Newbigin's challenge to secularism (Does it exist?)


(Mervin Bitikofer) #1

Reading (and being mostly pretty excited about) Newbigin’s book “Gospel in a Pluralistic Society” has led to some pretty interesting discussions in my own household where my older son, being a fan of appropriately secular governments (that allow for peaceable religions to “flourish” after all) provides a lot of push back to Newbigin’s challenges. [I, (and not the secular enthusiast) add the scare quotes on “flourish” above.]

But the first caveat to get out of the way right up front is that Newbigin did not push for any kind of return to some theocracy or Constantinian-era political power. That is the first reactionary canard that will be trotted out by frightened secularists (of both religious and non-religious persuasions), so let’s just nip that one in the bud: That’s NOT his push. But have no fear; you will not be starved to find objectionable material in his agenda, which he pushes without apology.

I’ll just start with one extended quote from the book listed above (from chapter 1) where he is discussing the modern intellectual posturing (both by modern believers and nonbelievers) that is juxtaposed against all that is deemed to be dogmatic (i.e. religious).

There is an admirable air of humility about the statement that the truth is much greater than any one person or any one religious tradition can grasp. The statement is no doubt true, but it can be used to neutralize any affirmation of the truth. How does the speaker know that the truth is so much greater than this particular affirmation of it – for example, that “Jesus Christ is the truth”? What privileged access to reality does he have? In the famous story of the blind men and the elephant, so often quoted in the interests of religious agnosticism, the real point of the story is constantly overlooked. The story is told from the point of view of the king and his courtiers, who are not blind but can see that the blind men are unable to grasp the full reality of the elephant and are only able to get hold of part of the truth. The story is constantly told in order to neutralize the affirmation of the great religions, to suggest that they learn humility and recognize that none of them can have more than one aspect of the truth. But, of course, the real point of the story is exactly the opposite. If the king were also blind there would be no story. The story is told by the king and it is the immensely arrogant claim of one who sees the full truth which all the world’s religions are only groping after. …
As Polanyi has trenchantly put it: “The emphatic admission of our fallibility only serves to re-affirm our claim to a fictitious standard of intellectual integrity … in contrast to the hidebound attitude of those who openly profess their beliefs as their final personal commitment” (Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, p. 271).

He goes on in much of the book to knock holes in the prospect that any truly secular program could even exist at all, since there is no such thing as a platform that has not itself appealed to something and pushed it as a necessarily universal truth (unsupported starting point, no less!). That it would refrain from calling itself a religion does not shelter it from the charge that it arrogantly promotes its own Truth as the highest context within which all other citizens may scrabble about with each other regarding their lesser, privatized values.

While this all sounds anti-pluralistic, I should hasten to add that Newbigin also points out that we should be prepared to celebrate excellence found in every religion and culture – seeing all good things as already belonging to Christ. He had noted that Jesus had become domesticated (and thus safely contained) within higher governing strictures of the eastern culture he was visiting. But our humility, Newbigin writes, is to realize that our western culture has done exactly the same thing. There is no platform of “highest culture” from which other cultures can be evaluated. All cultures are both necessary and yet faulty vehicles that need to be challenged at many points by the incarnation.

His apologetic (IMO) is aimed at believers (or nominal believers), and not the skeptics. As such, perhaps this is the wrong platform for me to be writing these things. But if there is interest and discussion we can carry on more here. If not, so be it.


Introducing myself with an explanation of basic terminology like objective and absolute
Introducing myself with an explanation of basic terminology like objective and absolute
(Phil) #2

Sounds like fertile ground. I have one of his books on order, and look forward to the discussion. Not being familiar with his work, looked at one of the quote sites, and found many that resonate with me, including this one:

“Christ is the clue to all that is.”
-- Lesslie Newbigin

(John Dalton) #3

I bet those are interesting discussions :slight_smile: I will try to make a few runs for the secular team :football:

But… but… he literally can see the whole elephant–the full truth. Can the blind people feel something that he can’t see?

He goes on in much of the book to knock holes in the prospect that any truly secular program could even exist at all, since there is no such thing as a platform that has not itself appealed to something and pushed it as a necessarily universal truth (unsupported starting point, no less!)

Why isn’t there? Does a “universal truth” really have to be a part of such a platform?

That it would refrain from calling itself a religion does not shelter it from the charge that it arrogantly promotes its own Truth as the highest context within which all other citizens may scrabble about with each other regarding their lesser, privatized values.

I don’t understand. Were there any examples of ways that this is happening somewhere?


(Andrew M. Wolfe) #4

Very interesting discussion, Merv.

I haven’t read TGiaPS, but I’m struggling to understand the framing of this discussion. In particular, it seems as if we’re blending political secularism and epistemological secularism. It seems to me analogous to conflating methodological naturalism with ontological naturalism (respectively) in our discussions of science.

In theory, wouldn’t it be possible to have a secular government (like, say, America) some of whose functionaries (say, the Religious Right) believed that their religion was absolute Truth? Or, just as possibly, a theocratic government (like, say, modern Iran) some of whose functionaries (say, religiously moderate Sufis) in practice believed the elephant metaphor to be an accurate portrayal of human striving toward the Divine?


(Mervin Bitikofer) #5

That’s a good question [which I hopefully haven’t misrepresented by adding the clarifying bracket above], and one that Newbigin spends a lot of time answering. The gist of it (as best I can muster here) is this: We are all inevitably culturally embedded with all our views, including our approaches to science. There is no culture that stands above the rest so as to be able to perform adjudication between all cultures. So to your second question I (and I think he) would answer that, no; universal truth is not (cannot be) entirely contained or known by any one culture, and as such has no need for any platform before we can have faith that it exists. But we all are necessarily “platform-bound” in our access to it. So there is no disconnection from our own platform other than to try to listen to people from other cultures critique our own. But even in entering into their critique, we still never escape our own cultural embeddedness to be able to evaluate the differences between their culture and ours. He likened the claim that we can evaluate our own culture as being like the notion that you can push a bus while you are in fact sitting in it. It just can’t be done.

All around you – your (and my) own posts here in fact. We’re like fish in water saying that we don’t understand what water is and have no concept of it. Whenever you, for example, say that there should be a secular society that protects the rights of religions and subcultures everywhere to freely carry on as long as they abide by certain democratic rules and so do not tread on anybody else’s freedoms!; then you are advocating something that you (and probably most of us here) would agree is good. But those “democratic rules” that should stand between and among all these groups policing all of this cozy coexistence – who gets to decide and enforce those – and they are no small details: they involve things like what is or is not out-of-bounds in public education or even what is ruled out-of-bounds within those subgroups themselves? Who gets to referee all this?

The self-appointed secular culture replies: “We who are not religious do, because we are truly secular and non-sectarian only taking facts of science into our considerations, so of course we are the neutral party who should stand above and referee our pluralistic culture.” And in giving that answer they have neatly illustrated the very thing that Newbigin has so fatally shown to be false – the very thing they can’t see because they have no philosophical mirror, and have pretended that they, and they alone, can step outside any particular sub-culture to some “vacuous” platform from which they can objectively adjudicate all others. Note that I’m not saying their platform is a bad one or that we shouldn’t be running our government according to its rules. I’m only insisting here that it exists as a cultural platform of its own with all the attendant strengths and faults thereof. It too will come under judgment (and rightly so) from other cultural platforms with their strengths and weaknesses. Nor is this to say that all platforms must be equal or treated as equal. The Christian especially should object to any such egalitarian notion if they are not under the spell of a liberal secularism. But in the end we all deny any such egalitarian pretension when we stake out our territory to defend one platform or another, including you from a platform of secularism. In fact, so highly do secular enthusiasts hold their own platform that they refuse to even allow it to be questioned as if it was just yet another culturally embedded platform: it is not, they insist … because it is concerned with real truth and facts (as scientifically authenticated), and so they profess the very thing that is most religious: to have the best if not the unique hold on universal truths. And those are not negotiable.

That all is a mixture of my own views which may or may not accurately represent what Newbigin would think, but my response above was heavily influenced by his work.


Introducing myself with an explanation of basic terminology like objective and absolute
(Steve Schaffner) #6

That seems like a tendentious reading of the story, which doesn’t have to be told by the king. It could equally well be told by the blind men who, comparing their observations, conclude that there is something present that they are only imperfectly understanding, and that their initial impressions might only be part of the truth.

A I recall, I quit reading this book pretty quickly.


(Mervin Bitikofer) #7

If there is such a blending, it is probably my fault in what I wrote above and not necessarily Newbigin’s. But since you put it this way, I would say he is pretty unambiguously speaking and thinking of epistemological secularism. And I would venture that his critique of it is to say that it doesn’t (and can’t) exist.

Now … as to how that practically plays out in governments (like our own in the U.S. here) that at least aspire to be non-sectarian or even secular, I can’t say. That is the weakness that I will freely be challenged with here. If Newbigin isn’t plugging for a return to some ancient kind of theocracy, then what is he pushing for? I might be able to say more on that, but my thoughts on that aren’t clear yet, and some of you with your responses and challenges here may help me clear them up.


(Mervin Bitikofer) #8

But that such a story could be told by anybody is what Newbigin was reacting to. We all are only groping at our various parts of truth as it turns out. I don’t think he would deny this. But he is giving answer to those who want to deny the existence of objective truth by declaring that it must remain obscured behind all our relative subjectivity. Perhaps so, but when some (like enthusiasts for a secular outlook, or even just all of us in the sciences for example) put the brakes on these dismissals and insist that no–there really is a truth out there for us to find, we might be claiming to see more of the whole elephant that we insist everybody else (with their less scientific outlooks) is only blindly groping at. I think in the end Newbigin is saying that the secularists and scientists are groping just like everybody else. That they would even tell this story is what betrays their own view that they are doing much more than only blind probing. And perhaps they are. But they are not in the position of the king. That’s what I took as his point.

Sorry the book failed to connect with you. I found parts of it a bit tedious but stuck it out and was glad I did!


(John Dalton) #9

I understand that everyone is going to be informed by their culture in various ways.
Yet we’re talking about platforms and programs. What if I say, “Hey, platform A sounds like a good idea to me. Anyone agree?” If people do agree and are willing to work with me to develop the platform, how are we necessarily appealing to any kind of “universal truth”?

I see. I think it’s simply a decision that’s been made for practical reasons. I can understand the argument, “let’s have a system where the majority can see its religion have a greater impact in various matters”. I don’t see though what the alternate decision has to do with any ideas of “universal truth”. Religions including Christianity do seem to hold to such ideas in general. Applying religious ideas to the government would indeed involve an application of one’s preferred conception of universal truth. Secular government seems to me to be a decision to keep such conceptions out of government in order to achieve a more balanced result and allow government to proceed while impacting on all people’s religious convictions to a minimum extent. In the case of the US, the idea was based on considerable and historically recent experience. I agree that that is an idea upon which our government has developed in various ways. But I don’t see why the phrase “universal truth” is being brought in.

The self-appointed secular culture replies: “We who are not religious do, because we are truly secular and non-sectarian only taking facts of science into our considerations, so of course we are the neutral party who should stand above and referee our pluralistic culture. And in giving that answer they have neatly illustrated the very thing that Newbigin has so fatally shown to be false – the very thing they can’t see because they have no philosophical mirror, and have pretended that they, and they alone, can step outside any particular sub-culture to some “vacuous” platform from which they can objectively adjudicate all others.

I don’t think so. This seems contrived. To consider the US again, to a great extent the system is the result of decisions by people who would not call themselves secular. Virtually no one in government, though they may well adhere to secular ideas, admits to being “non-religious”, and probably they are not. Secular ideals in government have a long tradition in the US, and have rested comfortably together with majority religious inclinations both inside and outside government.

Note that I’m not saying their platform is a bad one or that we shouldn’t be running our government according to its rules. I’m only insisting here that it exists as a cultural platform of its own with all the attendant strengths and faults thereof. It too will come under judgment (and rightly so) from other cultural platforms with their strengths and weaknesses. Nor is this to say that all platforms must be equal or treated as equal. The Christian especially should object to any such egalitarian notion if they are not under the spell of a liberal secularism. But in the end we all deny any such egalitarian pretension when we stake out our territory to defend one platform or another, including you from a platform of secularism.

I agree with this more. Fair is fair.

In fact, so highly do secular enthusiasts hold their own platform that they refuse to even allow it to be questioned as if it was just yet another culturally embedded platform:

Oh I think it gets questioned, and is hardly watertight, and may be being questioned more closely in some ways. It seems to me to be a solution that has worked well for everyone for a long time. I do support its continued application, and am pretty motivated at this time to work to ensure its survival and strengthening. Frankly, if everyone concerned thought like you for example, I’d be less concerned. But that isn’t the reality.

it is not, they insist … because it is concerned with real truth and facts (as scientifically authenticated), and so they profess the very thing that is most religious: to have the best if not the unique hold on universal truths. And those are not negotiable.

Here you lose me. I don’t understand the importance of this point. It’s a practical matter for me.


(Mervin Bitikofer) #10

This is an important question – so let’s keep circling back to it even if I don’t have a good or fully developed answer yet. My inclination right now (if I were to try to follow my read of Newbigin, which as an Anabaptist, I’m not sure I fully do) is to say that government will be what it is, brutal dictatorships for some, liberal democracies for others, but that the Christian community will persist in and through all of these. Not that it is indifferent to government. The brutal dictatorship would ideally incite more challenges from Christian communities than a more benevolent situation. But in either case the Christian is not to seek political power as the means to “usher in God’s kingdom”. And that might be more me the Anabaptist talking than Newbigin. As far as our idealized American republic is concerned, I’m just as happy as you to see that experiment thrive, if indeed it can through our present situation, and the loss of the republican party, much of which has abandoned the few good ideals it used to have. But politics aside (as indeed it must be for those whose hope is in God), we Christians are not called to look to culture for support or reinforcement. We are to challenge it in all its present forms to love justice and mercy. Maybe that means political activism for some. For others it might mean withdrawal and separation from a system they see as evil. Those are my thoughts unfolding for now.

You mention or question my appeal to “universal truth” several times, so I’ll just give a general reaction here.

Whenever we observe that one platform seems good to us as opposed to another platform, we are using a criteria that we hold or developed or inherited from some tradition in which we’ve been steeped. And we are ostensibly choosing something with at least “universal intent” (Polanyi’s phrase). I.e. --even though we may put on a modest face and truthfully allow that we aren’t certain we have chosen rightly, we nevertheless are doing more than just declaring that “this type of society suits me well, just as I prefer chocolate ice cream, but if you prefer strawberry then that’s great for you too.” No --we’re at least aspiring to make a choice that would be a good choice for everybody, not just ourselves personally. Some would relegate overt religion to a realm of values, and preferences; whereas the true education (science-based) is about facts. It’s okay to have courses about religion where the teacher says things like “some people believe this … others that…”. But it is not okay for a religion teacher to say “Here is the truth of the matter …” because we have deemed that prerogative to belong only to the sciences side of the hallway. The history [social science] teacher will not generally be amused or tolerant if a student says, “I just don’t prefer the view that Abraham Lincoln was one of the U.S. presidents.” This is what we deem to be in the true world of facts, and not subject to our preferences. So when we teach or train students in certain directions, cultivating a certain tradition in our institution, we do so with this universal intent. It is no mere choosing of one flavor over another. We are elevating one over the other for what we feel are valid reasons that we expect will transcend our own subjectivity.

I know you don’t like me referring to secularism as a religion, but if you can forgive and indulge me here this broader use of the word, then I would propose this: where a person’s mere preferences end, and we enter their world of universal intent (what they deem to be the “facts of our world”), then that is where their religion truly begins.

[edits added to improve clarity]


(John Dalton) #11

Much agreement on the political comments. What I wonder here is then, what are the problems you see under the current system? I know your feelings in a general sense from earlier posts, but what specifically is happening that amounts to “exclusion from the public square”, etc?

[quote=“Mervin_Bitikofer, post:10, topic:37603”]
You mention or question my appeal to “universal truth” several times, so I’ll just give a general reaction here.

Whenever we observe that one platform seems good to us as opposed to another platform, we are using a criteria that we hold or developed or inherited from some tradition in which we’ve been steeped. And we are ostensibly choosing something with at least “universal intent” (Polanyi’s phrase). I.e. --even though we may put on a modest face and truthfully allow that we aren’t certain we have chosen rightly, we nevertheless are doing more than just declaring that “this type of society suits me well, just as I prefer chocolate ice cream, but if you prefer strawberry then that’s great for you too.” No --we’re at least aspiring to make a choice that would be a good choice for everybody, not just ourselves personally. [/quote]

Okay.

Let me ask you to look at it this way–honest question. Imagine you didn’t know what hand you’d be dealt here. Your child has to go to public school. All the classes–science, history, math, etc., and religion, would be taught in some well-known modern tradition, but you’re not allowed to know which one. You have to send your child on the first day and you’ll find out then. You have to stick it out for the whole year. Would you have the same feeling about the religion class as the others? Would you accept sending your child there?


(Mervin Bitikofer) #12

I don’t have any complaints (pertinent to this context anyway) regarding how our U.S. government is run – I’m not at all on board with those who want end-run legislation around science to force the academy to teach certain creationist things in science classes [which is probably an unfair caricature of that position, by the way --but there it is… I think we share in that bias.] But my complaint is more of a general one about prevalent attitude in the academy which I think has turned into a bit of an in-grown liberalism politically-speaking. I don’t look for changes in law or government to address that. It’s a grass-roots effort to help it become less of an echo-chamber – less beholden to a blind anti-conservatism (an anti-conservatism which has all-too-much understandable and even legitimate fuel to feed it these days.) In much of the mainstream academy there seems to be as strident of an anti-conservatism as there is an anti-liberalism among populist voting crowds. I don’t like either one as they both fuel each other’s fires. So I do what I can as a citizen to try to be salt and light to both sides – Christian light, I hope.

Interesting thought experiment. My easy answer is that I would send my kids to pretty much whatever public school was available regardless of what system was in control there [within reasonable bounds of course! --if I thought my child wasn’t safe or there was outright coercion to pry them away from what we parents think important --then I would look for other alternatives]. But if my free option was a Muslim run school (openly Islamic but fine with active Christians learning among them) or an openly atheistic school (again fine with other religious traditions fully exercising their own views), I would just consider it part of the cultural experience my kid should get exposed to. The only reason my kids went to a private school at all is because I teach there and got a decent discount.

[Shamelessly added long edit: Make no mistake, however, – now, during and after the fact we are sure glad we placed our kids at the Christian school that we did; while I am not anti-public school by any stretch of the imagination, I nevertheless see where culture has been going in this; and public education is rapidly being crippled I think, by a bankrupt secular agenda that kids can see right through. It’s great to have “character promotion” campaigns and teach kids that they should cultivate honesty, integrity, empathy, etc. --“don’t be jerks”. But these are empty slogans and kids know it. What if I can get ahead by being a liar or a jerk? Isn’t that only “fair”? Especially if that’s what my competition is already doing? We already see this a long time back – think of the movie: “Cheaters” based on a true story of a school whose quiz bowl team (and teacher sponsor) all participated in a cheating scam to win a tournament. They got caught, but some (now-grown) participants still deny their culpability to this day. One of those real-life cheaters (an English-teacher at the time the 1994 film came out) was asked what she would do if she caught one of her own students cheating. Her response? (based on my memory of it): “I’d flunk the little bastard. Since he got caught he obviously is not ready for real life yet.” And this was in the 90s! It tells me all I need to know about where things are headed for all of us, public and private --but I feel bad for public schools that are farthest out in the trenches with all this. Secularists promoting “honesty” and other things necessary for the future of healthy society (and science!) have got nothing to offer, and much of the now-grown generation (like our English teacher above) have easily seen that this emperor has no clothes on. @John_Dalton, I see people are still reading this thread, so I felt compelled to add this long edit into this post – but this now ends that addition … back to the original programming below.]

But even now this isn’t hypothetical because I did allow my kids to attend classes of teachers who do not think like I do, but I did not fear for the exposure that would bring to my children. They are Christian teachers and it was good for my children to be exposed to different ways of thought even within Christianity. I would like to think I would be just as open-minded about it all even outside our faith tradition. In that particular way I look very liberal. I don’t want to cultivate any fear of truth or life among our population. We already have a surplus of fear ravaging our populations as it is.

Not sure if I took that in any direction you intended. But I will just say this, I think the academy would be vastly improved by shunning its own fear of all things conservative. Not that I look to the academy for salvation. It will be what it will be. It too will cling to fear and prejudice often to its own detriment. I hope to help it be better which will maybe help give less fuel to reactionary populist disasters. Not that I’m all free of fear and prejudice myself of course. If it was a Satanist school I wouldn’t want to send kids anywhere near the place. I look to God to be the source of salvation, and the church is called to be a vehicle for that.


#14

Without getting into the weeds of current partisan politics, it seems to me that the extremes of the political spectrum meet in the same echo chamber and are simply arguing against the other side just to argue. Some people have lost sight of what their ideals really are and the history that has led us to the present. There are many conservative ideals that liberals already agree with, and many liberal ideals that conservatives agree with. The hard part is getting people to listen to one another, and it isn’t helped by people who are more interested in stirring the pot. When the main argument for a law or policy is that it will tick off the other side, then perhaps people should rethink that policy.


(John Dalton) #15

I agree totally.

Interesting thought experiment. My easy answer is that I would send my kids to pretty much whatever public school was available regardless of what system was in control there [within reasonable bounds of course! --if I thought my child wasn’t safe or there was outright coercion to pry them away from what we parents think important --then I would look for other alternatives]. But if my free option was a Muslim run school (openly Islamic but fine with active Christians learning among them) or an openly atheistic school (again fine with other religious traditions fully exercising their own views), I would just consider it part of the cultural experience my kid should get exposed to.

That’s cool. I would tend to think of it as largely an ineffective use of time, at best, and potentially overtly problematic. Some cultural experience would be gained to be sure, but to that end, I am in favor of “some people believe this” comparative religion classes, which seem to me to be an excellent way of attaining the kind of cultural exposure you refer to, while keeping a level playing field for students from all backgrounds. As for potential problems: with ordinary subjects, the state may publish approved textbooks and curriculums for guidance and to set basic standards. If there’s straight-up religious instruction, is this also going to become the purview of government in the same way, so there will be a state-approved truth? Or will every teacher apply their own standard? Will people insist on preferential treatment of their own version of religious truth to the detriment of those who don’t agree? Will students be compelled to recognize a teacher or the state’s version of truth in order to receive a good grade and advance within the system? Will they be subject to peer and even official pressure when their views are not in line with the majority? This already happens to children admitting atheist views in schools with some regularity. I could probably go on, but I guess my point is clear enough.

I see the situation as a trade-off, between allowing religious education desired by a majority, and offending some, and not allowing it for anyone, and offending some. In the end, is it really in everyone’s best interest for government to be mixed up in it? In particular in a large and complex nation where many different faiths (and lacks thereof though I know you might contest that :slight_smile:) coexist?

People may not agree with all aspects of science and social studies education at times… but I guess not math :slight_smile: But truth in those areas are far less contested. Paths to religious truth don’t provide anywhere near such a consistent result. I think I understand Newbigin’s argument, which I would paraphrase by saying that a certain conception of truth lays behind the whole secular concept, and is being favored over the allowance of religious ideas about truth. I guess it has to be one way or the other though, and it is being done for what seem to me to be valid and fair-minded reasons.

The only reason my kids went to a private school at all is because I teach there and got a decent discount. But even now this isn’t hypothetical because I did allow my kids to attend classes of teachers who do not think like I do, but I did not fear for the exposure that would bring to my children. They are Christian teachers and it was good for my children to be exposed to different ways of thought even within Christianity. I would like to think I would be just as open-minded about it all even outside our faith tradition. In that particular way I look very liberal. I don’t want to cultivate any fear of truth or life among our population. We already have a surplus of fear ravaging our populations as it is.

Cool. But that’s a controlled setting. Expanded to the education system at large–and in fact, I’m not really sure if that’s what you’re suggesting, but it seems like the logical conclusion–would the result necessarily be as fear-free?

Not sure if I took that in any direction you intended.

No, I was trying to make a point of course, which I’ve now been embellishing. I was hoping you would say “Good point John, I guess that settles that” :slight_smile: but I figured it might be a good starting point anyway.

But I will just say this, I think the academy would be vastly improved by shunning its own fear of all things conservative. Not that I look to the academy for salvation. It will be what it will be. It too will cling to fear and prejudice often to its own detriment. I hope to help it be better which will maybe help give less fuel to reactionary populist disasters. Not that I’m all free of fear and prejudice myself of course. If it was a Satanist school I wouldn’t want to send kids anywhere near the place. I look to God to be the source of salvation, and the church is called to be a vehicle for that.

I’m with you on including conservative viewpoints. Liberalism has gone over the edge in a lot of ways in my opinion, especially in academia. I will agree that I’m not signing up for a Satanist school lol. My impression of current Satanism in the US is that it’s basically intended for shock value, irony, and/or hedonism, and in the great majority of cases isn’t based on a real belief in Satan. That being said, to each their own and all that, but it’s too weird for me.


#16

We also have to consider the history that has led us to this point. We started this country with some good ideas (US Constitution) and a deeply flawed culture (e.g. slavery). Over time, we have weeded the garden we call a country, and what we have now is a plot of land where institutional discrimination has been largely defeated, even if we deal with discrimination and intolerance on a societal level. We have achieved much and have much to be proud of. The idea of letting a new weed take hold, even a small one, runs against this historical trend. I guess you could consider this a slipper slope argument, or something of the like, but we also have the lesson of the frog in the boiling water. There is a still a strong history of zero tolerance when it comes to violating constitutional rights. The idea that we can violate peoples’ constitutional rights just a little bit runs counter to the arrow of history.

The spirit of our democracy isn’t about achieving perfection but about striving towards a just society. Yes, it is impossible to produce a 100% pure secular institution, but we should still strive to create public institutions that conform to the spirit of our ideals which is a pluralist society that has agreed to be part of a secular government. I see absolutely no value in saying that we can never reach the ideal, so we should purposefully sabotage the system instead.

I always welcome people sharing their thoughtful views on our society and how we run our government. I think we have a rare corner of the internet where people with very different outlooks on life can disagree and still have sane and well meaning conversations.


(Mervin Bitikofer) #17

Agreed. Or at least I would if there were such a thing as a “level playing field”. I’ll agree that such a class could be good, but let me take it one step further. I would push for classes that did not have level playing fields – or rather it was openly recognized how there is no (and never was) any level playing field. If my class is taught by a Christian, I wouldn’t mind him or her teaching from the point of view of a full-throated Christianity and openly acknowledging that their faith is on display as they teach. And (here is the pluralism), I would then also not mind if the atheist teaches his or her class with a full-throated atheism openly displaying their views whenever appropriate. Same for the Muslim or anyone else too. Not that people have to be obnoxious or disrespectful about it (one would think they might avoid that behavior if they were trying to attract people to their own faith tradition … one would think!) But that would bother me less than favoring one tradition implicitly (and therefore probably insidiously) by sneaking it in by effectively saying: “Sure, enjoy learning about people’s traditions and beliefs in your religion classes over there, and then when you are ready for some real truth, cross the hall to our science and math classes.” (The word “tradition” or “belief” or “culture” are not much mentioned over there.) And yet that is the side of the hall where a culture’s most important core world-views are going to be found. Better to be open about the sources of those core values than in denial about them. So I guess I’m envisioning a messy (and yes very uncomfortable) public academy where many different views are openly being sold and argued.

Well, you are bring up good points! And feel free to embellish away. I’m still in outright formation of my (our?) answer to the question of what sort of academy or public square should we push for. I appreciate your input to help me clarify or maybe even change my views.


(Mervin Bitikofer) #18

Agreed. Or “never let the perfect be the enemy of the good” as I’ve heard said. But I’m thinking that what we have could be made better! As to how … we can still keep talking about that.

Indeed! And thank you for sticking it out here so we aren’t just a theists echo chamber. I just was notified by the computer overlords that I’ve received a [dubious] “devotee” award meaning I’ve logged into this forum every day in the last 365! Not one day missed. What a junkie! I’m going to try to fast from this in the next day or two just to prove I can. Are there any twelve step groups available for this?


(John Dalton) #19

If there were that kind of balance, and freedom and even encouragement for students to hold their own views, I wouldn’t have a problem with it. I’m not sure there would be a major difference from “some people believe” in the sense you describe above–if you have different versions of “truth” being presented, it becomes obvious that there’s not one truth in the way that is true of math for example, or even science, outside of a small number of boutique objections. Ideally in social studies classes for example, different perspectives of “truth” should also be part of the package, and I would hope that they are in US education at large. But I don’t see a problem with teachers explaining from the perspective of their own beliefs (which are obviously true to them) as long as there is that balance between different viewpoints.

It’s interesting you bring this up actually, as a similar paradigm occurred to me last night as I was thinking about this conversation.

I just got my 3-month “aficionado” notification! I’m not sure I can stop. There must be something wrong with me I guess lol.


(Mervin Bitikofer) #20

[my own emphasis added into your quote above]

Ahh – but there is one truth! (which is a thoroughly non-scientific, 100% faith assertion, but one that is firmly held as a shared foundation both for science and for theism --and probably many other religions too). We can be wrong about truth. But that doesn’t and shouldn’t stop us from pursuing it; even teaching it to the best of our abilities knowing that we could be wrong! I think there is something healthy about owning both our foundations and convictions (even spreading them!) as best we can, but then also subjecting ourselves to correction when shown to be wrong. That openness to correction is not the monopoly of science, but is shared by many faithful believers at their best too.

Where does that correction come from – how do we know this, you ask? [and you really do ask that … quite a bit; I think that is your theme here and quite a good one even if rhetorical] You assume the best blanket answer is by science, but then you stop there. We theistic believers (many of us here) came with you that far but then did not stop and went on to include relational knowledge, life testimony and witness, tradition and church community – also sources of knowledge outside our individual selves by which we can check to be as sure as we can that we aren’t fooling ourselves. None of that discounts science – it just goes beyond where science has been able to go (or perhaps never will go.)

Guess my hopeful Biologos fast will have to wait. I’m delightfully snowed in today, and what’s a guy to do? (other than never-ending work) I’ll pick up Twain’s line regarding smoking: “I know more about quitting this than anybody! I’ve done it a thousand times.”


(Mervin Bitikofer) #21

Here is an opening excerpt from chapter 1 of Newbigin’s “Proper Confidence” book that frames present issues with such clarity (IMO) that I think it good to drop here as a teaser for more discussion ($9.99 for it as a Kindle read – I should be demanding a commission from Amazon.)

The words “liberal” and “fundamentalist” are used today not so much to identify oneself as to label the enemy. From one side comes the accusation that the mind of the fundamentalist is closed, shuttered against the possibility of doubt and therefore against the recognition of hitherto unrecognized truth. From the other side comes the charge that liberals are so open to new ideas that they have no firm commitments at all, that every affirmation of faith must be held only tentatively, and that every dogma must, as a matter of principle, be challenged. There are terms of moral opprobrium that each side employs to attack the other: the fundamentalist is arrogant, blinkered, and culturally illiterate; the liberal is flabby, timid, and carried along by every new fashion of thought. From the point of view of the fundamentalist, doubt is sin; from the the point of view of the liberal, the capacity for doubt is a measure of intellectual integrity and honesty.

…and then a little later …

When everything in religion seems to be reduced to subjective experience, it is natural that there should be a demand for the affirmation of objective truth. Yet how can this affirmation be made without falling into the opposite error of arrogance, obscurantism, and fundamentalism? How can we develop, in respect of religious belief, minds which are not only open to fresh insights but also equipped with the critical faculty that can distinguish sense from nonsense and reality from illusion? What kind of confidence is proper for those who witness to the truth of the gospel?

Which is exactly what you persistently ask, John: How can we know? I did say earlier that Newbigin’s books (that I’ve read thus far) seem to be addressed to believers, and you can see above some of the reason I would say that. This book does not meet you, an atheist, on your terms. It is challenging your terms, your very starting point prior to the questions that you want believers to answer for you, a skeptic. So while the book is more for believers, you would nonetheless benefit from reading it I think; if you truly want to understand how/why believers think as they do. But even if you don’t [read the book] you’ll probably get exposed to much of it from my posts here before we’re done.

I was also reminded of another comparison (this not so much from Newbigin though he does touch on it): There are roughly two philosophical approaches that have helped shape our present culture and its approaches to both nature and philosophy. One I will call the reductionist approach of tightly controlling all variables, bringing it into your laboratory – dissecting it, analyzing it, deciding which questions to ask of it and which information is important to extract from it. In short, killing it to learn about it.

The other approach (exemplified maybe by Goethe) is to go out to the thing you wish to study. Be with it in its own native environment; listen to the questions and challenges it puts back to you instead of only putting your questions to it. This seems less abstract if we imagine the “thing” so studied is a living specimen or even a person. A dissector or a torturer may manage to learn certain sterile facts from or about the victim subjected to their cruelty, but they never learn as much as one who loves and engages with that “other” on the other’s terms as well as their own.

This is the kind of relationship Christians aspire to have with our living Lord. And it leads to growth and challenge for us in ways that we never realize if we choose to stay imprisoned only with our own terms. It is a different kind of knowledge that has its own categories of confidence --not quite independent of scientific inquiry, as it subsumes good science into itself too; but it certainly existed before modern science.