I’ve already run the Subjective, Objective, True series too long, I admit, and yet I haven’t gotten to say everything. I won’t pretend that this is definitely the last follow-up, as I might have left other important things out, but here’s a bit of expansion on some good questions that people have asked me in the comments section. In this section the meddling English teacher presumes to dip his fingers not only into Continental philosophy but also into Constitutional law, so I hope that our readers will not hesitate to jump in on the conversation and to propose alternative readings. Truth is on the line here.
So here’s the essay!
True for You
Objective Truth was never intended to give validity to claims about an unseen God; it has to do with objects, with the material things that Kant said are inaccessible to human cognition. Hegel and his Marxist descendents countered with Objective Truth: human cognition of its own power acquires objects themselves, not transcendent objects non-identical but related to the objects themselves. The doctrine is not supposed to support but to make unnecessary claims about unseen and heavenly happenings. Yet evangelicals, since I’ve been aware of evangelicals (I’m only 30), have always seemed enamored of the phrase. The problem is that playing defense against bad philosophy tends to lead to the defenders’ (or the apologists’, if you prefer Hellenisms) asking bad questions, which in turn leads to bad answers. This section will attempt to lay out the terms of some better questions to ask.
Of course, this confusion is not entirely the fault of evangelical apologists; their conversation partners have not been honest about their claims, and a brief treatment of some of the typical ones might, I think, shed some light both on why evangelicals don’t need Objective Truth and on why Christians as a community need to read more philosophy. (Hey, I teach philosophy. Of course I’m going to pitch for it.)
Tony Jones’s book Postmodern Youth Ministry begins with a story about a conversation he had as a young man with an agnostic. Armed with his C.S. Lewis “liar, lunatic, or lord” quote, he set about the work of convincing the young woman of the significance of Jesus’ claims to lordship. I don’t have the book on hand (loaned it to a youth minister, and it’s not the only book I’ve lost to a youth minister), but her response was something along the lines of, “That might be true for you, but it’s not for me.” As I remember it, Jones spends the rest of the chapter talking about the conversation as representative of the shifts from modernist to postmodernist modes of knowing.
Now before I get to the main point, I should say that the later chapters of Jones’s book, which use Alasdair MacIntyre quite nicely in the proposal of new ways to be Church in a consumer society, are quite good. But those new philosophies, deconstruction and new historicism the big ones, that arose out of post-Stalinist Continental philosophy, helpful in their own ways when they’re doing what they actually do, have little to do with any claims about “true for you.” Instead such an individualistic claim simply performs a bit of philosophical sleight of hand.
The sentiment, of course, is not uncommon, but it is sleight of hand nonetheless. Unfortunately, evangelicals might have taken a simple internalization of formal law and taken it as an assertion of some kind of radical Kantianism. More likely, though, evangelicals have misread the question at hand and attempted to engage it not in terms of a critique of formalism but in the vocabularies of the subjective/objective split. In other words, I shall argue, Objective Truth is entirely the wrong place to go when one encounters such “true for you” claims.
(Don’t worry; I’ll explain some of these terms in a minute.)
Formalism and Interiority
Article 6 of the United States Constitution declares that “religion” (one of those words that took on entirely too much freight in the Enlightenment) should not be a factor that keeps a man from being a political candidate:
The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the members of the several state legislatures, and all executive and judicial officers, both of the United States and of the several states, shall be bound by oath or affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.
The principle here, expanded to all of the operations of the new United States government, later became the first part of the first amendment to the Constitution:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof[.]
Thus American law, and later European and some other national bodies of law, set into place a formal tolerance of all “religions.” Such a move made the young United States of America a liberal government, one governed by laws that free up space for difference to occur peaceably. One working assumption behind such laws is that any given person will adhere only to one system of thought about God and the gods, that a Deist like Thomas Jefferson can live with but is not the same as an Episcopalian like Patrick Henry. (If I got the Patrick Henry bit wrong, someone please help me.) Thus the form of common life is, among other things, one which tolerates differences in creeds, while the people within that form are one thing or another.
As the years passed, and as the United States continued to exist as and to pride itself upon being a nation governed by laws and not by men (an idea first lived by the Republican Romans (my own favorite kind of Republicans) and written down by Aristotle), the people predictably started to internalize the form of their laws. They began, like John Milton, paradoxically to value the reading and later listening to and watching of all kinds of things as being “well-rounded” and simultaneously to disavow the possibility that reading or listening to or watching anything might hinder one’s progress towards a good life. Thus the freedom of press article of the first amendment became a way of life upon which individual practices arose. Likewise with the institution of militias in the second amendment–even as America established what would become the most extensive and expensive standing military in human history (contrary to the ideals of the anti-monarchical militia tradition), vocal organizations rose up to insist upon private ownership of weapons without the corresponding call for a reduction of standing armies, in other words upon the form of the amendment irrespective of the decline of the actual militia.
With regards to religion, Americans and Europeans began to think of toleration less as a formal principle for common life (consumerism has been eroding genuinely common life for some time now) and more as an internal disposition, an assertion that within the individual, any sort of intellectual system should be just as acceptable as any other. They took what was common and made it internal to the individual. Thus the sleight of hand.
Say What You Mean
So when Tony Jones’s conversation partner called the Christian faith “true for you,” she actually took into herself the form of American and European common life, moving toleration away from the forum and into the psyche. Such a move appears hubristic, but more than likely it simply conceals from the ideologue herself an ideology that claims to be a space for other ideologies. Thus liberal law (a la the Constitution) becomes ideological liberalism. Who would claim that the Christian gospel is “true for you but not for me” would claim to encompass multitudes, to stand as a microcosmic society-within rather than one, historically contingent person. The work that such an ideology actually does is to situate all “religions” (the word itself, as I said, is fraught ever since John Locke wrote so eloquently about its toleration) underneath the liberal observer, as common attempts to reach some prior human experience.
One common evangelical response, unfortunately, has been to take the claim at its face value and to work from the starting point that the person really believes that ultimate truth lies within the philosophical Subject. What such responses (which often culminate in appeals to Objective Truth) ignores is that in order to assert such interiority, the speaker must assume that whatever else truth is, it relies on a higher truth, namely that all claims about things like God, gods, and the unseen coexist in the world as equals, subject to an individual’s taste.
So the proper response to such a claim is not to turn to Objects and Subjects (after all, one is talking about psychology and ontology, and Objective Truth itself has its own materialistic conclusions about those) but rather to address the assumptions behind the individualistic claim. To assume that a confession about the Creator of all can be true for one but not for another is to assume that “religion” is basically a more elaborate kind of fairy tale and that the Grimm brothers and their ideological descendant Joseph Campbell are basically right when they write that the stories and symbols that humans use are all basically the same, that all of them function primarily as therapeutic tools for adjusting to a hard world and that their goodness rests not on the truth of their claims but on how much they heal the psychic damage that the harshness of human life in the world causes. To say that Christianity does not “work” for one is already to set aside the prior questions about whether or not Christianity’s claims are true. “Health” in the liberal mold is the overarching truth here; “ideas” are merely playing pieces on liberalism’s board.
But there’s that truth word again. If indeed Lukacksian Marxism and evangelical Christianity, to use two examples that make ontological claims, assert contrary to one another things about reality, if they claim that the other is in fact false (they do), what then? The answer is that humility and patience, two things that Christians ought to learn again and again, come into play.
Local Conversations, Global Claims
One bad habit of Christian apologetics is to make claims so broad as to be unsupportable. If someone writes that all religions do anything, someone likely writes falsehood. Every city and every body is worth examining on its own terms, at least if one believes that God’s creation sustains a capacity for complexity (I do). And since all intellectual traditions exist as embodied and political traditions, to say things about all of them at once will inevitably miss the best or the worst or even everything important about Marxists or Muslims or Militants. When we Christians offer up reasons for our hope, we ought to do so in small settings, remembering that our intellectual work happens not in the abstract but from the chairs in which we sit, using the experiences only of one lifetime and the cognitive capacities only of humans. We simply cannot see enough at one time to make such calls. So the boldness with which we proclaim Christ’s lordship should live side by side with the acknowledgment that we the messengers are not fully adequate to the message.
A blast from the medieval past should be helpful here. Thomas Aquinas defines humility as twofold, keeping the human soul both from despair and from ambition:
Now it has been stated above that for those appetitive movements which are a kind of impulse towards an object, there is need of a moderating and restraining moral virtue, while for those which are a kind of recoil, there is need, on the part of the appetite, of a moral virtue to strengthen it and urge it on. Wherefore a twofold virtue is necessary with regard to the difficult good: one, to temper and restrain the mind, lest it tend to high things immoderately; and this belongs to the virtue of humility: and another to strengthen the mind against despair, and urge it on to the pursuit of great things according to right reason; and this is magnanimity. Therefore it is evident that humility is a virtue. (Link)
Humility, then, opposes both the tendency to think too highly of the self’s ability to know everything and the tendency to think too lowly of the self’s ability to know anything. If Christians foster this virtue properly, we will at the same time live as if our convictions are true and be willing to listen to accounts of things ultimate from anyone willing to live out other claims to truth. In other words, in the terms I laid out in part 3 of this essay, Christian truth points to the common life of the Church, the Eucharist and the proclamation of the Gospel and baptism into a genuinely Christian common life, rather than asserting an access to messenger +1 that Objective Truth would have to assert in order to say anything about unseen reality.
Played out, such would mean that I could have a conversation with a Marxist in which I point out the tendencies in Marxism that resonate with Christian theology and those parts that ring false in the light of Christian revelation but that, upon reflecting upon that tradition, I do not assume that the differences between Christian theology and Marxism are the same kinds of differences that lie between Christianity and Islam. Instead I wait (there’s the patience) for opportunities to converse with Muslims, always ready to give reasons but not assuming that they’re the same reasons that engage well with Marxism.
The habit of mind that we Christians must develop is not to think of Christianity and Marxism, to return to my examples, of being two gladiators in the same ring. To do so is already to concede to liberalism and to admit that one needs to appeal to something outside of those traditions in order to render them “Objective” and thus true. After all, if both of those traditions need to appeal to a common higher court, it stands to reason that the higher court is actually more true than either claimant within it. Instead, we must take on Marxism’s attempts to make intelligible what we Christians call creation and they call reality. We must craft apologetics not against “philosophy” or “religion” in general but respond to actual Lukacs texts and Lenin texts and Adorno texts and Althusser texts. To do so is to take away the power of the liberal ideology, to acknowledge that “ideas” do not exist in individuals’ heads in isolation from “the real world” but to acknowledge that Marxist Reality and Christian Creation are in fact different and that the liberal “real world” is not a common denominator but itself relies on unspoken philosophical assumptions.
As this happens, our teachings about creation do not lose their force; in fact, they become more authoritative. Even as we respond differently to Lacanian psychoanalysis than we do to early Wittgensteinian analytic philosophy, we claim to tell the world truthfully about creation and redemption and sin and goodness. The difference is not that we abandon claims to tell the truth but that we stop thinking about ourselves as one “religion” in a stack of religions, needing to appeal to the liberal Objective because the Gospel cannot stand on its own. Instead we ought to talk to Marxists in terms of Christian doctrine, noting that their concern for the deceptions of the powerful is one common with the prophets and with Jesus, yet noting that their claims about “religion” do not compel the human imagination the way that the true narrative of the true God does and that their vision of true humanity simply is not as humane as Christian imaginings of the human. We must learn each other’s languages, not to transcend language but to tell the old, old story of Jesus and His love.
The Marxist, of course, will do similar things, saying that our dedication to “religion” is one more bourgeois illusion. Their aim is not to appeal to a liberal Objective but to convince us that what we regard as truth is in fact a lie perpetuated by the powerful. The temptation at this point, one which we Christians ought to resist, is to appeal to some third universe, bigger than the Christian one and the Marxist one, that encompasses both. To do so is not to escape ideology but to surrender to one particular ideology, liberalism. And liberalism, as it turns out, is no friend either to Marxists or to Christians, so long as either tradition wants to speak the truth rather than liberal therapy.
Why Should I Believe?
So, an objector might object, our Marxist and our Christian are at an impasse. The Christian narrates Marxism as a defective version of Amos, and the Marxist narrates Christianity as a superstitious step on the road to Objective Truth. If the liberal appeal to intellectual therapy is itself simply a third ideology, then we still have no way to adjudicate between the three.
Both Christian theology and Marxist philosophy have room for changes in the consciousness of the thinker. The Marxists, living this belief out, focus a great deal upon propaganda, the teaching of Marxism to the working class for the sake of altering consciousness which in turn happens so that the workers might organize the revolution. And 250 years before Marx and Engels wrote The Communist Manifesto, Christians invented the Propaganda.
My point here is that both traditions, contrary to common formulations of Objective Truth, acknowledge that conversion is as much an existential as an informational event. In other words, the proclamation of the Gospel is a mandate and a material cause for the increase of the Church but not itself an efficient cause. To try it one more time, many are called but few chosen.
So to return to humility, a proper Christian humility in evangelism must at once refrain from claiming to stand above all traditions (after all, one stands within Christian traditions) while also refraining from despairing that no tradition at all is intelligible (after all, one must at some point have been convinced of Christian traditions). To make either of these moves is to abandon humility in favor of the hubris of liberalism or the despair of nihilism. One may tell the story of one’s move between traditions, but one’s story is always an ex-liberal’s story or an ex-Marxist’s story or an ex-Christian’s story. Nonetheless, such a story ought to make some claim to truth; if not, there was no cause for the change.
So much for brevity. To conclude, when we Christians talk about truth, we talk in terms of a totalizing narrative, one that accounts for creation and redemption, birth and death and birth from above and a second death, things seen and unseen. To reduce such a narrative to one of many “religions” is already to assume that a larger narrative, some form of liberalism, is the real, overriding truth. And to make appeals to Objective Truth is to do the same, only adding that in a liberal universe, our tradition is the best buy in the liberal therapy market. Instead of running down that bunny trail, we Christians ought to give reasons in our own terms, looking to liturgy rather than to speculation and to Church rather than marketplace as the controlling metaphors for what we do. As we train ourselves to resist the temptation to be the best product in the liberal “marketplace of ideas,” some will come to the truth of Christ Jesus and some won’t. But we Christians, shrewd as serpents as we’re called to be, will know when a doubter is saying what he doesn’t mean.