May God us keep, from single vision and Newton’s sleep

Well, I was overjoyed to see that my post regarding Doug’s post merited rejoinder – trijoinder, even. And I can joyfully affirm most of what he said in his joindering, but I nevertheless wish to retrijoinder. (This post has greater than three points, but I maintain triadic thought even though the numbering of my post is more creational). I would have enjoined earlier, but I was in the middle of a biosemiotics conference with some very brilliant folks making some very bad puns.

1. I’m not the first to say it, but postmodernism is nearly a useless word without qualification. It takes a good bit of time looking at the history of Western thought since Descartes to understand what postmodernism could mean. I’m about a dozen posts deep into a related endeavor over at Itchy Souls, but the more dogged investigator is better off looking at Jamie Smith or John Deely‘s explanation. The postmodernism which I believe to be useful extends even to such villains as Nietzsche, who showed that the would-be objectivists (rationalists and empiricists) are only pretending to certainty. In fact, their method only carefully hides metaphor. Metaphor is all there is; even the language of the coldest propositions is built with metaphor through the word’s etymologies. C. S. Lewis encourages us not to forget that in “Bluspells and Flalansferes.”

Clive agrees.

2. Unfortunately, I did not qualify “certainty” in my earlier post either. When I say that we do really participate in truth, that is meant to preclude the kind of hilarious attack that relativists are vulnerable to, in which any assertion of relativism can be quickly undermined on the grounds of relativism. Of course, such an attack is not necessarily a refutation on the grounds of hard relativism, but I completely agree with Doug that it is persuasive since recourse to the grounds of hard relativism results in some kind of nonsense that no one but an upper-middle class sophomore lit. major can tolerate. Truth participation rather than certainty is self-evidentially the kind of truth which indisputably exists from a common-sense perspective. From a critical common-sense perspective, we should also realize that we believe a great number of dubious things that are just unexamined deeply rooted cultural presuppositions, which have nothing to do with experiential truth.

3. I completely agree that metaphor is true and experience is true. Phenomenological experiences like clinging desperately to the grass in your yard and resisting the centrifugal force of the earth’s rotation are true (Nate). The perception of the truth of a syllogism is true. And a good poem is true. That’s the haystack Doug is speaking of – it’s made almost entirely of hay. However, I think the modernists miss this in more basic ways than the postmodernists. Descartes’ Discourse on Method is the archetype of how moderns and their unwitting progeny avoid truth. First, Descartes says he has learned a lot, but he has no way of knowing. How, he asks, can he be certain of what he has merely been taught? So he decides to be methodologically skeptical and to believe nothing that does not follow from the most certain of first principles. Aha! Says he, it is I who doubts therefore I must be here and I can start with me. This denial of a creator is far more basic than the denial of a humanistic evolutionist. But the autonomy is not the whole problem; equally pernicious is the concurrent notion of certainty.

4. The rejection of an autonomous epistemology is the part that is easy for Christians to agree on. The part of my assertion that I believe triggered a response (which I found pretty flattering – Doug can criticize me any day) was the assertion that we must give up on certainty altogether. I stick to this point with greater conviction than most things. Why? Because truth is not possible when it is given up directly as the relativists do, but it is no less impossible standing on the scaffold of analytic philosophy and its presuppositions. Standing on the ground, truth is not just possible, it is unavoidable, but to reach the ground requires dismantling the scaffold to nowhere. That dismantling is the critical part often missing in common sense realism. I know that Doug Wilson is no devotee of the physicalists or the idealists, but to deny either of them requires knowing their presuppositions and doing everything we can to purge our language of their influence. “Certainty” and “objective” are two such influences that require a good deal more care than we have taken. Think about it. “Objective truth” has become a rallying cry, but what do you mean by “objective”? If we just mean true truth, why are we tying ourselves to the isolating perspectives of the modernists by using their terms? Again, from a critical common-sense perspective, even ignoring the work of the “after-modernists,” it is clear that there must be some kind of interpretation in order for there to be objects. The alternatives are that things are shadowy instantiations of invisible forms which are the real things (gnosticism, Platonism) or that the objectness of a thing is some mechanically imparted intention of God. I have no problem saying that my idea of a chair is intended by God, but it is a silly cutting-off of the path of inquiry to pretend that there is not an enormous semiotic chain through culture and embodied experience which leads me to that simple idea.

5. The questions raised in this unexpected interaction are larger than my wisdom and larger than the space of a blog conversation, but if we cannot use words to approach truth, what can we use? I believe part of the reason many Christians cling to non-Christian philosophies of all types is that they fear engaging the world without a comforting extra-revelatory framework of certainty. But that is not the way the greatest philosopher approached the world. Jesus spoke in poetry, in riddles, lest seeing we might prematurely understand. That’s wild meaning. Yes, it includes propositions, it includes logic, but it is built up by a huge number of less comfortable and more beautiful signs.

6. All this is fabulously complex. But it’s also simple enough that we must become children. That is, some of us have a responsibility to read through the current canon in order to radically change the relevance of the past, but we are doing it in order to remove barriers to understanding. I understand Christian philosophy at this point in history to be about half delight in meaning and half kicking over the structures we have taken too seriously. When the especially deluded, those who are smart enough to get it especially wrong, are able to reject the structures of certainty, then philosophy will return to true love of wisdom, and that is something like stories, something more complex than we can imagine, something like Jesus’ riddles, something children can enjoy.

7. Now if this has been too arcane for readers not disposed to the clever concealments of philosophy, allow me to really obviously “step in it.” I mean, this is where I hope to be challenged with less polite indirectness than usual.

In my estimation, interpretation of the Bible does not proceed with anything like certainty. The medieval quadriga (roughly the kind of interpretation used through most of church history) does allow for a literal (or clearest literary) interpretation, but the apostles more often explicitly reason in the currently less reputable modes. To take an example from Garry’s sermon on Acts 1:12-26 (an example I couldn’t believe was overlooked in Leithart’s fabulous book on the subject), under what interpretive model could Peter say of Psalm 69 and Psalm 109 that these descriptions of David’s enemies were the first marching orders of the post-ascension pre-Pentecost church? Certainly not under the conditions of mechanical meaning making proceeding from authorial intention diadically to reader concept. Authorial intention is no thing; it is an ugly attempt to appropriate the desperate assertions of the objectivists that meaning is an unbroken chain (of various purported lengths) from word to object. There is such a phenomenon as authorial intention, but it is nothing to argue from directly since the very important matter of an author is only discoverable through the complex action of signs and types. If it was otherwise, why would the Christ speak in riddles?

6 thoughts on “May God us keep, from single vision and Newton’s sleep

  1. Some food for thought…

    In “Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period,” Richard Longenecker writes:

    What then can be said to our question, “Can we reproduce the exegesis of the New Testament?” I suggest that we must answer both “No” and “Yes.” Where that exegesis is based on a revelatory stance, or where it evidences itself to be merely cultural, or where it shows itself to be circumstantial or ad hominem in nature, “No.” Where, however, it treats the Old Testament in more literal fashion, following the course of what we speak today as historico-grammatical exegesis, “Yes.” Our commitment as Christians is to the reproduction of the apostolic faith and doctrine, and not necessarily to specific apostolic practices (198).

    1. Well I agree with you and with Leithart (Deep Exegesis) that this is shocking. The idea that we can choose our interpretive methods willy-nilly without consideration of our unexamined cultural presuppositions as long as we end up with the “doctrine” of the apostles is no less than silly.

      See you give me all my ideas, but then you shy away from the strong language like “silly.”

  2. Not to detract from the omnimusing of a verbivor engaged in linguistic gymnastics but…
    I’m not sure it can be said much better than “How God Hooked Us Up.” l love you Son!

    From a mind less complex but wholly committed to the pursuit of knowing God and growing in the knowledge of His Truth (and still searching for it and communicating it propositionally – which cannot be blamed on any foregoing multijoinder, but only on the Sovereign work of the Triune God moving by His Spirit to breathe life into this dead soul and by the same breathe author the Living Word which performs His work in me),
    Dad

  3. Growing in knowledge–not acquiring isolated bits of knowledge, knowing a person–not a “body” of facts, “the Sovereign work of the Triune God moving by His Spirit to breathe life into this dead soul and by the same breath author the Living Word which performs His work in me.”

    Sorry to quote your entire comment, Dad, but I agree with you and see here where I’ve picked up these ideas in the first place. The only thing I disagree with is that you convey this all propositionally.

    “Proposition” has come to mean in our culture, both explicity and in our unexamined presuppositions, the meaningful kernel of a statement apart from any rhetorical husks or merely aesthetic factors, that idea of meaning is reductionistic and ugly.

    Where do I get this? From a thousand “dark stories” like your famous Lota the Bull story or Ramblin Dan. There is nothing wrong with propositional form, it’s just that propositions in the most fundamental ways do not constitute more poetic forms–it’s closer to being the other way ’round. Truth is a tree not a math. Your leap to the pulpit-top is as meaningful as anything you say.

    I love you, Pastor Dad.

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