Post Note: Below was originally available in the public archives of the now defunct faithmaps discussion group. I’ve just discovered that those archives are no longer publicly available. Accordingly, i’ve reposted it below here.
It was originally posted with permission from Brian.
Here is the conversation between Brian and myself ab epistemology. For those
of you who don’t know, Brian McLaren was my pastor for 13 years.
Interaction on Epistemology and Christian Faith
[I had sent Brian McLaren a copy of a note I had written to Rodney Clapp
prompted by his
How Firm a Foundation: Can Evangelicals be NonFoundationalists?
Thursday 31 May 2001 Note from Brian McLaren
Stephen — isn’t that a great article? I first read it in “The Nature of
Confession.” I don’t have another email address for Rodney Clapp. I wish I
did…. maybe I can find one. I think he still works for IVP.
I am intrigued by your question to him, though. I wonder if you are
confusing “absolute truth” with “absolute certainty” in your thinking? Do
you really mean that you are holding on to the concept of absolute
I don’t think you possibly could mean that … the Bible itself says “we
know in part” (I Cor. 13), right?…. Maybe I’m misreading you? (Gosh …
maybe you follow [a well-known pastor], that “that which is perfect” in I
Cor 13 is the Bible, so having the Bible means that we no longer know in
part??? No, I don’t think so…. Otherwise, why would we be asking these
questions if we already know as we are known?)
So, as soon as you admit that all certainty is relative for us creatures
(i.e. there is more or less of it), then in a way, you have greater freedom
to say, “Yes, there is absolute truth, i.e. truth as God knows it, but for
all us finite creatures, our understanding and confidence about that truth
is in part, limited, relative to our finite perspectives,” etc. It almost
feels (in what you write Rodney) that you are assuming that receiving divine
revelation makes one divine. Do you see what I’m saying? (Of course, a lot
of us preachers maybe believe this, unconsciously!!!) In other words, maybe
you’re assuming that when God gives revelation, he also gives proper
interpretation of it, plus complete psychological certainty regarding that
interpretation to know it is correct. That would be nice (maybe …
although it would also mean that God turns us into robots by
mind-control) — but it doesn’t seem to match with either real-life
experience, or Biblical history!
By the way, Kurt Erhardt’s [Kurt is a pastor and mutual friend of mine and
Brian’s who is working on his Ph.D. in epistemology] mentor, Susan Haack,
has a great term for less-than-certain knowledge in this “chastened
epistemology”: she says our best knowledge is “truth-indicative” — i.e. it
indicates a high likelihood of substantial truth … She has a great quote
from Wm James’ “The Will to Believe,” — “When we give up the doctrine of
objective certitude, we do not thereby give up the quest or hope of truth
itself.” (p.203) I like the way she thus avoids the Scylla of postmodern
despair regarding truth, and the Charybis of modern over-confidence. (By
the way, in the Odyssey, as I recall, even Odysseus couldn’t get between
them without casualties….)
Anyway, Stephen, it’s great to see how active your thinking is! You are a
constant encouragement to me in this regard. You illustrate “the quest and
hope of truth,” as Wm. James says. I am as certain as I am of anything that
God is pleased by that quest and hope!!! — Brian
On Friday 1 June 2001 I responded with
A very good distinction you’re making, very helpful to me, and I largely
concur with two caveats.
1 – My certainty that “God so loved the world that he gave His only Son….”
is as close to absolute as I can get. Can I say my certainty asymptotically
(If you’re not familar with asymptotes, from Websters:
a straight line associated with a curve such that as a point moves along an
infinite branch of the curve the distance from the point to the line
approaches zero and the slope of the curve at the point approaches the slope
of the line. See for a picture of
I am much, much more certain of that than I am of, say, the Calvinistic
doctrine of Perseverance or my belief in believers baptism. So this
category is not a very large one compared to the set of things I believe
2 – But my certainty of God’s love is – as I said – pretty nearly complete.
Here’s why: it’s based on a radical trust in someone else. Now, this kind
of trust is not exactly foundationalist (and please help me along this line
of thought with your response if you think I’m on the right track). And in
Because of my knowledge of you as a person – more than the sum of
information that I have of you – but because of my *trust* in you – I am
similarly asymptotically certain that you will not stand up on Sunday and
say, “People, you aren’t going to believe this: Stephen Shields in an
e-mail this week showed a lack of clarity between the existence of absolute
truth and the perception of absolute truth. He simply shows himself *not*
to be the epistemologist that you might have thought he was. Please take
all his philosophical comments with a grain of salt, and I’d encourage you
over your meals today to discuss this critical distinction.” My certainty
of this is not based entirely on empirical evidence. That is there, but the
bridge to asymptotic certainty is my *trust* of your character. I’m
thinking of one of Clapp’s subtitles (or maybe Rob put it in)…something
like “The False Choice between Objective and Subjective Knowledge.” In
other words, maybe our certainty of God can only be achieved when we trust
Him. This makes our knowledge transcend the anthropocentric foundationalism
that began with Descartes as it now achieves personal knowledge (I haven’t
read Polanyi’s book yet of that same title, but I wonder if that is what
he’s talking about too).
Maybe that is why we are spinning so much in the sand on this
epistemological thing. We are trying to discuss it outside of the context
of a personal relationship with the Divine which is a crucial component.
What do you think?
On Friday 1 June Brian responded with:
YES! YES! Exactly … I agree 100%.
But Stephen, when you say the whole thing is based on personal trust or (to
use less foundationalist terms) revolves around trust or flows from trust
…then you are OUT of the Enlightenment certainty game altogether.
The absolute certainty “they” are talking about can NEVER involve trust. It
must involve rationality working in a closed system. So, for you to say
that you’re trying to defend or preserve certainty, and you are doing so by
resorting to trust in God … then you (in the rationalists’ definition —
and they’re the ones framing the argument) aren’t even in the ballpark
Now, for you, rational certainty isn’t even the foundation any more … the
foundation (if we want to use this language) has shifted to a personal faith
relationship. That’s Christian … and when you go there, why even talk
about “objective truth” or “absolute certainty” or “foundationalism” or
anything of the sort, because within our story, in our framework, built on
our foundation (if you will) of personal relationship, that language is
foreign. Our story works just fine (did for thousands of years!) without
their language and categories. And our language is foreign to their system
too. It’s like bringing in terms like melody and harmony and tone to a
discussion of mathematics.
I think your inability to separate the two languages shows how you (like all
of us) have been thoroughly trained as if the two were one. Same with me.
I remember when I first began to realize that enlightenment rationalism and
the gospel were not only not the same thing, but where two different stories
and here’s what hit me at that point (I don’t know if this will help you at
all, but it really helped me):
There IS no epistemological solution to the problem of nontheistic
rationalism. There is no “neutral ground” where you can try to achieve
certainty APART FROM A NARRATIVE. And that’s when I realized that to try to
prove certainty apart from our narrative is actually a kind of betrayal of
our narrative, as if our narrative needed to be buttressed by “their”
language to be credible. The fact is, without our narrative, their whole
system starts to disintegrate. (Francis Schaeffer used to talk about this.
He called it “cheating” — that naturalists/rationalists “steal” meaning and
morality from our gospel to try to keep their system functional.)
Anyway, I don’t know if this is making any sense. For me, this line of
thought pushes me to realize that narratives are far more profound than
propositions, because without the narrative to give context, the
propositions are just kind of floating and up for grabs and up for anyone’s
But here’s the rub … narratives can only be grasped by a rational process
that includes faith.
So, faith (which is wrapped up with personal trust and a sense of a story,
narrative) is more “fundamental” than knowledge (i.e. propositions which can
be rationally debated). This is what Polanyi and others have been saying.
And, of course, so has the Bible HTH — Brian
End of EMail Exchange
Where I am today:
This exchange was helpful to me. I still talk about objective truth and
certainty and believe that they are valid categories when defined
theocentrically. I would say that Brian’s emphasis on narrative would be
subsumed under what we’ve discussed here as transpropositionality.
Anyway, perhaps this will be helpful to some.
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