4 Attempts at Approaching God

Over Christmas my brother-in-law, who is a fellow pastor, wanted to have a conversation about approaches to God – specifically as it related to epistemology.

Although we both went to the same Bible college more then 20 years ago, our paths have headed in different directions and our hope was to compare notes and see where some common ground might be found for future conversations about ministry and christian spirituality.

 I thought it would be fun to throw out my initial schematic here and ask for some help in refining / overhauling it. 

I started with 4 basic historic approaches and then added a layer where each of the 4 approaches had 2 directions. Each approach has the possibility of starting with the notion of ‘god’ and then working out to the concept or starting with the concept and working toward the notion of god.


 4 Approaches pic

  •  

    Ethics has been a popular approach in the past. It is not as popular after the events of the 20th century (WWII, global pluralism and post-modern theory being 3 reasons why).

The problem here seems to be that starting with ‘god’ does not inherently result in clear ethics. In fact, those who have attempted to take the ethics approach often run into the problem that the two don’t necessarily equate. It is obvious that those who believe in ‘god’ are not more ethical than those who don’t believe in that same god or any god for that matter.

To make matters worse, starting with ethics (the outside-in direction) has a tough time getting all the way to ‘god’ by trying to equate ethics with evidence that there is a god. While you can see that the ethics and belief in god may have some overlap, it is not the most efficient of effective approach and thus it has fallen out of favor.

  • Revelation is a tried-and-true approach historically. Protestants of almost every stripe love this approach. From fundamentalist to thoughtful Barthians and even the Radical Orthodox crowd feast on a steady diet of the revelation approach.

That God reveals god’s-self in creation, in history, in scripture and in experience is a staple of the christian religion. The problem is that there is often a gap. If you start with what is revealed you might not make it all the way to God… and likewise, if you start with God it can be tough to make it all the way out to what is revealed. The problems come in things like Biblical (historic) criticism, modern science and the pesky pluralism of the post-colonial era.

  • Reductive approaches are perhaps the post problematic. We are haunted in late modernity by this shadow of foundationalism. As we are all aware, the scientific reductionism of the New Atheists is just the flip-side of the coin from fundamentalists like Jerry Falwell. If you start out there, you never make it in to God. If you start with God, you never make it all the way out there.

This approach has left us with a nasty enlightenment hangover and many (if not most) people are weary of the contentious and often combative result of this attempt of making your way in the world.

  • Linguistic approaches (I include the hermeneutical crowd in this) seem to me the most promising in the 21st century. The problem, however, is that they can often be so different from classic or historic approaches that the uninitiated have a difficult time even recognizing them as the same christianity one is trying to engage.

Take for instance the much debated sentences of Jack Caputo. What does it even mean that God does not exist but that God insists? Is god just a concept of our highest good? And how does one fend off the Feuerbach critique that religion is nothing more than a human projection by talking about ‘language games’?

Does god ontologically exist or not? Is the linguistic approach just a fancy way of skirting the question of metaphysics? Most importantly, for the epistemology question that we were originally attempting to get setup, how do you even more forward if linguistics/hermeneutics are your preferred entry point?

So that is my “4 Approaches – 2 Directions” schematic. It lead to a fruitful conversation even while it clearly needed some adjustments.

I would welcome your thoughts, questions, concerns, revisions, suggestions and innovations. 

p.s. I’m going to start linking to the Kindle version of Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms at the bottom every post. It is only $5 and it is so helpful new readers of this blog.

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24 comments
johnboy sylvest
johnboy sylvest

Reduction might be roughly mapped, methodologically, as descriptive science; Ethics, as normative philosophy; Revelation, as interpretive religion; and Linguistics, as evaluative culture.

If we think of epistemology as being inherently normative (rule governed) and axiological (value oriented), this relationship seems to be in play: The normative mediates between the descriptive and interpretive to realize the evaluative.

Less abstractly, whenever we encounter a reality, we ask: 1) what is that? and describe it best we can, then ask: 2) what's that to us? and evaluate it best we can, before asking: 3) what's the best way to acquire or avoid that, as we norm it best we can. Finally, we ask: 4) what's the best way to tie this all back together? as we interpret these new descriptions, evaluations and norms, re-ligating them or tying them into our existing framework of living.

Viewed this way, we recognize that each of these probes of reality are asking distinctly different questions, hence employing very different methods, so we can say that they are methodologically autonomous. But notice how, in order to realize the value in any given reality that each of these methods is necessary, none by itself sufficient. So, we can also say that these methods, while methodologically autonomous, are axiologically integral.

This seems to be how evolutionary epistemology works, in general, and, fundamentally, epistemology is epistemology is epistemology, which is to suggest that by religious epistemology, in particular, we refer not really to any methods distinct from epistemology, in general, but only to the special challenges we might face as we turn our attention more toward ultimate, less toward proximate, concerns.

Much the same dynamic remains in play, though. In our proximate concerns, we often encounter scenarios where the evidence, descriptively, is ambiguous, where our hypotheses remain, for whatever reason, equiprobable. Evolution has "taught" us, in those situations, to take the most life-giving and relationship-enhancing option, performatively. For example, if, in the dark, we spot an object on the ground resembling both a snake and a rope, we leap over it, or, at least, probe further with a stick. Ultimate reality leaves us not with falsifiable, equiprobable choices but merely equiplausible accounts. Performatively, one way or another, we leap, hopefully in the most life-giving and relationship-enhancing way available, toward realities that seem the most beautiful, good and unifying, evaluatively, normatively and interpretively, which doesn't guarantee they will lead to the truth, but has often seemed to have increased the likelihood, since those methods work in concert.

Nothing new in this as it corresponds to the classical categories of logos, pathos, ethos and mythos. So, this is why deconstructionists are right, that logocentrism doesn't work. But we don't jettison logos but, instead, properly situate it methodologically in its integral relationship, wherein ethos mediates between logos and mythos to realize pathos. The history of philosophy, including especially the philosophy of religion, tells the tale of schools of thought, which either over- or under-emphasized, exalted or denigrated, one or more of these approaches, dis-valuing what merely required de-valuing, over-valuing what merely needed re-valuing. The postmodern critique properly devalued logos, but radical deconstructionists disvalue it. For example, onto-theology and metaphysics have been abandoned, denigrated, when, more appropriately, they should be recognized as ways of framing our questions, understanding the reasonableness of our approaches, as fallible, hypothetical and provisional, just not infallible, a priori, apodictic, in other words, a great way to probe reality, an awful way to prove it.

Mountain Goat
Mountain Goat

@BoSanders, your diagram is going to get all the integral people excited (though I don't tend to fly with that crew--I have a couple friends that see the world in quadrants).


I have found that this is a key discussion that is sorrily missing in the evangelical world. Often the need for it shows itself when people start trying to navigate other hot button issues like gender/sexuality, environmental care, and social justice.  

wayneschroeder
wayneschroeder

Bo,  this seems to be the structure of your amazing interaction with your pastor/brother-in-law (how cool):


Epistemology (Knowledge of Truth):

Ethics--Truth  is what I  do 

Revelation--Truth is what God claims as truth

Reductive--Truth is what I claim as truth

Linguistic--Truth is interpretive, and I have no private claim to God's truth.



Brother Corey
Brother Corey

Dear Bo,

As always, I appreciate the constructive and conversational approach to your posts. While I know this is not the emphasis of your site or this post, my own observation is that there needs to also be room for contemplative practice and direct experience of the Divine. I suppose this might fall in your category of revelation. We can theorize conceptually all day about God, but when does this lead to an opening of the heart, the transformational process of which so much of the early writings speak? Divine Union/Divinization, or as they say “Theosis” in the Eastern tradition. The intellect alone can only go so far when approaching God.

Peace and blessings to you.

Br. Corey

EdWatson
EdWatson

a) Makes sense. I'd probably then say that the actual questions are based on a misunderstanding, but given the pretty neutral stance of the piece that wouldn't be appropriate here.... (Saying this for my own benefit :P)

b) You may be right re. tone. My main concern on this point is that a lack of nuance in a broad piece fails to account for the fact that there are accounts of revelation which (on their own terms) believe they have nothing to fear from any of biblical criticism, modern science, or pluralism. So whether intentional or not, saying 'the problems come in things like' as opposed to 'the problems are often thought to come in things like' does informally imply that the same problems face all accounts of revelation (hence my accusation of tarring).

c) Aye, indeed: the comment is more directed at what I perceived to be the underlying assumption of the piece, namely that approach to God is possible and can be given formal(-ish) expression, whether through ethical philosophy, more or less formal accounts of revelation, etc. etc. Probably me misreading, but from a particular theological point of view it would seem to me to make more sense to say 'how people understand the ways in which God approaches them', for the reasons I tried to express below. So, even though it's clearly not an intentional part of the content of the piece, I would say that on some level the overall direction of this post is in line with the idea that the human intellect can move from not God- God, which (without wanting to presuppose who's actually right on the matter) seems flawed from both many atheistic and theistic perspecitves. But this may well just be irrelevant semantic quibbling.

EdWatson
EdWatson

a) It seems disingenuous to say that linguistic approaches (especially those following directly/deliberately from Wittgenstein) skirt the questions of metaphysics: they tend to try and face metaphysical questions face-on by arguing that they are fundamentally flawed, on the basis that the sense in which the questions are asked is premised on a false set of assumptions about the world.

b) Given how many different and divergent accounts there are of revelation by different theologians, to tar them all with the same problems might be problematic.

c) It's a fairly common theological refrain that there is no way to approach God (except insofar as God has already approached the individual/community, the manner of which differs from faith to faith), under which view this article would make sense philosophically but not theologically. From the philosophy side, this would seem to suggest that theology is foolish: from the theology side, that philosophy is not a framework within which one can adequately talk about God/God's revelation. Anyway, it's not especially controversial to hear someone say 'philosophy can't approach God,' just what it entails: on the one hand it could lead an individual to claim there is no God, on the other that we shouldn't apply philosophical assumptions when attempting theology (Which is perhaps why the concept of revelation might make sense to a believer, not to an atheist, and so why the one can understand it as a way in which an individual/community can come to know God, the other not?).

FrankMayo1
FrankMayo1

Whew! Bo, I’m clearly out of the loop, but it seems you are outlining four ways of "knowing” GOD!
1. Ethics: ground of being or God as a verb. (Problem: Is this a proof or an attitude?)
2. Revelation: God as experienced in personal and or historical processes i.e. Hegel? (Problem: too exclusive and culturally based) 
3. Reductive: God as the source of all understanding (or) God ousted by science (Problem: won’t mix and match without a fight over, well, everything!)
4. Linguistic: Does God exist inside or outside our language (Problem: any discussion can only occur within a chosen language which then shapes the outcome}
I’m personally at 3. both in my church and bible class, that is if I’ve understood any of this correctly.

ngilmour
ngilmour

I've read the post a couple times, and I'm not grasping a couple things (it could be beginning-of-semester-paperwork fog hindering my brain):

- What epistemic questions the four approaches are trying to answer?  I'm inclined to think that a linguistic approach tends to ask and answer different approaches from a reductionist approach, and the approach from revelation, as you describe it, involves a set of assumptions (and therefore some influences on the sorts of questions one asks) that theologies which situate experience over and against Scripture (to use two WQ terms) would not share.

- What of approaches, like post-liberalism and radical orthodoxy as I understand them, which insist on the strong overlaps of revelation, linguistics, and ethics? Are you imagining these four approaches as mutually exclusive, hierarchically related, or somehow else?


I know you limit yourself on word count, so please take this as a request for clarification, not as an attempt to set gotcha traps.

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

@wayneschroeder I really like this summary !   ... except for the revelation part.  I would say "Truth is what people historically have attributed to God claiming"    ;)  fair? 

FrankMayo1
FrankMayo1

@Brother Corey  Why separate constructive reason (intellect) from contemplation? Consider the following quote on it’s synthesis by Michael Polanyi... “Religious conversion commits our whole person and changes our whole being in a way that an expansion of natural knowledge does not do. But once the dynamics of knowing are recognized as the dominant principle of knowledge, the difference appears only as one of degree. . . It establishes a continuous ascent from our less personal knowing of inanimate matter to our convivial knowing of living beings and beyond this to knowing our responsible fellow men. Such I believe is the true transition from the sciences to the humanities and also from our knowing the laws of nature to our knowing the person of God.”


BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

@EdWatson While I appreciate your passion, I think there might be a misunderstanding. 


a) it is not disingenuous - that is an actual question that I get asked. That paragraph are three actual concerns that get raised every time I bring up the topic. 


b) you are right that there are divergent accounts but 1) I did not 'tar' anyone. I made an observation about what I perceive to be a concern. No tar was involved :)  

I am afraid that you come in with an 'argument culture' mentality and the convivial tone that this conversation was held under. 


c) I never said any of things about philosophy that your 3rd point is based on. I agree with where you are going in the 3rd point but I just want to be clear that your sparring partner is not me. I would not say that about philosophy. 


-Bo 

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

@ngilmour Thanks so much for the follow up!  Couple of thoughts starting with your second then going back: 


- No hierarchy on this one. I just lay them out (you can see in the graphic I made) in a spacial way. 

- Yes on overlap. I did not put lines between the 4 because there can be some bleed-over. 

- I agree about later (more recent) developments like post-Lib and RO. They tend to account for and incorporate a little more than classic/historic ones. 


The epistemology thing was somewhat of a second conversation. I only mention it to give some context as to why we were even undertaking this endeavor.  Maybe I will write that part up tomorrow. 

So Yes and YES on your observation that a linguistic approach (let's say) would both be concern with different things than a reductive one AND would come it completely differently. You are also correct that the 'revelation' crowd would have concerns about prioritizing experience over/and or/ against scripture. 


I don't know if that helps at all - except to say that I found this a good conversation starter and wanted to know if others thought so or found a fatal flaw that needs addressing. I obviously gets elaborate from here but when you are attempting to map the situation for someone who doesn't study the stuff ... It was my attempt to conceptualize a starting point.   -Bo 

wayneschroeder
wayneschroeder

@BoSanders @wayneschroeder 

Sure, was just emphasizing being on the God side of truth., while Reductive or Ethical is is being on the I side of truth, and hopefully Linguistic is integrative of both.


Ok, so that is the episteme, the truth side of things you hashed out with your pastor brother in law, next you need to do the ontological, the being side of things.



Brother Corey
Brother Corey

@FrankMayo1


I would say that contemplative practice is a crucial ingredient for "brewing one's own faith," to use the podcast tagline. Yet a topic seldom discussed, understandably, by folks with theology as their passion.

Brother Corey
Brother Corey

Hello Frank,

That is a good question and thank you for the quote. I don't have an response to that question as I am not suggesting such a separation, but an addition.

Be. Corey

EdWatson
EdWatson

a) Fair nuff, did misunderstand there as I thought it was your putting forward a view you subscribed to.

b) My concern here is still that a lack of nuance blurs the fact that there are accounts of revelation which don't think themselves threatened by historical biblical criticism! contemporary science! or pluralism (whether rightly or not), and that saying 'the problems come in things like' (even though the like leaves open other options), as opposed to 'for many accounts the problems can come in things like' or some such other more limited claim, does informally imply that all accounts of revelation face the same difficulties (also, given that it's the final part of that section, there is again an informal implication that that those difficulties are insurmountable). Hence the tarring (which is probably too strong a term).

c) Aye, indeed (and apologies for the tone): I wasn't trying to address the particular content of the piece, as opposed to the direction it seems to point/the idea it seems in line with: specifically, that the human intellect can move from not-God to God/that we can approach God, which seems problematic from many theistic and atheistic perspectives. It may well be just irrelevant semantic quibbling, but casting the piece (at least as an alternative) as understanding the ways in which God approaches humankind (whether this actually happens) would be more consistent/better founded. Otherwise it does look like four examples of attempting to use philosophy (inc. reductionism and revelation theories, as described here: just pretty bad philosophy) to reason God into probability.

(To cast them instead as God approaching humankind (and so all as proposed forms of revelation, whether correct or incorrect?) needn't presume the correctness of the theist position: an atheist just needs to say that these things don't happen, a theist that they do, and there seems to be the genuine meat of debate in such contexts...)

ngilmour
ngilmour

@BoSanders @ngilmour Right on.  Let me clarify what I meant by hierarchical--I wasn't asking you to set a fixed hiearchy for all systems; I was wondering if you're imgaining any given philosophical network's approach as being hierarchical.


So, for instance, a radical orthodox approach might prioritize revelation but be interested in how that plays out ethically and linguistically and not be very concerned at all with the reductionist, whereas someone in the Mark C. Taylor a/theistic tradition might prioritize linguistic over ethical but not give much thought to revelation or reduction.  Does that make more sense of my inquiry?


With regards to fatal flaws, I'm still not clear on what question you're posing.  (I really must be slow on the draw today.)  In what sense do these four schemata represent different ways that one "approaches" God?  I think it might be the verb (or the verbal) that's tripping me up.

wayneschroeder
wayneschroeder

@BoSanders 

From the truth perspective, borrowing from science, we can make two errors: False Negative, and False Positive. As it applies here:

False Positive, meaning thinking we know the truth when we do not, relates to the inordinate focus on what "I" judge to be true (Ethics, Reductive positions)

False Negative, meaning thinking God (others) know the truth when they do not (our error in judgment), Revelation position.

Goldilocks window, bed is just right position:  The truth of the integrative position of I and God, you and I, just right--Linguistic position?

wayneschroeder
wayneschroeder

@Brother Corey @BoSanders 

Brother Corey, I second your request for Fr. Thomas Keating as a guest. Mysticism, eg. Meister Eckhart, opens up many doors to both spirituality and theology.

Brother Corey
Brother Corey

@BoSanders @Brother Corey


Bo,


Know that I offer these comments as a longtime listener of the podcast and hold you in high esteem. I think it's terrific that there is a place for those brave enough to begin wading out of the shallows of pop-Christianity. You guys do a fantastic job, so I don't want to come across as being overly critical. This is a subject I have been wanting to bring up for a long time and perhaps it would have been better addressed as a private exchange.


I don't think it's fair to say that 20 minutes of dead air is the only way to address the topic! Perhaps an interview with Fr. Thomas Keating, Dave Frenette, Mary Jo Meadow, Br Steindl-Rast? A show on mysticism or spiritual practice in general?


So like it or not, unless you give the show/site a more accurate title like 'Homebrewed Theology' or 'Homebrewed Protestant Christian Theo-Philosophy,' I don't think it's unfair to suggest that you may neglect a few important brew ingredients in the overall category of Christianity.


Br. Corey

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

@Brother Corey @FrankMayo1 while I would agree about it's importance ... in fairness it doesn't exactly lend itself to the medium of an audio only podcast 


We did a 3 week series on it at the Loft but you can't exactly have 20 min. of radio silence in the middle of show 

so, to be honest, I don't like that comment very much   -Bo 

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

@EdWatson OK - I get what you are saying.  But I do have a follow up quesiton: 


Since the goal is get to a conversation about epistemology (that is the context) you can't really say "God approaches humankind".  That is a claim right?  I mean, that claim would be done within an understanding/interpretation already.  


Would it have helped if I said "ways that humans approach the topic of 'god'" ? 

ngilmour
ngilmour

@BoSanders @ngilmour I think I'll wait for some other folks to chime in.  I'm afraid I'm bogging things down with my failure to comprehend the main question.

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

@ngilmour @BoSanders Oh yeah!  For sure. #1)  Inside any of these 'camps' there is absolutely and prioritizing and you know as well as I that talking to someone within a 'tradition' brings that our like nothing else! 


#2) would it help if I said 'approaches to the topic of God' ?