A few years ago, I was asked to respond to a paper written by Anthony Thiselton at a conference on postmodernity. Thiselton subsequently published his paper, but it doesn’t seem like there is any chance that my paper will be published. I might as well share it with my readers and friends before the topic (or at least what I wrote) becomes irredeemably out of date:
POSTMODERNITY AND THE CRISIS OF TRUTH
A Response to Anthony Thiselton
POSTMODERNITY ON LOCAL TERMS
Anthony Thiselton’s paper has an obvious polemical thrust. As such, it is easier to determine what Thiselton rejects rather than what he affirms concerning the matters of theory of truth. He mounts a strong critique of the pragmatic version of Postmodernity exemplified by Richard Rorty. In this regard, I share much in common with Thiselton. As such, it would be more useful for me to attempt a critical appropriation rather than a critique of his paper. By critical appropriation I mean the need to identify and analyze the dynamics of Postmodernity. By appropriation I mean my intention to relocate the discussion of Thiselton’s paper from an evidently Western context to an Asian one.
Anthony Thiselton links Postmodernity to the crisis of truth. To this one would naturally ask the question, “Why a crisis of truth”? Is the linkage a matter or causality, that is, to suggest that Postmodernity is the cause of the crisis, or is the linkage merely descriptive? In the latter case, Postmodernity would be a description of a general condition of society where people in general and intellectuals in particular have lost confidence in attaining consensus regarding matters of truth.
What are the contours of the contemporary crisis of truth? One cannot help but be struck by the proliferation of theories spinning across the various disciplines of Western academia. Such proliferation is accompanied by intense disputes with no obvious winner. There is no evidence that the competing theories will be subsumed under an overarching, unifying framework. The resulting fragmentation of knowledge leads to doubts about the viability of the academic enterprise in securing certain or indubitable knowledge. Hence the advent of Postmodernity described by Lyotard as “incredulity toward metanarratives” or “distrust of grand theory”.
Does this Postmodernity represent the latest phase in the development of Western society? Thiselton notes a caution from Richard Roberts and Thomas Docherty that “it simply runs counter to any analysis of our social and cultural situation to conceive of the pre-modern, modern and post-modern as three neatly sequential stages of development rather than three source of conflicting cross-currents which seek to draw us in different directions simultaneously through choppy waters” (p.5). Those of us in Asia should be able to confirm that this is precisely our Asian experience. Indeed, we sometimes wonder if there is a need to rush into the latest academic fashion of theorizing on Postmodernity when our societies are still in the high noon of Modernity.
I am grateful then for Toulmin’s insightful argument that current Postmodernity be viewed as an opportunity to synthesize two divergent streams of Western thought. Toulmin argued that the ideal of knowledge of Cartesian Enlightenment – which favours universal abstract knowledge – needs to be enriched by the humanism of the Renaissance with its epistemological modesty and cultural and intellectual experimentation. So called current Postmodernity should really be viewed as providing new opportunities to integrate these two streams and is more appropriately viewed as the third phase of European Modernity.
Undoubtedly the term “distrusts grand theory” emphasizes the epistemological dimension of current debates on Postmodernity. Nevertheless, sociologists like James Hunter and Peter Berger have alerted us to the fact that the fundamental forces propelling Postmodernity are not philosophical forces so much as social forces. Of relevance too are the studies on the origins of the Holocaust which serve as powerful refutations of the project of Enlightenment rationality. I only need to turn to the classic work by Adorno and Horkheimer, The Dialectics of Enlightenment, where it is clearly pointed out that the Holocaust was itself one of the consequences of instrumental rationality that had come to dominate European Modernity.
Postmodernity does not imply the end of Modernity. The enduring quality of Modernity lies in two mutually reinforcing components, that is, a moral understanding (e.g. the value of reason, the supreme importance of individuality, the value of tolerance and relativism) and social /institutional life. James Hunter elaborates how these key values and ideas are carried by powerful social carriers such as industrial capitalism, the modern state and the knowledge sector (found in the modern university, the mass media and popular culture).
Our critique of modernity and post-modernity therefore needs to go beyond analysis of the history of ideas. We need to identify how conditions in modern society impact our lives, in areas of beliefs and practices and formation of social identity. Anthony Giddens provides vital help here. First, Giddens describes how Modernity has the capacity to disembed and rearticulate social relations across indefinite tracts of time-space. This is achieved through disembedding mechanisms such as ‘symbolic tokens’ (e.g. money) and ‘expert systems’. As such, “personal identity is no longer restricted to local spatial and time markers or local community relations, but may be reembedded/reconfigured across space-time” [MSI 18]. The current explosion of Internet chat groups which encourage participants to adopt unlimited forms of ‘virtual identity’ provides a startling preview of the plasticity of identity in today’s Network society.
Second, Giddens highlights the remarkable modern achievement of ‘institutional reflexivity’, that is, “the regularized use of knowledge about circumstances of social life as a constitutive element in its organization and transformation.” Traditionalists view institutions as repositories of cultural resources. Hence their preference for maintaining institutions as they are. This is psychologically understandable. However, maintenance only leads to obsolescence. It is precisely because the modern world is a ‘runaway world’ that only those institutions with the capacity of reflexivity will survive. The unpredictability lies not just in the nature of incomplete knowledge but essentially in the open nature of human systems and relationships, a situation neatly captured by Ulrich Beck’s concept of “risk societies.”
Giddens concludes, “Modernity’s reflexivity refers to the susceptibility of most aspects of social activity, and material relations with nature, to chronic revision in the light of new information of knowledge.” This is necessary because of the reflexively mobilized but yet intrinsically erratic dynamism (note chaos theory) of modern social activity”[MSI 20]. The combined effect of disembedding mechanisms, virtual reality and the erratic dynamism of modern institutions intensify the individual’s sense of anomie and periodically trigger off social-economic crises. Bermann well captures such a crisis.
To be modern is to find ourselves in an environment that promises adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world – and, at the same time, that threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are. . . modernity can be said to unite all mankind. But it is a paradoxical unity, a unity of disunity; it pours us all into a maelstrom of perpetual disintegration and renewal, of struggle and contradiction, of ambiguity and anguish. To be modern is to be part of a universe in which, as Marx said, ‘all that is solid melts into air’ [ D. Harvey 11].
Since Postmodernity is a reaction to instrumental rationality as well as the social forces projected by institutions of Modernity it would be premature to rush in to categorize Postmodernity either as an ally or enemy. I am more concerned to determine if contemporary critiques of modern society are accurate and elicit a resonance that seems plausible in the light of our experiences in everyday life. There is no need to follow uncritically the Western experience. After all, if Postmodernity itself subscribes to distrust of grand theory it follows that there is no need for Asians to submit passively to the grand theory of Postmodernity.
Thiselton acknowledges that there are two variants of Postmodernity, that is, firstly, the Postmodernity of European ideological suspicion, and secondly the Postmodernity of the American pragmatic tradition oriented to the consumer. Perhaps because he has already discussed the European philosophers in his earlier works that he currently focuses on the North American pragmatic Postmodernity.
It is true that we cannot deny the powerful social forces of globalization emanating from USA which have shaped an increasingly global culture epitomized by Coca-cola, MacDonald and Hollywood film stars. One may argue from these phenomena that traditions will inevitably be displaced and discarded as Modernity marches on. Surely the death of the grand narrative of Modernity has been widely exaggerated. But beyond the progressive face of Modernity exemplified by democracy and instrumental rationality, we need to point out the dark side of Modernity – which is ignored by Western thinkers – in the form of colonialism and disruptive economic forces projected by fund managers and the IMF. Both these expressions of Postmodernity should be kept firmly in view if we want to mount a social and theological critique of our local Asian society.
LOCAL TRUTHS AND SOCIAL RELATIONS
It is also evident that Thiselton’s discussion is situated in the context of the North Atlantic universities and seminaries. In this regard, Thiselton’s running battle with Richard Rorty represents an ongoing debate among the academia. At the surface level, we read of Rorty suggesting a ‘consumer- oriented’ epistemology. He expresses disdain for any high minded quest for moral knowledge. The reason behind this epistemological cynicism lies in his perception that attempts to attain certain knowledge exemplified by foundationalism, realism and representation/reference theory of knowledge have failed.
Rorty explains that his skepticism of epistemology lies in doubts about the effectiveness of appeals to moral knowledge, that these “are doubts about causal efficacy; not about epistemic status” (TP 172). I think he plays down the theoretical significance of his epistemological skepticism at this point. Still, he advocates abandoning foundationalism/representationalism and concentrating our energies on manipulating sentiments and sentimental education. “That sort of education gets people of different kinds sufficiently well acquainted with one another that they are less tempted to think of those different from themselves as only quasi-human. The goal of this sort of manipulation of sentiment is to expand the reference of the terms ‘our kind of people’ and ‘people like us’ (TP 176).
He claims that the definition of humanity underlying human rights has relevance only in “the sense in which rational agency is synonymous with membership in our moral community. Rorty declares that “producing generations of nice, tolerant, well-off, secure, other-respecting students is all that is needed to achieve an Enlightenment utopia” (TP179). He concludes that the spread of the human rights culture is “not a matter of or becoming more aware of the requirements of the moral law, but rather as what Baier calls “a progress of sentiments” (TP 181).
I support Rorty’s attempt to demythologize the myth of universal efficacy of instrumental reason in solving human problems. If, indeed, Rorty is reminding philosophers that they are merely commentators of social life (hopefully prophetic) rather than legislators of social change, then he deserves to be applauded. Unfortunately, his Postmodern pragmatism displays superficiality and naivete in its reading of human relationships. Perhaps sentimentality and good rhetoric will suffice in the academia of the North American context. [ I have my doubts, though, knowing what large egos academics have and how intense academic rivalry is in the academia]. There is in Rorty little sense of the brutality of life in developing societies, the recalcitrance of authoritarian governments toward change and the power of social institutions to suppress demands for greater democratic freedom and social justice. Is it not the case that the rational instruments of Modernity embodied in the bureaucracy and the discipline apparatus [the police, the prison and the press] only serves the authoritarian governments too well in keeping society in subservience? Our local rulers have learned only too well from their colonial masters. Surely, it takes more than learned discourse to challenge and change such entrenched powers.
Ironically, Asian authoritarian governments have rejected Western democracy on grounds that Westerners have cynically manipulated it to maintain hegemony over the rest of the world. Rorty’s suggestion that priority be given to the issue of security and sympathy would certainly be welcomed by many Asian authoritarian government which urge citizens not to fuss about matters of human rights and political integrity since priority should first be given to economic prosperity.
Asian authoritarian governments have only been too adept in brushing aside criticisms of their abuse of power by suggesting that Asians need to be wary of and resist claims of truth which after all, are devices of the Western media and academia. Undoubtedly, this matter confirms the Postmodern suspicion that all too often, truth claims function to legitimize dominant behaviors rather than promote equal recognition in relationships. But even if it is granted that social bonding rests on sentiments, we must still recognize that sentiments are displayed precisely because the context of social relations evidently support truth and trust. Truth without sentiments merely exploits but sentiments without truth means being exploited.
In Rortyian spirit we can improved on upon Marx with a new maxim, “Philosophy has failed in interpreting the world. Surely I can change it with sentiments.” In any case, authoritarian governments have no problem promoting feel-good sentiments. One only need to look at mass rallies sponsored by such governments with their assuring slogan, “We are OK, We Boleh.” Good sentiments will be promoted so long as we support business as usual for local politics. Is it not the case that many Asian governments deploy a of “carrot and stick” strategy to control its citizens? Citizens are all expected to feel good not only for the bread and circuses but also feel grateful because Caesar wields his power with a benevolent face. But surely an iron hand covered with a velvet cloth is still an iron hand nevertheless.
Rorty declares that truth a matter of rhetoric. That being the case then surely he who is able to project power through the mass media wins the day. According to Rorty “there is no standard higher than the assent of the relevant community. It is evident that such a relevant community holds a consensus on what constitutes acceptable social goods and what social practices ensures fair distribution of social goods.” But Richard Bernstein remarks that Rorty commits here a hidden ahistorical essentialism. “For Rorty writes as if we all know what these practices are. Given Rorty’s constant appeal to history and historicism, he ignores the historical fact that we are confronted with conflicting and incompatible practices – even in so-called liberal democracy” (NC 240).
A further question arises: What community is Rorty referring to and who has the power to decide who is in or who is out of this relevant community? Rorty chooses to ignore how a dominant group which controls the mass media may easily hijack public discourse and shape a public consensus according to its terms. The hegemonic group then demands compliance with its social agenda on ground that it is shaped by the majority of the community. Anyone who dissents is socially sanctioned and possibly excluded from this relevant community. All too often authoritarian governments legitimize their suppressions of dissent in the name of the silent and silenced majority.
It is easy for Rorty to derogate the “serious man” and recommend the “Rhetorical man who “sees through” philosophy and theology to the ‘basic’ assumption (if this is not a contradiction) that only socio-political forces of persuasion instrumentally determine who are “winners” in the market place of power. But Rorty fails to see the reality that there are no equals nor is there equal access to instruments of persuasion. In this regard the European Postmodernists are right in engaging in social critique with the aim of unmasking networks of power camouflaged in rhetoric of public discourse.
Rorty talks as though ‘truth’ and ‘knowledge’ are neutral commodities to be chosen at will by consumers. He fails to follow through with the insights of his counterparts in European Postmodernity on the intimate relationship between truth and power in social relations. I suggest that we look to Foucault to gain a more accurate understanding of the relationship between knowledge, public discourse social discipline and power. Foucault, in his book, Discipline and Punish observes that discipline produces docile bodies and relies on a procedure of training that includes hierarchical observation of individuals who are deliberately placed under detail control so as to transform them. Foucault argues that knowledge is inescapably linked to power. “Power produces knowledge . . . that power and knowledge directly imply one another; that there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations. These ‘power-knowledge relations’ are to be analyzed, therefore not on the basis of a subject of knowledge who is or is not free in relation to the power system, but, on the contrary, the subject who knows. . . . it is not the activity of the subject of knowledge that produces a corpus of knowledge, useful or resistant to power, but power-knowledge, the processes and struggles that traverse it and of which it is made up, that determines the forms and possible domains of knowledge” (DP 27-28).
In this regard, different forms of knowledge are deployed to sustain the technology of surveillance. Foucault emphasizes that power in modern society is no longer located in one central sovereign institution. Instead power is transmitted/dispersed throughout society so that no one can escape from its surveillance and discipline. In contemporary society power is co-extensive with society and interwoven with other social relations such as production, politics and law. So pervasive is this power that individuals submit to it voluntarily with active consent. A grand state ideology that is all inclusive leaves no room for difference and dissent. One characteristic of an authoritarian society is the absence of Civil society between state and family. The family becomes the last avenue of choice, albeit, private choice. Hence the pervasiveness of consumerism and private religion in such societies.
However despite this depressing scenario, Foucault also insists that there is always the possibility for resistance against power. To be sure, power is omnipresent but not omnipotent. However, resistance can only arise if one unmasks the pretension and false legitimacy utilized to camouflage the exercise of power. Obviously, to uphold truth is not just an academic game that Rorty assumes. For those facing hostile authorities, truth is a matter of life and death. Truth matters in calling authorities to be accountable. Without raising the issue of truth, we will slide into relativism that is politically irrelevant and impotent to guide social choices. Just as Kuhnian epistemological relativism undermines the basis for distinguishing between an African witchdoctor and a Western medical specialist, Rortyian pragmatism provides no moral resources to guide well-fed citizens on how to choose between a Saudi Arabian theocracy and Swiss democracy.
I suppose one can challenge the state by offering different bread and circuses to the populace. But it is surely futile to challenge Caesar on his own terms. On this score, Postmodernity lacks the moral resources to mount a social critique against Caesar. On Rorty’s terms, if the customer determines truth, then the final decision must rest on the biggest customer, namely, the State. To engage in social and moral critique means the need to expose the myth that Caesar’s world is the best of all possible worlds. In other words, Caesar may exercise a monopoly of power but he is still accountable to a higher law or reality or ultimate truth. Unfortunately on Rorty’s terms there is no basis to expect or demand Asians to develop a democracy polity since a democratic polity (community) is only historically contingent.
Rorty nonchalantly suggests that philosophy [political philosophy?] is irrelevant to social changes. Such a statement usually comes from someone who is enjoying the benefits of a ruling elite and sees no reason for change. After all, even if truth is a judgment of the community, is it not the case that it is the elite which speaks out on behalf of the community? Not surprisingly, Rorty often prefaces his judgment with remarks like “we pragmatists”, “we liberal ironists”, “we antirealists”. Presumably he speaks for his community. But surely, such nonchalance betrays ignorance or indifference to the dark side of the “we”. Rorty, I suppose, does not expect the elite to utilize the “we” as an exclusionary tactic. Demands for political correctness on American campuses however tell another cautionary tale.
At this point Thiselton’s running battle with Rorty on the possibility and nature of truth becomes relevant. It should be helpful to recapitulate some aspects of Rorty’s position culled from Thiselton’s paper:
p. 8 – Truth becomes a pragmatic social construct shaped in accordance with consumer choice and consumer interest.
p. 10 – all truth claims belong to the realm of social construction.
p. 12 – The true is whatever proves itself to be good in a way of belief. . . what proves itself to be good within a trajectory of a progress-oriented futurology.
p. 13 – The audience, not the speaker, the consumer, not the producer, defines the criteria for what counts as true.
One despairs to note that on Rorty’s terms, ‘Truth’ is both relativized and trivialized. To be sure, Rorty merely commends his pragmatic Postmodernity as a counter rhetoric rather than as a vehicle of logical analysis and argumentation. Primarily, Rorty assumes that because the Correspondence of truth/ representation theory of truth and its related moral realism faces difficulties, one should then opt for a pragmatic theory of social constructivism. One searches in vain in his writings for evidence of serious engagement with competing philosophical positions. He merely falls back on Davidson’s coherence theory of truth. Likewise he appeals to Dewey for a pragmatic theory of truth. I note however that both Richard Bernstein and Richard Shustermann disagree with Rorty’s violent reading of Dewey, a reading that fails to take seriously the moral earnestness of Dewey. Susan Haack has challenged Rorty’s claim to be a philosophical descendent of the classical pragmatists. For Susan Haack Rorty merely represents a “vulgar pragmatism: an unedifying prospect.” Rorty appeals to Donald Davidson in order to reject the representation theory of truth on grounds that it is non-epistemic. But is not the requirement of truth to be epistemic, that is, the presence of a human act of knowing for a proposition to be true amounts to a reduction of truth to human construction? Given the lack of argumentation I can only judge Rorty’s brand of pragmatism an expression of hubris rather than epistemological humility.
BEYOND CARTESIAN ANXIETY
I can agree with Rorty that it is unnecessary for us to continue the epistemological projected burdened by the anxiety of Cartesian foundationalism and representationalism. On the other hand, I disagree that the abandoning of Cartesian foundationalism amounts to surrendering to relativism/contingency and pragmatic license. Rorty never considered the more nuanced response to the problems of foundationalism. Again this is consistent with his strategy of redescription, of rhetorical assertion rather than proof (p. 19). Since the abandonment of foundationalism provides a starting point in Rorty’s project, it is surprising that his use of the epistemological terms like foundationalism remains ambiguous. So long as Rorty fails to address this ambiguity he continues to enjoy a rhetorical privilege in tailoring his epistemology to his social preferences.
Rorty ignores important discussion of foundationalism in current philosophy. Let’s begin with William Alston’s discussion on two forms of foundationalism. He notes that relativists cannot ignore the problem of infinite regress or that a proposition can be true for me but not true for you at the same time. Alston concedes that in iterative foundation for knowledge, one that is self-evident and demonstrable is beyond our rational powers. But he insists that “there must be a stock of directly justified beliefs constituting a foundation for the network of beliefs if acts of knowing are to possess any integrity.” These foundations may be hypothetical postulates but neither can they be disproved. Alston’s suggestion that it is possible to stop regress without dogmatic assertion of strong foundationalism requires careful consideration. Be that as it may, there is certainly more to foundationalism than Rorty is willing to recognize.
Other thinkers like Nicholas Wolterstorff are prepared to concede that foundationalism needs to be abandoned. Nevertheless, Wolterstorff continues his serious theorizing that is evidently different from Rorty’s. Perhaps our confusion will be overcome if we note that what Wolterstorff abandons is merely Cartesian foundationalism. Alvin Plantinga does not support Cartesian foundationalism but he argues that the Christian “belief in God is properly basic”. Surely there are other forms of foundationalism. It is apparent that some clarification is in order.
Thiele is helpful in pointing out that non-foundationalism does not mean constructing a body of knowledge floating on air. Theologizing must still be grounded on criteria but these criteria are not defined by some other extra-tradition sources. As Thiele describes it, “Foundationlessness, then, names the web of practiced Christian belief faithful to the norms shaped by its ecclesial life. Or negatively expressed, it names Christian belief defined not by some other meaningful particularity, but by its own” (F 87).
Thiele’s proposal follows Wolterstorff’s which pointed to “data-background beliefs” or “control beliefs”. Although these are not foundations of knowledge, background theories function as “beliefs as to what constitutes an acceptable sort of theory on the matter under consideration” (F 94). I may add that no control belief is immune from challenge. But we cannot challenge all of them at the same time. Thiele elaborates, “control beliefs neither lead to circular reasoning nor are determinative of the theories our knowledge comprises. They are open to modification throughout most of our experience and even in the moment of adjudication theories must yield to the evidence they explain. Control beliefs offer a nonfoundational heuristic to guide inquiry and pose the actual framework within which inquiry proceeds (F 95).
This does not mean that Christian reflection is constrained to hermetic walls of its own tradition. Indeed, such theology requires philosophical analysis. But “if their appeal to philosophical analysis were ad hoc and governed by the contextuality of Christian meaning, the speculative approach in such an instance would not trust reason to set its agenda but would measure speculative proposals by their conformity to the standard of Christian commitment” (F 100)
Debates on the viability of a more nuanced view of foundationalism will continue. It is pertinent here merely to emphasize that perhaps we need not be forced into a false dichotomy of either supporting a Cartesian foundationalism or Rortyian pragmatic relativism.
How can we compare and choose between competing truth claims if we abandon Descartes ‘clear and distinct ideas’? This is surely a vital question for our pluralistic society. Let me note that unlike Rorty, even such a strong advocate of the coherence theory of truth like Nicholas Rescher/Philip Griffiths are able to offer a fruitful model for inter-religious dialog with their epistemological framework of Orientational Pluralism. However I will concentrate only on the insights drawn from Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre.
MacIntyre agrees that we cannot appeal to ‘neutral’ criteria to adjudicate between competing traditions. Nor should we compare rival positions against independent facts so much as to lay out how the new conclusion must be accepted on premises which both sides accept. As Taylor explains MacIntyre’s position, “What may convince us that a given transition from X to Y is a gain is not only or even so much how X and Y deal with the facts, but how they deal with one another. . . In adopting Y, we make better sense not just of the world, but of our history of trying to explain the world, part of which has been played out in terms of X” (PA 43).
Taylor modestly suggests that the claim is not that Y is absolutely true, but that whatever is “ultimately true,” Y is better than X. It is, one might say, less false. . . .: whatever else turns out to be true, you can improve your epistemic position by moving from X to Y; this is a gain (PA 54).
Taylor emphasizes that such a move does not amount to a claim to have arrived at the final rational explanation. It is rather a choice for the best explanation so far. More important than merely being more rational is a concomitant requirement to be morally responsible for our epistemological choices. In this regard, the epistemological enterprise is a serious business. As such, I find it facetious that Rorty has disregard the ‘serious man’, that is, the man who is “dogged by problems for which he takes moral responsibility” as passe (P. 15).
Perhaps Rorty can afford to waffle around since he works as a secured, tenured professor in a North American academia. But surely, on his own terms he cannot generalize (or universalize) his rhetorical kibbutzing (since an epistemological project will be contradictory on his own terms). At most he may suggest that his rhetoric suffices somewhat for his context. But by the same token, I can exercise my personal choice to judge his perspective inadequate in our context where the contest of rationality between traditions is intense, if not violent. We are aware that often, the decision to speak the truth under authoritarian regime is a costly venture. In fact, unless one takes moral responsibility as the outcome of moral conviction and exercises courage one will fail to think clearly or mount an effective challenge/critique against the reigning ideology/ status quo/paradigm.
RECLAIMING TRUTH FOR EVERYDAY LIFE
How then ought we to prosecute a theology in a Postmodern world? In light of the above discussion it is evident that I agree with Thiselton’s suggestion that theology must explore the relation between truth-claims, knowledge and power in social and ecclesial institutions – p. 11
In this regard, Evangelicals can profit from the challenge coming from the Postmodernist like Rorty. It must be admitted that Evangelicals have confused epistemological certainty of the Enlightenment with the spiritual certitude arising from the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit. Accordingly, doctrinal formulation is expected to lay out with clarity, a system of self-consistent beliefs. All too often we end up with a sterile conceptual system lacking connection with the pastoral life of the church. Is it any wonder that the theologian has been labeled as someone who produces beautiful blossoms with inedible fruit.
To be sure, Thiselton has suggested that the theological training should put tradition and history before rhetoric. I can accept this only if we can ensure that tradition (usually Western theology) is not imposed on us as a completed system. Is it not the case that the Reformation represented liberation from the deadweight of tradition? As someone wrote, tradition is the living faith of the dead but traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. In other words, tradition must be appropriated as a repository of insights drawn from an effective history of Christian faith. That is to say, tradition cannot foreclose the eschatological dimension of the faith. On the contrary, we should expect new understanding and application as we flesh out a living tradition in a new context.
From this perspective, the Christian epistemological enterprise goes beyond securing theoretical knowledge and involves trust and commitment. To this extent, we agree with the pragmatist that knowledge entails commitment. The biblical approach agrees that truth is not merely a successful and final description of ultimate reality. Truth always proves itself effective again and again in changing present reality. That is to say, truth claims entails authentic living.
Vaclav Havel has offered remarkable insights arising from his own struggles with a communist dictatorship in Czechoslovakia. He suggests that authenticity begins with a concern for “living the truth.” Authentic living does not arise from following cues given by authoritative institutions. Neither does authentic living arise from fighting the cause for abstract ideologies or from pursuing the goal of taking control of socio-political institutions. Authentic living springs from “the aims of life and the authentic needs of real people [Living The Truth: 102].
Any existential revolution should provide hope of a moral reconstitution of society, which means a radical renewal of the relationship of human beings to what I have called the ‘human order’, which no political order can replace. A new experience of being, a renewed rootedness in the universe, a newly grasped sense of ‘higher responsibility’, a new-found inner relationship to other people and to the human community [117-118].
Social planners demand compliance with their policies on the grounds that such policies act as bulwarks of stability against ‘the barbarians outside the gates.’ Unfortunately, such compliance leads to loss of personal identity when every detail of one’s life comes under supervision. It is vital that the mundane matters of everyday life be jealously guarded as opportunities to exercise choices that are truthful to oneself and not be sacrificed on the altars of social engineering. That is to say, we need to take responsibility for our own lives. Such a simple sense of being human captures Havel’s challenge to be ‘living the truth’.
Power politics aim at securing political goals. There is no such thing as a neutral, disinterested truth. In politics there is only one truth, that is, effective truth. Power/Truth is confirmed by the barrel of the gun. The social witness of the Church consists in mediating moral values based on witness to a higher truth than that proffered by the State. Not surprisingly, authoritarian governments encourage private religion. But they persecute any church that witnesses as an institution that calls the government to be accountable to a transcendent reality. By witnessing to a higher truth, the church denies the claim that there should be nothing outside the state.
Biblical truth as such entails an element of risk and responsibility and demands a recovery of ethical life. Ethical life is particularly described as graced life. Truth is not so much a social construct as a gift. It also expresses its pragmatic force as love. As such, ethical life is lived out in the context of a community. Truth claims therefore demand embodiment in a an ecclesia. On Rorty’s terms, the ecclesia is the relevant community. After all, as Leslie Newbigin points out, Jesus did not write a book but formed a community. I can do no better than to end with a challenge from Newbigin for believers to demonstrate in their congregation a way of life which validates the truth claims of the Gospel.
If the gospel is to challenge the public life of society, if Christians are to occupy the “high ground” which they have vacated in the noon time of “modernity”. . . it will only be by movements that begin with the local congregation in which the reality of the new creation is present, known, and experienced, and from which men and women will go into every sector of public life to claim it for Christ, to unmask the illusions which have remained hidden and to expose all areas of public life to the illumination of the gospel.”(GPS 232-233).