Monday, May 25, 2009

Humble Realism and Reformed Hermeneutics

Below follows a guest post by Ben Faber (B.A., McMaster; D.Phil., Oxford), who teaches Renaissance and 18th-century English literature at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario. He and his wife, Rita, with their five children, are members of Cornerstone Canadian Reformed Church in Hamilton. We thank Ben for his contribution, and welcome the engagement of our readers.

In a comment on a previous entry, I noted three points of intersection between Phillip Broussard’s “Humble Realism” and a Reformed approach to hermeneutics. This is an elaboration on these connections.

“Hermeneutics” is the term used in theological, philosophical and literary contexts to “clarify the conditions in which understanding takes place” (Hans-Georg Gadamer). As such, “hermeneutics” usually refers to the assumptions which undergird the theories of interpretation that drive various practices of textual analysis—assumptions about language, reality, agency, perception, and so forth. Conflicting interpretations of Biblical or literary texts can often be traced back to the assumptions that constitute the hermeneutic behind the differing readings. One can go even further back, of course, to the worldview in which the hermeneutic arises that shapes the theory governing the practice. In the following comments I will focus on language since the nature of language continues to be the pivotal issue in hermeneutics. For further reading on these and other aspects of hermeneutics, I highly recommend Kevin Vanhoozer’s Is There a Meaning in this Text? (Zondervan, 1998).

So how does a Reformed hermeneutic align in key areas with a Reformed approach to science as expressed by Dr. Broussard?

(A) Realist ontology: When Augustine in On Christian Doctrine refers to the correspondence between the two books of God’s self-revelation, he is suggesting that this correspondence also relates to the means by which God reveals Himself in world and Word. Creation declares the glory of God by natural signs (things); Scripture declares the glory of God by artificial, or conventional, signs (words). In a general sense, although artificial or conventional signs may be secondary to natural signs, they nevertheless refer to real objects, actions, states of being, observable and nonobservable phenomena, etc. Language is representative of the reality to which it refers. Radical poststructuralist literary theory, which absolutizes Derrida’s famous expression that “there is nothing outside the text”, argues that the “reality” to which language refers is inaccessible as such because it is always mediated by language itself: we cannot step outside of discourse to apprehend reality in a pure, unadulterated form. In fact, the postmodernist would add, this “reality” is not given but constructed. A Reformed literary hermeneutic responds by saying that the fact that our apprehension of reality is mediated by language does not negate the reality of that “reality”. That aspects of our understanding of reality are constructed from our being situated in time and place also does not negate that reality. The classical realist position in the sciences is similar to an unproblematic view of language (modernist), while the antirealist position sounds like an excessively bleak take on language (postmodernist). Broussard’s “Humble Realism” echoes the Reformed view that language makes reality accessible, expressible and apprehensible.

(B) Humble epistemology: For all its wonderful properties as a means of making this reality accessible, however, language is neither a neutral instrument nor a perfect vehicle. The good gifts with which God endowed Adam and Eve, including language, were desecrated by the fall into sin. The finitude of human understanding, together with the effects of sin on that understanding, leaves us with no alternative but to acknowledge that the analogy between language and truth is often shaky and fraught with uncertainty. Nevertheless, even while a Reformed hermeneutic recognizes the effects of sin on language, incarnation and inscripturation both point to the real possibility of a correspondence between language and truth. Postmodernist views of language suggest that we are always already caught helplessly between incommensurability and plenitude. In response, the Reformed view of language suggests that we have reasonable grounds to trust language as an analogy of reality, yet without making claims for its absolute reliability. For that we will have to wait for the return of our ascended Lord to complete the redemption of Babel that He began at Pentecost.

(C) Image-of-God anthropology: The covenantal character of the triune God is one of the key themes of Reformed theology, especially as this is expressed in the doctrines concerning the triune Godhead, creation, election, revelation, sacraments, etc. As Nicholas Wolterstorff has suggested, true human flourishing takes place when one lives in peace with God, neighbour, environment, and self. Human beings are fundamentally relational creatures—what Reformed Christians might prefer to call “covenantal creatures” to emphasize the spiritual and ethical responsibilities that accompany our relationality. Language, too, as a means of communication is intrinsically covenantal in its exchange of promise and obligation. As Ludwig Wittgenstein observed, there is no such thing as private language. Therefore, without diminishing the importance of other aspects of being made in God’s image (see Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 3; Belgic Confession, Art. 14), a Reformed literary hermeneutic would highlight the covenantal elements of speech acts in relation to imago Dei. Kevin Vanhoozer, James Smith and Anthony Thiselton do precisely this in emphasizing trust, obligation and responsiveness as the conditions of language-use.

While the foregoing observations relate to general hermeneutics, the implications for special hermeneutics are intriguing. For instance, the idea of the covenant of language portrays our mundane actions of giving and receiving meaning as an exchange grounded in trust, obligation and responsiveness. When something profoundly characteristic of the triune God (His covenantal relationships) is also intrinsic to the ordinary means (language) by which God reveals Himself, surely something significant is going on. Given the covenantal structure of language, how does the fact that God spoke creation into being affect our relationship with the natural world? What does this mean for our understanding of John 1, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”? Is the covenantal structure of language merely a coincidental and convenient analogy for the covenantal nature of the Bible with its promise and obligation? Or does the covenantal structure of language derive from God Himself, not as an accident, but as a corollary to the nature of His creation (ontology) and as a function of our being made in His image (anthropology)? How does the covenant of language relate to the language of covenant? Perhaps a general Reformed hermeneutic may have something to contribute to our understanding of the covenantal nature of God’s revelation in His Word and world. And of preaching, prayer, praise, profession of faith, and a whole host of other covenantal acts of language in our lives as people of the Book.

Some References

James K.A. Smith, The Fall of Interpretation: Philosophical Foundations for a Creational Hermeneutic. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2000.

Anthony Thiselton, Thiselton on Hermeneutics: Collected Works and New Essays. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008.

Kevin Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in this Text? The Bible, The Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998.

Nicholas Wolterstorff, Reason within the Bounds of Religion. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984.

Michael Polanyi on Humble Realism

Phillip Broussard’s work on scientific knowing (see Arnold’s post) is enlightening, as is his belief that the truth of our being created in the image of God “has something to do with how we can be stewards of this creation” and with our ability to achieve a limited understanding of God’s faithfulness in creation. His articles, and especially his description of “humble realism,” contain antidotes not only to naïve-realist and anti-realist interpretations in science but are applicable in a wider area. They shed light, for example, on the conflict between modernist objectivism (naïve realism) on the one hand and postmodernist subjective relativism (anti-realism) on the other. I focus on that wider context.

Among the philosophers who have dealt at some length with the errors of an anti-realist position is Michael Polanyi (1891-1976). Of interest in this connection are his arguments against “cultural conditioning” – the doctrine that we hold our beliefs and convictions merely because of the culture in which we live, and that therefore they are altogether relative. Polanyi does not deny the role of cultural influences but argues that, rather than interfering with the accumulation of knowledge, they are in fact essential for our mental development. “An entirely untutored maturing of the mind would…result in a state of imbecility” (Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, p. 295). We can function as intelligent human beings only because we are part of the community, historical epoch, and civilization wherein we find ourselves. “Tacit assent and intellectual passions,” he writes, “the sharing of an idiom and of a cultural heritage, affiliation to a like-minded community: such are the impulses which shape our vision of the nature of things on which we rely for our mastery of things. No intelligence, however critical or original, can operate outside such a fiduciary framework” (Ibid., p. 266).

Polanyi at the same time warns that our cultural rootedness does not deprive us of our personal responsibility. Not only are we obliged to test the traditions we inherit, we are also able to do so. Although influenced by our culture, we do not have to be its passive recipients; everyone has “some measure of direct access to the standards of truth and rightness” (Polanyi, The Study of Man, p. 30). It is true that that access is limited. The criteria by which we test the traditions of our culture depend on that same culture, so that a truly objective view of things is denied us. But does this not mean that we are the helpless victims of our environment after all? Polanyi rejects that conclusion while stressing our human limitations, which he sees as imposed by our finitude. We have no choice but to accept these limitations, since it is impossible to hold ourselves responsible beyond them. Asking how we would think if we had been raised outside a particular society is as meaningless as asking how we would think if we had been born in no particular body. “I believe, therefore,” he concludes, “that as I am called upon to live and die in this body, struggling to satisfy its desires, recording my impressions by aid of such sense organs as it is equipped with, and acting through the puny machinery of my brain, my nerves and my muscles, so I am called upon also to acquire the instruments of intelligence from my early surroundings and to use these particular instruments to fulfill the universal obligations to which I am subject” (Pers. Knowl., p. 323). Epistemic humility is required, but postmodernist agnosticism is out of the question.

Polanyi does not say it is God who called us, placed us in a particular time and culture, and assigned to us our cultural tasks. He also does not he speak of our being created in the image of God, nor does he say in so many words that our (limited) knowledge of reality is God’s gift of grace – although he seems to admit, at least by implication, human dependence. Even so, Christian believers can take to heart his “humble realism” together with his argued rejection of the doctrine of absolute social conditioning. Polanyi was not a Christian. But perhaps we may see in his philosophy the influence of what Broussard calls God’s common grace.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Replacing Fictionalism and Antirealism with Humble Realism

Do the entities found in our scientific theories exist in the real world, or are theories simply tools used to give us a helpful but ultimately false handle on our experience of the world?

My friend and colleague Phillip Broussard at Covenant College (the undergraduate liberal-arts college of the Presbyterian Church in America, a Reformed denomination which together with the CanRC is in NAPARC) wrote a couple of papers which are relevant to our discussions here regarding the age of the earth.  I encourage you to read these, and make your comments here.

He argues against what he calls a fictionalist view of scientific theories, an example of scientific antirealism, a view which suggests that there is little if any connection between the theories used in science and the created reality, and affirms the approach of critical realism, moving it forward into a Reformed Christian perspective he calls humble realism.  He describes and critiques fictionalist views which show up in the creation science community and in his students, along the lines of ‘appearance of age’.

The papers are entitled “A Reformed View of Fictionalism and Antirealism in the Sciences” (2003, PDF here) and “Is Realism Viable in the Midst of Physics and Philosophy?” (2008, PDF here).  These were written in the context of Broussard’s tenure review process at Covenant, and while they contain some “in-house” references (particularly in the first paper), such as to lectures by his colleagues, he brings up points which are valuable for us all to consider.

Here is a lengthy quote from pp. 27f. of the second paper, which you would need to read in its entirety to fully appreciate.  It does contain some wonderful technical detail for the physicists among us, but is certainly possible to comprehend without a physics background.

“Humble Realism does not accept the tenets of antirealism, in saying that theories have no connection to reality, nor would it accept a classical realist view that the objects must be consistent with our scale chauvinistic views or that if a theory is successful then it is True. Humble Realism would first of all see that the goal of science as glorifying God and enabling us to be better stewards of His creation.  In order to do that, Humble Realism would see science as attempting to discover truth about the nature of reality, but is aware that a complete understanding of even a limited part of reality is going to be beyond us. The entities and laws postulated by theories are assumed to be accurate, yet incomplete, approximations to what is present in the theory-independent world, but the mental model of those images must be informed by the problems of scale chauvinism we all struggle with. Humble Realism embraces the view of humans as limited and fallen creatures, who realize that our finitude is a gift from God, all the time acknowledging that the truth of Imago Dei has something to do with how we can be stewards of this creation, including the ability to grasp a limited understanding of God’s faithfulness in creation. Humble Realism acknowledges that past theories, although shown to be incomplete and false in some ways, can still be used as well as seeing that these theories do seem to arise from more accurate theories. Humble Realism cannot do a better job on quantifying verisimilitude than the many philosophers who have tried, but it can acknowledge that we often do distinguish between competing theories and can tell which does a better job. Humble Realism must take full ownership that the issues of confirmation cannot be fully solved, and as such can never claim absolute confidence in any theory, however, as a theory is more and more successful, we can have more confidence that it applies to reality in a limited manner. Humble Realism acknowledges that it is only because of a faithful God that one can understand some aspect of reality in a limited way and that all the knowledge we have is revelation from the one who holds all things together (Colossians 1:18) Finally, Humble Realism will hopefully allow one to take joy in what we learn about God’s creation.”

I’m looking forward to a fruitful discussion among readers of Broussard’s papers.  When responding, please refer to page numbers and make sure we can tell which paper you’re referring to (first paper, 2003; second paper, 2008).

Monday, May 4, 2009

Michael Polanyi

Jonathan Vanpopta asked for information about Michael Polanyi.

Michael Polanyi was a Hungarian chemist who became a philosopher after he fled to the UK in the early 1900s. He is the father of John Polanyi, the Nobel prize winning chemist of the University of Toronto. Together with Thomas Kuhn, Michael Polanyi has been responsible for introducing into the history and philosophy of science the role of background beliefs in the natural sciences. But Polanyi is by far the more profound thinker and he is not a relativist as Thomas Kuhn has been perceived to be. Polanyi has certainly has a great deal of influence on my own thinking about science from a Christian perspective. He puts meat on the claim that presuppositions have shaped the content of scientific knowledge. A good source on Polanyi's relevance for Christian faith is:
  • Torrance, Thomas F. Belief in Science and in Christian Life: The Relevance of Michael Polanyi's Thought for Christian Faith and Life. Edinburgh: The Handsel Press, 1980.
Also very helpful are two small works:
  • Polanyi, M. Science, Faith and Society. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 1946.
  • Polanyi, M. The Tacit Dimension. Garden City, New York: Doubleday. 1966.
A source to avoid due to misinterpretation is:
  • Polanyi, M. and Prosch, H. Meaning. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 1975.

Jitse M. van der Meer

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Evolutionary Explanations of the Bible

Evolutionism is not only a scientific theory. Since the nineteenth century it has also developed into an all-encompassing worldview. According to this worldview all that we see and think and believe has developed from a state of great simplicity to one of ever-increasing complexity and sophistication. All of this happened, moreover, in a natural way. The evolutionary worldview knows of no transcendence, no supernature; only nature exists. Nothing has come to us from above; all that exists has its origin here below.

In the three-part series under this heading (see “Collected Papers” in the sidebar; direct link here) I look at ways the evolutionary worldview has affected the interpretation of the Bible, both the Old and the New Testament. The first instalment deals with a theory that explains the origin and development of Israel’s faith and culture in straightforward evolutionary terms (the so-called Wellhausen thesis). The second one describes attempts to explain the Old Testament religion with reference to the traditions of advanced civilizations that Israel came into contact with, such as Egypt, Babylonia, and Canaan itself. Special attention is given to the assumed influence of Babylonia. In the final instalment I turn to a Bible-critical theory that focuses on the New Testament and describes New Testament teachings and the origins of Christianity as derived from pagan traditions.

These Bible-critical schools arose in the nineteenth century. Although their conclusions have been modified since then, many of the underlying assumptions are still with us. It is therefore good to be aware not only of these theories but also of the response to them by Bible-believing scholars. Prominent among the latter was the Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck (1854-1921), a colleague of Abraham Kuyper and during the second part of his academic career a professor of dogmatology at Kuyper’s Free University. In this series I have focused on his response. As I hope will become clear, Bavinck’s “defence of the faith” against various sorts of biblical criticism is as relevant today as it was a century ago.