Monday, April 20, 2009

Christianity As A Knowledge Tradition

Christianity as a Knowledge Tradition
by J.P. Moreland

Our society exalts science as the one true way to knowledge. But when science is the only way to know anything, it causes people to turn to emotion and the satisfaction of desire for happiness. This, however, leads to a narcissistic empty self. Dr. Moreland explains.

Summing It Up
In the first two installments of this series, I have sought to establish two main themes:
A worldview functions as a set of habit-forming beliefs — these beliefs cause us to notice or fail to notice various features of reality. Habit-forming beliefs do not stand between a person and reality like glasses do. Rather, they habitualize ways of seeing and thinking. Through effort, these beliefs can be changed or retained when compared with reality.

Given naturalism and postmodernism as the two worldviews competing with Christianity in the marketplace of ideas, the central, defining feature of our secular culture is this: There is no non-empirical knowledge, especially no theological or ethical knowledge. Science — and science alone — carries authority in our culture. Knowledge grants authority, and only science is perceived to possess knowledge.

In this article, I want to show how important it is to take Christian teaching as a source of knowledge of reality. And in my next article, I will explain more fully just what knowledge is and show how grasping its nature makes it more obvious that Christian teaching is, indeed, such a source.

I want to show how important it is to take Christian teaching as a source of knowledge of reality.
Secularism as a View About Knowledge

It can hardly be overemphasized that the primary characteristic of modern secularism is its view of the nature and limits of knowledge. This particular idea is critical, for in our culture, knowledge gives one power. We give surgeons, and not carpenters, the right to cut us open precisely because surgeons have the relevant knowledge not possessed by carpenters. Those with the culture-granted say-so — those who determine who has knowledge and who doesn't — will be in a position to marginalize and silence groups judged to have only belief and private opinion.

There simply is no established, widely recognized body of ethical or religious knowledge now operative in the institutions of knowledge in our culture (e.g. the universities and schools.) Indeed, ethical and religious claims are frequently placed into what Francis Schaeffer used to call the upper story — a privatized realm of non-factual beliefs whose sole value is that they are "meaningful" only to the believer. These beliefs are judged to have little or no intellectual authority, especially compared to the authority given science to define the limits of knowledge and reality in those same institutions.

This raises a pressing question: Is Christianity a knowledge tradition or merely a faith tradition?
Is Christianity a knowledge tradition or merely a faith tradition?

Those who believe knowledge is limited to science would posit that Christianity is merely a faith tradition — it cannot be known to be true, and therefore, must be considered weaker than knowledge. But how should the Christian view and answer this question?

Secularism and the Marginalization of Christian Claims
At least two reasons suggest why this may well be the crucial question for Christians to keep in mind as they live out their discipleship in the contemporary setting. For one thing, Christianity claims to be a knowledge tradition and it places knowledge, not merely truth, at the center of proclamation and discipleship. The Old and New Testaments, including the teachings of Jesus, claim not merely that Christianity is true, but that a variety of its moral and religious assertions can be known to be true (Luke 1:4, John 10:4, Romans 1:19).

Second, as I mentioned above, knowledge provides the basis of responsible action in society. Dentists, not lawyers, have the authority to fill our cavities because they have the relevant knowledge — we trust that they'll treat our teeth responsibly. If Christians do little to deflect the view that theological and ethical assertions are merely parts of tradition, then they inadvertently contribute to the marginalization of Christianity. They do so precisely because they fail to rebut the contemporary tendency to rob it of the very thing that gives it the authority necessary to prevent that marginalization — its legitimate claim to give us moral and religious knowledge. That's why I believe the following statement is so important:
Both in and out of the church, Jesus has been lost as an intellectual authority and Christians should carry out their discipleship in light of this fact. We have a duty to present Jesus Christ and the Word of God as a source not only of salvation and meaning, but also of authoritative knowledge about all areas of which Jesus and His Word speak.

The Absolutization of Desire and the Empty Self
The pervasive claim that truth, knowledge and rationality do not exist outside the hard sciences has left people without hope that true, knowable forms of wisdom can be discovered as guides to a flourishing life. As a result, people have turned to emotion and the satisfaction of desire as the decisive factors in adopting a worldview. In turn, this affective approach to life, now embodied in art and culture generally, has created the conditions for the emergence of a new personality type that psychologists claim is present in epidemic proportions in American society. Never before in the history of Western culture has this personality type been seen so pervasively and profoundly; indeed, it is a post-60s phenomenon. It is called the empty self.1

The empty self is narcissistic, inordinately individualistic, self-absorbed, infantile, passive and motivated by instant gratification. It experiences a loss of personal significance and worth, as well as a chronic emotional hunger and emptiness. People with the empty self personality satiate themselves with consumer goods, calories, experiences, politicians, romantic partners, and empathetic therapists.

People with the empty self personality satiate themselves with consumer goods, calories, experiences, politicians, romantic partners, and empathetic therapists.

The empty self does not value learning for its own sake, is unwilling to defer gratification under the demands of discipline, and prefers visual stimulation to abstract thought. Applied to education, a classroom of empty selves will reinforce a view of education in which learning exists to make the student happy, to satisfy his/her emotional hunger, and to fulfill his/her own plans for success.

Moreover, with the idea that no truth, knowledge or reason exists outside the hard sciences, secularism has contributed to the absolutization of satisfaction. Secularization says we can't know absolute truth outside of science, so people have given up on seeking non-scientific truth and, instead live for desire satisfaction.
With truth and reason dethroned as guides for life, something had to take its place. And the heir to the throne is the satisfying of one's desires. Secularism helps to prop up this value in the culture not only by denying truth and reason in matter of worldview, but also with its promulgation of a naïve and destructive notion of tolerance.

Finally, with the secular relativization of truth, knowledge and reason outside the hard sciences, a growing loss of hope for objective meaning in life emerges in the face of a cold, mechanistic universe. The only relief (outside of Christianity) consists of temporary flirtations with postmodernist irrationality. An example of this would be the idea that anyone's view of God or morality is just as "valid" as anyone else's and we should not judge that some religious or moral views are wrong and destructive.

[Consider] … the view now held by most physicists, namely that the sun with all the planets will in time grow too cold for life, unless indeed some great body dashes into the sun and thus give it fresh life. … Believing as I do that man in the distant future will be a far more perfect creature than he now is, it is an intolerable thought that he and all other sentient beings are doomed to complete annihilation after such long-continued slow progress.2

Hardly a robust word in a world where people need real, sensible hope and objective, knowable meaning to cope with suffering. Absent of any religious and moral knowledge, the culture is mired in stagnating trivialities. Its collective view of the meaning of life doesn't rise much higher than the slogan I recently saw in a Valvoline commercial: "You're born, you die; in between, you work on cars."

Until Next Time
This situation has contributed to a deep societal hunger for spirituality. Unfortunately, without the rails of biblical truth, our nation of empty selves consumes contemporary "spirituality"; the unbridled satisfaction of our desires becomes our only guide. For example, I believe the current preoccupation with promiscuous sex is a symptom of the failure of this sort of "spirituality" to address the human condition.

What do you think of Dr. Moreland's proposition about secularized truth and knowledge leading to a loss of hope for meaning in life?.Join the discussion!
The possession of knowledge — especially religious and moral knowledge — is essential for a life of flourishing. The question remains: What exactly is knowledge and what does it mean to say Christian teaching provides it? We'll examine this question in the next installment.
See chapters 1 and 5 of my book, Kingdom Triangle (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007) for more information and sources about the empty self. Back^
Cited in The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, ed. by Nora Barlow (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1959), p. 92. Back^
About the authorJ.P. Moreland is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology and director of Eidos Christian Center. He has contributed to over 40 books, including Love Your God With All Your Mind (NavPress), and over 60 journal articles. Dr. Moreland also co-authored the 2006 release, The Lost Virtue of Happiness: Discovering the Disciplines of the Good Life (NavPress, 2006).
© 2007 J.P. Moreland. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.Back to top

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