Sunday, September 16, 2012

Reflection Sunday 9.16.12 (Jesus Corner)

As I've started school, I'm kind of overwhelmed by how much I've already learned in such a short amount of time. I've heard folks saying around campus how important it is to take the time to reflect on what you're learning and also to share it with others who aren't here... so this is my attempt to do that. No promises, but I'm going to try to reflect a bit on my previous week's musings on Sundays. So here we go...

This week has been massively useful in helping me articulate a lot of the feelings I've had about history, facts, and reality in a more cogent manner. Basically, we've been learning how we can't know facts... but not in a postmodern way :). I've read these arguments from philosophers before and always found them wanting. We can't know facts? Really? I can't know that I'm from Knoxville? I can't know that my sister is a teacher or that my dad builds houses? Well, in the strictest sense of "knowing," I can't. Unless I follow each of them around every work day and observe them doing it, I can't know that they are... that would also assume that I could somehow know that what they were doing was teaching or building a house, which would require training... but then I'd have to find some way to know that what was being taught to me was in fact teaching or home construction... you can see how this gets despair-making in a hurry.

There's also some interesting notes of this in Socrates/Plato. If you're looking for a very digestible way to get into these guys, I highly recommend The History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps podcast. It's very accessible and I'd been listening to this in preparation for my school year. It's already come in handy in terms of orientation on the history of thought.

Anyways, I never fully embraced this mode of thinking about knowledge. I'm a kind of brutish literalist at heart.. I mean, does that make intuitive sense to anyone? Is your experience that you don't know anything? But what I've loved about this week's readings for my church history and history of Christian culture classes is that we've gone to a level of specificity that makes me much more comfortable with the bigger idea. 2 key things we've discussed:
1) That history is not a science. There is a fetish in our times about objectivity in recent historical narratives (see The Lifespan of a Fact, Jonah Lehrer, Mike Daisey, etc. for contemporary discussions about truth and objectivity in journalism). While I understand that fixation, especially in the cultural context that we've been in for the last ~100 years, it's a little bit of a farce. Because the objective evidence is in the past, we can never be 100% sure of facts. This, however, does not mean that we can't be sure enough about the past to functionally say that we know the facts. Things in the near past (i.e. that I was born in Knoxville) are often easier to gain practical certainty about. Things further back in the past, where evidence is likely fewer (i.e. that Trajan was a Roman emperor), are not as likely to gain full certainty about in our narrative, but we can gain probability or possibility quotients to assign to them and proceed accordingly. This understanding doesn't negate the idea that there are facts. It simply acknowledges that our ability to know them will have limitations and that doesn't negate our ability to study or "know" things. Basically, it's saying that the historical process (i.e. the unfolding of history moment to moment) is factual and knowable; historiography (i.e. the recording of and analysis of the historical process) has limitations.
2) That cultural context isn't a necessarily bad thing. We certainly need to understand our cultural biases to the extent that we are able (and be open to other culture's critiques of our own); but we don't have to feel like we are hopelessly hog-tied by it. In Christianity, this is seen in the "indigenization" and "pilgrim" principles. If you look across the world and time, the expression of orthodox Christianity looks vastly different. That's because it's an acceptable part of the Christian understanding of God's creation and intention. There is not an expectation that every culture will interpret and express their faith identically. Tied with the idea that there are core commonalities, it means that we can express our faith differently, but that it remains the same faith. In other words, it is possible for second century Greeks and twenty first century Africans to confess the same Lord and same core faith, even if the manifestations of that confession are different in some respects.

Basically, both of these things are saying that faith and knowledge are Venn diagrams - and that's okay. Different cultures, pieces of historical record, ongoing experiences, etc. are going to add circles to our collective understanding. 

These discussion points have made me reflect on my own assumptions and understanding of the world in an exciting way. I've been able to articulate my thoughts on these matters to myself and it makes me feel more secure in my agency in knowing, rather than less. 

For one thing, it's made me see that a big part of this sense of being adrift that I see in my (and the last few) generations is really tied to the anxiety of not being able to know. Because of the scientific revolution, we gained this great tool called the scientific method. But this method is only fully applicable to observable phenomenon. History, by it's nature, is only observable at the rate of 60 seconds/minute. It's gone as soon as it happens. And since we can't "know" those past historical things, or we see the narratives around history as malleable, history becomes less valid or less valuable. The idea of absolute knowledge has become such a central backdrop to our culture that we are completely uncomfortable with anything less. The beauty of life in Jesus is that I don't have to have absolute knowledge about the past or future- Jesus is full of truth AND grace. There is grace for me to not absolutely know everything, but also room for me to gain enough truth to move forward without anxiety. I am only responsible to know as fully as I can what I can know within my cultural context. That means I can look on history and the past as a wonderful thread that I am a strand in, not a scary region of non-empirical data that I have to precisely understand or else discard entirely.

I've also been able to see some of the roots of why the American South gets a bad reputation with our expression of faith. From talking to international students whose mother churches experience some of the same types of problems, I don't think this is a unique issue. That being said, the Southern churches do have a tendency to assert the primacy of their cultural context onto the church across time... in other words, if second century Greeks didn't have altar calls, they weren't really Christian. That's an extreme example, but as a group, our churches do seem to be very uncomfortable with different modes of engaging with Christ on a relational level (i.e. as a rabbi, as a philosopher, as a king, etc.). I think that's born out of a fierce defensive reflex as they perceive contemporary cultural invalidation to the South's own cultural context for Jesus. It drives them to the extreme and creates a hyper-"Berean" attitude that can be destructive if not counterbalanced with self-awareness. This also lends a certain imperialistic attitude towards missions where an importation of the cultural context is seen as an integral part of the conversion process, at least, that's what I've seen a lot of times in the way folks talk about evangelism. But what I've been realizing throughout the week is that different cultural contexts allow us to get a fuller picture of who Jesus is and that it's an integral part of why we need the body of Christ. The Southern church tells the world something about Jesus that couldn't be known any other way, just as African churches or Asian churches bring their own circles of the Venn diagram to bear, and collectively, we all know Jesus more for having engaged with each other. 

Anyways, those are my thoughts from the week... for those interested, here are some of the books we were reading:

Patterns In History by David Bebbington
Jesus Through the Centuries by Jaroslav Pelikan
The Missionary Movement in Christian History by Andrew Walls
The Story of Christianity Volume 1 by Justo Gonzalez

What do you think about history and our ability to know?

No comments:

Post a Comment