Skip to comments.Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity.
Posted on 12/16/2004 3:41:42 PM PST by Ed Current
Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity. By Nancy Pearcey. Crossway. 479 pp.
It is difficult to imagine an encounter in the public square in which one party dismisses the view of the other on the grounds that it is "just science" or "merely the deliverances of empirical proof." This is difficult to imagine because there is beneath what is called the "culture wars" an epistemological division of labor which tells us that science or empirical knowledge is about facts and religion or theology is about opinion.
In Total Truth, Nancy Pearcey diagnoses the intellectual pathologies that resulted in the epistemological division that we see embodied in the culture wars. These pathologies are the result of interdependent social, philosophical, scientific, and religious movements that helped to reinforce the notion of what Pearcey calls a two-tiered view of truth. This notion, which she learned from her mentor, the late Francis A. Schaeffer, asserts that claims of truth in our culture are like a two-story building. In the lower story is the cognitive stuff that counts as real knowledge: science, reason, data. In the upper story is the noncognitive stuff that gives life meaning, but it is ultimately nonrational and therefore deeply personal and incapable of being judged or assessed by third parties. According to Schaeffer and Pearcey, the upper story is where modern people place religion, aesthetic judgment, and even moral judgments that are deeply private affairs (such as whether to have an abortion or engage in sodomy). The combination of Baconian science and Enlightenment skepticism (beginning with Descartes), followed by American Protestant revivalism, Darwinism, scientism, Pragmatism, and theological liberalism, produced, according to Pearcey, the potent two-story view of truth that is widely accepted, and rarely disputed, in the contemporary world. This is why it is a far worse social blunder to announce that ones religious views are true (in the lower-story sense), and thus normative for all people, than it is to affirm something completely irrational that is "just my opinion."
This understanding of knowledge, writes Pearcey, has had a deleterious effect upon our social institutions, their role in preserving and advancing the public good, and our ability to make a case for them in the public square. For once one detaches knowledge of the goodan immaterial object that cannot be detected via sense experience or scientific instrumentsfrom what counts as knowledge of the order and nature of things, then positions that are contingent upon the veracity of nonempirical knowledge of immaterial objects are ruled untenable according to the criterion of public reason, which is itself just a proxy for reasons that support conclusions consistent with a materialist understanding of reality. And yet the materialist, as Pearcey points out, is incapable of giving an account of the veracity of his own perspective without relying on basic beliefs about the structure and nature of the world and reason that rely on nonempirical immaterial realities more at home in a theistic worldview.
Consider a version of what Pearcey and others call "Darwins Doubt." In order to offer an argument in defense of his point of view, the materialist must be free to draw inferences derived from reasons. That is, he must have the ability to think, to exercise the powers of a rational agent. But according to the materialist, reasoning is an activity of the brain, a wholly material entity, like the kidney or large intestine, that is subject to the forces of natural selection and random mutation, not to mention the laws of physics and chemistry. But if reasoning is the result of "nonrational" causes, the deliverances of "reason," including the reasoning on which materialism is based, cannot be trusted. If while Im playing Scrabble the letters randomly spell "materialism is true," should I change my belief and embrace materialism? Of course not, for this collection of letters is the result of nonrational forces or chance. But if the brains "reasoning" is like the random string of Scrabble letters, then its apparent deliverancesincluding the claim that materialism is trueare arrived at in no more rational a fashion than the phrase "materialism is true" on the Scrabble board.
Although Pearcey is an evangelical Protestant, she does not exempt her own tradition from critique. She correctly points out that the evangelical emphasis on individual conversion experience and personal relationship to Christ, especially as these notions are found in the anti-creedal churches that have come out of the revivalist tradition, makes it easier for evangelicals to assume the correctness of a cultural paradigm that requires a two-tier view of knowledge.
There is, however, one aspect of Total Truth with which I found myself in disagreement. Pearcey defends the claim made by some Reformed Protestant thinkers (including Schaeffer) that Thomas Aquinas view of grace and nature is flawed because he held that "grace meant theology or the mysteries of faith (the upper story), while nature meant knowledge of this-worldly things, supposedly known by unaided reason apart from divine revelation (the lower story)." So, according to Pearcey, Aquinas put in place, though not intentionally, an epistemological foundation upon which the two-story model could be constructed (a model that Pearcey correctly decries and that Aquinas himself would have rejected).
Although Pearcey cites several Protestant and Catholic scholars to make her case, and although her presentation is more nuanced and careful than what has been offered by Schaeffer and other Reformed thinkers, I believe she is mistaken in her reading of Aquinas. For Aquinas, there are things that can be known by reason, things that can be known by faith, and things that can be known by both or either. For example, the periodic table can be known by reason, the Trinity can be known only by special revelation (faith), and Gods existence can be known by reason (the Five Ways) and faith (revelation), though things known by faith alone can never be contrary to reason. There is no two-tier view of knowledge for Aquinas, for objects of faith are truly known and may count against someones apparent deliverances of "reason," and it is the job of the philosopher to show that such deliverances are in fact against reason.
The difference between objects of faith and objects of reason for Aquinas is not in their status as objects of knowledge, but in how the knowledge is acquired by the human mind. Take, for example, the case of Gods existence and nature. According to Aquinas, one can know through reason that there is an eternally existing necessary and personal agent that is the first cause of all that contingently exists. But that such a being is a Trinitythree persons and one eternal substanceis something revealed in special revelation, Scripture, and is not the result of the deliverances of reason. Still, in rebutting the charge that the Trinity is against reason, the philosopher may offer conceptual clarity to the skeptic and show that the doctrine is not incoherent or irrational. In that sense, the philosopher is showing that that which is known by faith (the Trinity) is not contrary to reason, even as he maintains that Gods existence is known by both reason and faith and is thus contrary to neither.
Neither reason nor faith is technically unaided for Aquinas. Our natural faculties and their basic capacities and powers are brought about by Gods design. Although they have been corrupted by the Fall, they are still able to acquire some knowledge of God and morality without the aid of special revelation, though they are fallible (due to the Fall) and incapable of acquiring the specific knowledge of God and morality that they do not have the natural power to acquire, e.g., that God is a Trinity, that salvation is through Christ, and so on. Revelation is necessary in order for humanity to acquire this latter knowledge.
Fortunately, one can detach Pearceys comments on Aquinas (which play a small part in her overall case) without in any way diluting the power of her message. This is a rich and readable book. It is an atlas of the intellectual geography of the culture war that divides American society today. Pearcey connects, with uncanny insight, the ideas and characters that have shaped our intellectual history and made possible the secular-religious dichotomy that defines so much of contemporary politics, law, religion, and science. Although one may find oneself disagreeing with Pearcey at points, there is no doubt that Total Truth is the product of a gifted writer and thinker who can help us to demolish the cramped and confining two-story model in favor of a new home more in keeping with the capacious and uniform character of truth.
Francis J. Beckwith is associate director of the J. M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies, and associate professor of church-state studies, Baylor University.
I sure hope Mr. Beckwith can understand this. Maybe someday he'll translate this from Aramaic into English.
Any thoughtful Christian who has not read Frances Schaeffer should definitely do so-- start with his trilogy, "The God Who Is There", "Escape From Reason", and "He Is There and He Is Not Silent":
I'll take a peek at it...thank you.
God is the only Word in which He can be understood and that True understanding is automatic oneness in and with Him as well. They keep searching for some bridge to God that still keeps them free from God such as to preserve the notion/lie of 'free will' and 'choice'. There is no choice BECAUSE God is His Word and Love and Spirit.
There are two speaks in total reality: God's Word and the speech of sin with no translation between them at all, much less so that a third party not either speech (in the dreams of fallen human beings --themselves as that third party) could listen to both and understand both and be unchanged by either such as to 'choose' between them. No creature understands anything without speech. God has us all boxed in with speech and Himself as Word--for His glory. It's okay. In fact it's excellent and perfect and efficent. It's beautiful. He's my Dad. :)
Isaiah 48:3-10 I have declared the former things long ago; and they went forth out of my mouth, and I caused them to be heard: I wrought suddenly, and they came to pass. Because I knew that thou art obstinate, and thy neck is an iron sinew, and thy brow brass, so I have long ago declared them to thee; before they came to pass I caused thee to hear them ; lest thou shouldest say, Mine idol hath done them, and my graven image, or my molten image hath commanded them. Thou heardest, see all this; --and ye, will not ye declare it ? I have caused thee to hear new things from this time, and things hidden, and that thou knewest not: they are created now, and not long ago; and before this day thou hast not heard them, lest thou shouldest say, Behold, I knew them. Isa 48:8 Yea, thou heardest not, yea, thou knewest not, yea, from of old thine ear was not opened; for I knew that thou wouldest ever deal treacherously, and thou wast called a transgressor from the womb. For my name's sake I will defer mine anger, and for my praise will I refrain as to thee, that I cut thee not off. Behold, I have refined thee, but not as silver; I have chosen thee in the furnace of affliction.
In the Name of Jesus Christ, Amen
Beckwith is an academic of the highest order. First Things is an academic publication. I would conclude that his audience is familiar with the academic jargon. Pearcey's book, however, is largely free of such terminology and, if it is used, she explains it first.
Disclaimer: Opinions posted on Free Republic are those of the individual posters and do not necessarily represent the opinion of Free Republic or its management. All materials posted herein are protected by copyright law and the exemption for fair use of copyrighted works.