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The Radical Center?

June 27, 2007

Andy Bryan put up a great post in which he questions the usefulness of centrism, especially as an elixir to the church’s woes. Andy claims that:

(T)he solution to the divisiveness in the church is not to artificially move to the center purely in order to find common ground…. The solution is to learn how to have conversations with people from all points on the spectrum without needing to pretend like we agree on stuff, when we really don’t. The solution is to learn how to speak openly and honestly with one another, grounded in the love of God, seeking to build one another up in love, and disagreeing about our ideas and beliefs with vigor and integrity, but without beating each other up.

I, like Andy, am a liberal (if that label even means anything anymore). My problem with claiming that label is the tone of dialogue these days. If being a liberal means that I agree with everything John Shelby Spong says, then I am not a liberal. If being a liberal means denying the virgin birth or the resurrection, then I am not a liberal.

However, if being a liberal means that those things are open to questioning, scrutiny, and an exploration of the nature of truth, then I am definitely a liberal.

My problem with that label is that those who self-identify as conservatives often accuse liberals of denying that there is such a thing as absolute truth. “Liberal” is equated with extreme relativism. Because liberals are relativists, they argue, we deny not only the absolute truths of Christianity (that Jesus is the son of God, etc.) but that there is such a thing as absolute truth at all. It is a well-articulated argument, but off the mark. In my opinion absolutism and relativism are both reflective of a modernist worldview.

Let me explain. Earlier in a randomness post, I asked a question about the nature of truth that reflects my postmoderinist views. I believe that:

  • Conservative modernists see truth as black-or-white
  • Liberal modernists see truth as shades of gray
  • Postmodernists see truth as shades of color.

(Caveat: this is not meant to insult anyone whose worldview is more modern than postmodern – it is meant only to point out a philosophical difference. Different does not mean better or worse, just different.)

To understand what I mean, check out the movie Big Fish. In the movie, the Albert Finney-Ewan McGregor character is a storyteller. His son contends that he never knew his father because the stories he told about his own childhood were obviously “not true,” tall tales. By the end of the movie the son comes to understand that by knowing his dad’s stories he not only knew his dad’s truth, he knew the truth of who his father really was. Dad’s stories told the truth in ways that simple historical facts could not. Narrative, with all of its tools (allegory, metaphor, factual reporting, poetic license, personification, hyperbole, foreshadowing, etc.) can express truths that simple newspaper-style “just the facts, ma’am” reporting cannot.

My Old Testament prof puts it this way. The grandfather is telling stories to his grandson. His grandson looks up, bewildered, and asks, “Is that really true, grandpa?” Grandpa answers, “Well, I don’t know if it really happened that way, but it sure is true.”

One logical solution to differing positions within the church is to try and find common ground upon which we can all agree, and I don’t really fault anyone for pursuing that. However, as a person who is influenced by process philosophy I believe that it is more helpful to find points of contact from which we can both move forward together. Of course, that assumes that we are both willing to question our own positions and to carefully, thoughtfully and lovingly consider the positions of the other. That doesn’t mean we are willing to abandon our core beliefs at all, it just means that we try and see things from each other’s point of view for a moment and that we are committed to making the journey together.

I think that (like absolutism and relativism) liberal, conservative, and centrist are very modernist terms and therefore kind of unhelpful in a postmodern context. At the same time, I realize that we don’t all live fully in a postmodern context. (In my opinion the field of science is philosophically rife with modern reductionism. Most scientists are very advanced modern thinkers.)

Like Andy, I don’t think that reclaiming the radical center is the answer. For pastors to claim territory on the left, right or in the middle still sets us at odds with people of good faith in our congregations. I believe trying to understand each other’s truths so that we can pursue the absolute truth (of God’s goodness and love, for example) together is a more excellent way.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. June 27, 2007 9:25 am

    Thanks, Will. Interesting that you tie in to process philosophy. I read bits and pieces in seminary, and was intrigued, but never dug in deeply. I have the book “Thy Nature and Thy Name is Love” which is a collection of essays on the topic of Wesleyan and Process Theologies in dialogue. I read the first one and quit – you’ve made me want to take it up again!

  2. Layman Erik permalink
    June 27, 2007 10:58 pm

    Hey Willie.

    First a few questions –

    Is it true that bacon tastes better on Thursdays?
    In truth, which weighs more Thursday or October?
    “Bacon should only be eaten with Hobbes and Locke” is that true?
    Of all these truths, which is more true? Bacon, Canadian Bacon, or Gooey-butter cake?

    Now that I have done my best to work myself into a postmodern mindset, and developed a hankering for salted pork in the process, I can begin with my real comment.

    You say
    [quote] * Conservative modernists see truth as black-or-white
    * Liberal modernists see truth as shades of gray
    * Postmodernists see truth as shades of color.
    [/quote]

    I say
    Pianists see keys as something to play notes.
    Writers see keys as something to type words.
    Janitors see keys as something to open doors.

    Is my grouping of sentences parallel to your grouping of sentences?

    True story – This writer and this pianist were having a conversation, an argument really, about the subtleties of correct posture whilst using keys. Along comes a janitor who just shakes his head and says, “yous guys are just wasting your time debating about nothing of consequence. The straightness of your back doesn’t matter one bit when using keys. Just turn the darned key and open the door so that you can get in to empty the trash cans. Thats all you need to know about that.”

    I don’t know if it actually happened that way, but it is a true story.

    The pianist and the writer have somewhat different conceptions of keys – Maybe because they have different exemplars in mind. But at least they can talk to each other.
    The janitor has changed the subject altogether. But for some reason he does not realize it. He thinks his pronouncement about keys should be meaningful to the other two. They aren’t.

  3. June 28, 2007 7:15 am

    1. A thing cannot be both a particle and a wave
    2. Objective testing has proven that light is a particle
    3. Objective testing has proven that light is a wave

    What is the truth? Once the truth of the situation is decided, the objective “facts” will be reinterpreted and reunderstood.

    Truth is most often multifaceted, and true human objectivity is an illusion.

    Truths about God when expressed and understood by humans are much like the descriptions of the elephant by the blind men who accurately describe the truth of what they are able to observe.

    In too many discussions, some folks are able and willing to use “THIS IS THE TRUTH” as a discussion ender; the TRUTH has the final word. I see truth as a starting point for discussion. Truth should cause us to examine further, attempting to understand its often mutifaceted nature and its beauty.

  4. Layman Erik permalink
    June 28, 2007 11:21 am

    Pastor Will,

    I really, really wish that I had more time.

    Because you know I really care about you and I hate to see you so confused about how things “really are”. He He He….

    I will mostly have to cheat and hope that you have more time that I do right now, you could check out some articles related to Sokal’s hoax – Where physicist Alan Sokal made up an absurdly goofy post-modernist sounding essay which was non-the-less accepted for publication by *Social Text*

    Here is an old article aobut the haox from Paul A. Boghossian. (who, incidentally, is in my mind one of the more impressive living philosophers working in the field of epistemology.)
    http://www.nyu.edu/gsas/dept/philo/faculty/boghossian/papers/bog_tls.html

    Here is Alan Sokal’s own page on the hoax.
    http://physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/

    Here is a pdf of an article defending a modest realism that is not perfect but is along the direction of what I think we should think about such things…

    http://physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/bielefeld_final_rev.pdf

    If you are really bored some night they make for fun reading…

    If I had time I would try to convince you to consider that you might be confusing
    A statement being true with Us believing that a statement is true. I think you are confusing the epistemic with the ontological.

    You say, for example

    “1. A thing cannot be both a particle and a wave
    2. Objective testing has proven that light is a particle
    3. Objective testing has proven that light is a wave

    What is the truth?”

    To which I say, I don’t know, but I would point out that on the most plausible reading of those sentences they are not incompatible. I do not think that statements of the form “Objective testing has proven that x” entail that x is true, nor does it entail that “x is known to be true” Mostly, in life, and in the sciences in particular, when make the epistemic claim that they have “proof of X” they are making a more modest claim. Something like, we have very good reason to believe that x, reason that will suffice unless something comes along to make us doubt it. We ought to believe that any pronouncement of science is incomplete.

    But from this fallibilism we need to be carefull not to infer some silly things. It would silly to say that since science cannot say for certain that dinasours lived millions of years ago that we have no good reason to believe that they did. It would also be silly to say that belief that dinasours existed is just one of several possible truths…
    The ontological claim – “dinasours existed” is either true or false – it is not one of several possible “truths”
    there is an epistemological claim which says that “dinasours existed” is one of several possible beliefs. It may even be one of several possible supportable beliefs. But even though contrary beliefs might both have a lot of support they can’t both be true.

    And so since your sentence 1 is an ontological claim about the facts of the world, and 2 and 3 are epistemological claims about our beliefs about the world. 2 and 3 do not (strictly) contradict 1.

    I will grant that there is an intuitive discord there, though. As my experiences with freshman level students has made me painfully aware when people try to make a point they often use the word “proven” to mean”is in fact true” or “is known” (I’m using the word ‘know’ as a success term. In this sense you cannot know something unless it is true, but you can think you know. For example. No one has ever known that the earth is flat. This is because the earth is not flat. Many people thought that they knew the earth was flat. They were mistaken.)

    Perhaps by “Objective testing has proven” you meant this stronger – certainty – sense of “proven.” As if the objective testing has guaranteed the belief was true. My first response would be – “how could science ever do a thing like that?”
    My second would be to say – If that is how the sentence are to be interpreted then I do not know which ones are true. But I do know that they are not all true.

    Once the truth of the situation is decided, the objective “facts” will be reinterpreted and reunderstood.

    Truth is most often multifaceted, and true human objectivity is an illusion

    You say:
    “Once the truth of the situation is decided, the objective “facts” will be reinterpreted and reunderstood.

    I say the truth is not “decided.” What we decide is what we want to believe is the truth (epistemology) The facts of the world determine the truth. (ontology) It is true that the facts will be reinterpreted, but it is our interpretation that changes, not the world.

    You say:
    “Truth is most often multifaceted, and true human objectivity is an illusion.”

    I say I agree completely (I think, if I understand you.) However it is a large leap to move from an awareness of our fallibility to the idea that there are multiple truths…

    Sigh. I just wasted the time I needed to make copies for my 1:00 class.

    And I don’t have time to edit and for lenght and content.

    But I’m posting it anyway. Ignore as you wish.

  5. June 28, 2007 12:07 pm

    It’s getting deep in here now!

    One of the points I’m trying to make is that truth, whether epistemological or ontological, should be held with humility, reverence and awe – never wielded as a weapon.

    You are correct, I shouldn’t have used the word “proven” when dealing with science – it would have been far more accurate for me to say that objective tests have shown or demonstrated light to be particle/wave. And yes, it is our (or rather, science’s) understanding of the truth that will be decided – not the ontological truth of the nature of light.

    Postmodernism isn’t really superior to modernism, at least in my humble view. It’s just different. Of course, I realize that I may not express that very well in these one-off blog posts, which are more akin to thinking out loud than to a paper submitted in class.

    In terms of Biblical texts, I have a preference for narrative-linguistic hermeneutics. In staking that claim I basically assert that the confessional truths as expressed by the Biblical authors are what matter for Biblical interpretation.

  6. Layman Erik permalink
    June 28, 2007 9:51 pm

    You say:
    One of the points I’m trying to make is that truth, whether epistemological or ontological, should be held with humility, reverence and awe – never wielded as a weapon

    I say: I agree completely. I respond to this concern by maintaining a fallabilistic conception of knowledge (but not of truth) I would combine that in a sort of “virtue epistemology” (see Ernest Sosa)

    And then speaking roughly and incorrectly I would say that one epistemic virtue is the virtue of maintaining a proper awareness of our fallibility. This characteristic is one that would, over time, improve a persons epistemic situation.

    You say: Postmodernism isn’t really superior to modernism

    I say: no doubt about that. Absolutely no doubt…

    You are the coolest.
    When it comes down to it, I don’t think you are much of a post-modernist at all.

    (By the way – I got a new job. Kinda. I’ll email you.)

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