Kids, can you say epistemology?

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Zen kōans (similar to parables) are notoriously hard to source, but the “stick” theme is common. This “stick kōan” about accepting reality is of unknown provenance, but it makes its point:

The master held out a large bamboo stick and asked the student “Is this stick real?” The student, trying to show his superior understanding, replied, “How can we know what is real? All of life is kenshō [note: ‘perceiving the true nature’].”

Then the master began to strike the student with the stick. “Sometimes,” he said, “A stick is a stick.”

If you prefer an equally inscrutable Bible quote, the gospel attributed to John tells of the Roman consul Pilate who is tasked with deciding the fate of Jesus. John records no answer to Pilate’s last question, however, leaving us hanging:

Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?” John 18:37-38 NRSV

In an earlier post I tackled the idea that betting on a wrong version of “The Truth,” such as the unfounded 2020 election conspiracy or “The coronavirus is just the flu” can wind up killing people. I purposely avoided the topic of religious definitions of “Truth” in that post. Let’s go after that puppy.

Knowing the “Capital T True” from the “False” is a very old theological and philosophical problem. In fact, the entire realm of “the study of knowledge and truth” has its own name: epistemology. Religious believers throughout history have commonly asserted various theological definitions of “Truth” that defy more common epistemological reliance on evidence and logic. That gap remains today, especially on the “fundamentalist” end of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. I have written in the past about the third-century theologian Tertulian’s command (as commonly translated) for Christians to “believe because it is absurd.”

The United States has been in an “epistemology crisis” since the November Presidential election. A disturbing percentage of the losing party ardently believes, to the point of supporting a violent, murderous attack on the Capitol, in a version of “Truth” that is just bat-shit crazy False. And now people have died because of that lie. Many, if not most of those charging the Capitol on January 6 explicitly use Christian “dominionist” language to argue their version of “Truth” about this election and their fealty to Donald Trump.

Speaking fifteen years after the end of the Civil War, our last big “epistemology crisis,” President Ulysses S. Grant made this eerily prophetic statement:

“If we are to have another contest in the near future of our national existence, I predict that the dividing line will not be Mason and Dixon’s but between patriotism and intelligence on the one side, and superstition, ambition and ignorance on the other.” [1]


Truth expressed in religious language

Here is the short version of my stance on theological epistemology: What you and I perceive as “God’s Truth” is usually better described as our secular culture re-interpreted through whatever language our religious traditions are pointing us to. Sometimes for good, but often for bad. So, how can I defend that definition?

If your pastor is a female Episcopalian from Massachusetts, then you are likely getting a very different expression of Christianity, or even “Reality,” on Sunday than if your pastor is a male Baptist from Alabama. I have often noted that it would be difficult to find any question, whether it be about religion, politics or science, on which these two Christian theists would agree. And yet, they are mostly preaching to their congregations from the same Bible on any given Sunday. It is a marvelously, and mischievously, adaptable book. We are all filtered aggregations of the pastors, parents, coaches, and other influencers who put words and phrases about life and reality into our heads throughout our lives. Not all of them take, but some embed far too deeply, unreachable through logic, science, or common sense.

I am not Jewish; my exposure to Judaism was highly influenced by a close relationship between the Cincinnati Jesuits, under whom I studied ethics (and I am not Catholic either) with some Reform rabbis from Hebrew Union College, founded in Cincinnati in 1875. As Albert Einstein described it, this was “the water in which I swam” in that part of my education. [2] Others grow up in orthodox or conservative Jewish traditions, and “God’s Truth” just comes out differently in their internalized faith. And that is my point. Some of us swim in very different water from others, but we still call these multiple streams generically “Judaism” or “Christianity” or “Islam.” The streams are increasingly incompatible, not between them, but among their own.

The great theologian Paul Tillich taught a course for many years that was turned into a text entitled A History of Christian Thought. [3] In this book, Tillich writes a “Christian history” in parallel to, and interwoven with, secular and political history. He demonstrates that they all evolved together, from the original first-century merger of Judaic and Greek thought through to his own time of post-WWII, mostly “mainstream,” Protestantism. Those Christians who think that they are following the “one true original path of Jesus” would probably not like what this book reveals in that regard. It has been a winding path for all traditions.

The two religious realities

The former Catholic nun Karen Armstrong wrote an intriguing book several years ago in which she posited that the great religious differences of the Western world are not, say, between Christianity and Islam and Judaism. What she demonstrated in The Battle for God was that the “fundamentalist” strains of all three of these religions often had more in common with each other than what would normally be seen as with the more “modern” (post-1700s-Enlightenment) versions of these same faiths. [4]

Armstrong went on to document that much of what we think of as “ancient fundamentalism” in these three religious traditions is sometimes more “modern” than the more contemporary versions of the same faith. Many of the words preached in American Christian fundamentalist churches (especially those with a nationalist flavor) are, first, quite uniquely “American,” and second, mostly sourced back only as far as the early 1900s. [5] And the often-informal current cultural worship experience and demographic expansion of Christian fundamentalism go back only to the rise and cultural acceptance of “contemporary Christian music” in the 1970s and PowerPoint screen projections in the 1980s, making fundamentalist theology more palatable to broader audiences. This is literally not “your father’s Christian fundamentalism” if you are over 40.

I encountered an example of this hidden cultural infusion when I was living in England during the first years of the new century, where I had met several British versions of fundamentalist Christians and Mormons. To a person, all were politically in vocal opposition to the British Conservative Party and most were outspoken socialists, in the classic European sense (not the silly American “talking point” sense). First of all, they would say, “Obviously, Jesus was a socialist.” But perhaps more relevant, the Conservative Party and the state Anglican Church were historically bound at the hip. Especially during the 19th century, the “non-conformist churches” like the Methodists, Baptists, Salvation Army and Mormons were always “outsiders” in the political power structure, and their political identity largely grew up in that “second place” class-bound existence in British society, always in opposition to the economically conservative “Tories.”

My point here is that the overlap between theology and political ideology is very culture-bound, but most people cannot see that from the inside. American religious conservatives, in contrast to my British fundamentalist friends, mostly identify with the Republican Party today, and socialism is a “dirty word” to them. Cultural history often “trumps” theology, and most people in the pew are unaware of “the water in which they swim.”

Pascal’s wager

The French polymath Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) saw this whole epistemology thing as a probabilistic bet, a topic of frequent occurrence in this blog. His famous wager was a four-quadrant set of guesses and outcomes about belief:

 God exists  God does not exist
 My belief in God  Infinite Gain  Finite Loss
 My disbelief in God  Infinite Loss  Finite Gain

If I believe in God and “he” indeed exists, Pascal reasoned, then I get all of the rewards of the afterlife. On the other hand, if I reject God and I am proven correct, I only get a small gain during this life. He saw that as insufficient reward for the potential of an “infinite loss” if he were to “guess wrong” in his disbelief. Thus, Pascal said, he “believes.”

Blaise Pascal

Blaise Pascal

The biggest problem with Pascal’s wager is played out in the religious battles in the U.S. today. Which God? Is it that compassionate, diversity-accepting northeastern Episcopalian God? Or is it the Trumpian God of vengeance and political domination? The bet on “Truth” is still unavoidable.

Back to epistemology, that Episcopalian pastor is more likely to be in fruitful dialog with the scientists, artists, and secular philosophers than her Baptist pastor compatriot about the nature of knowledge and “Truth.” The latter, in contrast, is likely in 180-degree opposition to many in that secular circle on the topic. I have quoted before a now-deceased friend and seeker who would postscript his communications with this statement: “If God is real, then the more you learn about reality, the more you learn about God.” And we are thus back to the Zen master’s stick.

Yuval Noah Harari, the Israeli author of the engaging best-seller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, ties the more fantastical expressions of “Truth” to political loyalty in a recent New York Times opinion piece. And historically, the application to religious loyalty as well is unavoidable:

If political loyalty is signaled by believing a true story, anyone can fake it. But believing ridiculous and outlandish stories exacts greater cost, and is therefore a better signal of loyalty. If you believe your leader only when he or she tells the truth, what does that prove? In contrast, if you believe your leader even when he or she builds castles in the air, that’s loyalty!


Notes:

  1. Dodge, Grenville M. Personal Recollections of President Abraham Lincoln, General Ulysses S. Grant, and General William Tecumseh Sherman, (1914) p. 106. Note that with the “turning blue” of many Southern metropolitan areas such as Atlanta and Houston, and the “turning red” of large swatches of the rural North, any future North-South geographical split becomes impossible.
  2. The best-documented quote here is, “What does a fish know about the water in which he swims all his life?” from Einstein’s memoir Out of My Later Years (Secaucus, NJ: Citadel, 1956, p. 5).
  3. Tillich, Paul, and Carl E. Braaten. A History of Christian Thought from Its Judaic and Hellenistic Origins to Existentialism. Simon and Schuster, 1967.
  4. Armstrong, Karen. The Battle for God. Harper Perennial, 2004.
  5. American Christian Fundamentalism has much of its roots in the Niagara Bible Conference of the late 1800s and a series of essays entitled “The Fundamentals,” published between 1910 and 1915. These centered on six “fundamental” points of Christian doctrine, which largely remain the focus of American Evangelicalism today. Note that you don’t see any mention of compassion or “Christian love” here:
    • The doctrinal inerrancy of the Bible.
    • The literal nature of the biblical accounts, especially regarding the miracles of Jesus and the six-day Creation account in Genesis.
    • The virgin birth of Jesus.
    • The bodily resurrection and physical return of Christ.
    • The doctrine of substitutionary atonement (“Christ died for my sins”).

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7 thoughts on “Kids, can you say epistemology?

  1. Lisa7

    Excellent post.
    Karl Rove recognized that he could leverage (white) Evangelicals expressly because they had already proven, by virtue of their religious affiliation and beliefs, that they would unquestioningly accept what others in their social/faith community told them, regardless of the veracity of those statements. Throw in a few wedge issues to close the deal, like abortion rights, social welfare, and judicial appointments, and voilà, George W. Bush is elected.

    Reply
  2. Bruce Lindgren

    As you noted in an earlier post, Tertullian did not actually say, “I believe because it is absurd.” His actual statement (“It is certain because it is impossible”) is part of a much more nuanced and rational discussion about how the Son of God could have been born in a human body and could have died a human death. The phrase, as commonly stated, comes from criticisms of religion during the Enlightenment; and it has also found favor with those who assert a modern Christian fideism (the idea that our belief in a proposition is more reliable than rational analysis). So, the larger point is valid, but we should probably not make poor Tertullian bear the burden.

    Reply
    1. @rklindgren Post author

      Yes, I earlier nuanced this phrase from Tertulian. I think, though, that the fundamentalist side these days buys more into that “believe because it is absurd” position. Many of the wackier QAnon and “Stop the Steal” conspiracies are based on the reaction that the more crazier it sounds, the more it must be true. Don’t argue about a few thousand votes – go straight to “Biden stole 15 million votes nationwide.” Trump himself says he won EVERY state. That is the very definition of “absurd.” And millions believe it.

      Reply
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