When Reasonable People Disagree (121)

In this episode John and Gregg pick up from their last episode where they discussed the idea of how the craftsmanship sees meaning in an object and brings this meaning forth. For example, a sculptor may see a figure within a block of stone and simply removing the unnecessary pieces in order for the figure to be seen.

John contrasts this the conclusions of a friend whose studies of postmodern thought led him to conclude that in postmodernism there is no inherent meaning, there is just whatever meaning one brings to the object or situation. Thus postmodernism was portrayed as bankrupt and invalid.

Gregg responds by wondering how most Christians would feel about and respond to the other options, particularly philosophically modern options. So where the modernists would claim “universal reason” (such that all people can and should see things the same way, and where they fail to do so they are simply being unreasonable). Yet as Gregg notes this is a philosophical notion, not a theological notion.

John wonders about the origins of this way of thinking and Gregg offers René Descartes as a good starting point. Descartes wanted to make everyday thinking and reasoning as reliable as mathematical reasoning and so tried to model the one on the other. He insisted that we only have a right to believe that which appears to us in a clear and distinct matter and which we arrive at by following the proper method (such as not basing our views on hearsay or improper evidence).

John also offers his experience of encountering a series of podcasts by people who have abandoned their Christian faith, and they too seem to have some very reasonable (or well reasoned) views about their beliefs. So for John the question is: who is right here? John notes that the other typical Christian response is that those who don’t agree are being intellectually dishonest (or are simply sinful and need the Holy Spirit’s help).

Gregg agrees that the idea of universal reason is deeply problematic. In his view, in fact, the cohesiveness of many churches is based on the fact that there is often very, very little discussion among parishioners as to what people actually believe. For if we knew how different our beliefs were from that of our fellow church-goers this would pose a serious problem to church unity.

In terms of this issue Gregg believes that the Bible’s key focus is the place for Christians to begin, namely: understanding who / what God is, who / what human beings are, and how the two are best to relate to each other. This orientation then allows readers to approach the Bible so as best to understand it. Gregg also emphasizes how particular postmodern thinkers (such as Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard and Michel Foucault), by alerting us to the problems within modern thought—the same modern thought that seems to have so completely captured the evangelical church—these French thinkers provide us insights that allow us to live life more honestly (and therefore more fully and more truthfully).  In this regard see Jamie Smith’s Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism.

John wonders about how this plays out in terms of Gregg’s church discussion group. Gregg notes that there are three stages to the discussion: discussing a) what one believes, b) why one believes what one does, and c) how to assess the validity of one’s beliefs. Among these, insight into the second and third components is very limited. Gregg ascribes the unfamiliarity (and perhaps inability) of most people comfortably to work with the second and third components to the fact that most Christians embraced their faith as children or teenagers, ages when they did not have the skills and experience needed properly to evaluate such matters. Further, very few churches teach parishioners to critically assess their beliefs—they are simply taught what to believe and how to act as a result.

Instead, Gregg believes that Christians must cultivate (and encourage within their fellows) a mentality of interest and excitement about learning more about one’s faith and developing a critical understanding of one’s Christian beliefs! So Gregg is critical of church contexts where there is a high degree of fear and concern for young adults who are going away to attend post-secondary education: often the very fact that churches pray so ardently that young people not be “pulled away” from their faith is a clear indication that that church has not done its job in raising these young adults competently to be using their brains in the critical examination of their own beliefs.

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