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Tuesday, January 18, 2005

The "Story" Story

(Reposted from ABC forum)

You might want to take a look at Ladd's NT theology book at his discussion of the Christian life in John's Gospel. He brings out that in John 'gnosko' in relation to 'pisteo' functions differently from typical theological concepts of knowledge and faith. For example, for Aquinas, knowledge and faith are mutually exclusive such that you cannot believe that p and know that p at the same time. You believe in order to know but once you do know you no longer believe. But in John it is often the case that knowledge is a prerequisite to faith. This is connected with the signs in the book of John which function both as signs attesting to the credibility of the messager and as works which disclose the glory of character of God. Christ's testimony to his messiahship and deity is both based on the creative power of the signs such that only God could do them but also in what the signs do such as messianic works like restoring sight to the blind and life to the dead. As signs, the works can be placed neatly in a logical syllogism and their credit is more discursive as in the reasoning displayed by the man born blind in John 9. But as displaying the glory of God the judgement is that there is, as a matter of fact, some way such that it is what it is like for God to be that way, which is known more connaturally and non-discursively but with appropriate and immediate certainty. The second is more valuable than the first because not every demand for a sign is considered appropriate and the way God is to us can be seen apart from special signs. Another way that this value is made clear to us is the fact that we can be more certain of what God is like toward us than we can of God's existence. (Further, we can entertain some doubts about God's existence in an academic sense but we can in no way entertain any practical doubts about his great compassion and grace toward us that we see all around us. This is the ground of our certainty and what constrains our obligation to respond in faith and repentence. I'm mixing in a little CS Lewis and Basil Mitchel here with my Ladd at the end.)

I think that the problem of verification is best understood as attaching itself to "stories" or "accounts" rather than to propositions. In a necessarily rough description, a story is a set of propostions of various levels of abstraction whose relationship is strongly coherent and conceptually contigous and which is put to gether to serve various functions. So a story is a set of propositions but not merely so -- not every set of propositions counts as a story. Propositions can be either analytic or synthetic but stories are neither. Stories try to describe the way the world is to our perception and sense-making faculties, to try to show the connection between outward states and events and our inner lived experience. Stories can be reliably remembered and shared and transmitted. They have both canonical and noncanonical aspects such that a retelling of the story is identifiable with a previous telling of it even though it may alter or vary in the telling, so that the same story may have several versions.

Consequently, stories have both an a priori like and and an empirical like aspect to them. The sense of a story may have an immediately intelligible sense to them which makes them intrinsicly plausible and credible as a true story to any potential audience member such that their imediate certainty to the truth of it based on a sufficient justification for believing it, if the world exists in a certain way. However, this "a priori"-esque respect does not logically rule out empirical testing and critical analysis. A story may be confirmed or disconfirmed by the evidence and by testing for consistancy and coherance. But applying these tests to particular propositions is insufficient, they must be applied to the story as a whole. It is the story as a whole which is either confirmed or disconfirmed. Thus the parts of the story which by themselves may be considered as evidence transcending are evaluated by the parts of the story which explicates them in terms of what is visible and testable but what is visible and testible may resist apparent disconfirmation in light of the overall intelligibility of the story. The rules of verification cannot be spelled out in advance but that does not mean that stories are vulnerable to assessment by evidence. But neither does this mean that a person could not already have good reason for accepting the story prior to critical testing based on its intrinsic intelligibility.

The sceptic could raise her doubts about this account but she could necver establish them. She is exposed as someone who instead of trying to evaluate our stories by critical means is rather trying to replace story with criticism. Story-forming is a result of our natural causal interacting with the world, with thought, and with language. The sceptics view if taken seriously would cut us off from natural belief forming for the sake of something else wholly spun from our own idling thoughts. We are better off preserving our primary story-forming capacities unless giving them up is absolutely necessary.

Applying this to natural revelation and natural theology, story-making is closer to the former and criticism is closer to the latter as traditionally conceived, because story-forming is capturing our primary processing of thought while theistic proofs are higher order reflections on that thought. On this account then, theistic proofs do not stand alone as the foundations of natural theology but rather presuppose an original story which serves as a basis for them as reflections. This suggests that we are immediately aware of an original experience that could be captured in a story which provides the grist or intellectual matter of theistic proofs. I suggest that this is the story of the absolute dependence of natural beings on independent existence; we sense that the world of natural things is a world of vitalness, emergentness, contingency, spontenaity, dynamism -- a world rising above absolutely nothing which points back to an absolute fountain of contingent beings and which is wholey different from that fountain -- in short we sense the world is a continued creation ex nihilo and something that makes us wonder why it exists rather than otherwise. This is best told in the story of the Creator/creature relation. (A story may not necessarily be in the form of a progressive narrative which why I also offered the word "account" instead -- although when we truly attempt to describe concretely and specificly the dynamics of actual existence, we wind up with a chronological account.) The creation story also brings us closer to John in that by the same story we see displayed the glory of God in creation as an expression of his greatness and goodness.

Both kinds of theistic proofs, a priori and a posteriori, try to make explicit the rational grounds embedded in the story and show that the story can be expressed in part as potentially successful proofs and which confirm that the story survives and thrives under analytic criticism thus failing to be disconfirmed by it. But if the proofs are offered in place of the story as the official grounds of belief in God they ultimately fail because they remain open to objections from opponants of question begging and failing to prove the existence of the God intended and because they do not actually serve as the real reason the theist believes in God which is the intrinsic intelligibility of the creation story.

This "story" story (note that the account is self-referentially coherent) illustrates an apologetic approach which is consistent with John's account of how faith depends on knowledge.