Friday, August 27, 2010


The State of the Epistemological Debate

I want to address my epistemology here directly in response to the ongoing comment debate on my last few blog posts. Those posts weren't meant to be polemical or argumentative. I was talking out my own spiritual situation and proposing a response -- a personal program for my own spiritual growth. My friend Robert, in an effort to help me be rigorous in my thought and to communicate with people sharing a different perspective, was pushing me to clarify on several issues.

But the real issue of the debate in the comments is epistemology. How do we know what we assert? I should say from the outset that I hope to keep this post as impersonal as possible. It will necessarily be personal insofar as I draw on my own experience, but I'm primarily talking about epistemological frameworks. They are held by people -- and people identify very deeply with their epistemologies. But hopefully there's a fundamental way in which people who hold very different views can respect one another, even if they believe the other person to be dead wrong.

Robert has been asking repeatedly that I give a description of the effects of my proposed spiritual program in practical, "real-life" terms. He has asked that I give empirical evidence for my assertion that a spiritual life based on orthodox theology is "life-giving". And he has pressed me to provide a a demonstrable hypothesis and some account of what the things I'm discussing would "look like."

I should apologize because I have, in a way, been evading all these questions. And that's because I can't answer them. And that's not because I'm not intelligent or just a neophyte or because I haven't thought all this through with sufficient rigor. It's because I believe that these are questions which should not be answered.

So I don't intend to answer those questions here, but I do intend to lay out why I think they shouldn't be answered and to give a fundamental overview of my epistemology, in the interest of full disclosure and intellectual honesty. And also because I think that if I come out and clearly state my epistemology, then it might be more possible that I be granted certain courtesies. That is, if I am clear about what I think are the fundamental criteria for truth, then I won't be pressed to give answers to questions founded on criteria for truth that I have rejected.

The Epistemology I Reject

Probably to the same extent that my friend (and anyone else who shares his epistemological framework) believes the exposition of my thought to be vague, thin and untenable, I believe his criterion for judgment and the questions he is asking to be misguided and spiritually questionable. I'm not saying he's stupid or a bad person; I'm saying we're working with entirely different criteria of truth.

As I understand it (and I'm completely willing to be corrected if I'm reading this wrong), my critic's epistemology involves or requires the following:

1) things which have an experiential or tangible nature or consequence (this may be emotional and interior, not necessarily physical, but it will always be mediated through the physical embodiment of the subject)
2) a foreseeable practical effect of any proposed cause, something which happens in the world of the tangible which we can experience and which therefore can be empirically observed to proceed from that cause

3) a full description in experiential/tangible/practical terms of anything proposed prior to acceptance of its reality and existence

4) a position of skepticism towards the reality of anything which does not meet the requirements outlined above and therefore an effective denial of its existence for all practical intents and purposes (e.g. an abstract thing might exist, but cannot be definitively proven or disproven, because it does not effect life in any unmistakably causative and experientially perceptible way, therefore it has no impact on life and can be treated as non-existent without having an impact on life)

My problem with this framework is that I believe it to be utterly inadequate for any consideration of God. Furthermore, it seems to eliminate all possibility of faith. It seems to stand in contradiction to most of the teachings of Christianity (granted, this is "Christianity as I understand it"). And it also seems to reveal a certain (in my opinion) lack of respect toward God and a usurpation or underestimation of God's position vis-à-vis the created order.

Reasons I Reject this Epistemology

Here are the specifics of my objections, in as much detail as I can provide. I have extensive recourse to "unproven assertions" in this section, which I am not attempting to prove. I will more fully lay out my epistemology in the last section of this post.

1) God is utterly sovereign and transcendent. And also God created the universe, which is not transcendent. Therefore, if we attempt to judge God by standards we develop from within the created world which are independent of a confession of God and not rather derived from a confession of God, then we are proposing to elevate the mundane over the transcendent and stand in judgment over God solely on the basis of our own limited existence, which is the sort of thing God doesn't like.

2) If we presume to judge God/dogma/spirituality by our own interests (some practical difference it makes for me, something which will help me make the decisions I need to make), then we are again usurping what I believe is the authority which belongs to God -- that is, the right to will and decide what our interests should be and what we, as created human beings, are supposed to do and care about. Because I believe that God made us for God's own purposes, I think that unless we allow God to shape and transform and direct our interests from the "practical" ones that we can understand and describe from within our own empirical and embodied experience, then we are going to get our purpose wrong.

3) Therefore, the "goal" of our living a Christian life is to let God shape us, shape our epistemology, our goals, our character, our understanding, and everything. And because those goals are those of a transcendent God and we are not transcendent, we cannot know them going in. We can't know exactly what it will look like because it is totally other. If we could describe an "end goal" in practical, tangible, and human terms, it would not be a divine end.

4) We have, in fact, seen perfect human life. Perfect human life will look like Jesus, but we cannot look at Jesus as a "how-to" guide and describe discrete, practically applicable Jesus principles. We cannot apply "principles" lived out by Jesus from within our own limited and creaturely understanding. Because what makes Jesus the example of perfect human life is his full and perfect divinity. Jesus is not living out discrete principles that can be abstracted from the ineffable and transcendent "personality" and being of God. The incarnation does not "reveal God" in the sense of showing God doing human-ness properly and then just say, "OK. Now just do that." The incarnation reveals within the context of a fully human life that God is Other and that humanity needs the right sort of relationship with the living and transcendent God to have life and to live human life well. And that relationship is not purely or even primarily about what we do "practically" (although it has "practical" results). The focus and purpose of that relationship is God -- our purpose is to satisfy our desire for God, to attain fellowship with God, to be renewed in God's image. Because in the end, that is what it means to "do human life well". It will result in better decision making and some nice practical results. But those are the natural by-product of being in harmony with God's will by being in thrall to the transcendent God.

5) I can't describe these practical things or how my decision-making will be helped, exactly, by this relationship with God. I don't know. I don't really care. The thing that makes faith count as "faith" is that it is not knowledge. It has no objective or empirical predictive power. You don't go through all the proofs and make a 5-year projection and develop a criteria for judging your progress and then decide to submit to God, if it seems like a good deal with some practical benefits that appear beneficial to your "before-submitting-to-God" perspective. You simply submit to God.

6) Faith is the core of Christianity, faith as a set of assertions about who God is and who Jesus was/is and how the universe stands in relationship to God and how God revealed God's self to the universe. (CT 32 preview: this is fides quae creditur -- the faith which is believed). But faith is also at the same time the activity of casting onself in full surrender by the grace of God upon the mercy of that mysterious and ultimately incomprehensible God, faith as an existential leap into those assertions, expecting there to be something real behind them to catch you (fides qua creditur -- the faith by which one believes).

7) Therefore, nothing about Christianity is provable, demonstrable or adequatedly described in terms that are tangible, practical, or accessible to human beings outside of faith in the God of Christianity -- which includes faith that the God who exists is really who Christianity says God is. [Note: God is much more than is or can be described, but Biblical and orthodox statements about God are still really who God is, even if they are incomplete and do not fully express the transcendent identity of God.]

8) And finally, if any claim about God made by Christianity were provable, demonstrable and fully knowable by any old person whatever, then Christianity would be logically self-contradictory (insofar as it claims belief in a transcendent and infinite God).

What I Believe and Why

I believe that God is transcendent and the creator of the world and that God is Triune and that the three persons of the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) aren't just a way of saying "God likes being in relationship" but are three distinct hypostases of the same "substance (which isn't material) which are united in their operation. I believe that the Son was begotten by the Father eternally and not created and that the Spirit proceeds from the Father eternally (and maybe from the Son, but I'm not sure about that). I believe that this Triune God is the One who revealed Himself to Moses and the Prophets. I believe that the second person of the Trinity was incarnated as a man, Jesus of Nazareth -- the God-man, theanthropos, not losing His full Divinity nor taking on less than full humanity, not acting as a conjunction of two separate subjects but as a single subject to whom can be attributed all of Jesus' actions (and passions, although His Divinity remained ontologically immutable), neither mingling these natures into a new hybrid being nor possessing a single will, but with His human will freely acting in service and deference to His Divine will. I believe he was the Messiah whom the Jews had been promised. I believe he was killed and truly died and that he rose from death, bodily and fully, and appeared to his disciples. I believe that he ascended into heaven and dwells with the Godhead in its fullness and that he will come again to judge the living and the dead and that all those who trust in Him (that is, in Him Himself and in the transcendent God whom He revealed when He was incarnate, not in some ethic or idea that He represented by His life) will be resurrected bodily to an incorruptible and everlasting life.

I believe in a lot of other stuff the Church says. And in things the Bible says. I have gone through this in detail because I'm attempting to be as precise as possible, although certainly much of it will sound "abstract".

But the question really is "why?" -- So I have come up with what I imagine are the questions which would be posed by the experiential/empirical epistemology and how I would answer them. I include this here in the form of a Platonic dialogue. Once a classicist, always a classicist.

How do I know to trust the Church and its dogma? -- Because I trust the God who shows up in the Church and in orthodox dogma.
How do I know they aren't wrong? -- I don't. I believe that they aren't wrong.
But couldn't I be wrong about that? -- I can't prove I'm not wrong, but I am sure that I'm not.
So what makes me sure that I'm not? -- Because God has shown up in my life within those very doctrines of the faith.
How do I know it's God? What's the epistemological criterion? -- Because the beauty of the God that showed up in the creeds brought me to my knees and enslaved my heart and because I long for him with greater passion than I have ever known.
Beauty? That's the epistemological criterion? -- Not quite: Truth. That's the criterion. It just so happens that Truth is soul-compellingly beautiful.
So how does one know if one has found soul-compelling beauty? -- Easy: one's soul is compelled.
So any time anyone feels some soul-compelling beauty, are they right? Have they found Truth? -- Not necessarily. I don't know if anyone else has actually experienced the soul-compelling beauty of truth just because they claim to have experienced it. But if they claim to have experienced this and proclaim what the Church proclaims, then I believe they are right.
But then we're right back to the Church again! -- Seems so, doesn't it?
So let's say my soul feels compelled. What does the soul-compelling beauty of God look like as opposed to some counterfeit soul-compelling beauty? -- It looks like the Triune God that the Church proclaims.
But what does that look like? -- Like nothing else. What does chocolate taste like? It just tastes like chocolate, doesn't it? No one who has tasted chocolate ever asks a question like that.
But where's the perceptible difference that it makes in a person's life to know this abstract dogma-God? How does it affect, say, decision making? -- One now tries to make decisions out of an ardent and awestruck devotion to the utter beauty of the Goodness of God's being.
And what do these decisions look like? -- Why do you want to know? To judge whether the effects are to your liking? On what basis do you judge the effects to be good or bad? If it's on the basis of your passionate relationship with the God proclaimed by the Church, then why ask the question? And if there's another basis you're operating from, how do you know it is true? Or do you want a laundry list of things to do, principles to follow to avoid the whole business of submission and surrender to a God who wants to transform you in relationship? You want to make sure it's really God first? You can't. You want to make sure that the Church is right before you trust them? You can't.

I tried to do this for years. I was hip with post-modern epistemology. I went to college and got all my critical analysis skills trained up really well. I started looking at people like Gandhi and the "Buddha" and thought they were doing it right. And I wanted to believe God was universally accessible to anyone and everyone because that seemed to me to be the right thing for God to do. As a Quaker, my eschatology was basically a world without violence where everyone lived in harmony with one another and with the environment and just incarnated principles of love and honesty and simplicity and non-objectification of one another. That was something worth hoping for, dying for, praying for, living for and into.

Except that eventually, the utopia got really stale. It was like vitamin-water eschatology -- presumably good for you but practically flavorless. It was an anemic, insipid, lifeless and unlivable eschatology. I couldn't figure out what was wrong. Everything was great. Who's going to argue with universal love among human beings? What was I finding wrong? -- There was no God there. Sure, there was "that of God in everyone" and there was the Spirit moving in the special Spirit way (which in my experience felt a lot like a hybrid of Marianne Williamson, Jiminy Cricket, and a glass of brandy that gave people things to share with the meeting like "When you love other people, that's heaven; but when you're trapped in yourself and armed against other people, that's hell" or "I don't know what God is -- but God is like electricity: I flip the switch, and God is there" or "Love means never having to say you're sorry" which the Spirit evidently also inspired when Erich Segal penned Love Story)

What makes the difference between what I expect now and what I expected then? -- A transcendent God. Sure, I think the eschaton will include lots of harmony between people and creation. Sure, I think we'll all love each other. And yes, it's good to be nonviolent now and to work for those who are poor, outcast, hungry and oppressed. But the key is: while that is good, it's not of primary importance. God is what is matters; it's only through God that the rest of it matters to the extent that it does. And God's not a laundry-list of pragmatic concerns. God has a unified and ultimately ineffable nature which we can only hint at through abstract language. God's being is the source of God's will. And while we follow what we know to be God's will through the Church and the Scripture, we still need to do the "work" of showing up for grace -- of yearning to be transformed into the likeness of God, of contemplating and adoring that God. As that happens, we become more likely to make the sort of decisions that are in accord with God's will because we have internalized God's word and because God (not us) has transformed our hearts and minds.

And the other key difference between the robust and theologically driven eschatology I have now and the one I was promised by Quakers and the generically "spiritual" and by non-orthodox liberal Protestants and "social justice Christians" is that God's not boring. If the end-goal were simply us incarnating perfectly this whole Jesus principle of love and equality in God and "power through humility" or "victory through loss" or whatever and petting animals and eating lots of fruit and nut roasts, it would just be stale. It's barely a step up from playing harps on clouds with halos. (Or a step down -- I rather like the harp). Why I really care about a transcendent God who is beyond human comprehension is that the endeavor to know such a God is a source of infinite delight.

That's the reason that I have named my blog "epectasy". And my life has been like that: God is heart-rendingly, breath-takingly beautiful. The Trinity is beautiful -- not the mere "idea" of Trinity, but the God who comes and inhabits the idea when you contemplate it. It leaves me with my heart trying to burst from my chest and tears in my eyes and a desperate longing for more -- to know more fully, to look longer. And yet, it's not a cranky desperate longing, like an addict who needs a fix. It's a desire born of lack that stands in the midst of utter bliss.

I'm not pretending to be perfectly transformed and oh-so-spiritually mature now. I grew up very much in the church and have considered myself a Christian since I was 5 years old. There was a only short period of about 3 years where I wasn't actively involved in seeking God. I was never complacent and uncritical within my faith; I did a lot of theological thinking from the time I was 4. Still, I'm a total neophyte. My time wasn't totally wasted before, but I haven't been squarely on the right path until now (it was a graced path, but it had some potholes). And there is an eternity stretched out ahead of me in which I will never come to the end of knowing God, never come to the end of the process of being perfected. So, given all this, is there any reason that anyone can give me that would be compelling enough for me to hold off on seeking the face of God until I can come up with some "empirical evidence" that pertains to the "practical world" of decision making and -- I don't know -- dirt and machines and flow charts and whatever else is presumably inhabting this strange world that is so much more "practical" than mine?


  1. You're attacking a position pretty wide from where I am. It's a position held by a lot of people, so it's probably good to put it out there and understand where you're at and what your responses are. But although it's held by a lot of people, I'm not one of them.

    I'm right there with you for the transcendent God who even transcends the human system of thought we call rationality. I'm right there with you in saying that God is inaccessible to empirical analysis. I'm right there with you on "Jesus is God" requiring a leap of faith, and on the anemic spirituality of superficial religiosity. I'm right there with you in that God calls us into obedience, and obedience doesn't make a lot of sense: I gave up an extremely lucrative and promising career as an IT consultant to become a divinity school student, and then came to Duke and left the PC(USA) instead of attending the better-funded Princeton and leading on a denomination for their support (as *they* encouraged me to do!). So trust me, I'm with you when it comes to God.

    A full account of my epistemology as it stands is going to happen over on my blog, since it's tangential to the issue at hand. But on the key issues you lay out above, I'm pretty much with you.

    But you keep engaging with someone else: someone who's not me. Aside from asking if Ghandi is in any way on the same spiritual wavelength as a Christian (which itself was tangential), the questions I've been asking aren't about God. They aren't about epistemology in particular.

    The questions I am asking are practical questions, ones you will have to answer one way or another. Sooner or later, you're going to have done a spiritual practice, and it's going to come down to deciding if you're going to continue, to adjust it slightly, to try another one, or to abandon the enterprise all together. And you have no choice but to make a decision: sooner or later, you'll be in the future, and future-you will have to take a path of action or inaction, and so the decision must be made.

    I'm just asking how you're going to make that decision. And any answer is fine. "I'll pray on it" is fine. "I'll trust in my spiritual mentor to let me know, and I'll trust that even though they're fallible, God will work it for the good" is fine. Even "I'll cross that bridge when I get there" is fine (if a bit of a non-answer). Sooner or later, whether you like it or not, the practical decision will have to be made.

    Sooner or later, whether you like it or not, you'll have to take some evidence from your life and use it to judge this tool by which you are trying to open yourself to God's leadings. The evidence could be as simple as "My orthodox-compliant church superior said to keep going.", but that's still evidence from your lived experience, and it's still the means of judgement.

  2. Let me de-hedge just a little bit. Some things are not fine. "If it's life-giving." is not fine unless you have some way to express what "life-giving" means and how to decide what is and is not. (Remember, you will have to decide.) That means of deciding can be purely subjective ("I feel like it's life-giving."), but you have to have some kind of means of deciding.

  3. Don't I just feel sheepish. Well, I'm very glad to learn that we have some common ground -- and I'm sorry that I seem to have misread all your previous comments on this blog, on facebook, and in conversation so very thoroughly. Seems like a total "sympathetic reading" fail on my part.... [*facepalm*]

    I do look forward to the summary of your epistemology that you've promised on your blog. Please, for my sake, include somewhere in there an explanation of what you mean when you say that you're not "a big fan of orthodoxy" because I still can't get past what looks to me like a pretty huge contradiction between that and you saying that and saying that you and I "are in agreement more than not." And since we're in agreement, I can only hope you don't keep finding so many things in my thought and spiritual life in need of correction. But I am, as you seem to have discerned, rather stupid sometimes. And I totally have no head for practical things. So I am grateful that I have friends like you to help me out when I'm less than rigorous in my thought and fail to consider these vital questions of retroactive analysis at the outset or when I just totally fail to notice when people believe almost the same exact thing I do!

  4. You two should really talk about this in person...probably over a beer.

  5. This is probably more of a multi-beer conversation. For many reasons, not least of all is how LENGTHYYYY it seems to get!

  6. Well come on over some evening then. : )