Christian Epistemology: You’re Doing it Wrong

I started this typing post on a discussion board but decided to put it in blog form, so please give feedback; I’m looking for a conversation, here. It seems to me of late that the primary problem with religion in general, not just Christianity, is that most religious people have a screwed-up epistemology. Let me explain.

A diagram by Ken Ham of how you should see the world through “Biblical Glasses”

Religious people will look at their sacred texts (e.g. the Bible, the Koran, etc.) and then generalize about the world in a sort of a priori (philosophy term that means prior to experience) manner; that is, even before encountering the world, they have already made up their minds on what they should believe about it, because they believe God has “revealed” the world to them through their texts. This approach precludes any real learning, because their only mode of learning comes from reinterpreting their texts rather than any sort of empiricism.

This backward epistemology lies behind all sorts of social ills, all the way from Driscoll’s latest idiotic tweet to racism and homophobia: religious people, because of their texts, have already decided what they wish to believe, and their thoughts and feelings do not undergo critique based on experience. Thus, this entire approach to religion is nothing short of inherently prejudiced.

So if we, as critics, merely attempt to reinterpret our texts in order to promote better behavior, then we are treating the symptoms, not providing a cure. If all we have are new ways of reading certain verses, new hermeneutics, etc., yet we do not encourage people to allow their experiences to teach them, then we have only prolonged the problem. Within a generation, a new problem will arise that challenges religion’s authority.

If we look back, this is exactly what has happened. Race, gender, biology, geology, etc., have all challenged religion just within the last century. Each time, religion takes a step back as outside forces show religious beliefs to be false, yet each step is the same as the last: a bitter fight where the “True Christians” meet these new challenges with hostility and fervor until the weight of reality slowly crushes their resistance. If religion had a different sort of epistemology — one which welcomed learning empirically — then we wouldn’t have to put up with this endless nonsense.

Religion needs to figure out how to incorporate empiricism. That’s not just an academic pursuit; it means that we get rid of the walls around us which prevent us from engaging with the world in a serious and loving fashion. We must not have made up our minds, even at the counsel of supposed “revelation,” before we encounter the world around us. Honestly, I think many Christians could stand to put down their Bibles for a decade or two as they reorient their thinking.

My real problem is how to do this in a Christian context, and perhaps you guys can educate me here. I am torn as to how we might differ from, say, humanists. I have a lot of respect for humanism, but what would distinguish Christianity from such a philosophy? Honestly, I don’t know that there is much difference between a good Christian engaging with the world and a loving humanist aside from the acknowledgement of God. After all, to love God is to love your neighbor (put very bluntly when Jesus asks, “Do you love me? Feed my sheep.”)

So anyhow, what say you? How does Christianity incorporate empiricism? Also, is there anything else lurking here that I’m missing?


About Chris Attaway

Raised in the digital wilderness of the pre-Internet 2.0 era, Chris Attaway is a true gamer and Internet citizen. After a stint studying computer science, his life got flipped turned upside down, and he ended up studying philosophy to help him sort out his life. Now the black sheep in a family of engineers, he has set out to get his footing in the world of freelance journalism. With interests ranging from gaming and technology to LGBT rights, race and politics, Chris is a diverse and skilled writer who always tries to give a fair shake to his subjects.
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15 Responses to Christian Epistemology: You’re Doing it Wrong

  1. avengah says:

    Part of the problem is this part of Ken Ham’s statement of faith, which is part of many creationist websites’ faith statements in one form or another: “By definition, no apparent, perceived or claimed evidence in any field, including history and chronology, can be valid if it contradicts the scriptural record. Of primary importance is the fact that evidence is always subject to interpretation by fallible people who do not possess all information.”

    This sort of statement shows a closed mind – most atheists say that if there was actual evidence a god exists, they would believe – but no matter what evidence contradicts Ken Ham’s group, they stubbornly discard it and will never change their mind. This is the problem with these sorts of fundies.

  2. DaveSchell says:

    First off, I’m super-excited about this post.

    Second, I think you might be missing something. See, if it were only the epistemology of the sacred text, that would be a different situation, but it’s not. The epistemology of which you speak comes not only from the sacred text but from everything around us. In the north, preachers railed on how evil slavery was, and in the south, they railed on how evil it was to oppose God’s will. Not only do we read the text, but we read our preconceptions into the text, and in so doing, make our preconceptions a part of the text itself, and thus allow our preconceptions to become the absolute truth that we believe.

    Ergo, if I hear a sermon in which a minister interprets a sacred text in a particular way, that interpretation may become “the right” interpretation in my mind, and as a result, the interpretation becomes sacred scripture. This is how the slavery controversy happened: they read their worldview into the text, solidified their worldview as part of the text, then said that any attack on their worldview was an attack on the text.

    In essence, the problem is not that people do not allow their experiences to teach them, but rather that they do allow certain of their experiences to teach them and don’t even realize when they transform those lessons into gospel truth.

    I know this is the case because I watched it happen with my dad. He holds to particular beliefs that don’t make much sense as coming from the Bible, and the reason he does so is because of sermons that he heard growing up. Those sermons attached themselves to the text, ergo they mean what the sermons said that they meant, and not only is the text itself gospel truth, the meaning that came from the sermons is also gospel truth.

    I may blog about this later.

    • Good point, and you’re absolutely right. I suppose the process is then both that we selectively learn from the world around us and then enshrine or beliefs by interpreting Scripture to our own ends. People who do so get a free pass because of they assume this backward epistemology where right interpretation is equal to right thinking, even prior to experiencing whatever it is we are thinking about.

  3. Bible must be interpreted metaphorically using life experience & science as with other literature. In addition to Father as Actuality, Holy Spirit as pure energy/spontaneous creativity we have Truth as link between objective and our symbolic reality; different ideas of what man is. In Christianity body, soul & spirit. In Humanism body, emotions, consciousness.

  4. I really appreciate your thoughts here. A few thoughts by way of critique. First, I don’t think you mean that Christians should incorporate empiricism, but instead incorporate empirical evidence, correct? Empiricism says that knowledge comes only by sensory experience. Knowledge from the study of the empirical world needs to be incorporated into a worldview, and provide for self-critique and adjustment of assumptions, but sensory experience is not the only source of knowledge. Second, Christians need not set down their Bibles in totality in order to do this, and that is obviously not a realistic expectation.

    But beyond these minor criticisms, I am sympathetic to what you write. Evangelicals in particular need a good dose of epistemic humility, and a willingness to reassess their assumptions in areas. Believers across the centuries have modified their beliefs in areas as evidence has come to light and been grappled with, but in our time we seem to double down on our dogmatism. One particular problem comes from the gatekeepers who believe it is their duty to prevent even sympathetic critique from consideration within Evangelical educational institutions. How can we consider modifications if those with different perspectives are considered liberals or heretics, and their views are rejected without even a hearing?

    It’s a big problem. Perhaps the key is a new and younger generation that is less entrenched in past generational concepts of what is essential.

    • I think I do mean empiricism, in that even if sensory experience is not the only method through which we learn, it is at the very least the primary method. We give far too much credit to our interpretations of the Bible in helping us understand the world. It is useful, yes, but it serves primarily as a testament to the experiences of ancient people in their experience of God. If you scroll back through my posts a bit, you will see that I suggest treating the Bible as an icon.

      Would you care to elaborate what it is that you mean by a “worldview,” though? I start raising my skeptic’s eyebrow when I hear this word simply because of its use in evangelical apologetics. It is my philosophical opinion that the “worldview” which we need is a natural one which comes to us simply by our existence as human beings. When you start talking about worldviews in this way, I start thinking presuppositional apologetics or something of the sort. Perhaps I am overly sensitive here, so I would be glad for some elaboration.

      Last thing here: I wouldn’t gloss over the dogmatism of the past as though this is a new problem. In fact, I might even say that we are doing much better than certain eras in that we are not executing or imprisoning anyone for heresy. There are lots of terrible things happening when people resist dogmatism (families abandon children, friends backstab each other), but it’s not quite *that* bad.

  5. Marta Layton says:

    I hear you on your frustrations with some religious folk (I’d emphasize the some here, as I consider myself religious and work hard to avoid just this problem!) enter the world with their head too full of preconceptions. It’s a problem, no two ways about it. But I’m also afraid you’ll run into a version of the same problem Kant had with straight up empiricism: that we can never see the world as it really is, but only as we perceive it to be. We need a way to be made conscious of and account for our individual biases.

    I quite like the way Methodists use the Bible and prayer and tradition to balance against our lived experience. I’m sure you’re aware of the metaphor of the stool, and I think it’s a good one, because a stool really is more steady the more legs it has, provided they’re used well. In my own church, we use the Bible and tradition to question our assumptions about how reality works, but it just as often goes the other way. I describe it to the confirmands I sometimes work with as similar to Aristotle’s endoxic method. You know, when two beliefs don’t seem to go together, we use this as a way to examine those belief more carefully, and try to exercise our imagination on how they could *possibly* both be true. And sometimes the answer is that our experience of the Bible or of reality must be a *mis*interpretation. Sometimes radically so. But you don’t do anyone any good, I think, when you just start hacking off stool-legs.

    • You’re the second person to mention this to me. The Wesleyan Quadrilateral is great, no doubt, but while I hear many people talk about it, I see people apply it only ostensibly, giving Scriptural interpretation precedence over the other “legs.” If we could apply it more reasonably, then perhaps I would be more in favor of it, but in practice, I question its application.

      I don’t want to cut off the leg of Scripture, really. I just think we need some time to step away from it and reorient ourselves. We have grown overly reliant on it, and in doing so, we have blinded ourselves to reality. If you want a more comprehensive take on my view of scripture, I’d suggest reading my Icons, Idols, and Holy Scripture post from a little while ago.

  6. The approach I have used actually comes from something I read about the ancient Hebrew style of meditation. Apparently they would typically meditate by holding two ideas which seemed to be in conflict side by side in their mind. In time, the ideas would correct each other and the relationship and interdependence between the two would reveal itself. (The typical Hebrew love of paradox is rooted in this approach, I would guess.) I like to think that it was by engaging in just this sort of meditation that Jesus was able to arrive at his understanding about the nature of God’s kingdom and what matters most.

    I have found this approach to be incredibly productive and helpful. Practicing it teaches you to be more flexible and creative in your thinking. You develop the ability to separate wheat from chaf and eventually even start to develop an intuitive feel for what truth (or at least the best version of the truth we are capable of understanding) looks like. It’s particularly effective in helping us reconcile with and understand the world as it actually is (ie as God actually made it) without destroying our faith.

    Those who are really rigid in the belief systems would no doubt struggle to use this approach productively as their instinct would be to hold two ideas together, declare one false and move on. But as soon as you force yourself to think just a little more deeply about it, to start asking, “what if”, and considering if maybe there isn’t some little, bitty shred of truth in what you want to reject, well, then a crack in the wall has been created and the whole rigid structure begins to shift, bit by bit. I think that if Christians were taught this style of meditation, we could, in short order, be producing some truly great thinkers.

    • This is certainly a very practical set of advice. I wouldn’t advocate it as an epistemological system, but it would definitely be helpful while working within a system. Of course, the evangelical system which believes that there are no contradictions in the Bible will be hard-pressed to engage in this sort of a thing. I have heard others describe it as placing a string between two opposed pegs, where truth is in the tension between them.

  7. Ken Nichols says:

    I think the fundamental problem is that religious people and Christians in particular use their sacred texts for the wrong reasons. Religious people use their texts as a basis for how to live, and how to interpret the world around them in some way that makes sense to them, or reconciles their religion (or vision of God) with the world at large.

    But I don’t believe the Bible in particular is meant to be used this way. It was never meant to be a rule book (though it has rules in it, they aren’t there to be followed, but as examples of the failure of rule-based religions), or a book that interprets our world for us (ie. it’s not a history book, a book that explains the natural world, or a book that explains human nature – although it does contain elements of all those things). The Bible tells the story of Christ, and the relationship He desires with us. Everything else simply revolves around this central purpose. When people make anything else the FOCUS of it’s texts, it is doomed to fail miserably, causing pain to both themselves and others, because that isn’t it’s reason for existence.

    Once the Bible fulfills it’s reason for existence, namely to lead someone into a relationship with Christ, then they are given the gift of the Spirit and HE “leads you into all truth”. The Bible at that point is not THE source of truth for us (though it certainly still has truth in it that the Spirit can guide us to). But it has fulfilled it’s primary purpose in our life. So then truth rests on a combination of the Bible in combination with our own Spirit-led worldview. To rely too heavily on either one of these pillars will result in a life off-kilter. Too much Bible and we fall into rule-following and depending upon the interpretation of texts as the basis of living our lives (religiousity). Too much “spirit” and we may loose sight of our reason for engaging the world with love – introducing people to Christ and a relationship with Him (humanism). I believe we should look at the world through a combined lens of the Bible (Christ) AND the Spirit (love) to see and engage it as God would have us to.

  8. Chris Eyre says:

    It seems to me that the fact that Christianity was formulated by Greek-speakers steeped in Platonism is a problem. Platonism privileges the immaterial, transcendent, “ideal” world above the experiential, which is all very well as long as we are not in possession of knowledge of the ideal. Special revelation purportedly gives us knowledge of the ideal; it thus follows that experience has to fit the theory, rather than the theory being fitted to the experiential data.

    Rebecca Trotter has, perhaps, part of an answer, which comes from Judaism. Arguably, Christianity is very largely a translation of Jewish concepts into the Greek worldview, including Platonism; the more we can reconnect with the Jewish, Hebrew Scriptures ways of looking at things the more, I think, we will be able to see ways round the problem.

    In particular, while proof texts for most of the classical theological statements about God can be found in the Hebrew Scriptures, counterexamples to all of them can also be found. Holding these in tension rather than trying to conform the counterexamples to the proof texts most congenial from a Neoplatonic point of view is, as Rebecca says, very productive.

    Of course, we may need to ditch classical philosophy in the process. I use the word “process” deliberately – process theology (and philosophy) is perhaps one developing synthesis. I’m not personally wedded to it, but it does seem to hold some additional explicative power.

  9. Sherri Losee says:

    I think your statement “Honestly, I think many Christians could stand to put down their Bibles for a decade or two as they reorient their thinking” is key. Jesus taught a way of life that was misinterpreted many times by His disciples. If we can get to Jesus’ actual words, we may be able to interpret the timeless and deep meaning. I believe we’ve done well, thus far, in understanding that His concern was “LOVE”, rather than “law”. A read of some of the sacred text from the Nag Hamadi find can help. Jesus was far deeper than the disciple’s interpretation of His words were.

  10. Pingback: Is Jesus Worth Saving? | The Discerning Christian

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