Why is Dialogue so Difficult? Part II

I have argued before that the approach to the Christian religion in these two different paradigms can be thought of as a hermeneutic of mystery versus a hermeneutic of revelation. (A hermeneutic is the set of glasses through which one reads the scriptures and brings the religious life into focus.) For the epistemological pessimist (someone who thinks there is very little that can be known with certainty outside of a small circle of “facts” established by the hard sciences) doctrines and dogmas and religious practices are all inherently inadequate attempts to express the inexpressible sense of the reality of God. The most important thing about God is that God is mystery and is ineffable. This is hardly a new thought. It is recognizable as the ancient wisdom of the East and especially Hinduism and that radical form of Hinduism, Buddhism, which takes the ineffability of God to a complete extreme as the basis for a personal ecstasy. The important thing to note is that from this perspective, in this paradigm, to claim any certain knowledge of God is inherently over-reaching and immoral. A person who claims universal validity for a particular belief such as the belief that whatever real salvation there is, is to be had in Jesus Christ, is engaged in an evil and immoral act which oppresses other human beings. Those holding this view will allow that pre-critical ignorance is perhaps some sort of mitigation but “educated” people should know better and are culpable for their false ideology.

People who are epistemological optimists and who believe in a dependable revelation do not necessarily think they have complete certainty about the nature or ways of God but they do think that the most important thing about God is that God wills to be known and that he has definitively made himself known in the life and death and resurrection of the Lord. They take the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments not as the record of the inchoate religious experience and inadequate, culture-conditioned expressions of previous generations but as a definitive self-disclosure of God’s intention for human beings and human life. From within this paradigm to claim the name Christian and reject the plain sense of the scripture and the unbroken teaching of the church through time is not only wrong, misguided but dishonest and apostate.

Across the divide each side sees the other as deeply immoral and deeply irrational while being convinced of the self-evident moral and rational superiority of their own position. Each must see the other as stupid, crazy or bad before any conversation begins, for each perceives the other as rejecting that which “everyone knows” to be true. Fundamental orientations to reality are being challenged and such challenge involves us at the most personal level and is perceived as a literally world-shaking issue. Such conversation as ensues inevitably produces more evidence for this mutual conclusion about the immorality and irrationality of the opposition. From within the paradigm of epistemological pessimism any argument which proceeds on the basis of epistemological optimism must seem irrational and from within the paradigm of epistemological optimism any argument which proceeds on the basis of epistemological pessimism must seem an unaccountable obfuscation. There is what Michael Polanyi called a logical gap between the two paradigms. Each has a stable system of rationality. It is not that reappraisers or Liberals are more or less rational than conservatives or reasserters. The problem is that within what Polanyi would call the fiduciary structure or what Peter Berger called the Plausibility Structure of these world views, the arguments of neither side make sense to the other. In fact each seems to the other mad, bad and dangerous and a traitor to the very thing which is at the heart of the religion.

We are at a point of a battle of paradigms. Within the churches those called reappraisers are convinced that history is on their side. Jack Spong has written winsomely about “Why Christianity Must Change or Die.” They are convinced that traditional religion cannot survive a searching critique and that the old traditionalist religion is going the way of Ptolemy. The conviction is bolstered by the belief that everyone on the other side of the divide is pre-critical, by an inability to register the emergence of a serious post-critical critique of epistemological pessimism and by a refusal to look at the nihilism to which the commitment to epistemological minimalism leads and has already led in the emergence of Nazism and Stalinism and other contemporary nihilistic ideologies. (The way to Hitler leads through Weimar and I think late modern Western Civilization is in a dangerous “Weimar” phase.) The minimalist analysis is that these ideologies are diseases of certainty but they are states that are only possible in a culture in which transcendent morality has been exiled. They are products of the uncertainty of a culture which has lost its nerve and its faith in its own most tested values. “The best lack all conviction” as Yeats said. The history of both Nazism and Marxism shows how destructive self-delusion that is impervious to correction grows with the conviction that history as a kind of irresistible objective power is on your side.

What can be done? It may help to understand that there really is no common ground. I do not mean this in any mean-spirited way but simply diagnostically. There is no common ground and no real middle between the paradigm of Ptolemy and the paradigm of Copernicus. You cannot half-way believe the Sun the center of the cosmos and half-way believe the earth the center of the cosmos. You may not be yet wholly convinced by the evidence and on the way from one view to the other but it is in the nature of the case that it is either one or the other. There are some truths of one paradigm that can be accommodated within the other but not the central and defining truths. Either the earth is at the center or not. Either mystery is the fundamental category or revelation is. It is a forced choice of the same sort as the choice between Ptolemy and Copernicus.

We have at best the touching tangents of circles. The historic Christian faith seen from within paradigm of epistemological pessimism is a very different thing from the historic faith seen as the basis for a hope to truly know the really real. It may help to know that the call issued to our opponents, to listen to reason cannot be answered by them without abandoning everything that our opponents have hitherto thought reasonable. The call to listen to reason cannot be answered without a paradigm shift and the reason with which our opponents reason cannot bring them to that shift. We are confused and confounded by applying a model of ecumenical dialogue to the present dispute within the churches. The right model is really inter-faith dialogue. Rather than assuming that we speak with a common language about common points of reference we need to understand that we speak across a logical gap to those with a different worldview and a different rationality.

There is perhaps some hope that the chaotic institutional situation that this crisis of belief and knowledge creates can be addressed in terms of appeals to secular standards of fairness and tolerance. I cannot see from their point of view why theological reappraisers would make concessions to reasserters on any other basis and even here any concession or grace will run the risk of looking from the reappraiser side like moral laxity and the promotion of injustice and oppression.

It is possible to jump the logical gap and see things from within a different paradigm. One can see whether the new way of seeing things can explain the old and inadequate way of seeing things. (It is notable that Evangelicals have rediscovered their roots and taken on many of the social justice commitments of the theological liberals but that the reappraisers simply cannot take on board the commitment to a confident proclamation of Jesus Christ as universal Lord and Saviour.) One can see which paradigm is more heuristically powerful. One can see which is more powerfully grasped by and which more adequately grasps reality and in the case of religion God himself is the one who grasps and is grasped. . One thing about paradigm shifts, they are irreversible. Once you have seen things new, you cannot go back to the old way of seeing things. Let me end by giving a testimony. Many years ago as a young person, I was an epistemological pessimist. By God’s grace and by his breaking in and breaking down of my carefully thought out but pinched and impoverished view of what could be known with confidence, I know better now and know a bigger and richer world. Indeed I believe in order to understand. For such grace as this for those with whom we are in dispute, we now pray.

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