Can we teach an old dogmatism new tricks?
The mathematical arguments for the existence of parallel universes are arcane in the extreme. Ordinary people can get a rough idea of how the whole thing is supposed to work, but we are certainly not in a position to judge whether, for example, the scientific ‘myth’ which describes how a whole new universe might be squeezed from a black-hole, like a child blowing a soap bubble, is true or even vaguely plausible. For the most part we may be sceptical, even incredulous, but we have come to trust scientists enough, and to distrust our common-sense conclusions about the world enough, not to dismiss these fantastic notions out of hand. Whatever the foibles and prejudices of individual proponents, we sense that such speculation merely pushes the boundaries of an entirely legitimate search for understanding.
No less arcane are the claims of astrologers that our lives are influenced by the movements of the planets against the backdrop of the constellations. Although attempts have sometimes been made to provide a scientific rationale for the superstition, the astrological myth presupposes a set of truth conditions very different from those which apply to the scientific myth of parallel universes. In the end, astrology is ‘true’ only because some people persist in claiming it to be true despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary. The theory of multiple universes, on the other hand, remains in principle subject to some sort of empirical or theoretical verification (or falsification) - unless of course, it should be adopted by some religious group or other as a tenet of faith, which in all likelihood has already happened.
The question that confronts us is whether, when we assert the truthfulness of Christian beliefs, we resemble more the cosmologists or the astrologers. The point is not that Christianity ought to be provable, anymore than we should expect irrefutable empirical evidence for the existence of parallel universes. It is rather that the ‘theory’ or ‘myth’ of Christianity should be handled truthfully, with intellectual integrity, with a sense of how problematic our treasured notions appear in the cold light of unbelief - which means that we cannot bring out the big stick of dogmatic affirmation every time rational criticism comes knocking at the door.
i) Dogmatism still has to do with how things actually are. Although it is always possible to circumvent the process of validation by appeal to a transcendent authority, in the end we have to do with the same either-it-happened-or-it-didn’t reality. We may wish to affirm as a matter of revealed truth that Jesus walked on the surface of the Sea of Galilee, but that does not exempt the event from more rational forms of appraisal. No matter how miraculous it was, it still happened in the real world, was observed and talked about by real people. Faith may give us grounds and motivation for believing but it does not make the story that has been handed down to us any more or less true. Dogmatism only tends to reinforce the schizophrenia of the Christian mind-set. If the truthfulness of the story about Jesus walking on the water is taken to rest on faith, it is likely to be classified as a rather different type of event to the murder of Julius Caesar, for example, the truthfulness of which is a matter of historical and literary enquiry. These different events then tend to generate epistemologically distinct worlds, and the credibility problem looms. Again, we are not claiming that either of these events may be objectively verified. The complaint is rather that the manner in which the church commonly thinks and speaks about the facts of faith short-circuits the normal procedures of rational enquiry - by ignoring the difficulties, for example - and that this, in the end, must undermine the plausibility of the message. Ultimately the commitment to truthfulness must make us suspicious of dogmatism, however much we may be convinced that Christian truth is of an absolute and immutable nature.
ii) It is doubtful, in any case, whether the sort of dogmatism that today is used to reinforce the claims of Christian truth is endorsed by the Bible itself. There is simply not the degree of reflection upon itself that might give rise to an assertion of intrinsic authority. Truth in the Bible is relational and experiential; it is also strongly contextualized. It is determined both by the nature of the relationship of people to God, expressed particularly in terms of covenant, and by the concrete circumstances within which a statement is made. This is not to say that truth never has a propositional character, but that propositional statements are rarely made abstractly or systematically, as though such truth existed independently of the endeavour to grasp the reality of a living God in the midst of life. Propositional statements constitute a highly focused and restricted end-point in the process of interpreting and communicating what has been experienced. It is not clear that the process can be reversed so that an authentic experience of God is generated by propositional statements of truth.
iii) It is consistent with the gospel to make it available on the home ground of the unpersuaded. In a sense, perhaps, to submit Christian truth to rational enquiry is a concession to those who do not have faith, an aspect of becoming all things to all men (1 Cor.9:19-23). This is not to make either modern rationalism or postmodern irrationalism the final arbiter of truth, Christian or otherwise. Rational enquiry is not an infallible method but a dialectical process of affirmation and revision - often a very chaotic process, offering no more than provisional statements regarding the ‘truth’ of a particular state of affairs. Truth is truth. In the end, rationalism can do no more to suppress truth than faith can do to engender it.
iv) Paradoxically, dogmatism tends to encourage an intolerant and disputatious pluralism. If one group can lay down the law regarding absolute truth, so can the next. Truth must be allowed to stand some way apart from all our arguing and pontificating, like some elusive and rare creature, kept in view by our discourse, but not snared and tied down.
The intellectual integrity of evangelical discourse
It is a primary objective of this work, therefore, to re-establish the intellectual credibility of evangelical discourse, to bring about a reconvergence of the public and private spheres of thought, to seek to apply consistent standards of truthfulness across the whole spectrum of thinking done by committed Christians, to ground the preached gospel in the honest and critical struggle to understand what happened in the life of Jesus.
Much of the necessary groundwork for renewal has already been laid by evangelical scholarship - in rediscovering, for example, the historicity of Jesus - but it has had very limited impact on popular discourse. The scholars are faced with a quandary. A more critical, thoughtful approach to the grounds of faith is bound to open up a gulf between scholarship and popular Christian discourse, to the extent that one will appear dangerously innovative and the other hopelessly naïve and out-of-touch. A tug-of-war will get us nowhere: the most likely outcome is that the rope will break. Scholars and evangelical intellectuals (if the term is not an oxymoron!) will have to infiltrate a complacent and facile evangelical discourse and subvert it from the inside - though no more than popular discourse will have to subvert scholarship in the interests of spiritual relevance.
Is the Bible a privileged text?
It is an interesting thought-experiment to imagine what would have happened if the early Jewish Christians had been driven from Jerusalem into the desert. What if, under threat of destruction from an invading Roman army, they had concealed their writings in caves and then, like the sectarians of Qumran, had disappeared off the screen of history? And suppose that nineteen hundred years later those writings were discovered by a Bedouin shepherd boy and fell into the hands of a culture that had never known the Christian church. What would that culture make of them? We can hardly subtract the influence of Christianity from modern Western culture, even from modern secular rationalism. But this is only a thought-experiment: how would people react to these writings and their claims about a Jewish teacher called Jesus without all the intellectual baggage of the Code, without the preconception that this a definitive story about God, perhaps without much of an idea about God at all?
i) The Code regards the truthfulness of the Bible as a premise, a self-evident postulate, vouchsafed by the simple fact that this is sacred text, the Word of God, as though it carried an irrevocable and unquestionable divine imprimatur. The challenge is to strip the biblical texts of this aura of infallibility, shut down the defensive shield of dogmatism, so that the texts become again what they always have been - a collection of miscellaneous documents generated by a not entirely coherent, ancient religious tradition and by a sectarian movement in the process of breaking away from it.
ii) An appreciation of the truthfulness of Scripture must be based on, must begin with, an understanding of the place of these texts within history. This means taking into account their restricted frame of reference, the historical particularity of the issues addressed, and their inherent limitations as sources of information about what actually happened. It also means taking historical-critical scholarship seriously: we cannot legitimately talk about the events of the Bible as history without in principle making use of the same historical-critical methodologies that we apply to other ancient documents. If in the process the biblical texts acquire the status of Word of God, it is as an emergent property, inseparable from the personal discovery that there is something valid, something real, something compelling, in the project of the kingdom of God.
iii) Then, of course, it is important that a renewed reading of Scripture be allowed to reshape the tradition, revise the popular, user-friendly, standard definition of faith that provides the practical point of reference for both insiders and outsiders. Here is perhaps where the greatest need lies - for the whole of Christian life to be wrenched into a new alignment with the reality of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Not a superficial reorganization of data but a serious low-level reformatting of the hard drive!
The difference between what is and what is said about it
For most purposes truth has to do with the functioning of a three-way correspondence between what is said, what is thought, and what is. This is by no means an uncomplicated epistemological model. What is thought cannot easily be communicated other than through speech; and we know what is only by thinking about things and by articulating those thoughts through speech. We should think of the model, therefore, as a pragmatic, instructive device by which we endeavour to correct certain naïve assumptions about the nature of language and construct a more reasonable, more plausible, account of things. In fact, a number of important corollaries may be drawn from the model.
i) Many of the difficulties regarding the plausibility of Christian truth arise because the relationship between speech, thought and reality has become too inflexible and mechanistic. We forget the uncertainty of speech, the inexactness of thought, and suppose that language is a more accurate and stable vehicle for truth than it really is - hence our over-dependence on the Code. Truth lies not in words alone but in the interaction between speech, thought and reality. We acquire truth not simply by reading it off the page, as a supermarket scanner reads a bar-code, but by entering into the dynamic of this interaction. This is the act of interpretation - it entails human responsibility.
ii) We encounter a particular problem when the state of affairs described belongs not to the empirical realm but to a transcendent or ideological dimension. Jesus’ death at the hands of the Romans outside Jerusalem belongs to the empirical realm. But to speak of this as an atoning death introduces an ideological element; this is a matter of theological interpretation. It is cast as a statement about reality, but this is a ‘reality’ that is virtually indistinguishable from what is thought. For the purposes of this project we will call this type of speech ‘myth’. It is the theological overlay, that interpretive layer of meaning that is superimposed on empirical reality, ordinary experience. The term is not used pejoratively. It is not intended to bring into the question the truthfulness of what is said; nor does it necessarily mean that the statement or story is to be interpreted non-literally. It simply draws attention to the fact that statements about what is invisible (‘Christ is seated at the right hand of the Father’) or unknown (‘Christ will come again’) are very different to statements (historical, personal, scientific) about normal empirical reality. Traditionally, of course, in the Christian context this sort of myth would be described as ‘revelation’. But ‘revelation’ is one of those self-authenticating terms that pre-empts the process of enquiry. By using the term ‘myth’ we emphasize that this is, at bottom, human speech about God.
iii) The instability of language appears not only at the epistemological level. It is also a problem of rhetoric. On the one hand, language may be used figuratively - that is, in a deliberately ambiguous or indirect manner. But rhetoric is more than simply the use of stylistic devices; it is also the use of argumentation. We may define argumentation quite broadly to mean the development of thought in a text - the plot of a narrative or the more logical structure of an argument.
The basic problem is that, under the influence of the Code, we expect New Testament argumentation to conform to an abstract systematic theological schema. We read according to the Code. What we overlook is the contingency of the argumentation - the rhetorical context in which the argumentation arose and which must be taken into account if it is to be properly understood. This rhetorical context has a number of different components: the historical circumstances and horizon within which the text arose, the personal situation of the writer or speaker, the role that the text played in debate or controversy.
iv) The model allows us to refocus on the what is of truth rather than the what is said. The Code becomes transparent again and we can see what lies beyond it. The myth and ideology of salvation are not made redundant, the theoretical postulate of atonement is not abandoned, but we look through these formulations and see a reality which they represent but with which they are not identical. The reality of salvation has been projected on to the glass screen of human understanding, but the image on the screen is not the reality, nor is it properly the ‘truth’. If we step to one side, we can see the gap between the Code and the reality, we can see that there is an epistemological distance between them.
The agenda of the kingdom of God
Although to a large extent Christian faith must be embodied in, and mediated through, words and propositions, we should not lose sight of the dynamic, experiential, existential dimension to the gospel. Evangelical Christianity, nervous about the threat from scepticism and rationalism, too often substitutes a belief system for life. The task of maintaining the belief system becomes an end in itself, much as the regulation of the Old Testament sacrificial system became an end in itself, an inherently meritorious activity, rather than the external expression of a viable covenantal relationship. The experience of God naturally gives rise to speech about God, and it is important that this speech be accurate. Doctrine is a distillation of accurate speech about the experience of God. But it is much harder to make the process run in reverse. Doctrine does not so easily induce life, it does not so naturally generate the experience of God. The Spirit gives life, but the letter kills, no matter how accurate the letter may be.
The Code is currently a conceptual, systematic, doctrinal structure. Christianity, however, is essentially a historical and existential commitment. The Code, therefore, needs to be restructured around the historical continuity with the agenda of Jesus Christ. It needs to be structured diachronically rather than synchronically. This will entail a different rhetoric, different imagery, different priorities - a pervasive commitment to a historical, contextualized, realistic model of Christian faith.