We are in a time of great philosophical and cultural transition. The modern epistemology of certainty is dying away; to many people, it no longer seems plausible for any person or group to claim a rigid understanding of absolute reality. In its place has come the postmodern epistemology of doubt: the belief that no one is qualified to make a summary statement about the entire world, and certainly no one is entitled to impose such a statement on others.
I believe that postmodernism is a transient phenomenon. It was the necessary and appropriate criticism of modernism's self-righteous claims to absolute truth, but it has gone too far. Rather than simply teaching humility to modern realism, postmodernism rejected the entire project of evening attempting to find universal truth.
I believe that this is unsustainable. I believe that the human mind longs for an imperative epistemology: a science of knowledge that not only makes claims about the world, but gives a reason why someone ought to believe them. I believe that the human soul longs for a connection to something outside itself: something which is larger and more lasting than itself. Modernism's claim to absolute truth satisfied that longing (for a while); postmodernism's claim that “all truth claims are socially constructed in a particular context” does not.
We cannot return to modernism; it is quite dead. But we must find something new which fills the longing for the imperative epistemology – the longing for the intellectual connection with the transcendent Real. For that, I offer the epistemology of fealty. To understand my proposal, however, we must first consider modernism and postmodernism in a new light. I propose that both systems share a fear of being wrong.
Modernism has a few founding myths: stories told and retold within the culture, which pass on and reinforce the values of the culture. Key among them are Galileo, Copernicus, and Columbus. Galileo and Copernicus were astronomers; they studied the universe and attacked the long-held belief that the Earth was the center of the universe. Both were threatened by the church (that is, by the power structure of the time – the defender of the old ideas). Galileo eventually recanted his claims; Copernicus did not. Both were eventually validated.
Columbus was an explorer, who rejected the widely-held belief that the Earth was flat. (Many educated people already knew that this was false when Columbus sailed, but it was the common belief amongst the general populace at the time.) By sailing West and finding another continent, Columbus publicly and conclusively proved, to the entire culture, that the Earth was round.
The founding myths of modernism are about courage to stand up for that which is real and true, against the cultural, political, and legal pressures of your age. They teach that those who hold to what is true, despite their culture, will eventually be vindicated by the relentless march of intellectual progress. Implicit in the myth is the epistemology of certainty: the belief that there is such a thing as ideas which are absolutely, inarguably true, and that all honest observers will, in time, come to agree.
The founding myths of postmodernism are more abstract, perhaps because of their rejection of any claim to a universal story. Yet they are still quite clear: an arrogant, close-minded group of people imposed their will on others. They used power to enforce their own particular viewpoint, and condescendingly presumed that they were simply “educating the ignorant.” But eventually, the inherent contradictions of their own metanarratives, and their growing respect for other cultures and viewpoints, caused them to repent, and to allow for a diversity of thought and practice. Claims to absolute reality were torn down, and a mutual respect of various belief-communities grew up.
The postmodern myths teach about respect, and the danger of power. Implicitly, they teach the epistemology of doubt: the belief that no one person or group has access to absolute reality; that all truth-claims are culturally constructed and reinforced; and that nothing is ever so certain that we are entitled to impose it on others.
The commonality between postmodernism and modernism is the absolute terror of being wrong. Neither system is willing to risk holding to a belief which is false. Modernism attempts to protect itself by building and edifice of absolute realism and certainty; in that way, people can be confident that what they believe is true. Postmodernism believes that the modern goal is impossible to achieve, and so throws up its hands: it refuses to claim any firmly-held belief, just in case that belief might turn out to be wrong some day.
I propose that this shared value is an idol. We value not-being-wrong more than we value God Himself. To illustrate, I offer a hypothetical question to my Christian brothers and sisters: what would you do if God asked you to believe something which was wrong? What if God asked you to believe that the sky was green, or that up was down, or that 2+2=5? Would you be willing to do so? If not, then what does that say about your priorities? What is your true God?
Now, you may argue that the question is nonsense: God would certainly never ask us to believe something which is false. After all, the Bible says that “your word is truth.” And so we may confidently reject the entire premise of the question, and laugh away the silly accusation that we honor truth more than God Himself. But before we do so entirely, let me refine the question a bit.
What if God asked you to believe something today, which seemed plausible enough, but which would later turn out to be terribly imprecise? What if the thing that God asked you to believe today lead you to all sorts of false conclusions and mistaken secondary beliefs, which you would later have to reject altogether? What would you say about God then?
This is not a hypothetical question. I has happened many times in the history of the people of God. The most obvious example of this is the Shema. In Deuteronomy 6, God said: “Hear, O Israel, the LORD your God, the LORD is one.” It was a clear, unambiguous statement of monotheism, spoken into the midst of a pagan world. It was a radical statement: not only was Israel to worship on a single God, there were no other gods! Every god worshiped by every other people was an impostor, a lie, a block of wood without life or power. The Shema became one of the central points of Israel's worship. It is still recited today in the synagogues; it is Judaism 101. Yet it was incredibly imprecise.
Imagine that you are a Jew living in Palestine, a hundred years before Christ. Someone comes up to you and says, “I think that the Shema was just an approximation. While it is true that God is one, God is also three: three Persons in One. You might call it a 'Trinity.'” You would have judged the speaker to be blaspheming. What they proposed was impossible: it was an obvious rejection of the clear revelation of God. If you were devout, you would have stoned them on the spot.
Yet, after the Crucifixion, this is exactly what the followers of Christ concluded. It was obvious that Christ was God; yet it was also obvious that Christ interacted with some other Person, who was also God, whom He called His Father. Moreover, there was a third person, a Spirit, who was also God, and yet was distinct from the others. Christian theologians, faced with these inescapable conclusions, and yet also devoted to the integrity of the Old Testament, concluded that the Shema must have been an approximation: it was true that God was one; yet it was also true that God was three. One of the most beloved anchors of the Old Testament, one of the most clear and unambiguous declarations of doctrine, turned out to be only a very rough approximation of reality.
This poses a serious epistemological question for Christians. To illustrate, let's transport modern and postmodern epistemologies back to ancient Israel. How would they have interpreted the Shema? And how would they have reacted when the doctrine of the Trinity arose?
Modernism, which claims that we can know things absolutely, would have interpreted the Shema as absolute and clear. It would have confidently claimed that it was impossible for there to be multiple persons who were all God. It would have been a strict monotheist. When these views were later proved to be wrong, it would have denounced the Shema: it was not really “true,” by a modern definition of the word.
Postmodernism would have no such angst. It would have assumed, right from the start, that the Shema, like all truth claims, was a culturally constructed viewpoint, but only one of many. It may be part of a larger system of Jewish thought...and it might be an important part of that network of beliefs – a key element of the Jewish whole – but that does not mean that we should imagine that it was true in an absolute sense. It was simply how the Jews viewed the world, and interpreted their experiences. Certainly, it would not be appropriate for them to expect anyone else to conform.
Both epistemologies eventually denounce the Shema, and its claim to universality. Modernism rejects it because it is too imprecise; postmodernism rejects the very idea of a universal truth or metanarrative which compels us to submit. But we cannot escape the conclusion, from reading the text, that we ought to be compelled to submit to it. To marginalize any Biblical doctrine because it is imprecise, or to reject it because it contains an imperative, is to neuter the Bible itself, and we are not entitled to do that.
But we cannot simply leap backwards, to one of these old epistemologies. Modernism and postmodernism both critique each other in ways that cannot and should not be forgotten. It seems to me that neither can sustain us as we attempt to move forward with God: modernism is too self-assured, and postmodernism deflects any claim which God might make upon us.
We need a epistemology which can contain the imperative truth claims, and which can plausibly claim that they are universal, but which leaves space for God to later give more details – even if the “detail” is something as shocking, and as world-altering, as the revelation of the Trinity. That is, the epistemology must allow us to say “this is universally true” without also claiming “I understand this entirely.” This epistemology must acknowledge that while all truth claims are approximate, some truth claims are compelling. That is, while all truth claims have some margin for error, some express (within that margin of error) something which is universally true. Some truth claims may even be precisely true (though we humans would never know which are which).
The problem with such an epistemology is this: where does it come from? If it comes from the reason of a human being, then all of the old postmodern problems arise: how are we to know which human beliefs truly hold some imperative value? Why is one set of beliefs better than another?
Yet if it comes from God, we are scarcely better. Even if we grant the existence of a God who reveals truth to human beings, we must still ask how those humans interpret the revelation, how they choose between various things claiming to be revelation, and how they avoid letting their own sins and biases get in the way. Thus, even “hearing from God” is a human event, and subject to postmodern doubt.
We cannot escape this trap, so long as we are committed, like the moderns and postmoderns, to not being wrong. The only solution we have is to take a humble yet bold leap of faith: to claim, without complete certainty, that we believe that something has come from God. Our claim becomes: “This is, according to my best understanding, God's revelation of the truth of the matter.”
That is good, but I don't think that it is enough. I still believe that this claim puts the focus on truth: God becomes a stepping stone on our way to our real goal, which is not-being-wrong. God becomes a tool by which we dig up and polish little gems of truth; He is not an end in Himself.
And so I propose that we go one step further. Let us declare our intellectual fealty to God, rather than to not-being-wrong. Let us say:
I believe [some particular idea] because, after prayer and careful reflection, this is what I think that God wants me to believe. I do not care (much) whether it is true in an absolute, objective, precise sense. I feel compelled, by the will of God, to believe, and so I choose to submit.
I freely acknowledge that others might understand God better in this matter than I. I freely acknowledge that God is entitled to edit, update, or even correct this understanding, in ways large or small, at any time. When God does so, I will choose to believe what He tells me, when He tells me to do so.
I believe that my understanding of God, while framed in my cultural context, is a reflection of the universal revelation of God to all mankind. As such, I expect to see God acting in similar ways in the lives of others. I therefore call people to join me in belief – not because I can prove I am correct, or because I have escaped my cultural limitations, but because I expect that God is calling them to a belief much like my own.
In doing this, we put God at the center of our epistemology. He is not a means; He is the desired end. We place our minds and our beliefs at His disposal, to use as He wills, without worrying about whether we are right or wrong. We allow Him complete freedom to change our understanding in the future, but we also devote ourselves wholeheartedly to our current understanding.
I call this the “epistemology of fealty” because I think of this like an oath of fealty, which someone might offer to a medieval lord. We voluntarily, and without reservation, devote ourselves to the leadership of another. We do so in the hope and belief that they will lead us well; but we surrender to them our right to second-guess them, or to choose our own path.
Thus, I can claim, in all seriousness, that:
I believe that God exists because He wants me to.
If it turns out that God does not exist,
I will continue to believe in Him,
Because he wants me to.