Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

Epistemic Humility and the Force of Ideas

Off and on (mostly on, I suppose), I think about the clash of ideas that takes place between people when talking about religion.  In “educated” (I use this word advisedly) middle class America, there is an informal moral principle at work that, I think, confuses the courage of one’s convictions (and the associated truth claims) with a wrong use of power.

Some years ago (2001), Baker Academic published a collection of essays by leading evangelical scholars called No Other Gods Before Me? It’s edited by John Stackhouse.  I recommend the book.  It is an illustration of epistemic humility while maintaining a clear commitment to standard (broadly-understood) evangelical commitments to the Christian faith.  One need not agree with everything in the book to appreciate the care and thoughtfulness of the authors and to be challenged by their ideas.  Epistemic humility.

Christians of all stripes (especially Christian college and seminary professors who don’t recognize that they’re doing it) make the mistake of confusing the force of an idea with coercive tactics in arguments.  Coercive tactics sometimes fly under the flag of “informal fallacies” in logic.  When I think I can undermine your idea by making a reference to something about you personally – the charge of “homophobe” is a classic example on a very contentious topic – it’s called an informal fallacy (ad hominem attack), but it is also a power move.  Another one is “fundamentalist” (or “liberal”).  We think we can dismiss someone’s idea simply by naming some aspect of their character that we think takes away the force of their ideas.  If I’m a “conservative” and you’re a “liberal,” then I don’t have to take your ideas seriously because you’re “liberal.”  This move is a power move, not just a “bias.”

How Christians use power when they are making their claims is of fundamental importance.  In so many evangelistic appeals, we are misusing power (and abusing trust) when we manipulate people’s feelings in order to get them to sign a card.  In politics, campaign rhetoric is based on appeals to emotion (another logical fallacy), manipulating hearers’ feeling by playing (primarily) on fear.

OK, so I’ve named the easy parts.  What about when an idea that I hold as fundamentally true, say, that Jesus Christ is God in the flesh and the Savior of the world, is considered exclusionary (here’s the power) by someone who doesn’t believe that idea?  If I insist that Jesus Christ is the only way to the Father, what about people who don’t agree?  They recognize the force of the idea , which, if they persist in their prior commitment (i.e. don’t change their minds to match my claim about Jesus), leaves them out of the blessing that I associate with my belief about Jesus.  They feel understandably left out and they also think that we have demeaned their views regarding salvation (or whatever term they would use to describe spiritual wholeness).

It seems to me that my being epistemically humble means that I am authentically willing to hear their criticisms of my view and to be open to having my idea shaped by their criticisms.  But it most certainly does not mean that I have give up a priori on my idea about Jesus, which is what happens sometimes when people confuse truth claims with power moves.  Too much dialogue between people of differing religions assumes this starting point.  It basically asks Christians (at least the ones who think this way) to drop their beliefs about Jesus in order to enter “properly” into dialogue.  This is a power play of another sort and it illustrates the difficulty.  Ideas have force and we can’t avoid it.

Most importantly, perhaps, is that Christians in America, at least, are going to have to work up much more social courage than we often have, if we’re going to live effectively in a society that doesn’t recognize the difference between the force of ideas and the manipulation of feelings.  And that I write this blog on Epiphany seems quite relevant…

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January 6, 2010 Posted by | General, Pop Culture, Religion | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

From One Heart to Another

In 2 Corinthians, Paul is put in the position of defending his ministry.  “Are we beginning to commend ourselves?” he asks the Corinthians.  “You are our letters [of commendation],” he reminds them.  Paul’s “defense” of the authenticity of his work is the strong, open, vulnerable witness he has lived amont these people.  “We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves…” (4:2)  

The open statement of the truth is delivered by means of a transparent witness, by the work of Christ in the hearts of the ministers.  Paul says that the light of God has “shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ,” (4:6)  This treasure is carried about in jars of clay, so that the glory may redound to God and not to the vessel (4:7).  

The Gospel goes from one heart to another.  The transparent witness of one Christ-follower lights up the knowledge of God in another person.  Grace “extends to more and more people…” (4:15)  

I’m struck by the lack of standard supports for ministerial authority in Paul’s situation.  I just re-read John Wesley’s sermon entitled, “The Ministerial Office,” which serves as an apologia for Methodism and an exhortation for Methodists to keep to their station.  He upholds lay preaching, for example, but he criticizes Methodist preachers for trying to administer the sacraments.  The purpose of lay preaching was evangelism, which does not need the standard support of ordination.  The purpose of Methodism was spiritual renewal – for the light and love of Jesus Christ to shine in the hearts of Methodists so that others could see the glory of God.  

I find here an irreducible core to Christian ministry.  Ultimately, ministry is not training or skill, though both are crucially important.  Ministry is heart to heart, whether lay or ordained.  In some fundamental sense, ministry is nothing more than witness.  And “witness” means that something is happening to me, to my heart, which becomes visible in my actions.

I don’t know about you, but as United Methodist annual conferences meet and tally the votes on the Constitutional amendments, these thoughts keep me oriented.  I am not pitting “heart” against external, organizational matters, as if the organization does not matter.  It does.  And people in favor of and against the structual changes care deeply about mission.  

But the ground of confidence in Methodism or any other church or movement ultimately is not in the structures.  It is not in the various kinds of standard supports we build to enhance the organization’s effectiveness.  The ground of our confidence lies in the glory of God shining in our faces; the grace of Christ extending to more and more people; the treasure of the Gospel embodied in these earthen vessels.  

I take comfort in these thoughts.  When I had to vote at annual conference last week, I struggled with the pros and cons of opinions about the amendments.  I voted my conscience.  At the end of the day, however, no matter how the structure changes or remains the same,  the Gospel still goes from one heart to another.   I need always to remember this one thing.

May 28, 2009 Posted by | Ministry, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Have to” Questions, “How Do You Know” Questions

I’m helping to teach a class that affords me opportunity to interact with college students about spirituality. In such venues two sets of questions alway arise. I’m thinking about the unhelpful ways we in the ministry often answer them

I call the two categories “have to” questions and “how do you know” questions. An example of the “have to” question: “Do I have to go to church in order to be a (good) Christian?”

To the “have to” question I can give a pat answer: “Well, no, of course you don’t have to go to church in order to be a good Christian. But good Christians want to do what helps them grow, and going to church helps us grow and…” Though true, I think this common answer is wide of the mark.

College students ask “have to” questions because they’re trying to figure out how to handle freedom. Hence, it not a question driven by rebellion, which is typically how we assess it. They are trying to make sense of the multifaceted nature of their desires. They want to be Christian. They don’t want to waste time doing something boring and unhelpful or being where they don’t feel connected or known. In other words, there might be a lot more to the “have to” question than the standard answer permits.

So, instead of answering with the somewhat expected (and superficial) answer, I think we ought to ask students why they want to know. What other thoughts are connected to the “have to” question? What’s driving them to be concerned? The important question: What is it like to be a grown-up Christian where “have to” is irrelevant? I’m reminded again (I’m a slow learner sometimes) of the importance of letting “have to” questions become the staging ground for transformative interaction.

An example of the “how do you know” question: “How do you know that your religion is the right one?” Students face a staggering array of options. After all, they Google something and they get seemingly limitless hits and a head-spinning range of possibilities. How do they know which option to pursue?

If, in response, I switch to “apologetics” mode and launch my vast intellectual armaments in defense of the faith (a very important task, to be sure, but misdirected here), I will lock on to what sounds like skepticism and completely miss the fragile openness, the hesitant vulnerability standing before me. I dare not stomp on the tenderness of this holy moment!

Now, I’m not advocating some version of the high brow liberalism (pardon the term) I got as a seminary student: you know, the “It’s not the answer but the question that matters” claptrap, which is superficially true, but usually intellectually dishonest. Sooner or later, everybody wants a satisfying answer, even while recognizing it’s only partial.

That point accepted, I still must recognize that the “have to” and the “how do you know” questions are golden opportunities for God’s grace to be poured out. If we care about evangelism; if we feel called to apologetics, let us please hold gently in our hearts the people asking the questions.

April 2, 2009 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, Doctrine/Theology, Higher and Theological Education, Ministry, Pop Culture, Religion | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments