Thursday, May 28, 2015

Why I’m not an Evangelical. Part 1: The Fundamentalist Epistemic

 Did he really say that?

The following letter appeared in the March/April edition of “IDEA”, the magazine of the Evangelical Alliance. The letter gives one of the reasons why I, as a Christian, struggle with evangelicalism; it tells us why evangelicalism so easily topples down into fundamentalist authoritarianism. It is a text book example of the epistemic error which is at the heart of fundamentalism:

Thanks for your timely investigations into evangelical identity in the Jan/Feb issue. Nowhere did that question come more sharply into focus than in Leader’s Questions (p32) on what the word ‘evangelical’ means.

Whilst Revd Rachel Marszalek reads scripture ‘through the lenses of reason, tradition and experience”, Dr Lucy Peppiatt perceives scripture as “the primary authoritative lens through which and against which all other texts, ideas, cultures etc. are interpreted and measured”

So which lens are we to use! Is scripture to be viewed through the filter of our world or our world to be viewed through scripture? Is the word of God to be subject to the changing culture of the world or the world subject to the enduring word of God?

Our evangelical forbears allowed the word of God to reign supreme in their lives, even when it cost them dear. May God enable us, together, to do the same.
Yours sincerely
Michael Thornton.

Michael Thornton appears to have no inkling how language actually works: The interpretation of text is always dependent on cultural and cognitive complexes, complexes which effectively process textual tokens. These tokens don’t contain meanings; rather they generate meaning given the interpretative resources of the cultural and cognitive substrate they impact. This is a general truism which applies to all forms of language because this is what language is by definition: that is, signals which act as meaning stimuli as they impinge upon cultural and cognitive contexts. The Bible, as a sequence of textual tokens, also follows these principles; if it didn’t it wouldn’t be language.

So, strictly speaking the starting point isn’t scripture in-and-of-itself but the combination of scripture and the substrate on which scripture works its purposes. Thornton appears to be under the mistaken impression that it’s a choice between scripture and substrate; he is so confounded by this false dichotomy that he is unable to see that the two must work together to generate meaning, a meaning that flows out of their interaction. In fact given this truism there is a case for claiming that effective scripture isn’t in fact the printed word, but the meanings those words evoke given the right substrate. Thornton’s dichotomy  may have been encouraged by a misapplication of the “sola scriptura” concept, a slogan coined during the reformation as a way of prizing apart scripture from the authoritarian grip of Roman Catholic fundamentalism; sola scriptura could never mean scripture alone in an absolute sense, but only in a relative sense.

The type of view expressed by Thornton is one I frequently encounter amongst fundamentalists and even moderate evangelicals like those represented by IDEA: I’ve long suspected that part of the psychological complex which favors such a view is an epistemic insecurity which prompts fundamentalist minded Christians to seek absolute jot and tittle certainty in their faith. This temptation towards inquisitional certainty subsequently provides a basis for the heretic purging of those Christians who disagree with the inquisitors.

The epistemic insecurities which fuel fundamentalist jot and tittle certainties might be assuaged somewhat if there was a clearer apprehension that God is sovereign over the whole package of contextual substrate and impacting word. The Divine choreographer is no doubt more than capable of arranging things so that the interaction between symbol and context generate potentially edifying meaning in the life of the believer.  It is unfortunate that the statement by evangelical Lucy Peppiatt has had the effect of conniving with Michael Thornton’s fundamentalist mentality.

However, let’s have a look at what Jason Lisle has to say on this subject. The following quote is taken from a comment on one of his blog posts. Here Lisle was responding to the question of a fellow fundamentalist:

Dr. Lisle says:
October 14, 2014 at 11:54 am
Zach, the answers to your questions involve the concept of the “hermeneutical circle” or “hermeneutical spiral.” I have a book coming out in the summer that addresses these issues in rich detail (in chapter 9). For now, I’ll have to give a shorter answer. God’s Word would have to be true because of the nature of God; He is truth. God has “hardwired” us to know that He exists, and to recognize His Word when we hear it or read it (John 10:27). How we respond to God’s Word will determine what happens next. If we receive His Word with humility then we participate in the hermeneutical circle. Basically, this means that God’s Word is sufficiently clear that we can understand and correctly interpret much of it upon reading it. After all, God designed our minds and knows how to write a book such that our minds can understand it. Because of sin, we don’t instantly correctly interpret all of God’s Word on the first reading. But the portions we do understand rightly will help us to understand the more difficult portions. In the process of time, our understanding improves as the Scriptures systematically sanctify our thinking. The Bible is therefore self-interpreting. It teaches us how to interpret it.

The general drift of this piece by Lisle is, I believe, correct, although he has expressed it in such a way as to as to neutralize its important lessons and even encourage the black vs white/baddies vs goodies categories preferred by the right-wing Fundamentalist mind. However, Lisle has at least become aware of the textual boot strap problem: i.e. one can’t assign meaning to scripture in a cognitive and cultural vacuum; that meaning can only bootstrap from an a priori cognitive and cultural substrate on which the text of scripture impacts. Thus the mind, in part equipped by its context, must be correctly primed in order that it be correctly informed by the textual input from the Bible. Moreover, as Lisle suggests, the reading of scripture effectively feeds back into one’s priming and therefore scripture influences the understanding of scripture; in fact Scripture becomes part of the substrate culture on which scripture itself works.  See here where I made this important point.

But fundamentalists are not known for nuancing or epistemic humility, and so Lisle uses some phrases that cancel all his good work by encouraging epistemic arrogance. These phrases are stock in trade for the fundamentalist and have the effect of signaling the old certainties about the divine authority of fundamentalist opinion.

Lisle: God’s Word would have to be true because of the nature of God

My Comment: There is a difference between natural language and the propositional notational language of mathematics and physics whose “truth” is intended to be independent of any one human being and is found in consistent and correct symbolic operations. In contrast natural language is highly connotational in nature and as such truth (or falsehood) is found in what it generates in the cognition it impacts.  Take for example the parables of Jesus: in what sense are these “true”? Are they to be regarded as true literal histories? If they don’t refer to literal histories does that make them false? Or should they be regarded as edifying archetypical vignettes whose truth emerges when they generate meaning on the appropriate human substrate?  Where is God’s truth in this case? It can’t be in the text because without interaction with a substrate it generates nothing and means nothing.  In much of natural language truth or falsehood is an effect rather than being resident in the text itself. The criticism often made of fundamentalism, and there are hints of it in the way Lisle expresses himself, is that in its very literal approach to scripture it treats the Bible like a scientific textbook. Parables are far from scientific statements: they are signals to the reader to be appropriately and rightly creative in their interpretation.

Lisle God has “hardwired” us to know…

It may well be (in fact I think it is likely) we have some kind of “God instinct”, but we must set that against the possibly that the intensity of this instinct may vary from person to person. Moreover, this instinct may be obscured and/or weakened, perhaps even eclipsed, by environmental influences of all sorts. So called hard wiring may actually only set up a propensity that in itself is not determinative. In using the term hard wiring Lisle has expressed the “God instinct” in typically black and white terms, terms that are likely to appeal to the fundamentalist sense of epistemic certainty: As the fundamentalist reads his Bible with Lisle reference to “hard wiring” in mind he will likely be encouraged to believe he has been “hard wired” to correctly interpret the text thus helping to neutralize any doubts, ambiguities or epistemic humility about what he draws from the text.

Lisle: God’s Word is sufficiently clear that we can understand and correctly interpret much of it upon reading it. After all, God designed our minds and knows how to write a book such that our minds can understand it. Because of sin, we don’t instantly correctly interpret all of God’s Word on the first reading

My Comment: It’s probably a safe bet to infer that to Lisle and his fellow fundamentalists those sufficiently clear meanings are their own! It’s what some fundamentalists refer to as the “plain meaning” of scripture; any other meanings must, according to Lisle, be a product of sinful and willful misinterpretation – notice that Lisle gives no space to plain ordinary genuine  interpretation errors when reading the Bible! In the fundamentalist universe sinful motives stalk the world and beyond their strict and particular fundamentalist communities those malign motives are found around every corner – this is why fundamentalists have a weakness for conspiracy theory.

Lisle: The Bible is therefore self-interpreting. It teaches us how to interpret it

My Comment: Although I agree with what Lisle has written immediately before this sentence, he has gone too far here: Scripture is never absolutely self-interpreting; its meaning has to be bootstrapped from somewhere as Lisle himself has admitted with his reference to “hardwiring”.  Once again we find Lisle serving up what his strict fundamentalist audience want to hear: Namely, that the Bible is a small, secure, self-interpreting universe. This encourages the fundamentalist to drop outside influences in favor of the proprietary readings favoured by his particular fundamentalist community; this is the sense in which they implicitly understand the term “sola scriptura”. The latter phrase was coined in a time when Catholic fundamentalism insisted on the divine authority of its reading of scripture. Ironically Lisle and his fellow fundamentalists have a similar opinion of their own views!

All in all Lisle has expressed himself in such a way as to mask the important questions surrounding the bootstrapping of Biblical meaning: The tenor of what he says would be unlikely to budge Michael Thornton  and Lucy Peppiatt from their misleading opinions which wrongly give the impression that scripture is a self-contained island of meaning, an independent “lens” which has no need to call on cultural and cognitive resources in order to generate meaning. be continued

Did he really say that? As we shall see, the fundamentalist epistemic is likely motivated by fear and insecurity.

Postscript 30/6/15. A case study in fundamentalist epistemic arrogance
Who else?

In a blog post entitled 28 June 2015 fundamentalist Ken Ham writes (my emphases):

....we have an absolute authority by which all our actions must be judged—the authority of the Word of God. God obviously is the ultimate Judge, and He has given us His Word with which to judge actions.
....before we make a judgment, we must make sure we are judging righteously from God’s Word and not relying on our own opinion.

Ken's post is about the validity of judging others - I wouldn't quibble with that as we all, necessarily in fact, make valued judgments on people's behavior.  What interests me here is the way Ken justifies his judgments. As we know Ken Ham is a very judgmental person, constantly pronouncing God's censor on atheists and Christians alike; even that I wouldn't class as an activity wrong in-and-of-itself. Where Ken goes wrong is that he passes the buck on his epistemic responsibility in arriving at the ontological basis from whence he makes his judgments: For, as we can see from the above, in Ken's eyes he is not pronouncing his opinions, but God's opinions. He sees little epistemic responsibility in getting his interpretation of the Bible right, and gives no indication that when he "judges righteously from God's Word" it still remains his opinion of God's Word: Instead Ken is quite certain that his opinions are God's opinions. It is that unquestioning confidence that to his mind sanctions his prolific output of condemnation on others, and it is that which qualifies him as a fundamentalist.    (See here As I heard someone say: "An evangelical is nice fundamentalist". It follows then that a fundamentalist is a nasty evangelical!

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