Essay / Philosophy

Christianity as a Knowledge Tradition

Last week I delivered a paper at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. This post is an excerpt from a longer series I wrote some time back the content of which pertains, in part, to my recent ETS paper:

In the first two installments of this series, I have sought to establish two main themes:

(1) A worldview functions as a set of habit forming background beliefs that direct our acts of noticing or failing to notice various features of reality. Habit-forming beliefs do not stand between a person and reality as do glasses. Rather, they habitualize ways of seeing and thinking which, through effort, can be changed or retained, hopefully on the basis of comparing them with reality itself.

(2) Given naturalism and postmodernism as the two worldviews competing with Christianity in the marketplace of ideas, the central defining feature of our secular culture is this: there is no non-empirical knowledge, especially no theological or ethical knowledge. Science and science alone carries authority in culture because the alleged possession of knowledge gives people authority and science and science alone is perceived to have knowledge. In this article, I want to show how important it is to take Christian teaching as a source of knowledge of reality. In the next article, I will explain more fully just exactly what knowledge is and show how grasping its nature makes it more obvious that Christian teaching is, indeed, such a source.

Secularism As A View About Knowledge

It can hardly be overemphasized that the primary characteristic of modern secularism is its view of the nature and limits of knowledge. It is critical to understand this because if knowledge gives one power–we give surgeons and not a carpenters the right to cut us open precisely because surgeons have the relevant knowledge not possessed by carpenters–then those with the cultural say-so about who does and doesn’t have knowledge will be in a position to marginalize and silence groups judged to have mere belief and private opinion.

There simply is no established, widely recognized body of ethical or religious knowledge now operative in the institutions of knowledge in our culture, e.g., the universities and schools. Indeed, ethical and religious claims are frequently placed into what Francis Schaeffer used to call the upper story—a privatized realm of non-factual beliefs whose sole value is that they are “meaningful” to the believer–judged to have little or no intellectual authority, especially compared to the authority given science to define the limits of knowledge and reality in those same institutions. This raises a pressing question: Is Christianity a knowledge tradition or merely a faith tradition? According to latter perspective, while true, Christianity cannot be known to be true and must be embraced on the basis of some intellectual state weaker than knowledge.

Secularism and the Marginalization of Christian Claims

At least two reasons suggest why this may well be the crucial question for Christians to keep in mind as they live out their discipleship in the contemporary setting. For one thing, Christianity claims to be a knowledge tradition and it places knowledge, not merely truth, at the center of proclamation and discipleship. The Old and New Testaments, including the teachings of Jesus, claim not merely that Christianity is true, but that a variety of its moral and religious assertions can be known to be true (Luke 1:4, John 10:4, Romans 1:19).

Second, as I mentioned above, knowledge provides the basis of responsible action in society. Dentists, not lawyers, have the authority to place their hands in our mouths because they have the relevant knowledge on the basis of which they may act responsibly. If Christians do little to deflect the view that theological and ethical assertions are merely parts of a tradition, simply ways of seeing that fall short of knowledge, merely a source for adding a “theological perspective” to an otherwise unperturbed secular topic, then they inadvertently contribute to the marginalization of Christianity. They do so precisely because they fail to rebut the contemporary tendency to rob it of the very thing that gives it the authority necessary to prevent that marginalization, its legitimate claim to give us moral and religious knowledge. Both in and out of the church, Jesus has been lost as an intellectual authority and the Christians should carry out their discipleship in light of this fact. We have a duty to present Jesus Christ and the Word of God as a source not only of salvation and meaning, but also of authoritative knowledge about all areas of which Jesus and His Word speak.

The Absolutization of Desire and the Empty Self

The pervasive denial of truth, knowledge and rationality outside the hard sciences has left people without hope that true, knowable forms of wisdom can be discovered as guides to a flourishing life. As a result, people have turned to emotion and the satisfaction of desire as the decisive factors in adopting a worldview. In turn, this affective approach to life, now embodied in art and culture generally, has created the conditions for the emergence of a new personality type that psychologists claim is present in epidemic proportions in American society. Never before in the history of Western culture has this personality type been seen so pervasively and profoundly; indeed, it is a post-60’s phenomenon. It is called the empty self.

The empty self is narcissistic, inordinately individualistic, self-absorbed, infantile, passive, and motivated by instant gratification. The empty self experiences a loss of personal significance and worth, as well as a chronic emotional hunger and emptiness. The empty self satiates itself with consumer goods, calories, experiences, politicians, romantic partners, and empathetic therapists. The empty self does not value learning for its own sake, is unwilling to defer gratification under the demands of discipline, and prefers visual stimulation to abstract thought. Applied to education, a classroom of empty selves will reinforce a view of education in which learning exists to make the student happy, to satisfy his/her emotional hunger, and to fulfill his/her own plans for success.
Moreover, with the secular relativization of truth, knowledge and reason outside the hard sciences, secularism has contributed to the absolutization of desire satisfaction. With truth and reason dethroned as guides for life, something had to take its place. And the heir to the throne is the absolute importance of satisfying one’s desire. Secularism helps to prop up this value in the culture by its denial of truth and reason in matters of worldview, along with its promulgation of a naïve and destructive notion of tolerance.

Finally, with the secular relativization of truth, knowledge and reason outside the hard sciences, a growing loss of hope for objective meaning in life emerges in the face of a cold, heartless, mechanistic universe in which the only relief outside Christianity consists of temporary flirtations with postmodernist irrationality. As Charles Darwin noted in his Autobiography:
“[Consider]…the view now held by most physicists, namely that the sun with all the planets will in time grow too cold for life, unless indeed some great body dashes into the sun and thus give it fresh life….Believing as I do that man in the distant future will be a far more perfect creature than he now is, it is an intolerable thought that he and all other sentient beings are doomed to complete annihilation after such long-continued slow progress.”

Hardly a robust word in a world where people need real, sensible hope and objective, knowable meaning to cope with suffering. Absent religious and moral knowledge, the culture is mired in a stagnating triviality whose collective view of the meaning of life doesn’t rise much higher than a slogan I recently saw in a Valvoline commercial: You’re born, you die; in between, you work on cars. This situation has contributed to a deep hunger in society for spirituality. Unfortunately, without the rails of biblical truth, contemporary “spirituality” is consumed by a nation of empty selves whose only guide consists in the unbridled satisfaction of desire. The current preoccupation with promiscuous sex is a symptom of the failure of this sort of “spirituality” to address the human condition.

The possession of knowledge—especially religious and moral knowledge—is essential for a life of flourishing. The question remains—what exactly is knowledge and what does it mean to say Christian teaching provides it? Next time we’ll examine this question.

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