Bible, the University and the God Who Hides (The)
Presented at the Baylor University "Scripture and Hermeneutics Seminar," June 2006. Later published in The Bible and the University, Ed. Craig Bartholomew, Anthony C. Thiselton, David Lyle Jeffrey, C. Stephen Evans, Zondervan Academic, 2007.
The human being stands in his or her world condemned to act, and to act on the basis of whatever ideas, images, beliefs, impulses, desires and emotions they may have in the moment of action. We have no choice about that. We may have some choice about what ideas, beliefs, impulses, etc. will be available to us in future situations where we must act. That will largely depend upon what is given to us from the world we come into and what we are prepared to do now. But whatever world we come into, the human problem is to find in knowledge a solid basis for action. And that is not a problem that can be solved by each individual on his own. Each one may contribute to the solution, and none can be totally passive. But the standing sources of knowledge and wisdom available in and through our social world are indispensable to the individual as well as to groups. The university is a ‘standing source.’ What individuals could do on their own, starting from nothing, in the area of mathematics or anthropology, for example, would amount to very little. What they can do by accessing the knowledge and practice already acquired, and available in various forms in their social world, is very great, and a potential source of much good that is otherwise impossible. This applies to all areas of knowledge, but especially to the area of practical wisdom: How to live? That is where the Bible comes in. Or should.
It is of the nature of human knowledge and practice, in whatever field, to grow transgenerationally and to deposit its gains in various ways that make accessible to any subsequent generation the learnings of the past. But knowledge is indeed power, and reputation for knowledge gives authority and the right to act and direct others, individually or through policy. This leads to struggles between individuals and groups to control knowledge: to possess it, keep it away from others, to sell it at a price, to defend its status as knowledge and to attack the claims of others who advocate alternative sources of knowledge. If one only thinks for a minute one realizes how common these struggles are today on the national and international, the political, social and moral, scenes—from nuclear technology, ‘alternative medicine,’ to whether gay ‘marriage’ is marriage, and perhaps above all, to what God wants.
In the history of the ‘Western’ world there is no more continuous and momentous struggle over knowledge—who has it and who does not, and what it is—than that between the institutions of the Christian religion and alternative sources of knowledge that arise out of the Renaissance and early Modern science and its developments. As the centuries rolled by, these alternative sources of knowledge progressively developed a freestanding intellectual class and took over the institutions of education. The progressive secularization of those institutions culminated, during the late 19th and 20th centuries, in the rejection of religion and its institutions as sources of knowledge about reality and life, and, very largely, as sources of wisdom to guide life. As a part of this process the Christian Bible lost its long-held position in Western culture at the center of higher education, as the fundamental avenue to knowledge of ultimate reality and of what is good and right. But the Bible does not go away. It is still here. And, for all the sound and fury, nothing has replaced it in the life of Western humanity as a source of knowledge about life. There is nothing that remotely compares to the biblical figures, stories and teachings as a presence that frames our thought and practice. You have only to look at the facts of street-level culture—TV and cinema, art and magazines—to see that this is so. Yet, the institutional authority concerning what counts as knowledge in our world, the university system with its professional off-shoots, does not accept the Bible as a source of knowledge about life and reality. What happened? Did someone discover that it is not such a source?
I want to say immediately that this was not discovered by anyone. Many things were discovered in the course of the historical process referred to, and many things that had been claimed to be known by religious leaders and institutions were found out to be false or ill-founded. We gained a great deal of knowledge about the Bible and the Church as historical realities. But what really happened to put the Bible in its present position with reference to higher education can be roughly described as follows: A broad-based cultural development occurred, beginning in the 1600’s and onward, that created a set of secular myths. These became dogma (things unquestionable and unquestioned by those ‘in the know’) in circles of Higher Education during the first 60 years of the 20th Century—a period in which, not incidentally, higher education was institutionalizing itself as a freestanding profession, with sub-professions for each academic division.
A favorite mode of secular myth-making was telling a story which supposedly lets you in on the secret of how something came about, in a way that leaves you to think some previously unquestioned teaching is false. This was perfected in the 19th Century. Nietzsche is a master of this ‘debunking’ technique. (Recall his ‘story’ of how resentful slave-priests inverted the healthy moral values of classical Greece and Rome to make sickly Judeo-Christian values supreme and repressive, in The Genealogy of Morals and elsewhere in his writings.) But you also see this mode of ‘explanation’ nowhere more clearly than in the story—repeatedly presented on Public Television during Christmas and Easter as established truths, or at least academically ‘respectable’ positions—that the Apostle Paul is the one who invented and transmitted the views about Christ that became orthodox Christian teaching. The Da Vinci Code is entirely nested in a set of secular myths about religion, the Church, and the non-resurrection of Christ, that have the authority of being accepted by those ‘in the know’ and lie unquestioned in the popular mind that buys books and goes to movies. (For an illuminating and humorous take on this type of reasoning, see Charles Lamb’s delightful essay, ‘Dissertation on a Roast Pig.’) These myths are usually accompanied by currently powerful images (as in the Da Vinci Code), such as that of the pure and brave individual standing against corrupt and oppressive institutions.
The central teachings of the Christian religion (just take the main points of the ‘Apostle’s’ Creed, for example), and the position of the Bible in human life as a source of knowledge, were themselves re-categorized in the late Modern period as ‘myths’ or fabrications, and disengaged from serious knowledge and inquiry, by a set of secular ‘stories’ that have gained the status and power of accepted truth or knowledge: ‘expert knowledge.’ Under this re-categorization, the central teachings of the Bible about God, and the Kingdom of God, and about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, are not matters to be taken with intellectual seriousness. If you do so take them, you may be a nice person, but….
Now I reiterate that discoveries of various kinds were made, and that these undermined many traditional religious claims, especially about particular teachings and institutions within Christian faith. (One recalls Lorenzo Valla’s (1406-1456) momentous discovery, by examination of texts, that the so-called ‘Donation of Constantine,’ upon which the Church rested its claim to temporal authority, was a forgery.) And Christian personalities and institutions did much to disenchant, or even to righteously disgust, thoughtful people. (Recall the brutal but largely truthful Chapters 28 and 37, on episodes in Christian history, in Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Or Bertrand Russell’s many polemical writings on the history and nature of religion.) But the outcome of these genuine discoveries was not the disproof of central Christian teachings, nor of the Bible as a reliable source of knowledge, when rightly used, about the most important matters of human life. Rather, the outcome was a set of unsubstantiated ‘stories’ that eventually gained authority in the institutions of higher education, and had the effect of repositioning Christian and Biblical teachings beyond the pale of indispensable sources of knowledge and wisdom. (Nothing better illustrates this than the writings of Ernest Renan and David Strauss—again, see Wilson)
What are the issues concerning which the Bible still stands, I claim, as an indispensable source of knowledge? (That, of course, is not the same as a source of faith.) They are few but fundamental. Most fields of human knowledge and inquiry have little to learn from the Bible in terms of detailed matters of fact. In our present state of law, we can be thankful that God did not give Moses or the prophets the multiplication tables or the table of chemical elements, for then we would not be able to teach them in public schools. (Separation of ‘church’ and ‘state’ you know.) There are a few basic questions or issues, however, which every society and every individual must answer, if only by how they live. To these, Christ and the Bible offer answers or solutions whose truth can be known in fair inquiry, which will stand up in the face of the most serious critical examination, have been tested over time in the life of humanity, and invite thorough comparison with all alternatives. The questions we must answer, if only by living, are these:
(1). What is reality? This abstract sounding question is actually the most practical question of all. Answers to it determine everything else. This question asks: What do I have to deal with and what can I count on? Higher education as it now stands pretends not to deal with it, and does not deal with it officially. That, in a way, is quite appropriate. For there is no ‘department of reality’ to be found in the university. Every ‘science,’ as Aristotle noted long ago, isolates a particular part of ‘what is,’ and devotes itself to understanding that. None deals with reality as a whole. This is a simple fact that can be verified by inspection of the cognitive contents of the various sciences. However, the university does assume answers to the question about reality, because it offers to prepare people for life. And it is a fraud if it omits some reality that seriously impacts life. (How would the university look if it turned out that there was a God and the single most important thing in life was to live in harmonious relationship with him? Oophs?!?) In assuming the irrelevance of God to every field of study, as it routinely does, it offers a teaching about reality, willy-nilly. As Noah Porter, President of Yale in the 1880’s, pointed out, every field teaches theology, if only by assuming the non-existence or the irrelevance of God to its subject matter. It does so by claiming adequacy for its treatment of its subject matter.
The Biblical tradition teaches that reality consists of a personal God and his kingdom (all he arranges for), and that every subject matter of human thought, along with human thought itself, exists within that overarching reality. It clearly indicates that this personal reality can, at least in part, be known, though it also can fail to be known. That is permitted. People can be and often are without knowledge of God. One can—multitudes can—choose to neglect it or purposefully put it out of mind, at least for a while. God does not jump down our throat. Like all knowledge, knowledge of him must be sought. The university system does not try to answer the general question about reality, and is not equipped to do so now. It has no ‘Theory of Everything,’ as popularizing books in speculative physics misleadingly entitle themselves. But it does by its practice make assumptions about reality as a whole, for which it then fails to take intellectual responsibility. It allows itself to do this, and finds itself ‘responsible’ in doing so, because of certain stories, myths, rumors, which circulate around it. Sometimes these are intellectually incoherent, such as that there was nothing and then a Big Bang—or just a very tiny bang. But told often enough these stories seem okay. We get used to them. And of course the ‘God’ route to reality also poses hard intellectual issues. No doubt of that. And, even presupposing knowledge of God and his kingdom, many questions remain about reality and what is real.
(2). Who is genuinely well-off? Who has the good life, the blessed life? Practically, what kind of life should I aim for? Here too the university system assumes answers of various kinds, but does not try to defend them. It assumes answers by what it requires its students to do, and what it tells parents and society it will do for its students and for society. But just as there is no ‘reality department,’ there is no ‘the-good-life department.’ One of the background myths of university life is that there are many ways that life can be good. You would think there is one waiting for you around every corner. But when you ask people to give the details on just one, very little is forthcoming, and what is presented looks more like a collection of whims and images than a coherent and well-thought-out picture based upon reality as individuals must live in it. Sears offers ‘the good life at a good price.’ Then there is Starbucks. Is ‘the American dream’ the good life? Or is a life of consuming lots of things? Or a life of public service? Is being liberal or conservative enough? Why do winners of elections sing: ‘Happy days are here again’?
If you were to sample thought and practice in the colleges and the few universities of the 1800’s or earlier, you would find that—except for a few ‘advanced’ thinkers—the picture of the good life that was dominant was overwhelmingly theistic. It was a life lived ‘under God.’ And this was understood, where genuinely understood, largely in a biblical way: in the manner of the 23rd Psalm and the Lord’s Prayer, which everyone knew. Such biblical expressions were generally taken as representations of a reality that some people, at least, knew to be the case. Or so it was widely thought. The good or blessed life was life in the hands of God. Anyone alive in the kingdom of God is ‘blessed,’ as Jesus taught. (And at the time he was generally assumed to be a person who knew about things, and communicated that knowledge to the world.) This life in the kingdom was an ‘eternal’ life: knowledge (interactive relationship) of the individual with God and with his son, Jesus Christ. (Jn 17:3) In the university today there is simply nothing of this kind with respect to the good life, religious or otherwise. And there is no serious attempt at it. That is one reason for the prevalence of the flippant and cognitively empty response: ‘Oh, there are many ways life can be good.’
(3). Who is a genuinely good person? This deep and troubling question seems to press more heavily upon the individual than the previous question about the good life. People desperately want to be good, even though they are prepared to do what is wrong ‘if necessary’. To question someone’s goodness knifes so deeply into them that this dimension of moral evaluation has almost totally disappeared from the field of contemporary moral evaluations. It is too sensitive to deal with seriously. (See Simon Blackburn’s recent book, Being Good, which, typically, gives no serious answer to the question.) And yet the issue remains on the field of human concerns just because everyone wants to be, and to be known to be, a morally good person. It is profoundly tied to their sense of worth, and even to their mental and physical health and the possibility of genuine community—not least in the university. Yet here too, the world of higher education has nothing to say, or certainly nothing to teach, on this subject. There is much talk of rights and of ‘ethics,’ but in a way that has nothing to say about human goodness, and specifically about the difference between being a good person and a bad person in a professional context. The onlooker might conclude that all human beings are good and that there is no such thing as human evil. That, I think, is pretty much the assumption of the higher learning (though gossip still seems to discover evil), and explains why it has nothing to say about human evil and how to deal with it. This is one of the most intriguing features of what is called ethical theory in the university context. It has nothing to say about evil. But how could it be otherwise, since it has nothing to say about who is good?
Of course the biblical teaching when carefully studied centers human goodness on the agape kind of love that comes to light in God and is extended to and through human beings. The good person, on the biblical view, is the person who is permeated by agape love. That kind of love is spelled out in many ways and in many places in the Bible. Love that (in the manner of Christ, who else?) goes the lengths of sacrificial care to the point of death serves as a moral point of reference for human goodness that has few if any serious rivals anywhere in world cultures. The attempt in Western thought, say from Kant and Mill, to put moral duty and human goodness on any other basis is, to this point, simply a failure, as the latest outstanding efforts (Rawls, MacIntyre, Levinas, etc.) amply testify. As we shall see later, this failure in ethical theory goes hand in hand with a progressive redefinition of what counts as ‘knowledge’ in the university setting.
(4). How does one become a genuinely good person? This, once again, is a vast and intractable human problem. It has obsessed human beings from the point in human developments when tribal answers ceased to close it off. Before then, to become a good person was simply to conform to the customs of the tribe. (That type of answer has never totally disappeared, of course) But what to do when those answers no longer suffice is the problem that gave birth to ethical theory in Socrates, Plato and similarly ancient figures of ‘wisdom.’ It was the one they were most concerned to answer, and in pursuit of which they worked out their answers to (1)-(3). They thoroughly understood its profound implications for human life, and their successors in the 2nd Century and later recognized the superiority of the Christian solution to this problem. The problem lives on today in the concerns of our society about character formation, everywhere from the lower grades to penal institutions, and is what is nowadays discussed in religious circles—and in other contexts, where ‘human transformation’ or ‘healing’ is at issue—under the heading of ‘Spiritual Formation.’ And the problem always intersects with (1)-(3). Its solution will depend on the answers to them. That lies in the nature of the case, as any extensive inquiry will verify.
While this fourth question is, arguably, the most urgent for parents and those in places of public leadership and authority, it is the one most earnestly avoided by the magisterium of higher education today. This fact is one worthy of an inquiry and development that can’t be undertaken here. But it is a fact. Sometimes leaders, such as Derek Bok, have suggested that higher education ought to deal with it, but such suggestions never get off the ground. Partly because to do so would presuppose a body of moral knowledge to under gird the project, whereas no such body of moral knowledge is now recognized as existing. Least of all by university faculty and their guiding lights. And partly because the understanding of psychological processes—and of the human self—remains in such a bad way. And partly because university faculty have long since disowned, along with the in loco parentis role, the project of getting people to be good. And partly because the project was associated with exhortation or, God help us, even preaching. We faculty merely help people think, you know, and trust them to come to their own conclusions; and any conclusion they come to is to be accepted as ‘right for them.’ We would do nothing to intrude upon that individualized process or its outcome. We would not even think the thought that their outcome was an error. It is after all theirs.
Now this is very far from how question (4) was approached by traditional colleges and universities as they entered the 20th Century. They, of course, thought they had answers to (1)-(3)—largely biblical answers—that amounted to knowledge, and that it would be grossly irresponsible of them not to institute and carefully supervise answers to the question of how one becomes a genuinely good person. They normally thought that it was their responsibility to turn out, at least in the sense of ‘finishing,’ genuinely good people. One of the many excellent things about George Marsden’s The Soul of the American University is the detail he provides on how American colleges of the past carried out this responsibility: what they corporately put into the project of character formation. At the heart of the biblical answer to this question (4) lay the idea of The Imitation of Christ, or at least of obedience to him. (Even today you will hear non-believers on university campuses criticizing Christians for not being Christlike.) Although this corporate effort often led to quite deplorable versions of self-righteous legalism and Pharisaism, that was generally not the intent. Rather it was hoped that the individual student would be inwardly transformed into a person pervasively possessed of intelligent agape. And means of discipline and grace were brought into play to bring that about, frequently with remarkable success.
Now I need to point out a few things I do not mean by what I have said about the Bible as an indispensable source of knowledge, and give some other clarifications. And first, I do not mean that just by studying the Bible to understand, in a scholarly way, what it says one can come to knowledge on points (1)-(4). I suppose it could happen, for when you read the Bible (even not necessarily seriously) you may be drawn into a dynamic field of meanings and influences where God is present, and then, as it were, ‘all bets are off.’ But you wouldn’t want to count on the knowledge in question coming by mere intellectual study. You have to put into practice some of the central things you find in the Bible by studying it, or by just hearing about it. You have to let yourself be absorbed, to some degree, into the kind of living you see when you study the Bible. You have to meditate on the words of the Bible and think deeply about them, and see how they match up, or not, with what is talked about in the Bible and with life.
Secondly, you probably will not come to know ‘on your own.’ The Bible lives in a transgenerational community. What one generation sees unclearly and in symbolisms makes itself present to later generations more fully and forcefully. The Bible itself is fully present only in a historical process. You have to consider that transgenerational community and you have to look at its contemporary alternatives. You come to know the reality of what the Bible talks about by, in some measure, familiarizing yourself with the historical community in which it lives. The knowledge that comes from the Bible—as distinct from mere information—will rarely be given without intelligently experiencing some particular form of that historical community. We do not here call that community ‘Church,’ because that is considerably too narrow a term for what we are talking about. But ‘Church’ is relevant, and should not be too readily set aside.
Third, there is a great deal that is discussed in the Bible that will not become a subject of knowledge in our present circumstances. St. Thomas Aquinas and many others have insisted that many articles of the Christian faith, while not contrary to reason, are things which we cannot have knowledge of. Knowledge is a special kind of mental condition, and not everything we can think or believe can be known. ‘A man’s reach exceeds his grasp,’ it is wisely said. And here I have carefully restricted the area of concern to the four specific areas indicated. My claim is that with these areas, if we use the Bible rightly, it can guide us into knowledge. The overall pattern of the thinking and experiencing with the Bible that, I say, can guide us into such knowledge is something I have described in my article, ‘Language, Being, God, and the Three Stages of Theistic Evidence.’ That article, however, does not go into the details of confirmation that comes from putting the central teachings of the Bible into practice in a communal setting, and that confirmation is a very major part of the adequate basis of thought and experience which leads to our being able to represent God as he is. Knowledge of persons is based upon interactions with persons. You don’t have to ‘buy it before you try it,’ and you’d better not. But you do have to get close enough to what you’re dealing with to genuinely consider it.
Fourth, knowledge is not the whole of what we as human beings need. It can make us arrogant. But the Bible is of course fully aware of this, and responds to the need expressed by question (4) by abundant teaching on what is needed in addition to knowledge, if one is to live in the knowledge of God.
At this point let us pause to get the picture. The institutions of higher education in the Western world were very largely formed around Christian and, mainly, biblical answers to questions (1)-(4). It was understood that these answers constituted a body of Christian knowledge. Within the last century or so, those answers were successfully re-categorized in the public mind so that they are no longer generally regarded as knowledge of how things are, but as, at best, historically created myths with certain emotional and practical associations for people within the Christian community. They have no significance for the guidance of life to people generally. Presently, many who identify with the Christian traditions, in some more or less serious way, agree with all that. Now the ‘church’ generally takes its direction from the university in intellectual matters. In the place of the Christian answers, the ‘modern’ intellect and the university system and its offshoots have developed no generally credible alternative answers: nothing that you could seriously teach as course content and grade students on, or publish in a peer review journal as a ‘finding.’ So the university lives without intellectually responsible answers to (1)-(4). That’s the point.
In order to see what has happen to bring us to this point, we have to look at what might be called the history of ‘knowledge,’ from, shall we say, Descartes to Post-Modernism. For most of human history the primary sources of knowledge with regard to the four questions has been authority: the authority of people who are older and of people in positions of power. The authority of the positions and the authority for what was claimed to be knowledge was usually said to come from God, and, all humor aside, it is hard to imagine a better authority than that if it’s really there. But of course authority was not always what it claimed to be, and in late Medieval and early Modern times a lot of ‘authoritative’ teaching was found to be false. Everyone then knew that, whatever it was, that teaching couldn’t be knowledge. People turned to rational method or ‘reason,’ in Descartes and after. This in its turn became an authority which proved to be capable of results that were false. And finally we as a culture turned to sense experience or observation as setting the boundaries of reality and knowledge—not, of course, totally excluding authority and reason, but placing firm boundaries, it was thought, on what they could claim. This was Empiricism, primarily in the form given to it by John Locke and then—quite differently—by David Hume.
The process was complicated, of course, but the outcome was the emergence of types of methods that characterized the particular sciences, especially mechanics, then later physics and chemistry, biology and so forth. These methods achieved great things in their proper areas. A vague but powerful idea of ‘scientific methodology’ came to the fore, and claims to knowledge had to be measured by their conformity or lack of conformity to ‘scientific method.’ This became a very powerful force against traditional knowledge in all its forms—and, of course, in many respects it was a very beneficent force. But, like all claimed sources of knowledge in the past, it overreached and became imperialistic. It neglected the long-standing idea, from Aristotle on, that the subject-matter of the inquiry must dictate the method of the inquiry, and that the method should not dictate the subject matter. Largely because of its practical applications and benefits, the method appropriate to the ‘natural’ sciences was eventually taken by many to be the method of knowledge. And anything not derived by that method, or something arguably like it, was rejected as not knowledge at all, and whatever was alleged to correspond to it was rejected as non-existent or at least of no significance. The effect of this on human life is devastating. For most if not all of the things that matter most to human beings are not subjects of anything like scientific methodology, and hence, if the reigning assumptions about knowledge are true, they are not subjects of knowledge and perhaps do not even exist—they are at most, in contemporary language, just ‘constructs’ of the human mind or language. This is Postmodernism in its most basic epistemological sense.
What this meant for institutional policy in the American universities has been carefully studied by the historian Julie Reuben. In her indispensable book, The Making of the Modern University, she tells the story of how theology and then morality were forced out of the fields of knowledge—out of ‘course content’—by the institutional developments of the leading universities of this country. She does this on the basis of careful study of the internal documents and the public speeches and writings of university presidents and other leaders of education. The story is in fact not terribly complicated. Theology was dropped from course content because so much of what theologians taught was just tradition, usually keyed to a particular denominational group, and hence really did not amount to knowledge at all. As what ‘had to be held,’ it was not open to question or research. The theological trivialities maintained in the colleges had to be dismissed, but in the process they took the more fundamental issues of Christian theology—’Mere’ Christianity as C. S. Lewis called it—with them. (Post Civil War industrialization and the professionalization of public life was, in any case, moving education more toward scientific and technical expertise.)
Now the teaching of morality had been largely based, rightly or wrongly, upon the theological teachings, and so it too was progressively swept from ‘course content,’ and finally, administratively, over into ‘Student Life.’ The story Reuben tells of the progression—in which administrators first looked to the natural sciences as the teacher of morality (after all, their goal was truth, was it not), and then to the social sciences, and then to the arts and humanities, each in turn opting out of the job—is itself an outstanding contribution to knowledge. But the overall point of the story, as Reuben brings out clearly, is that what was happening was not just a rejection of theology and moral teachings, but a shifting of the understanding of knowledge itself, and of research, in such a way that moral teachings no longer could count as cognitive content for which students or faculty could be held responsible. The somewhat later emergence of the philosophical non-cognitivisms in theology and morality, in the forms of Existentialism and Logical Positivism, was really an expression of what had already happened institutionally. She does not say this, for her research does not reach right up to the present, but this is also certainly true of the later Postmodernism, in its philosophical forms. It was a philosophical expression of what had already taken place institutionally.
The effect of the historical progression in Western intellectual life and in higher education to the present is that knowledge itself, along with truth, disappear from the university setting as a goal. All that remains is interpretation and theory. ‘Truth’ is the butt of constant cynicism and ridicule, if it is so much as mentioned. The top of the line now is a research university, and what validates you as a faculty is not knowledge but research. Being renowned for knowledge would be a very marginal compliment. What research could be without knowledge and truth (or at least falsity) has never been explained, but in the hands of the highly influential Critical Theorists (Frankfurt School etc.), research is just one type of social ferment. This view is nicely presented in Jean-Francois Lyotard’s book, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. The ‘report’—a study produced at the request of the ‘Conseil des Universites’ of the Government of Quebec, which asked for a report on the state of knowledge in the Western world—is, frankly, that nothing like knowledge as traditionally understood remains at the heart of the universities. Just investigative ‘ferment’ governed by paralogy and power. (Paralogism: ‘Fallacious or illogical reasoning; especially, a faulty argument of whose fallacy the reasoner is not aware. American Heritage Dictionary, 1981.) Lyotard’s ‘report,’ agrees with much now said about the current processes and standards of academic life by other Postmodernist writers, such as Richard Rorty. As descriptions of current academic life in general, I must say that they are largely correct. This means that what one is responsible to in ‘research’ is not truth or knowledge or old-fashioned logic. These are frankly boring and/or pretentious. Rather, what is ‘interesting,’ ‘challenging,’ and so forth—purely social phenomena—are what is rewarded, by attention, at least, and possibly by position and money.
In the first of The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis has Screwtape advise his protégé, Wormwood, not to try to use argument to keep his ‘patient’ securely on the road to Hell. That might have worked ‘a few centuries earlier,’ Screwtape says, when ‘humans still knew pretty well when a thing was proved and when it was not; and if it was proved they really believed it…and were prepared to alter their way of life as the result of a chain of reasoning.’ No longer, the advice continues: ‘Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to having a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn’t think of doctrines as primarily ‘true’ or ‘false,’ but as ‘academic’ or ‘practical,’ ‘outworn’ or ‘contemporary,’ ‘conventional’ or ‘ruthless’. Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church. Don’t waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong or stark or courageous—that it is the philosophy of the future. That’s the sort of thing he cares about.’ (Letter I)
The condition of the ‘patient’ here described is precisely the one celebrated in the academy today, though of course the jargon is changed. But freedom from knowledge, truth and argument (in the normative sense it still had in Lewis’s day) has even greater play now, and methodology that has the appearance of discipline is very often the reflection of an investigative fad inculcated by some glittering personality—Phenomenology, Structuralism, Post-Structuralism, Deconstructionism, Analytic Philosophy, ‘Ordinary’ Language, ‘Conceptual’ Analysis, and so forth. One draws comfort, and assurance that their work is somehow ‘okay,’ from fitting into the flow with some such social tendency. (Of course there are individual exceptions to all of this.)
The greatest issue facing the individual in the academy today is whether there is really anything more to it than that. This issue is much greater than that of the place of the Bible in the life of the intellect. One does have to make one’s way, and that means coming to grip with how things are. How they really are. How they truly are. How one knows them to be. Rorty, famously if not fatuously, says that ‘truth’ is what your colleagues allow you to get away with. Is that so? Or is it just another thrust in the social flow of professionalized academic life? Clearly he thinks it is true, which must mean, then, that it is something that his colleagues allow him to get away with. It depends on who your colleagues are. Rather disappointing! But of course he believes his statement is true, and not just permitted. He believes that his saying presents the situation in academic life as it really is, and on the basis of appropriate thought and experience. If it were ‘true’ in the sense he states, it wouldn’t be worth stating, and few people would care. But he really does care, and he thinks he has achieved valid insight into how things are. That, of course, is knowledge in the time-honored sense in which knowledge is necessary to human life.
We do not really have time and space here to go over the process that led from St. Thomas Aquinas to Descartes, to Hume and Kant, and to Rorty and Lyotard. The process historically culminates in a condition—truly the Postmodern condition—where we do not have knowledge of knowledge, there is no acceptable truth about truth, and methodology is, with little exception, a matter of a modish practice with no point of reference above the surrounding social flow. Some really helpful explanatory and critical writing has been done on this process. I should mentioned the works of Edmund Husserl (especially his The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology) and Michael Polanyi (His The Tacit Dimension is a good starting point in his writings.). Neither thinker comes through very clearly in the cacophony of 20th Century thought. But what they have to say on the fate of knowledge and truth in the contemporary university and world, and the baleful effects of core confusions about science, knowledge and truth, makes them necessary companions for anyone concerned about the integrity of the university and the intellect, and especially for anyone concerned about religion and the role of the Bible in the intellectual life.
For our present purposes, what must be done is to establish—or at least to offer—a workable idea of knowledge that is suited both to ordinary life and to work in any professional setting. We need to understand knowledge as it and its absence are recognized and dealt with by the people who pay for the university and upon whose backs the intellectual rides through life. It must be an understanding which motivates serious efforts toward knowledge, such as is relevant to our questions (1)-(4), as well as to all matters of technical detail in any specific area where one has to be responsible. It must be one that accounts for the fact that we as academics do possess knowledge, which we discover, learn, communicate to our students, test for in our students, and evaluate degrees of in an oral examination or a research project or book. It has to make sense of our selections of course content and of how we grade papers. That is our business as university faculty. Here ‘Postmodernism’ simply has no more place than in landing an airplane or negotiating fringe benefits or repairing automobiles. I believe this formulation meets the need:
One has knowledge of a certain subject matter if they are capable of representing it as it is on an appropriate basis in thought or experience. If you reflect on how you draw the distinction—as you certainly do—between knowing and not knowing, for yourself and others, and between those who do know in a certain area and those who do not, you will see, I think, that this understanding of knowledge is the one we apply. That does not mean that such application is always easy—though often it is—or that we are ever infallible in our applications. Often we do not know whether we or someone else, or humankind generally, has knowledge on a certain point. We may or we may not have it without knowing which. But there are many clear cases, and these guide us to a reliable understanding of what knowledge is. Some further observations:
(a). When someone represents something as it is not—and this itself is something we frequently verify—then they do not know with reference to that particular subject matter. Such failure is, in large part, what led to the breakdown of confidence in the authority of ecclesiastical institutions in the late medieval period, and it is key to how we grade papers and evaluate physicians and automobile mechanics. However ‘good’ they may be in other respects, when they ‘get it wrong’ they do not know. You cannot know what is false. Reputation for knowledge does not guarantee knowledge. And being wrong with regularity undermines one’s status as an authority for knowledge.
(b). Knowledge, when real, guarantees truth. But neither truth (as in a good guess), nor the best evidence humanly available, taken separately, guarantee knowledge. There is no general characterization of ‘an appropriate basis in thought or experience.’ One of the illusions of the ages is the quest for such a completely general, fail-safe characterization: what John Dewey called ‘The Quest for Certainty.’ You can know and not be ‘certain’ and you can be certain and not know. Certainty is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition of knowledge.
(c). Knowledge does not require or guarantee infallibility. We often know in cases where, given appropriate circumstances, we could be wrong, though we are not. This is actually the usual case in ordinary life. It does not imply that we do not know, just that we might not: it is possible, even though we do have knowledge, that we are representing things as they are not or that our basis is not adequate, or both.
(d). The possession of knowledge (not just true belief) confers the right, and often the responsibility, to act, to lead, and to prescribe policy. It confers authority, including the authority to teach. Most of what human beings know they know by authority. That is still true today. Good authority is essential to human life. Good authority is always open to question, which need not be an attack. It accepts the fact that it might be wrong. The familiar bumper-sticker that says ‘Question Authority’ is fine, so long as that includes ‘Question This Bumper Sticker,’ for, now, questioning authority has become an authority in its own right, and one which usually goes unquestioned, or even resists being questioned.
(e). Knowledge, or presumed knowledge, routinely leads to arrogance. What it involves is so important that people cannot, without great grace and intentionality, divorce their ego from it. To be out of ‘the know’ diminishes one in their own eyes and before others. To know is to be in a ‘better’ position than those who do not. Thus the Apostle Paul’s statement that ‘Knowledge puffs up.’ Well he knew! And thus ‘humbleness of mind’ was for him a primary ethical virtue. The arrogance humanly associated with knowledge and truth is, curiously, one of the factors which has led to their being overtly disowned in intellectual settings. We still believe, generally, that arrogance is bad. But overall, arrogance seems to have diminished little as a result of our abandoning knowledge and truth in favor of ‘research.’
(f). Knowledge as such, knowledge and truth by their very nature, do not rule any particular area of life and reality out—or in—as domains of possible knowledge, and they do not restrict knowledge to what is attained by some particular method. Any decision about what can be known or not, and how or not, is to be settled by examination of the facts of the case. Whether there can be knowledge of God, for example, and whether the Bible might be somehow central to the way such knowledge is to be come by, are matters to be settled by inquiry, and inquiry in general is not something one can lay a priori limitations on. Inquiry is a muddling sort of thing, full of unexpected discoveries, accidents and inspirations. Honest history of science makes that clear in the case of the particular sciences. For most subject matters inquiry is transgenerational, and something one could never write a methodology for.
In our day, particularly, there is a great illusion in the university and culture about the ‘scientific method,’ and about whether something is ‘science’ or not. There is, we may be sure, no such thing as ‘science’ in general, and to proclaim that something is or is not ‘science’ or ‘scientific’—especially if it is a question or an issue—has no bearing on whether it has to do with knowledge and truth. Things have been ‘scientific’—taken to be the best science of the day—and also wildly false. Geocentrism was not just a stupid mistake, but the results of serious science. One of the things we are indebted to Postmodernist thinkers for is their blowing of the whistle on the illegitimate claims of ‘science’ to have a corner on knowledge and truth—or on ‘the’ method or methods of research. There are of course sciences (not science) and they have a legitimate subject matter and proven methodologies regarding that particular subject matter. But intellectual work will always be much broader than the particular sciences, and intellectual method will always have to be dictated by the particular subject matters in question. To try to characterize an ‘adequate basis in thought or experience’ in terms of methods derived from some particular science or sciences is at best groundless, and can be something little short of idolatry. In any case, it is always an error. And the politics of knowledge and reputation for knowledge is something one must never let out of one’s sight. Reason is a fragile human capacity that has little power to resist social pressures, even if it calls itself by a fashionable term such as ‘scientific inquiry.’
(g). In general, knowledge does not offer itself freely or mechanically to those in the human condition. One should not be surprised if this is true of the knowledge of God, or with respect to the four questions we have enumerated as central to human need. Man is an essentially challenged being, always on a path, Homo Viator. There is therefore some point, though not without it’s dangers, to Lessing’s saying that if God offered him truth in one hand, and pursuit of truth in the other, he would take the pursuit. (In this way, of course, he is presenting us with a truth he has, and is not ‘pursuing.’)
Knowledge and truth are things that have to be endured. Stories such as Faust, Frankenstein and the Sorcerer’s Apprentice well up from deep within the human psyche. They deal with the threats of unleashed desire when empowered by knowledge. Perhaps a good way to think about the expanse of human history is to see it as an extended opportunity to form collective and individual character that can accept and can safely use knowledge when it comes. (We’re obviously not doing so well with this, one might think.) The principle of the ‘fullness of time’ applies broadly to human affairs and innovations, not just to the coming of the Messiah into the world.
This we must accept as a general principle about knowledge. It is not always good to have it, and it needs to come in suitable ways. There are special considerations when it comes to knowledge of God, and these suggest some things that might lead to a theology of the Bible itself, as it actually exists among us. Suppose for a moment that there is such a God as the Bible reveals: one of unlimited intelligence, power and love, with the highest possible intentions for humanity and creation. How would he be present to a humanity in flight from him? One might at first think: overwhelmingly! (We might imagine Jesus going back to Pilate or the Chief Priest after his resurrection and saying: ‘Now, shall we have that conversation again?’) But would that accomplish what he has in mind for human beings in his cosmos? What would the result be? People fried into submission, no doubt. Cringing cinders. Robots. Persons totally dominated by fear, unable to have a vision of good to be accomplished or to take initiative toward it. Not a notably glorious outcome. Not a community of love inhabited by the Trinitarian God Himself, absorbed in a tremendously creative team effort, with unimaginably splendid leadership, on an inconceivably vast plane of activity, with ever more comprehensive cycles of productivity and enjoyment, where power and character are forever adequate to each other. Imagine that God seeks people to involve as his admiring and trusted and trusting co-workers in a cosmoswide, cooperative pursuit of a created order that continuously approaches but never reaches the limitless goodness and greatness of the triune personality of God, its source. He wants to grow us to the point where he can empower us to do what we want. So the character of our wanting is what he must deal with by how he comes to us. The diffuse and fugitive presence of the Bible on earth, which we see to be the case, might not be such a bad idea.
C. S. Lewis again gives us (in The Screwtape Letters) some language that seems to capture the delicacy involved in God making himself known to bring people to himself: ‘You [Wormwood] must have often wondered why the enemy [God] does not make more use of his power to be sensibly present to human souls in any degree he chooses and at any moment. But now you see that the irresistible and the indisputable are the two weapons which the very nature of his scheme forbids him to use. Merely to over-ride a human will (as his felt presence in any but the faintest and most mitigated degree would certainly do) would be for him useless. He cannot ravish. He can only woo. For his ignoble idea is to eat the cake and have it; the creatures are to be one with him, but yet be themselves; merely to cancel them, or assimilate them, will not serve…. Sooner or later he withdraws, if not in fact, at least from their conscious experience, all supports and incentives. He leaves the creature to stand up on its own legs—to carry out from the will alone duties which have lost all relish…. He cannot ‘tempt’ to virtue as we do to vice. He wants them to learn to walk and must therefore take away his hand…. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.’ (Letter VIII)
God is not obvious, not even in the Bible, which offers so many opportunities for man to go wrong—as history and contemporary events surely witness. This is an undeniable fact, which is absolutely consistent with the further idea that he can be found, and found in the Bible also. By seeking. Deus absconditus is a deep theological principle. Isaiah cries out in amazement from his own experience: ‘Truly, Thou art a God who hides Himself, O God of Israel, Savior!’ (45:15) He reveals himself, and uniquely in the Bible, but in a way that allows him to be hidden to all but those who resolutely seek him. (30:20, Job 23:9-10) One can deny God. That is a choice. But it is a choice that he has made possible. It would have been a mere trifle for him to have made it impossible.
Sir Robert Anderson says, opening Chapter 13 of his The Silence of God, ‘When faith murmurs and unbelief revolts, and men challenge the Supreme to break that silence and declare Himself, how little do they realize what the challenge means! It means the withdrawal of the amnesty; it means the end of the reign of grace; it means the closing of the day of mercy and the dawning of the day of wrath.’ It means human life as we know it is over.
The distance of God, his unobviousness, is God’s way of making himself available without destroying us. Job, who certainly knew the hiddenness, comments on God’s works in nature, and he then exclaims: ‘These are some of the minor things he does, merely a whisper of his power. Who then can withstand his thunder?’ (26:14) It was well-known biblical wisdom that no one could see God and continue to live. The sight would kill them. Men have died from much less. Imaging ‘getting intimate’ with our Sun, hardly a speck of God’s nature and power.
But it is also true that God wants us to want him. He does not want to be present where he is not wanted. That is the way it is with spiritual beings, God or man. There was a famous discussion between Father Copleston and Bertrand Russell. Toward the conclusion Copleston ask Russell what he would say if he died and found himself standing before God. Russell replied, ‘I would ask him why he did not give me more evidence.’ If the hints above are on the right track, God well might answer that that would not have allowed Russell to follow his desires. What those desire were are fairly obvious from Russell’s own autobiographical writings, and now from those who have written his biography. They were not pretty, to say the least.
Now if we were to develop a theology about the Bible from these suggestions, we might come to say that the position of the Bible in the world, and in the university today, is exactly what God has chosen. We suppose that had he wanted something different—if something else would have been more suitable—he would have arranged that. Perhaps not in every detail, but in general for sure. Let us think the thought that the nature and position of the Bible in our world is exactly suited to God’s purposes with his project in history. It is a communal, transgenerational presence which fans out across the world in many forms, and allows, but does not impose, growth in the knowledge of God, or of human well-being and well-doing, for those who seek to know him. It allows human responsibility for the earth to have a guide, but one that also allows human beings to worship and serve themselves and other idols—indeed, with Bible in hand and in mouth. (Think of what it would mean for human affairs if someone actually had the ‘originals.’)
The epistemology of the Bible, how it provides knowledge of God and human life, must follow the theology of the Bible. The Bible comes through human history like a comet comes through space, dragging a great tail: a great tail of causes and effects, of historical events and institutional accretions, of interpretations and misinterpretations, encompassing and trailing a solid core of knowledge. The knowledge that comes through the Bible is gentle. It fans out through personalities, families, events, art works and national symbols and rituals. It does not just state truths and invite us to verify and know them, it uses every possible mode of projection and presentation to draw us into the reality of which it speaks: image, story, art, metaphor, ritual, event, not just in the Bible but projected from it into the rich texture of life around it.
My primary concern is to state that the Bible is a source of possible knowledge with reference to the Christian answers to the questions (1)-(4). Perhaps much more, but I am purposefully setting aside other issues to concentrate on this one. My claim is that one can come to know—in the sense of ‘know’ explained above—the truths of the Christian answers, as explained above, to the four major questions of life. I do not claim that people can be forced to know the truth of those answers, or to believe them, or even consider them. But if one is willing for those answers to be true, and if one also seeks to know them through all available avenues of authority, reason and experience—including, of course, careful study of the Bible itself—then they will be able to represent God and the well-being and goodness of man as they are, on an appropriate basis of thought and experience. The intellectual dogmas and myths of our age do not even begin to show that this claim about knowledge and the Bible are false.
Now we might ask: What is to be done about our current situation by those who agree with me and who also are involved in the university and its intellectual and social life?
The first thing we must do, in my opinion, is to work out in our own mind a view of what knowledge and truth are and how they relate to our academic and intellectual business. This is not a peculiarly Christian project, but concerns, in John Henry Newman’s language, ‘The Idea of the University.’ I do think that the Christian might be in a better position to address it than almost anyone else. And that is because they have a place to stand outside the university, in the historic Christian tradition and its institutions; which, to be sure, are far from perfect, and often fly off the track of truth in the service of God and of human good, but also retain objectively testable points of reference that transcend the political, economic and social currents in which the university is currently submerged. When you look honestly at that tradition, is there anything to compare with it and its witness to history? Everything considered?
Now it is true that very few universities, as they now stand, and very few institutions that are identified as Christian, would dare to take and defend the position, as institutions, that there is a body of Christian knowledge (‘Mere’ Christianity in some specification—do forget the ‘denominational distinctives’!) that can be taught as knowledge and implemented in practice as a unique, irreplaceable and vital resource for corporate and individual life today. The idea of the Bible as a source of knowledge about anything would be even more outrageous. The power structures of the academic professions and the socialization of faculty as they go through graduate schools hermetically seals the mind against any such thing, makes it unthinkable.
But that is, after all, contrary to the fundamental idealism of fair and thorough inquiry. So those individuals who do believe that the Bible is a source of truth about the fundamental issues of life must assume that scholarly idealism in their life and work, and present their views when and where it is appropriate, in the spirit and humility—dare we say the intelligence?—of Christ. I do not think this should be done in an attitude of evangelism or apologetics. It should be done in exactly the same attitude of inquiry that characterizes intellectual and artistic work at its best in any context. Good work is what is needed, whatever the field, with patience and with confidence that the God who has come to us through the Bible will be with us and act with us. We should not be bent on making things happen, in my opinion, but should leave that entirely to God. Then we should do our best at what we do. And where the Bible is in any way relevant we include it because it is relevant to our subject matter.
We also, as Christian intellectuals, have a standing in the community, in our church connections, perhaps, but also in other venues. We can write and speak to the larger public that is not bowed down under the standards of ‘respectability’ and intellectual self-righteousness from which the university now irrationally suffers. Here we must not forget what God can do in conjunction with us to disrupt the power of the secular myths mentioned earlier.
Finally, there is no reason to think of the universities as the institutions of knowledge in society. They have their place, but knowledge is far too important to be left to the universities. Christian institutions, speaking generally, have failed their calling as institutions of knowledge, from the Sunday School to the Divinity School. They—and the Christian pulpit—now stand obsequiously before the universities and the professions, in servile complaisance. It is a tragic situation, for the very matters on which ‘the Church,’ to speak loosely, is suppose to bring knowledge are the ones that the university is, by its own admissions, incapable of dealing with. It was never called to be the light of the world or to be the guide of human life. It only caught that idea of itself while it was operating under the aegis of Jesus Christ. It has stumbled into a position it does not have the spiritual and intellectual resources to handle. I expect this to become increasingly obvious in years to come.
Anderson, Robert. The Silence of God. (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications. 1978).
Aristotle. The Basic Works of Aristotle. Richard McKeon, ed. (New York: Random House, 1941).
Blackburn, Simon. Being Good: A Short Introduction to Ethics. (Oxford: University Press. 2001).
Hegel, Georg W. F. Philosophy of Right. S. W. Dyde, transl. (London: George Bell and Sons, 1896).
Horkheimer, Max. Critical Theory: Selected Essays. Translated by Matthew J. O’Connell, et. al. (New York: Herder and Herder. 1972).
Husserl, Edmund. The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology. (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press. 1970).
Lewis, C. S. The Screwtape Letters. (New York: The Macmillan Company. 1962). Many other Editions.
Lieder, Paul Robert, Robert Morss Lovett, and Robert Kilburn Root, edd. British Poetry and Prose, Vol. II, 3rd edition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1950).
Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 1984).
Marsden, George M. The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief. (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1994).
Polanyi, Michael. The Tacit Dimension. (Garden City, New York: Doubleday Anchor. 1967).
Reuben, Julie A. The Making of the Modern University. (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press. 1996.)
Willard, Dallas. ‘Language, Being, God, and the Three Stages of Theistic Evidence.’ In J. P.
Moreland and Kai Nielsen, (edd.) Does God Exist: The Great Debate. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers. 1990).
Willard, Dallas. The Divine Conspiracy. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco. 1998).
Wilson, A. N. God’s Funeral. (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999).
You will find most of these secular myths, as I have called them, nicely traced and sympathetically summarized in Wilson, God’s Funeral. See also Lubac, The Drama of Atheist Humanism.
First published in the London Magazine, September, 1822. Republished many times: See Lieder, Lovett and Root, British Poetry and Prose, pp. 272-275.
See the opening lines of Aristotle’s , Metaphysics, Book IV: ‘There is a science which investigates being as being, and the attributes which belong to this in virtue of its own nature. Now this is not the same as any of the so-called special sciences; for none of these others treats universally of being as being. They cut off a part of being and investigate the attributes of this part; this is what the mathematical sciences for instance do.’ Ross translation.
See Marsden, The Soul of the American University, pp. 127-128.
By Robert Browning, in his ‘Andrea del Sarto,’ (1855)
In Moreland and Nielsen, Does God Exist?
As Hegel famously said: ‘Philosophy, as the thought of the world, does not appear until reality has completed its formative process, and made itself ready…. When philosophy paints its grey in grey, one form of life has become old, and by means of grey it cannot be rejuvenated, but only known. The owl of Minerva takes its flight only when the shades of night are gathering.’ (Concluding the ‘Preface’ to his Philosophy of Right.)