Most Americans are no doubt aware of the tragedy of the oil slick coating the Gulf Coast from the damaged petroleum rig. What they might not be aware of is the attitude among elites of how we as citizens and consumers are simply to go along with whatever position they craft as a response regarding the matter.
A headline from the 5/25/10 online edition of the Washington Post bemoans "For Some Washington Drivers, Convenience Outweighs Calls For BP Gas Boycott”. The story laments the tendency of certain consumers who “...prioritize convenience over taking a moral or political stand.”
For starters, in this day where it is constantly pounded into our heads that no one is to impose their views on any one else or to even dare to suggest that certain values might be superior to others, on what grounds are we expected to do something because someone with no real binding authority over us tells us to?
Many of the rabblerousers behind the BP boycott are some of the same nags behind the boycott of the state of Arizona regarding the immigration law. Yet these crusaders would turn around and become moral libertines if some pro-family coalition organized a boycott of states such as Vermont authorizing sodomite matrimony.
In all fairness, busybody progressives are not the only ones to use boycotts not so much in pursuit of a policy objective but rather to exert power and control over their respective constituencies.
I remember in the early 90’s in some Christian circles how an edict was handed down how the truly spiritual wouldn’t shop at K-Mart because at the time its B. Dalton Booksellers subsidiary was selling a line of erotic novels. From the vehemence behind the pronouncement, one almost feared the possibility of expulsion from the more doctrinally rigorous Christian schools if it was discovered that was where one’s parents shopped every once in a while.
It is a good thing to have as much information as possible as to the implications of one’s socioeconomic decisions. However, when an interest group advances beyond the function of conveying information regarding a perfectly legal and acceptable product to demanding that a certain action be taken in response to the purveyors of the product for reasons tangential rather than inherent to the particular product in question and threaten with sanction or approbation those deciding not to go along with the particular campaign, the group presenting the overly enthusiastic warning may also require additional scrutiny as a threat to our liberty.
The next epistemological methodology is rationalism. Of rationalism, Geisler writes, "Rationalism is characterized by its stress on the innate a priori ability of human reason to know truth. Basically, rationalists hold that what is knowable or demonstrable by human reason is true (29)." To the rationalist, the mind takes precedence over experience and the information acquired through the senses as a foundation for truth and knowledge.
In a rationalist methodology, there exists in the mind a number of innate ideas or principles that allow the individual to arrive at an understanding of the universe. These include principles of logic such as the law of noncontradiction. It is from contemplation upon ideas generated through reflection upon such foundational principles that the thinker is able to postulate systems of truth in a manner reminiscent of mathematics and geometry.
For example, in his system, Descartes started from his "cogito, ergo, sum (I think, therefore I am)" as his ability to doubt was the one thing he could not doubt. From here, Descartes built a theistic proof.
Descartes begins this with the admission that, since he lacks knowledge, he is imperfect. However, to realize one is imperfect, one must have knowledge that perfection exists. Yet perfection cannot arise from within the imperfect. Therefore, there must be a perfect mind from which perfection originates and this is God (31).
An apologetic utilizing the rationalist approach possesses a number of strengths as well as drawbacks. As to its strengths, the rationalist method stresses a consistency of reality.
It follows that a rational God would create a universe that regularly operates in accord with verifiable laws that we as His creations would be able to arrive at through deliberative contemplation. As rationalists posit, the mind to an extent must possess some kind of mental architecture to process the jumble of sense experiences the individual is bombarded with almost constantly. Even Scripture indicates that part of man's knowledge regarding God and His character is innate as Romans says that even the Gentiles, who were not formally given the Law in the same direct manner as their Hebrew counterparts, still had many aspects of the Law written upon their hearts.
Despite the strengths of the rationalist approach to apologetics, the methodology is not without drawbacks. The foremost is the acknowledgement that it can be argued that the rationally consistent does not always translate into the realm of necessarily actual and does not provide the bedrock certainty its advocates claim. For example, regarding the ontological argument, Geisler notes, "But it is not logically necessary for a necessary Being to exist anymore than it is for a triangle to exist...But the point here is that there is no purely logical way to eliminate the 'if' (43)."
Of the next religious epistemology, fideism, Geisler writes, "In view of the fact that empiricism led to skepticism...and that rationalism cannot rationally demonstrate its first principles, fideism becomes a more reliable option in religious epistemology. Perhaps there is no rational or evidential way to establish Christianity (47)." Thus fideism holds that truth in religious matters rests on an accepting faith rather than a critical scrutiny.
As with the other methodologies, fideism comes in a variety shades. On its more moderate side, one finds Blaise Pascal. At the more extreme end of the spectrum, one would find the likes of Karl Barth.
As a fideist, one might find Pascal a bit subdued. Though one would assume reason had no place in fideism, Pascal did not dismiss rational appeals outright. He just did not build his foundation or case upon them. Of Pascal's position, Geisler writes, "A proof at best may be the instrument by which God places faith in one's heart (49)."
Thus, the real difference between Pascal and the rationalist was basically a differing estimation in what each thought reason could achieve. To the rationalist, the thinker is able to deduce their way to a logically irrefutable foundation for a belief in God. To Pascal, such proofs were not absolutely conclusive and the chasm separating doubt and certainty had to be crossed by a bridge of faith.
Since at best, in the mind of Pascal, the individual is left with a fifty/fifty chance regarding the existence of God, the matter did not come down to a dispassionate calculation but rather to a matter of personal existential destiny best summarized by his famous wager (49). According to this wager, if the odds as to whether or not God exists are about even, one is better off believing God exists and then be proven wrong since upon death you would merely pass out of existence than to say God does not exist and then be proven wrong upon death as then one would end up in Hell.
At the other end of fideism's spectrum stands the Neo-Orthodox such as Karl Barth. According to Barth, God is "wholly other" in that God can only be known through faith in revelation. Geisler summarizes Barth's position as such: "We do not know the Bible is God's Word by any objective evidence. It is a self-attesting truth (54)." Thus to the Barthian, the accounts contained in the Bible transpired on a plane beyond the parameters of objective, investigative history. One either accepts them by faith or one does not. Therefore, the believer does not have to answer and is immune from those such as the Higher Critics claiming to apply the rigors of scholarship to the scriptural texts in the hopes of either authenticating or discrediting these documents.
As with rationalism, fideism has both strengths and drawbacks. Fideists are to be commended for holding that the God of the Bible is much more than the God of mathematics. Though there is merit in the attempt to prove that belief in God does not violate reason and logic, there is a great danger in reducing God to the level of a distant first cause not all that interested in how human beings live their daily lives. Fidesits are also correct that ultimately, no matter how much evidence one might collect or how many syllogisms one might be able to deduce, one has to make a leap of faith over those gaps of doubt that remain no matter how small they might be.
Yet despite the strength of their methodology, it has shortcomings as well. Foremostly, fideism makes it very difficult to engage in a debate or discussion with someone holding to another worldview if one must accept a comprehensive system of faith solely by faith without evaluating between them with some agreed upon criteria. Geisler writes, "...either a fideist offers a justification for his belief or else he does not. If he does not, then as unjustified belief it has no rightful claim to knowledge (63)."
For anyone pursuing a degree in Apologetics that was given a dollar for every time they were asked "What is that, learning how to say you are sorry" upon answering the question of what it is that they study so many times, many would have financed a considerable portion of their academic pursuits. Unfortunately, such ignorance as to what exactly this theological discipline entails symbolizes the neglect the defense of the faith has fallen into in the contemporary church and is one of the reasons that everywhere the believer and student of religion turns today they find Christianity losing considerable ground both within and without its boundaries to a wide variety of opponents and adversaries. To the serious student of this field of study, one of the best tools around which to build a fundamental understanding of the discipline's ins and outs is "Christian Apologetics" by Norman Geisler, one of the field's foremost living practitioners.
Basic to any academic discipline is the approach or methodology which scholars and researchers apply to the subject matter. The field of Apologetics is no different. Geisler lists the methodologies to knowledge in general and about God in particular as agnosticism, rationalism, fideism, experientialism, evidentialism, pragmatism, and combinationalism. In the course of his analysis, Geisler evaluates each in terms of their epistemology regarding religious matters and how these approaches stack up under the weight of being scrutinized by their own criteria.
The first approach to knowledge of God is agnosticism. Coined by T.H. Huxley, the term agnosticism means "no knowledge" and thus contends one is unable to know anything about God (13).
Agnosticism is itself divided into two branches. The one holds that not yet enough conclusive evidence pointing in one direction or the other regarding the existence of God has been gathered. The other holds that God is not knowable.
Of the agnostics that claim God is not knowable, this claim is based upon their understanding of the nature of knowledge. Drawing upon David Hume's Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding and A.J. Ayers' Language, Truth, & Logic, these agnostics have divided the tree of actual knowledge into two branches.
The first variety of valid statements are analytic statements meaning they are valid by the terms of their definitions. For example, all bachelors are unmarried. The second type of valid statements are known as synthetic and are what we would refer to as matters of fact as they are about empirically gathered data (17).
Geisler writes of the agnostic views regarding talk about God, "For the term 'God' is neither analytic nor synthetic; that is, it is neither offered by the theist as an empty contentless definition corresponding to nothing in reality nor is it filled with empirical content since 'God' is allegedly a supraempirical being. Hence, it is literally nonsense to talk about God (18)."
To the aspiring apologist hoping to present an objective case for the Christian faith beyond how warm and fuzzy Jesus makes their innards, it may seem that the agnostic methodology has struck an early and potentially crippling blow to this noble effort. However, a bit of careful reflection may even the scales once more between the agnostic and the Christian.
The lofty sounding name given to this epistemology of language is the Verification Principle. If the Christian turns the Verification Principle back on itself, one sees it is self-referentially incoherent as the concept cannot live up to its own criteria as the Verification Principle is neither purely definitional or merely a statement of fact.
Thus to remain consistent, the agnostic must admit that, since our knowledge of the empirical and metaphysical realms is limited, by definition of man's own finitude, this understanding cannot be totally comprehensive. Of those unwilling to admit God may exist in those reaches man cannot fully fathom, Geisler writes, "And there is simply no way short of omniscience that one can make such sweeping and categorical statements about reality...Hence total agnosticism is only self-defeating. Only an omniscient mind could be totally agnostic and finite men do not possess omniscience (27)."