As Cole and I prepare for Episode 9 of our podcast (still collecting them before deployment), I’m working on the problem of justification in epistemology, with an eye toward the role of the Christian in the public square.
In recent years, I have noticed a new kind of agnosticism in Christian (evangelical) circles. I know that it is new, in part, because I grew up in a branch of evangelicalism that was overtly positivist. Everything can (or could) be known and justified in scripture. All truth is found in the Word. There is no mystery but those that are brought about by sin, which could be understood in global – rather than individual – terms (e.g. “The Fall”).
As one might imagine, this paradigmatic approach to knowledge was very unsatisfactory (at least to me). In part, scripture itself (and particularly Paul in Colossians) explores and celebrates “mystery.” Positivism, even theological post-positivism, is something of which I grew weary when “I put away childish things.”
So it may sound odd that I am about to decry the skepticism that evangelicals have discovered about “truth.” Surely I would be happy to hear voices exploring skepticism. Would I not be excited to hear phrases of relativism? Is it not possible that American evangelical Christians have discovered a kind of epistemic humility?
I don’t think so. I think something much more pernicious – and frankly lazy – is happening. I think that this is actually a form of cynicism that threatens to betray very sad truths about “Gospel-Folk” writ large. In short, I think that evangelicalism has slouched away from accusations of bigotry, logical fallacy, and irrelevance by washing its hands and caustically asking the world, “What is truth?”
Historically, “knowing” has been defined through three important elements. One may claim to “know” something if a) it is true, b) that person believes that it is true, and c) that belief is justified in some way. So I know that the earth is round because a) it is true that the earth is round, b) I believe that truth, and c) I have good reason to believe that it is true. If it is true that the earth is round, but I do not believe it, then I do not have knowledge. Moreover, if I do not have a good reason to believe that the earth is round (I believe it because it came to me in a dream), I also do not have knowledge.
There are a number of ways this kind of construction breaks down. For example, the Gettier problem describes ways in which the criteria for justification are not justifiably accurate (a broken clock is correct twice a day). Errors or cognition, or judgement, or feeling can create errors of justification as well.
All of this is Epistemology 101.
But here is where American evangelicalism’s slouch to agnosticism is both lazy and cynical; we have, in many instances, shrugged our shoulders and wryly ask, “Who can know?”
I have heard good Christian folk, some to whom I owe eternal gratitude for my faith, throw their hands up in the face of facts about things that should, in fact, make us very uncomfortable: that our churches are segregated, that our advocacy for policy has been appropriated by people hungry for power, that our faith has been compromised by capitalism, that some leaders who claim to be “with” us are liars and charlatans. When confronted with all of the many criteria for justification, good Christian folks have said, “Well, it’s hard to know what is true, isn’t it?”
No. No it isn’t. Not always.
There are clearly times where our criteria for justification are limiting. As one who believes that humans are driving significant changes in climate toward catastrophic ends, there are indeed some in the public square who make causal claims that may not be supported by data. Moreover, I will confess that in many facets of knowledge, particularly those that have to do with humans and human interaction, I think truth is oftentimes constructed. So if anyone wants to discuss the ways in which truth is relative, I’m game.
My criticism, here, is reserved for those who take the lazy “opt-out.” When Christians in the public square say things like:
- “Well, I’m no scientist, so I can’t really know whether climate change is real.”
- “Who can know whether abortions are more rare in countries where they are legal?”
- “That woman’s story of sexual assault is sad, but there are two sides to every story.”
these are instances where we refuse, often in the face of overwhelming criteria of justification, to do the more rigorous and difficult work of understanding, growing, and knowing. We’ve decided offer up “truth” on the altar of sacrifice; I would happily light that flame, but only when I am convinced that “truth” is Abel’s first-fruits, rather than Cain’s leftovers.