humble as it demonstrates a higher certainty in self than in God).  We are not to be arrogant and uncertain (brittle and prickly when challenged).  Rather we are to be humble and certain, an almost paradoxical mix.  A humbler Christian with a more certain epistemology, someone ready to give an “A” to a “Q”, but to do so with gentleness and reverence. This happy outcome, in the midst of an increasingly harsh secularism would be – with apologies to Brian McLaren – a renewed kind of Christian, the kind of Christian who would, like her master, humble herself, even to the point of being crucified by the press, ostracised by the campus authorities, and ridiculed by a secularism that has no paradigm for humility.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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