snubnosed in alpha

Christian reflections on the way the world is and ways the world might be

Monday, October 09, 2006

C.S. Lewis on Worldview, Questions, and Evidence

“It is not impossible that our own Model [worldview] will die a violent death, ruthlessly smashed by an unprovoked assault of new facts—unprovoked as the nova of 1572. But I think it is more likely to change when, and because, far-reaching changes in the mental temper of our descendants demand that it should. The new Model will not be set up without evidence, but the evidence will turn up when the inner need for it becomes sufficiently great. It will be true evidence. But nature gives most of her evidence in answer to the questions we ask her. Here, as in the courts, the character of the evidence depends on the shape of the examination, and a good cross-examiner can do wonders. He will not indeed elicit falsehoods from an honest witness. But, in relation to the total truth in the witness’s mind, the structure of the examination is like a stencil. It determines how much of that total truth will appear and what pattern it will suggest.”
-C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image, pp.222-223
Presuppositions beg certain questions, and sometimes the questions, once they’ve been pursued, turn up new evidence, true evidence. Once the evidence is turned up, you may criticize the presuppositions, you may even reframe the questions, but the evidence is revealed and will not simply go away. Evangelical engagement with biblical criticism has always attacked the often naturalistic presuppositions of the critics. And it may be true that the questions the critics have asked were raised on account of “far-reaching changes in the mental temper” of their and our generations, on account of shifts in presuppositions and assumptions. The presuppositions and assumptions may even turn out to be false. But the true evidence turned up in the pursuit of questions raised by those presuppositions becomes part of the common stock of human knowledge and must now be dealt with by anyone claiming intellectual integrity, whether they share the presuppositions that first led to the unearthing of the evidence or not.
It is not unlike the cross examiner in a movie who asks a question not strictly admissible in court. The flustered witness answers revealing a surprising detail on which the whole case turns. The judge may ask the jury to strike that testimony from their minds, but could the honest juror really forget the powerful evidence once it has been revealed simply because the cross-examiner proceeded improperly?
Attacking the critics’ presuppositions does not put the papyri back into the sand. Whether we like it or not the Oyrhynchus papyri, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Ebla Tablets and the like exist. It is not as though critical scholarship deduced them into being out of rationalistic assumptions. What’s more, these evidences come more and more into the public eye. Undergraduates study them in their religious studies classes. TV watchers hear about them on the History Channel, National Geographic and Peter Jennings documentaries. Casual readers can pick them up in $12 paperbacks in Barnes & Noble’s. The manifold connections and resemblances between such literature, artifacts and discoveries and the Scriptures are increasingly well documented and well publicized. To simply ignore them as though they had never come to light is to engage in a sort of perverse nostalgia that not only longs for “the good ol’ days” (whatever period one might see as “the good ol’ days”) but also pretends as though they were still here. It is to callously hurry past people languishing in darkness and doubt in the present in order to selfishly retreat into the imagined security of a private fantasy world that is all too often a tendentious caricature of the past one seeks to recapitulate.
Beloved, let us not continue rehearsing the same tired mantra of pointing out that much of critical scholarship has been conducted on the basis of false, naturalistic presuppositions as though that relieved us of the responsibility to engage with the facts. False presuppositions or not, critical scholarship, philological research and modern archaeology have turned up true evidence that intellectually responsible evangelical and Reformed Christians must consistently and honestly grapple with. In grappling with the evidence, our image of God may get shattered. But if all truth is God’s truth, it may be God Himself who shatters it. “He is the great iconoclast.”


Blogger Joel said...

Though not without problems of their own, the polemic of guys like Heidegger and Marion against "onto-theology" bears upon these issues, particularly the way in which they suggest that our images of God can turn out to be idols of our creation.

This can happen when God is pressed into service to fulfill and legitimate the horizons of our own expectations and desires. While this can happen on a grand scale (e.g., where God comes to underwrite the project of Enlightenment and modernity), it also so often happens when we bring our demands concerning what God must be like, how he must act, and so forth, where those demands are not integrally shaped by God's own self-manifestation in Christ and through his Word. This sort of phenomena crops up not simply in a philosophically critical appraisal, but also in counseling and all sorts of spiritual formation. The human heart is an idol factory, as Calvin notes.

I suspect something like this is likewise the case when we bring our own conditioned and historically contingent expectations to the text of Scripture as to what that text must be and how it must function and what its history and authorship must be like in order for it to place demands upon us as "authoritative" or "inerrant" or the like.

But isn't this simply onto-theology under another guise? After all, if the text is authoritative, mustn't we permit our horizons to be questioned, put in abeyance, and reconfigured by the text itself?

12:34 PM  
Blogger snubnosed in alpha said...

I second that emotion. I've been reading up lately on the development of American evangelical and fundamentalist understandings of the Bible and the philosophical underpinnings thereof. I'm majoring on the ways evangelicals have engaged with emerging discoveries about the Scriptures' context, transmission, and so on. Basically I'm trying to dig up the historical roots of what Pete Enns calls "selective engagement."
It seems like when you see evangelicals selectively engaging with these sorts of data it is generally because they harbor certain assumptions about how the Bible must function if it is the Word of God. Generally these assumptions are informed by what Michael Cavanaugh calls an "empiricist folk epistemology," a sort of "common sense" realism infused with a sort of naïve positivism and/or empiricism. Basically, we are culturally conditioned to think of Truth as being expressible only Baconian terms and literary genres not really conducive to that sort of thing are seen as second-rate. That's a gross oversimplification but I think it somewhat describes the common evangelical/fundamentalist/average-american outlook on things. Basically we are a nation that has been formed by Enlightenment rationalities from our inception and it's tough to set that aside and bow the knee to texts formed in a different time, place and culture with all sorts of different ways of getting at the Truth. So we just opt to conform the text to our assumptions rather than allow the text to critique them. The result is that we must obscure all of the incriminating evidence that shows that that is what we're doing, and the next thing you know you've got selective engagement.
Thanks for the post.

10:11 PM  
Blogger ritly said...

i don't know if this is compiled somewhere already, and perhaps this is because i am trapped in my sheltered, evangelical, selectivist world, but i haven't seen much of the evidences that you feel have so shaken, or ought to be shaking, the mainstream evangelical boat. might you be able to post with a good overview of such material or refer to me to a concise source that has done so already.

5:19 PM  
Blogger snubnosed in alpha said...

I would recommend for a start Pete Enns' Inspiration and Incarnation, you know, the book I gave you for your birthday.... Some easy examples, however, would be say the Jeremiah scrolls from Qumran that I talked about in my post "Inerrancy of 'the autographs'?" and obvious post-Mosaica in the Pentateuch. Heavy dependence upon the notion of an autographic text of Scripture is fairly common amongst evangelical scholars. I could multiply examples but you'd do better just to read Enns. You could also check out these blog discussions on Enns' book from April:

6:29 PM  
Blogger snubnosed in alpha said...

Dude, BW, thanks, by the way for all the posts. You've been busy today!

6:30 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home