According to the biblical narrative, humanity has been obsessed with the question of knowledge from the very first days in the garden. No sooner had humanity obtained the knowledge of “good and evil” than the first murderer was justifying his actions, and so began humanity’s long struggle to understand what it knows, why it knows it, and how to justify itself on the basis of it. The history of epistemology is a complex one. But despite its complexities, we can say this: it is the story of thinkers grappling with questions such as how we form knowledge, how knowledge is generated, and where does knowledge come from. Generally, this bigger question sits in the background: how can claims to knowledge, or “truth”, be justified? In other words, which claims can be trusted? Which are reliable? Which are certain?
Why has this been of such great concern? Because there is a direct link between our epistemologies — our convictions about what is true, what we know and how we know it, and our beliefs about God, or meaning, or values, or purpose — and our behaviours. Our knowledge of right and wrong, of “good and evil”, sits behind our ethics, our conflicts, our politics and economics, our social concerns, or our lack of them. The history of epistemology is the history of thinkers wrestling with truth claims, our ways of knowing, and the behaviours that emerge from them, in the quest to understand why we behave the way we do, and how we might shape the ways we behave in light of new ways of knowing, new “certainties”. Whether Augustine, or Descartes, or Locke, or Kant, the search for certainty in humanity’s ways of knowing has been driven by greater sociological, political and humanitarian concerns. The ideas of these thinkers are nested within specific contexts, often times of great social, political and economic upheaval. Their epistemologies are attempts to understand those times and to engage with them at the deepest level — to understand the structures of thought and meaning and to challenge the assumptions that made such upheaval possible, or even inevitable.
As we grapple with questions such as what is the starting point for knowledge about God, humanity and the relationships that define them, it is important to first paint the landscape of the age in which we are asking these questions, since our time and place has not only shaped our questions, we need to engage with the world as it is if we hope to challenge it, or even participate in its renewal.
A quick sketch of the world of the past decade: post-9/11, the age of terrorism, of holy wars waged by both the east and the west, coupled with rapidly rising oil prices, ecological crises, the fear of global warming and nuclear meltdown, a planet being decimated by greed, the explosion of social networks and all the communal good and narcissistic bad that comes with that, the rise of authoritarian governments around the world, political shifts to the far Right, and the age of Trumpism, challenging the rule of law, objective truth, and causing deep divisions across the societal spectrum, from the halls of Congress and parliaments to the family Christmas dinner. We live in an age of no “good guys”, when it’s harder than ever to locate any ideologies that we’re comfortable believing in. The hope that there might be a single voice of truth and goodness is impossible to maintain, hence the collapse of societies and regimes that have dared to claim such a thing: Libya, Egypt, Tunisia — further back, South Africa, the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, East Germany. Wherever fundamentalism has sought to prevail, it has been challenged, and has pushed back. Societal structures that were built around blind adherence to an ideology have crumpled, and they continue to fall, just as others have risen and tried to establish a foothold in their place. Liberalism and fascism have produced their own forms of fundamentalism whose effects have been similar: anger, hatred, exclusion, public shaming, intolerance … power.
At the core of any fundamentalism, whether emerging from the Left or the Right, is an epistemology of monologism — the belief that truth can be generated, encapsulated and comprehended by a single consciousness, the single mind, or even a collective mind that has bought into a single ideal. It is the single propositional thought that defines what is right and what is wrong, who is in and who is out. Monologic epistemologies sit behind Soviet Russia, apartheid South Africa, Nazi Germany, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, the rise of capitalism post-WWII; but also, forms of envionmentalism, feminism, evangelicalism. Monologism is a centripetal epistemology — its movement is inward, towards a single centre, the dominant idea. It is reductionist; it seeks for unity in sameness. It views difference as a threat. It demands conformity, homogeneity, uniformity. But we live in a sophisticated world that celebrates these qualities at the same time as it seeks to disrupt them. There are forces that seek after difference, diversity, heterogeneity — centrifugal forces that celebrate differentiation, difference, separateness, and understood the sacred nature of the spaces between. However, even in societies where monologic structures have been dismantled and abandoned, there is often a renewed and compelling yearning for predictability and sameness. Our world finds the tension between unity and diversity almost impossible to maintain and constantly veers from one to the other.
Epistemologically, how do we account for this? The epistemological polarisation between subjectivism and objectivism — or rationalism vs empiricism — goes some way to explaining the dilemma, even as it fails to answer it or advance us far enough.
Subjectivism locates knowing in our experience, our feelings, the perception of the individual. Treated with disdain by Enlightenment thinkers, who dismissed subjectivism as inadequate for accessing knowledge outside the thinking subject, it has seen a resurgence in postmodern thought, particularly on the back of post-structuralist literary theories that locate meaning in the mind of the reader (reader response theory). Meaning is constantly changing at the whim of the interpreter, says post-structuralism. No longer can we say “truth” is located in texts, or in the mind of the writer, which can rarely be accessed reliably. Meaning is generated by the person engaging with the text in the here and now. While science claims to discover knowledge of objects, free from the distortions of the subject’s mind and emotions, it cannot account for the relationships, passions, convictions, interpretations, and beliefs that drive so much of our world. Subjectivism leans heavily on the Cartesian method — the cynical doubting of everything except the indisputable knowledge that I exist as a thinking thing. It is individualistic, since it doesn’t an “other” in order to know. Subjective knowing can be maintained even in the face of “truths” that are destructive or repressive, since it withdraws into its own mind. It relies upon how I feel as much as how I think. It validates me, my feelings, my thoughts. It has the appearance of freedom, since ultimately I am responsible for my own construction of truth and reality. I am not dependent on, and therefore not subject to, anyone else, especially those who may want to subjugate or destroy me. Subjectivism has flourished in the same petri dish as post-structuralism, which continues to challenge fundamental assumptions about deep structures of meaning behind all that we do and say. Post-structural critical theories have dismantled these deep structures in an attempt to bring freedom to our discourse, and therefore to our knowing. This “post-modern” approach to language and discourse has led to the questioning of all so-called structures of meaning, which it views as authoritarian and repressive. The idea of “universal truths” is anathema.
The flipside of this argument is that truth is not ultimately subjective, that the truth claims of an individual are no more than valid than any other truth claims, until they are empirically tested. Objectivism places truth and knowing outside of ourselves in the empirically tested world, the world of science and experience. Unless something can be empirically verified (verified by actual testing, viewing, experiencing) then it cannot be said to be “true”. Says Newbigin in Proper Confidence:
“(In Enlightenment thought) claims to recognise beauty or goodness were treated as purely subjective: they expressed a feeling, and experience of the subject, but they did not give true information about a reality beyond the subject. On the other hand, the findings of science were offered . . . as objective facts that were universally true whatever the culture, the psychology, or the other contingent elements in the makeup of the human person. Once again, of course, this meant that the only possible locus of public truth was in the sciences. Religion could only be a matter of personal experience.”
The last couple of decades have demonstrated beyond doubt the inability of the subject-object dichotomy to cope with the problem of knowing, and where to locate a starting point for understanding our humanity, the world, and the divine. We only have to place ourselves in the midst of world affairs and attempt to comprehend events such as 9/11, the invasion of Iraq, the rise of ISIS, the age of Trump, Brexit, the Putin agenda, through a subjective or objective epistemology to quickly discover that we are no better placed to understand it, let alone address it. But engaging with the events objectively, that is, assessing the arguments for and against, weighing the risks, determining the values and the range of outcomes — in other words, distancing ourselves from the emotion of those events and movements to concoct an objective assessment of the rights and wrongs on both sides — leaves us nowhere either. So, we tend to vacillate between the two poles — interpreting meaning “subjectively” by means of our emotional responses or presuppositions, then trying to balance this response with a more objective assessment. This movement is typical, argued Brunner, in Christianity and Civilization:
“So long as truth is thought of within the subject-object dichotomy, it is unavoidable that either the subject or the object becomes God, the ultimate truth and reality. Now, since neither the subject nor the object is the ultimate truth, it is inevitable that man’s mind shifts from one pole to the other in an incessant pendulum movement.”
To illustrate Brunner’s point, reflect on the nature of world affairs since 9/11, and attempt to make sense of, or even engage with, the activities of both East and West (even that dichotomy is problematic), or Left and Right. Would anyone in the West argue that 9/11 was justifiable? At the time, not a chance. From the perspective of the West (the US and its European allies), the event seemed to justify blind hatred against the Muslim world, at least in its immediate aftermath. That’s a subjective assessment. It wasn’t even possible to speak about it objectively — not at the time. 9/11 served the fundamentalist tendencies of the West. It solidified western antipathy against the peoples of the Middle East, and justified the West’s suspicion of Islam, its ignorance of their cause and beliefs, and even reinforced the West’s own religious ideology, its particular perversion of Christian beliefs and values. It placed “us” in the “right” — in other words, it served us epistemologically, and justified our belief systems. However, it wasn’t long before the US response to the attack — the decision to invade Iraq on trumped up intelligence regarding supposed weapons of mass destruction — destabilised the West’s surety. Did we not all suspect there were no WMDs in Iraq, or that Saddam Hussein, despite the horrendous acts he had committed against his own people, had nothing to do with Al Qaeda? Us president George Bush had a “glorious” opportunity to polarise western and eastern ideologies, but what he actually achieved was the impossible — he made the West doubt itself, made it question its own assumptions, destablised its ways of known and its own ways of storying 9/11. He helped us understand the Muslim world’s grievances against the West.
The history of the so-called War on Terror (try interpreting even that phrase subjectively and objectively) is a swinging pendulum of epistemological doubt — no sooner had we witnessed or heard of innocent missionaries being beheaded in Iraq than we heard about torture at Guantanemo Bay; we heard of killings in the Middle East over the publication of a cartoon insulting Mohammed, then we saw photos of US soldiers abusing prisoners at Abu Graib prison. Rolling Stone published photos showing US soldiers murdering then mocking the bodies of innocent Afghanis. And subjectively, we began to understand the deep hatred against the West. And our fundamentalism hasn’t recovered. Locating a starting point for truth amid these shifting sands of world events and their associated challenges on our epistemological frameworks, by relying on conventional ways of knowing that are built upon the dichotomies of subjectivism vs objectivism, rationalism vs empiricism, is futile.
Is it possible anymore to find certainty in how we articulate “truth” in the world in which we currently live? What is a trustworthy starting point for knowing? Science seems ill-equipped to help us understand the dynamics of truth in a world that has entered such a time of epistemological crisis. Alternatively, how trustworthy is the subjective mind when we are constantly being pushed and pulled from one ideological viewpoint to the other? And where is dialogue and relationality in this mix? What does relationship as a way of knowing bring to our understanding of these events — if anything? And finally, does the so-called “gospel” say to the world in which we currently live?
Peace on earth, Jesus proclaimed. We’ll hear it repeatedly over the next few weeks leading up to Christmas. And yet, we’re obviously far from any form of peace on Earth as things currently stand. Is the gospel irrelevant then? Or does it have something to offer our ways of knowing in the face of such ongoing uncertainty?
David Williams © 2011/2019