Prolegomena to Theology

 

Egocentric Predicament

One thing theologians debate is where to begin a discussion of theology.

God is the best answer and the one most often given.

But unfortunately, we have also become acutely aware of ourselves as knowers these last two hundred years or so. The post-modern situation has fomented this problem to a crisis.

So it seems that before we can begin our discussion of God, we must clear the air about prolegomena, things that should be said before beginning.

I am stuck in my head. I do not see the world as it is. I see the world as it appears to me. I filter it through the "dictionary" in my head that defines so much more than words.

Mary Douglas once said that "Dirt is matter out of place." It's true. I draw lines around my world and categorize things into boxes. I am not able to hold all the data of the world together as individual data in all its relationships to all other data. I have to schematize and categorize.

In early 97 when I was in Sierra Leone, I found myself witnessing on an afternoon with some nationals. I remember a moment of puzzlement when in the middle of a collection of houses, I suddenly found a hut. This was in the middle of a city, Freetown. House, house, hut, house. It was as if I were suddenly up country in a "primitive" village.

As we approached the hut, two girls returned from school. They both had uniforms on, like you would wear to a parochial school. I watched these girls stoop and enter the hut.

It was just weird to me. I couldn't put my finger on why but my surreal alarms were going off.

In retrospect, I believe what was wierd about this moment was the fact that my paradigms were in conflict. My brain was searching its files for the right category and it came up wanting. My paradigm of the city and of civilization was in conflict with my paradigm of the "primitive" and African village.

Clearly this was not a conflictual matter for any of these individuals.

Now I believe reality exists. I believe this by faith because I don't think I can absolutely prove anything other than "I think therefore I am" (or to be even more accurate, "thought" exists). In the evidentiary sense, therefore, I believe the world is real because this concept "works." I am, therefore, a pragmatic realist.

I evaluate the schemas that I bring to bear on the world on the basis of their use and ability to account for the data and to predict events. I believe the chair I sit on exists because my memory tells me that the things I call chairs have worked almost every time I've sat down (unless someone has pulled it back while I wasn't looking or unless I sat askance on it and fell off).

Therefore, from an evidentiary standpoint, I evaluate truth vs. falsity on the basis of 1. how well the truth proposal accounts for the data I have and 2. its ability to predict events or how well it corresponds to analogous events.

I must acknowledge, however, that I am stuck in my head. While I believe by faith that reality exists and that my mental schemas can correspond effectively to the world, my schemas are not absolute. They are "myths" I use to express the world, which must ultimately be consigned to mystery. These myths work and the better they are, the more precisely they predict events.

So I think the equation for distance in physics is distance equals velocity multiplied by time. Actually, that's a bad example. This equation is true by definition. If velocity is distance in relation to time, then by definition the time multiplied by the velocity yields distance.

This serendipidously leads me to a very important aside. There are a number of axioms about reality that I cannot prove but must assume to think logically. They are things like "any number times one equals that number." We should consider in a later entry whether the foundational nature of logic and number is a proof for the existence of God.

Anyway, by and large my schemas are exactly that, paradigms and mechanisms by which I process the world. I believe these can be better and worse. But ultimately they are more about me than about the world.

This is the starting point for discussing any "knowledge." I take a pragmatic realist position first: the greatest criterion for truth is whether that truth "works." Beyond that I affirm by faith a kind of "critical realist" position. I believe by faith that the world outside myself exists. I believe that my schemas of the world can adequately predict and explain the world, although they are ultimately functions of my head and not the actual reality of the world itself. The actual reality of the world must remain a mystery to me. And as Wittgenstein said, "Whereof one cannot speak, one must be silent."

 

Faith Seeking Understanding

A second matter of prolegomena is a question of approach. Do we presume Christian faith and work to substantiate it? Do we allow for modification or deconstruction of our starting point? If so, to what degree? If we start from a particular Christian faith stance, which one? Or should we start completely from scratch and see if the evidence demands the verdict of faith?

I think for a Christian, the most appropriate place to begin is with faith. If we start from scratch, it is not at all clear that we will reach orthodox faith, since much of what Christians believe may be the result of what is called "special" rather than "natural" revelation. If some of Christian faith would not be known apart from God's special introduction of it into history, then starting from reason alone would not get us to complete truth.

On the other hand, there is enough diversity of Christian belief and change in Christian belief over time that we should probably keep the core faith with which we start relatively small. Basic orthodoxy as it has been believed by the Christians of the centuries provides us with an appropriate starting content of faith. Let's basically start with the Apostle's Creed.

The Bible is also of central importance. But we must remember as we use the Bible that its authoritative meaning has as often as not been a "spiritual" meaning rather than a historical-critical/literal one. Such non-contextual interpretations often disagree with one another, calling for great caution in the use of them. Jesus and Paul both model a certain looseness in relation to the original meanings. These are all important cautions to keep in mind.

To me, the Christian God is a God of truth. "All truth is God's truth." On the one hand, it is true that the evidence does not always lead us to the truth in some matters. Evidence is almost always partial, and we are ultimately stuck in our heads with at least partially skewed perspectives.

Nevertheless, I start out with a bias against the notion that God is a trickster. I do not think He has completely stacked the deck against reason and the evidence. Surely the evidence we have does not point in a dimetrically opposite direction from the truth. Surely it usually will point us in the direction of truth.

My initial bias is thus that it makes sense to believe in God and Christ on the basis of the evidence. While I do not expect the opposite conclusion, I would have to consider a fideist or blind, irrational faith position if we were to reach such a juncture.

Let us begin our quest then in the next entry. Presuming that the Christian God exists, what are His attributes? Is belief in Him reasonable?