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Monday, December 21, 2009

The Gift of the Christian Idea of the World

I just finished teaching a course to some of our adult church members; an introduction to understanding the Bible for yourself. The central analogy of the course was unapologetically borrowed from Susan Haack's "Evidence and Inquiry". She used the image of a crossword puzzle to illustrate a concept of justification with a univocal sense, and as opposed to the two classic images of the raft and the pyramid. The puzzle illustrates the two kind of supports that give evidence to certain propositions; the original clues to the puzzle and the way the answers fit together in the puzzle.

The key idea in deciphering the meaning of a portion of text (where "meaning" is understood to be the sense of the text the original author intended for the original audience to receive - which I won't defend here) is to recognize a textual unit. A textual unit is a specifiable form of text such that all the textual material is mobilized to fulfil a function. A basic example is a paragraph, but other examples would be a poem or a parable or a proverb or an argument. This presupposes that we do recognize such units in our reading and can exploit them in our writing. If a text does form a unit, then the crossword analogy is appropriate since there is an internal coherence to the material as well as clues from the historical and literary context of the writing. Of course, basic units may be connected to form larger units of text, like paragraphs in a paper or verses in a poem. I take it that the claim that such units exist and that they are discernable able as substantially uncontroversial.

If that is so, then it is not out of the question to think that there may be larger recognizable units that incorporate scattered texts. Suppose fairies exist. A single fairy may perhaps use charms on different mundane people to make them dream in rich ways and compel them to write about there dreams over a large area of space and time. After comparing the written dreams of the various victim dreamers it, is discovered that they form a larger unified conception not schemed by any one of the authors. Or suppose that someone creates an Artificial Intelligence that inhabits a laser equipped satellite. The satellite, in a fit of creativity, uses the laser to write bits of prose on several parts of the planet's surface. Others who are not aware of the secret satellite's existence may at least recognize that the diverse scripts carved in the mountains and deserts throughout the world for a single unified document. They may even be able to determine that there remains some yet undiscovered portions from the clues that they have in hand (the ones that were carved in to the bottoms of lakes say).

It seems that someone of a religious frame of mind might thus hope that if God were to express Himself to mankind, such a unity of thought would be recognizable in it, not just in its texts but in all of its parts. Of course, many have a prior sense that such a thing would not be either possible if God existed, since the finite cannot comprehend the infinite, or likely, since we are as nothing to the gods as the fleas are as nothing to us. But supposing that God condescended to speak as we may understand for some reason, we might hope that such a unity would be found in the message.

That Christian teaching embodies such an essential gestalt is what we mean be speaking of it as a worldview. This means that the scattered textual material that comes to be codified in the sacred documents of the faith forms a systematic whole, organically developed over time, that is re-identifiable. Not only is it an intrinsic whole but also it unifies our concept of God, self, and world - which is to say that it brings into its unity our all transcendental representations. It also incorporates our theoretical and practical reasoning, and our emotional intelligence. It also makes sense of history. The basic schema of the Christian world view of redemption, presupposed by fall, which in turn presupposes creation, and which resolves into a final consummation captures in brief the internal logic of the Christian view.

But though the Christian worldview is meant to make some explanatory sense and is meant to be understood as being comprehensive of experience and strongly coherent (not merely consistent), it is also understood to be a gift. It is not expected to be what we would take to be the best explanation of the world that we would have had if we properly reasoned only according to our natural lights, although it must be compatible with what we do conclude by such lights on the principle that all truth is God's truth. Being a Christian is, at least prima facie, neither necessary nor sufficient for being a good scholar. philosopher, or scientist. It is even possible that qua Christian faith compared to qua the best inquiry has to offer at the time, the believer and the non-believer are in different places holding to incompatible claims. The person who is both a believer and a scientist may hold to p as a believer and not p as a scientist, whereas what she holds to, either p or not p, simpliciter will depend on an ethic of belief.

Such an ethic would have to oblige or permit the Christian belief without an ad hoc rejection of the scientific belief. Being a matter of practical reasoning it would have to makes sense from within a Christian worldview but also be consistent with moral reasoning about belief formation. Such a view is possible if we understand that the standard that all belief must be proportioned to evidence as being a prima facie obligation with appropriate exceptions. (A prima facie duty ethic such as W.D. Ross's is a way of making sense of William James' qualifications of Clifford's ethics.) But it may also be necessary to distinguish between the actual sense of the Christian worldview and our take on that sense, letting the observed facts force us rethink what we originally took to be the case. But besides grounding a set of duties in belief formation, a Christian worldview may encourage enquiry in the same sort of way that Socrates' doctrine of recollection encouraged him to seek the truth.

If we think of Christian experience as being exclusively mystical and ecstatic, we may neglect the experiential potentials of a religious intelligence. "To see that" is an important part of perception and requires a prior concept but it is also deeply religious and satisfying. This provides another motive for inquiry, to gain a deeper grasp on the Christian idea itself.

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