Thursday, September 25, 2008

Plausibility Structures

Few writers lay out the groundwork for speaking of Christianity to a post-enlightenment epistemology than Leslie Newbigin. His book The Gospel in a Pluralist Society is rightly hailed as a classic, if for no other reason than his careful explication of the epistemological issues. Here I wish to highlight these and comment on them and their relevance to communication of the Gospel in the pluralist society of Canada.
Newbigin opens with a discussion of dogma and doubt, which is part of a wider discussion of plausibility structures. In brief, one of the key moves of the enlightenment was to place everything in doubt. Everything especially included traditions, dogma, and prejudice as things to be disregarded in the quest to know reality. Thus arose various attempts to give “the assured results” of science, or scientific historical inquiry, higher criticism, and other results of inquiry that could be verified and or tested.
Without belaboring the history of epistemology, it has been shown that the attempt to find absolute certainty fails. This is sometimes misunderstood as a collapse into relativism. As we shall see below, a door may be opened to relativism in new epistemological paradigms. However, there is at the same time an attempt once again to explore the role of tradition, dogma and prejudice in knowing truth.
Newbigin brilliantly summarizes this part of the project in three main points. “1. Every kind of systematic thought has to begin from some starting point. It has to begin by taking some things for granted. In every domain of though it is always possible to question the starting point, to ask “Why this rather than another?” or “What grounds are there for starting here?”… No coherent thought is possible without presuppositions. … 2. Every society depends for its coherence upon a set of what Peter Berger calls “plausibility structures,” patterns of belief and practice accepted within a given society, which determine which beliefs are plausible to its members and which are not…. 3. Finally, what may be considered to be an opening of the door to relativism in the establishment as a philosophical commonplace that “the truth is much greater than any one person or any one religious tradition can grasp.” Newbigin critiques this commonplace rather harshly.
I will make a few comments on each point in relation to speaking the gospel in a Canadian pluralist society.
First, Newbigin considers Christian dogma to be the starting point, the set of presuppositions, for the Christian’s thinking. Certainly Christian teaching functions as a framework for all the thinking of a Christian. However, from the standpoint of knowing, should we accept dogma as a starting point? There still has to be a place where believers and non-believers begin, where they agree that to do otherwise is to collapse into meaninglessness. Having said this I recognize that Newbigin assumes this and when he speaks of Christian dogma as the starting point he means that once we have agreed that knowledge is possible then Christian dogma shapes interpretation of the world and in so doing creates the plausibility structure. Newbigin is quite clear about reason:
"The faculty which we call reason, the power of the human mind to think coherently and to organize the data of experience in such a way that it can be grasped in meaningful patterns, is necessarily involved in all knowing of any kind." (TGIAPS, p.10)
Second, the social conditions of belief, the “patterns of belief and practice accepted within a given society, which determine which beliefs are plausible to it members and which are not” is not, Newbigin says, “reason” operating in a sort of vacuum. Rather, reason must operate within the context of “the tradition of a community which cherishes and lives by the story of God’s saving acts.”
Nevertheless, I would point out that the New Testament strongly connects to the plausibility structures and standards, not only of the Hebrew world which found dreams, visions and prophecies as things that created or enhanced plausibility, but also to those things accepted by the Greeks and the Romans as creating plausibility. For example, eyewitness accounts, reference to specific dates, referents to historical people, referents to specific geographic locations and sites (such as David’s grave), as well as local customs and laws. At the same time there is a strong counter-cultural thrust in the rejection of myth. And finally, for both the Greco/Roman world and the Hebrew world, signs and wonders did not require a plausibility structure to be understood, but instead they contributed to the plausibility structure. In other words, in both the case of Jesus and the apostles, healing the sick was accepted as an affirmation of the truth of their message.
It would seem to me that this second point of Newbigin’s is pivotal for any consideration of communication in today’s Canadian society. What is it that contributes to the plausibility structure of this society? Perhaps readers might be willing to join in this discussion.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Do We Also Need To Do An Apologetic For Logic?

There is also at this time a renewed interest in the work of Francis Schaeffer. I was present at Wheaton when he presented the sermons which later became the book: The God Who is There. Schaeffer had a profound and beneficial effect on my thinking and my spiritual walk. There is a core part of his methodology that needs to be thought through again.
Schaeffer was one of the first to wrestle with both apologetics and evangelism to what we now call post-modern people. He understood the central issues of post-enlightenment thinking and was able to marvelously illustrate them from the arts. He also grappled with the work of the Holy Spirit and of the Word of God and the reformed rejection of natural theology, which is the attempt to prove the existence of God apart from the revelation contained in Scripture.
However, he believed that apologetics is not only possible, but biblical. For him John 20:31 “but these are written that you may believe” is an invitation to apologetics-- the giving of reasons to believe, which is more than a defense.
Schaeffer spoke of “taking the roof off” of a person’s intellectual and spiritual house and letting existential rain come in. What he meant by that was that logic should be used to demonstrate the flaws in a non-theistic worldview, especially a worldview that we would now speak of as post-modern but which he spoke of as being “below the line of despair.” He saw the “roof” as the delusion of post-modern man that they can have modernism in science but post-modernism in ethics, art and spirituality. Once the roof was off, the rain could come in, that is, the reality of what the world really would look like if one actually lived out this worldview.
I think this approach, which he used in thousands of evangelistic conversations, has much for us to consider. The respectful approach that does not fear to engage a non-theistic or non-Christian worldview is very important. Further, when Schaeffer exposed the devastating consequences of post-modern thought and its linkage to the existential pain frequently being experienced by the people to whom he spoke, he would go beyond apologetics into soul care and soul cure.However, there also seemed to be in Schaeffer a need to convert people from a post-modern/Hegelian (below the line of despair) epistemology to a modern epistemology as part of “taking off the roof.” Schaeffer saw this from a non-acceptance of logic to an acceptance of logic, i.e., accepting that A cannot be non-A. This raises for us the issue: is it possible to do Christian apologetics without first doing an apologetic for a preferred epistemology?

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Relational vs. Logical Apologetics

Once I taught apologetics in an Asian country, and there was some concern that I would bring western rational apologetics which were completely irrelevant. Through the years, I have considered this more and more to be a just concern.
Much of the apologetics that has been written in the past fifty years by evangelical protestants has been based on apologetics written to counter the enlightenment. An example would be the early E. J. Carnell, Gordon H. Clark, and later Norman Geisler who presented logical defenses for the existence of God and for the Christian faith.
However, current writers (David Fitch for example) who desire to engage our culture, decry the classical apologetic project as “modern” and therefore by definition unable to address a post-modern society. In sum, what is meant by this critique is that the defense of the Christian faith to modern or enlightenment thinking is done so using enlightenment assumptions and methods. Hence, as more and more the enlightenment project is considered to have failed, the Christian apologies written against the enlightenment are seen to have actually been co-opted by it and therefore share in its failure.
In the July 2008 issues of Christianity Today and Books and Culture carry articles on apologetics and articles that are in and of themselves defenses of the Christian faith. Consistently, the writers argue for the faith. Alvin Plantinga presents a logically thick attack on naturalism. Other apologists are featured or referred to because they are answering various atheistic attacks presented in the past year. These atheistic attacks are not framed in a post-modern motif, but are classic modernist attacks which seek to refute the core claims of Christianity on the basis of empirical evidence and logic.
Thus the rise of an aggressive, logic/empirical atheist apologetic demonstrates that there is a continued need for a hard-core logic-based Christian apologetic response. As dense as argumentation like Plantinga’s is, it is not simply an intellectual sport, it is a spiritual activity of tearing down strongholds. Some might argue that an argument such as his does little in the arena of evangelism. I would counter by saying that the opposition arguments have done much in the promotion of atheism, so we should not discount the effect of a tightly argued Christian response. However, there is more to the problem than the perfection of argumentation. More in the next blog.