Friday, February 20, 2009

Dear Andrew

The question I would have is what can you be certain about? Is there anything? I would argue that there is no certainty in anything. When we are doing any measure of convincing or being convinced, our appeal is not (at least not really) to an objective truth. If there is objectivity out there, then my only real access to it is through my experience which is, above all, subjective (experience shapes logic and therefore logic itself is subjective… to argue otherwise would be to create complicated distinction for which I don’t have time to deal with here). Therefore we should rethink the word “know” and our understanding of knowledge.

Do you use the word “know” synonymously with certainty? I don’t know that such a definition is necessary. What if we continue to speak of knowledge and truth but allow knowledge to remain subjective and truth to be consistent with reliability/assurance rather than objectivity? Thus I can say that I know that I am from Ramona… not with certainty as it were but with confidence.

But when I say I am from Ramona, I do not appeal to an objective truth—to a floating idea which hangs in some realm outside of subjective experience—but to a story. I come to conclusions—I interpret my experiences—through the framework of a narrative. If I were to argue with someone who thinks that I am actually from New Jersey (not only would I rather agree with her) I would not be speaking from a standpoint of certainty or objectivity (though I may think that I am) rather, I would be inviting them to interpret reality through the same framework, through the same narrative by which I am interpreting reality and making conclusions. If they try my narrative on for size, with all the context and texture given to it by experiences, they may become convinced and confident in the same truth. They may even find themselves arguing with someone else in the future about where I am from.

My knowledge of God and my confidence in that homeless teacher from the first century named Jesus are grounded in a particular narrative. They are grounded in the biblical narrative and in my having discovered my own narrative within it. I come to those conclusions by understanding my story through the framework of the biblical narrative and thus interpreting my experiences through that framework. All my hopes for the future are grounded in my interpretation of reality through that narrative.

So when I talk to the students in my group about sharing their faith (first of all we understand this to be something we do as the outpouring of a life consumed by Christ and his kingdom… social justice is quite evangelical) I talk not of objectivity but of story. I ask students to share themselves and their stories with others. I invite them to build relationships of honesty and openness. I invite them not to argue people into the ground by arrogantly claiming that we have the objective truth but to simply invite people into this particular narrative. We invite people on a journey. We invite them to see through our lens for a while. We invite people to find themselves playing out the same drama which Christ has written and finished. We do this with confidence that following Jesus is the best way to live life.

Certain? Certainly not. But “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the knowledge of things not seen.” Hope must precede knowledge.

4 comments:

Daniel said...

It's often rebutted that unless one can know something with certainty how then does one's claim of uncertainty not also fall by the wayside. The response is that you (and others) are not settling for some nihilistic epistemology whereby all possibilities are given the same weight, but that you are conceding the (biblical) truth that we are fallen, finite creatures who don't possess knowledge at an absolute, objective level. Nevertheless as image bearers, we can through faith in the creator know enough to make claims with some degree of confidence and to live in love in accordance with those claims giving us yet more confidence that we are following the God of Love. Knowledge and confidence is a holistic process of reasoning, living, and loving that involves the whole person rather than a rationalistic-only set of claims. This is why Jesus claims "I am the way the truth and life". Truth is a person, not a set of rationalistic beliefs. And as you rightly point out this truth is lived out in a story environment, God's restorative story of bringing healing and justice to a broken cosmos.
Dan

WES ELLIS said...

Amen to that Dan!

The Thief said...

Additionally, our culture is marked by what should be mutually exclusive propositions happily co-existing... in the same person.

So when we make a flawless argument "proving" God's existence or whatever it is we're trying to state, we are quite likely to receive the response: "that's great for you, but it doesn't 'work' for me."

But living out the story is something different entirely. When it "means" enough to us to shape our lives and to fill us with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. And who can argue against these?

(by the way, Wes, thanks for the invite of hospitality. If I'm ever coming back to SD, I'll look you up! - I've added your blog to my google reader)

WES ELLIS said...

Thief,
Thanks for the input. You're right. Our whole culture is conditioned this way, to trust expereince over reason (to use Wesleyan Quad. language). After the so called enlightenment, it was proclaimed that reason and science were going to be our savior, that logical reasoning would lead us to the promised land, assuming all along that every "logical" individual should come to the same absolute conclusion. Then we watched enlightened "westerners" conduct a mass genocide in the 1940's in the name of practicality. Then we watched again as science created a bomb that could kill millions eventually to be used by, once again, enlightened "westerners" who justified such chaos with reason and logic.

We lost trust in reason and now we want something that works, something with roots, something that is proven but tried. Tradition and experience have taken center stage in our conclusion making process. Prove it all you want, but our culture wants something that works.