Wednesday, February 1, 2012

On Presuppositions and Changing One's Mind

The other day I read with some amusement an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal, endorsed by sixteen scientists, which argued that "there's no compelling scientific argument" to "panic" about so-called Global Warming. At one level this is as amusing as the perennial "debates" in the popular media between "critical scholars" and "traditionalists" over some aspect or other of biblical teaching about the historical Jesus. The vast majority of the WSJ's readers are not trained scientists, just as almost all readers of Time and Newsweek are not trained ancient historians or biblical scholars. Such popularizing of complex scholarly discussions is salutary in that it exposes the masses to the intellectual developments of the academy. But—and here's the rub—such discussions are of little argumentative value. The reason for this is simple: people respond positively or negatively to such ideas based on whether or not they are predisposed to believe or disbelieve them. Those predisposed, for whatever reason, to accept the newer research conclusions will accept them without much thought. On the other hand, those for whom the newer scholarly ideas are inconvenient will resist those ideas no matter the strength of the evidence or the degree of scholarly consensus involved.

This is where the WSJ example produces added amusement. For, you see, the WSJ earlier refused to publish a letter signed by 255 members of the United States National Academy of Sciences which articulated the threat of climate change. The WSJ is undoubtedly within its rights as a private entity to publish what it wants in accordance with its editorial viewpoint. That is exactly the point, however. The reasons for the WSJ's scepticism about climate change have less to do with the scientific merits of the case (I myself am unqualified to judge, but, as an academic, I have my suspicions) than with the perceived economic consequences for business if the US were to adopt policy designed to counteract global warming.

What this example points to is the determinative value of preunderstandings and presuppositions. People respond to the world around them, and process new ideas and information, through the interpretive grid of the worldview that defines who they are intellectually. And worldviews are not easily altered or dislodged.

Consider the most intractable divisions within evangelical Christianity: Calvinism vs. Arminianism, charismatic "cessationism" vs. continuationism, the historicity and literary genre of Genesis 1-3, and many others. What causes these divisions? There are many learned scholars who have published on each side of the various divides, and have argued strongly that theirs is the only view that merits the description "biblical." I myself have clearly articulated views on each of these matters. Can the differences of opinion simply be attributed to the quality of scholarship involved? Hardly. For every Don Carson there is a Howard Marshall. For every Richard Gaffin there is a Gordon Fee. Could it be a simple matter of faithfulness, that those who adhere to a more "conservative" position thereby show themselves more honoring to God and scripture? At times, perhaps. But as one who knows Bruce Waltke, I have a very difficult time believing he registers lower on the faithfulness meter than Al Mohler.

I would suggest that a combination of innate temperament and acquired worldview combine to predispose people to the views they hold on these issues, and that this combination inevitably colors the way they read and interpret scripture. Those with a more "liberal" bent more readily accept newer ideas and interpretations, whether or not such ideas are worthy of adoption. The result, as often as not, is a sort of "trendiness" that can, at times, reach comic proportions. On the other hand, those with a more "conservative" bent and upbringing are naturally more resistant to new ideas, particularly those that overthrow received traditions that define who they are spiritually.

I was raised in a conservative, indeed fundamentalist, environment. I remember well the wariness many of my formative teachers had about my professors at Dallas Seminary who sported Ph.D.s from Oxford, Cambridge, Aberdeen, Basel, and Sheffield. Would not such "worldly" learning affect their faithfulness to scripture? (In a word, the answer was "No"). Such scepticism mirrors that of many today who ironically skewer academicians, whose conclusions they don't like, with the accusation of ideological bias. Nevertheless, even the most strident of conservatives have a more ambivalent attitude towards scholarship, especially when such "worldly" learning can be used both to enhance academic respectability and to defend time-honored, traditional views. One immediately thinks of the old fundamentalist champion, Edward F. Hill, who defended the indefensible by advocating the Textus Receptus despite having earned a Th.D. at Harvard under the direction of Henry Cadbury. More recently, strict confessionalists have found a champion in Guy Prentiss Waters, whose perceived authority on the New Perspective on Paul is enhanced by his having studied under E. P. Sanders for his Ph.D. at Duke, but whose critique of the New Perspective is, in my view as well as that of Nick Perrin, both tendentious and uncharitable toward those with whom he disagrees.

Back in December, Scot McKnight asked a simple yet profound question in this regard: What would it take to change your mind? The mere fact that preunderstandings inevitably color interpretation might explain empirical interpretive pluralism, but it by no means pronounces on the desirability of such pluralism or invalidates the place of argument in academic discussion. Over the years I have often told my students that much, if not most, of what they assume the Bible to teach is probably at least partially mistaken—in part due to their reading of the Bible through the grid of an assumed American worldview. (I also warned them that a good portion of what I taught is likely wrong, but that unfortunately I was not privy to where I was mistaken). As a teacher, it was my responsibility to train their minds so that they might allow evidence to play the decisive role in forming their views, even to the point where their worldview might have to be altered. It is a truism that our self-involvement in all intellectual matters renders pure, modernist objectivity impossible. Yes, indeed. But we are likewise not enslaved to our subjectivity. Nor does such necessary subjectivity render all opinions equally valid.

Such changing of the mind can be existentially difficult, as all who have undergone it can testify. Changing one's long-held and theology-defining views of "eschatology" or "soteriology," like switching political parties, is, after all, not like switching pizza toppings from pepperoni to sausage. Moreover, because most of us are not immune to the pressure of the regnant, such changing of the mind should not be done precipitantly. Only when it becomes too difficult intellectually to continue "kicking against the goads" does it become safe to do so. But when this happens, we must, like Luther at Worms, step out boldly yet humbly in pursuit and defense of the truth as we understand it. Such changing of the mind can, as I also know firsthand, be professionally difficult. Yet only a coward succumbs to the pressure of intellectual expediency.

In answer to McKnight's question, I hope the answer you would provide is "an honest assessment of the preponderance of the evidence." I would like to ask a related, more important question: How willing are you to change your mind about important biblical and theological issues? Only when intellectual honesty is paired with a willingness, when necessary, to change can true advancement in knowledge come.

Over the next couple of weeks I will be discussing an issue whose foundational importance is matched by contemporary divergence of opinion concerning its articulation. This issue is the Christian gospel itself. Many voices are currently claiming that a reformulation is in order. Others are, no less loudly, calling for retrenchment around traditional definitions derived from the Protestant Reformation. Is this change we can believe in? Why or why not? And if so, are we willing to embrace it?

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