Monday, August 12, 2013

A Minor Rant in Response to Thaddeus Kozinski's "The Relative Absoluteness of Truth"-

So, this post has been percolating for a while now, but thanks to certain life-events (as in, a new job, moving cross country, visiting relatives, prepping for classes, and so forth) I just haven't had time to give this the attention it deserves. I still probably haven't given this the attention it deserves, but I also think that I shouldn't let it keep sitting around. And so without further ado:

I was recently [i.e. last February--told you it's been a while] privileged to be a discussant at the Ciceronian Society conference, where I was asked to comment and lead a discussion on, among others, Dr. Thaddeus Kozinski's paper titled "The Relative Absoluteness of Truth." His paper is interesting, well-written, and worthy of more response and discussion than it got at the conference (he was part of a three-person presentation, and there just wasn't time to hit everything in each of their papers). You can (and should!) read the whole thing here. For those who don't, here's a brief summary:

In broad strokes, Dr. Kozinski's argument is that when engaging in apologetics, we should remember that we are not neutral actors searching for the absolute and universal truth with objective rationality. Instead, we are shaped by tradition and inherited beliefs that we assume without much reflection. Which is fine, he argues, since our knowledge of the absolute and the universal comes through tradition and the particular in any case. But! If we want to figure out which aspects of the things we think we know are actually "true" Truth, we have to take a step back and examine our traditions and the ways in which we have inherited patterns of thought. We have, as it were, to become temporary relativists in order to arrive at a more certain knowledge of the ideal. Doing so is not so much a preparation for loosing our moral foundations (as is normally the charge laid against relativism) as it is a way to work towards humility, and possibly even a precursor to conversion. "Conversion", in this instance, being conversion to Catholicism.

For example, Dr. Kozinski notes that when engaging with Evangelical Protestants, he has noticed that we (I being an Evangelical Protestant, albeit not one he has personally engaged) are rarely aware that we are thinking and believing within a tradition that has taught us to hold beliefs like sola scriptura. If we would only stop and reflect on the fact (well, "fact") that we hold this belief solely because we are raised in a tradition that teaches it, we will be in much better shape to both search for absolute truth and be more open to conversion to the "real" truth of Catholicism, whose tradition is of course the right tradition.

I have two points in response which I couldn't bring up at the time. It was an academic setting and I was a discussant, and neither of these is particularly academic-discussion worthy. For those who don't know, being a "discussant" means that you've read the paper in advance before the conference (often only the night before) and have prepared a couple of comments or questions intended to highlight critical points and give the presenter opportunities to bring out broader implications of the his work. In other words, the discussant is supposed to ask questions that make the paper writers look good. (Unless of course they've committed some sort of critical error--bad information, a faulty logical conclusion, etc. Fortunately, none of the papers I read did those things--they were all excellent and well written!)

That said, I had thoughts that weren't academically germane, but are totally blog-ally germane.

First, a technical-ish point that may be less of an actual "point of contention" and more me just being nit-picky (hence my not raising it). Dr. Kozinski suggests that his idea is one which is "seldom discussed." Granted, I'm not really up on my Catholic apologetic literature, but I would point out that in fact there is a major stream of Christian apologetics dedicated entirely to doing exactly what Dr. Kozinski says apologists should be doing. "Presuppositionalism" is the apologetic school of thought which argues that the primary point of evangelism should be challenging the individual to examine their own presuppositions. This stands opposed to "evidentialism," which argues that a rational presentation of logical arguments and evidence should be the chief tools of witnessing (though Dr. Kozinski does not give it that name, this is the kind of evangelism he is arguing against).

Anyway, that's less of an issue. I don't really expect a Catholic academic to have much exposure to folks like Schaeffer, Van Til, Frame, and the others in that stream of thought.

Here's the thing I really wanted to stand on a table and shout: I know you are, but what am I? The charge levied against Evangelicals is actually something which Catholics are actually more guilty of. At least, the majority of the Catholics I've encountered are. (I suppose the ones I've run into aren't necessarily a representative sample, but I think almost eight years at Catholic University--including seven years of going to the Basilica every Saturday and meeting up with dedicated Catholics, as well as eight years of working with and teaching Catholic undergrads--should make these observations worth something.)

An important note: There is a stereotype that Catholics are bad at reading and knowing the Bible. This stereotype is true (at least, according to both my experience and according to my Catholic friends--again, I'm not really making any objective and absolute claims here), though in fairness Catholics have been getting better at this since the encouragements of Vatican II. I mention this not as an aside, but as something which will be critical in just a bit. Again, Catholics are not terribly well informed when it comes to the Bible. Hold that thought, we'll be back to it.

I got my first real exposure to any kind of thoughtful Catholicism several years ago when I moved to Washington DC to attend The Catholic University of America. In response to my admittedly uninformed Protestantism (I could have explained the Gospel, maybe, after a while and some prompting, but that was about the extent of my theological formation), some of my older Catholic classmates made the claim that they knew that the Catholic Church is the true church, existing in unbroken succession from Peter to (at the time) Benedict. If only, I was assured, I took the time to examine the Catholic liturgy, to see the tradition on display in the mass, and to explore the development of the Catholic hierarchy, I would understand that as a Protestant I had separated myself from the only valid historical Christian church. While I never really bought any of those claims, I at least thought the challenge to study church history was a valid one. (My undergraduate institution had only offered limited opportunities to do so.) So over the next few years I accepted the challenge and took a number of classes at CUA (if you're a student there--the series of courses by Dr. Minnich covering the church from the Renaissance through the Counter Reformation are fantastic), sat in on the introductory Sunday School overview of church history at my own church, and did a bit of study on my own (some of the resources I used are listed below).

As I learned more about church history and discussed some of these issues with my Catholic friends, a conversational pattern that developed looked something like this:
1) A topic of conversation would come up.
Example: The nature of the Lord's Supper: Is it a symbolic ceremony, an actual sacrifice involving the "real presence" of Jesus' body and blood, or something in between? 
2) The Catholic will claim that his Church simply holds to what has always been taught without change.
Example: Transubstantiation has been taught since the early church. Perhaps we don't always have a record of it (since texts get lost and all), but even if it's just the oral tradition we can trust that the church has never changed on the subject. 
3) I point out that this is not in fact historically the case, usually based on something I learned at CUA.
Example: Transubstantiation in fact has not always been taught by the church, and the record of the development of the doctrine is not lost to history. It was actually a major subject of discussion in the 8th and 9th centuries, and was little developed to any extent before then. (The major discussants were Ratramnus and Radbertus.) The Early Church certainly practiced the Lord's Supper, but never really gave an in-depth articulation of what they thought was going on in the ceremony. Since the 9th century, there has been no unity on the question among Christians. (For every Aquinas claiming a real presence of the body and blood of Christ, there has been a Wycliffe claiming that it's symbolic.) 
4) The Catholic replies that they are ignorant of the actual historical substance of the conversation, and instead are simply going along with what they have been told by the church or taught in CCD (the education given to Catholic children and converts). 
This applies to functionally any point of theological contention, be it images, the role and person of Mary, ecclesiology, etc. This is not of course true of every Catholic or every subject, but it has been a general pattern.

Now, my point is not to run down the historical ignorance of Catholics regarding their own tradition--Dr. Kozinski is quite right to point out that the problem is equally severe in the Evangelical world (how many of us have actually read any Calvin or Luther, or even know who Charles Spurgeon is for that matter?). My point is that in the context of his arguments, Catholics are actually more reliant on a blind faith generated by their tradition than most Evangelicals. This is because Catholics not only don't know their tradition, they don't know their Bible either.

While Evangelicals are ignorant of the historical forces and traditions that have helped to shape our faith, we at least have a knowledge of that which on which our faith is built, that is, the Bible. True, we don't know our history, but at least we know our Bibles. In trusting to the "tradition" Catholics have tended to know and care less about the content of Scripture. But in likewise not really knowing anything about that tradition, Catholics end up knowing neither Scripture nor history and so have a faith that is blinder than anything we Evangelicals could summon even if we really tried.

So while Dr. Kozinski's challenge to examine our own presuppositions is a valid and useful one for Evangelicals, it is an even more valid one for Catholics. While we Evangelicals do not always know our own historically-formed presuppositions, we at least know the truths of Scripture which those presuppositions help us to understand and embrace.
We should work to correct this ignorance on our part as Evangelicals, and Catholics by and large would do well to do the same. Of course, they should correct the problem of the knowledge of Scripture first--that is a much more critical lack than the epistemological/historical one.

And, there you go. That's the rant I did not deliver several months ago. Admire my restraint!


If you want to expand your own historical knowledge, here are some good places to start:

Free:
R.W. Glenn's lectures
Covenant Seminary (free with registration)

Not free, but worth the $:
Philip Schaff's History of the Christian Church (8 Volumes, Apostolic Church through the Swiss Reformation; The first volume should be skimmed, but the other seven are fantastic! Also available for free here or on a cheap Kindle version here.)
Steven Tomkins' A Short History of Christianity (Comes recommended by J.I. Packer and Monty Python's Terry Jones!)
Justo Gonzalez's The Story of Christianity (A quick, fun read! Gonzalez has also written a survey that's a good introduction to the whole subject.)

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