Thursday, January 12, 2012

Are Absolutism and Certainty a Product of the Enlightenment that We Have Now Rejected, or Is a Rejection of Absolutism and Certainty Its Product?

I wanted to entitle this post, "Why Everyone Is Dogmatic about Everything, but No One Wants to Admit It," but I thought the above title was more explanatory, so I went with it. There is what seems to be an all pervasive trend in our culture to believe that certainty and absolutism are products of the Enlightenment, and now that we are so much the wiser in understanding that the Enlightenment got that wrong, we have embraced what we now call "postmodernism," or post-Enlightenment thinking. The problem with this view is twofold: (1) It is the Enlightenment that created the belief that nothing metaphysically reported can be certain, and therefore, cannot be held as an absolute; and therefore, to claim that one cannot be certain is to fully embrace Enlightenment thinking, not post-Enlightenment thinking. (2) Everyone who takes any position, at all, enough to form an opinion upon which he or she has decided to live his or her life is holding to an idea that one can be certain and absolute in his or her thinking. In other words, everyone is asserting what is absolutely true, even when he or she claims to be asserting only his or her personal opinion.

Let's talk about the first proposition to begin. The idea that one who believes in certainty and absolutism is Enlightenment or Modernist is a complete joke. It is the Enlightenment's emphasis on facts versus faith, or what can be empirically verified versus what must be believed through speculation and existential experience that created the idea that nothing, unless it can be empirically verified, can be known with certainty, and therefore, absolutely.

Now, by "absolutely" I don't mean to say, "exhaustively." Obviously, we are finite and cannot know everything exhaustively or even everything sufficiently, but the pre-Enlightenment understanding of knowledge is that what was essential in knowing God and what is necessary for salvation and living in accordance with the will of God could be known with absolute certainty based, not on empirical verification, but upon faith in the report (specifically, in the Christian context, faith in the report of Scripture). In other words, one did not need to have his own experience with God in order to know the truth or falsity of a metaphysical, theological, or moral claim. He only needed to understand the report correctly, and through the understanding of that report in its epistemological, linguistic, and Christological context, in order to have certainty that what was being said was absolute truth. Hence, one could know based upon his or her faith in the report. If one did not believe, and the report is true, one would not hold the correct view of reality. If one did believe, even though it cannot be empirically verified, one would have the correct view of reality. The certainty of reality, then, depends upon one's faith and sight, not just upon one's faith.

This last point is important, as pre-Enlightenment thinking was not a matter of "faith without reason," but "faith with reason." The Enlightenment, however, fostered in our culture the idea of "reason with or without faith." Reason, empirical reason (i.e., what can be empirically verified) to be exact, was all one needed to understand reality. Anything else was just speculation or personal experience. Hence, revivals came to emphasize, not just the promises of God's Word if one believed and followed Christ, but a personal spiritual experience that one had (a sort of empirical verification to oneself) that was the evidence of the gospel working in one's life. The church, from that point on, became enamored with the idea that one needed a "conversion experience" in order to prove, at least to himself, that he was saved. The church has been enamored with personal spiritual experiences, whether they accord with the report of Scripture or not, ever since. (And such is one of the reasons why the Bible's tests that evidence salvation or lack thereof are taken so lightly in our modern, evangelical context.)

The problem, of course, is that we all live on principles that cannot be empirically verified. In fact, empiricism, as a philosophy by which we assume all inquiry must be made, cannot be verified empirically either. Yet, it is held to such absolute certainty that our entire culture, individually and collectively, all base our lives on its truthfulness. Certainly, no one runs in the road when the Mack truck is roaring down it because he or she can't be certain of its existence. It can be empirically verified; but my point is that no one lives his life apart from dogmatic metaphysical beliefs that he assumes and that are expressed whenever he counters or affirms other worldview, secondary ideas, and ethical principles rooted deeply, and exclusively, within them.

Hence, we are certain that all sorts of things are really, absolutely, and with all certainty, right and wrong. Our list is just different from God's because we are going according to our feelings, speculations about our experiences. Yet, we have no problem judging the rude man in line as being wrong, the woman who kills her five kids as doing something absolutely wrong, etc. We also have all sorts of ideology that we believe to be absolute: racism is wrong because each person has rights as a human being (hence, assuming all sorts of things about what it means to be human and the origins of rights).

My point here is that anyone who has an opinion that he or she uses to argue against another opinion, even if that opinion is that one should not lift his opinions up over other people's opinions, which he himself would be doing in typical hypocritical fashion, displays a dogmatism that evidences a certainty sufficient enough, at least, to function as absolutism. Hence, even in the very argument that one should not believe in certainty and absolutism is a dogmatically held belief in certainty and absolutism. That's because a truth proposition that is made automatically lifts itself up as exclusive to all that which would counter it. A proposition by nature is exclusive and argues on its own against other options as merely opinion or untrue, whereas it exalts itself to the position of judge of all that which would oppose it. This is why one cannot argue against dogmatism, absolutism, and certainty without actually committing the very foible he perceives to exist in doing so.

In fact, it is not merely that one cannot make a propositional statement without being dogmatic and evidencing a certain and absolute belief in metaphysical ideas of reality, but he cannot even think without doing so. This is because our minds are continually selecting and rejecting propositions presented to us, through internal and external thoughts that come to us. What this all means is that one cannot be a thinking human being without being a dogmatic one that believes in certainty and absolute truth. And what that means is that if you are alive, you are a dogmatist.

The real question for us, as opposed to the stupidity of the Enlightenment now embodied in the misnomer "postmodernity," even though it should be called, in Thomas Oden's terms, "ultra-modernity," is, What is true, and how can we know it? As we have seen, the pre-Enlightenment Christian culture believed that what is true must be gained from both belief in a report, transcendent (hence, all knowledge is possible) and human (hence, historical and other types of knowledge that are unavailable to our immediate senses, but existed in our realm, is also possible), along with empirical verification for those things that allow such inquiry, must be adopted to understand reality. It is the sharp contrast between fact and value, or physical versus metaphysical knowledge, one that had to be gained through common, and therefore more objective, experience and one that had to be gained through personal, and therefore more subjective, experience, that led to the logically suicidal claim that one cannot be dogmatic/certain/absolute about what is metaphysical (a claim itself, as we saw before, that is dogmatic/certain/absolute about something that is metaphysical).

So we simply cannot escape the necessity of believing with certainty in something that is understood as absolute. We cannot escape dogmatism. What we can ask, however, is the first question, What is metaphysically true? Now, this question can only be asked of someone who has metaphysical knowledge. We cannot say that it cannot be known, because, again, that is making an absolute and certain claim about the metaphysical. If it cannot be known, then you cannot know that it cannot be known, and in fact, therefore, it may very well be completely accessible for us to know it. In other words, no matter what the claim might be about the metaphysical, it is always and forever an absolute and certain claim that asserts itself dogmatically over all other beliefs that would seek to counter it.

Hence, as I said before, we must ask someone who is transcendent what is metaphysically true, or we will just be holding up speculations as absolute truth by which we judge all other things. As I also said before, opting out is not an option. If you think, i.e., if you are alive, you will already assume certainty in certain metaphysical truth claims. That is how we were made. That is just simply what we do. You cannot, therefore, say that you will just choose not to make those claims. You are already doing it, whether you speak them or not, and if you speak at all, and make any sort of proposition you consider to be true, you will have failed in your own theory that one can just opt out from metaphysical beliefs (which is already a metaphysical belief about the nature of thought btw).

What this means is that we are tied to what we believe, not in a way that an agnostic asserts truth, but in a way that an omniscient being asserts truth. The problem is that we are not omniscient, but by nature assert truth that needs omniscience to hold a view of reality, as we live within whatever metaphysical assumptions we have adopted as absolutely true. We are just THAT certain about them. We are dogmatists, precisely, because we are human; but our need for omniscience in order to be dogmatists cannot be fulfilled through us, as, again, we are human.

Hence, the only way to know reality is really by seeking an authority beyond the physical, an authority that knows the metaphysical through omniscience. That authority is God, but God must now communicate that to me, lest His truth and what He desires of me become part of the larger trend of my human nature to speculate concerning the metaphysical. Without revelation from Him, we are back in the same boat. This is why the pre-Enlightenment understanding concerning our apprehension of metaphysical knowledge, sufficient enough to be considered absolute, and therefore, upon which we can root our certainty and dogmatism, must be correct, and the modern (Enlightenment oriented)/postmodern (i.e., ultra-modern) view of metaphysical knowledge as unreliably uncertain and subjective to the individual must be completely rejected as an exploration in stupidity (i.e., a darkening rather than an enlightenment).

But this post was not just concerning the false idea that only some people are dogmatic, but others are more "enlightened" in their thinking, making lesser assertions when they think and speak than these others do (such is posturing nonsense to make oneself feel more intellectual within his or her own dogmatism), but also why no one wants to admit that they are dogmatists.

The reason why no one wants to admit it is rooted in the false dichotomy of the Enlightenment as we saw above. The idea that no one can know the metaphysical, and can only share his or her opinion of any subjective experience in that area, has bred the further idea that to express one's metaphysical opinion as absolute is to be arrogant.

In fact, since no one can know metaphysical truth with certainty, the person making any claim toward that end is thought to be of the worst of people, not joining in our reindeer games that allow us to puff ourselves up in our supposed assertive neutrality. Hence, no one wants to be seen as arrogant, imposing his ideas on another, as his ideas are his opinion, and therefore, he is merely, aggressively imposing himself upon others in an oppressive manner, using ideas to do it.

But my point here, in light of what I said above, is that such an analysis is true of everyone, except the individual who submits himself to the transcendent Someone who has given revelation sufficiently decided from His omniscient will to supply us with enough knowledge of the metaphysical so as to be certain and functionally absolute. In other words, it is impossible for the one who appeals to that transcendent revelation to be arrogant, as the one who does so is the only one thinking of and speaking truth claims that are not of himself, and therefore, not an assertion of himself. In other words, everyone who is merely appealing to his or her own experience, including the person claiming that another is oppressive for asserting his or her opinion upon him or her, is the oppressive agent, asserting his or her dogmatic certainty of absolute truth on others, and is therefore arrogant. The only one who can escape such a claim is the one asserting another who is not in our predicament, the One who knows the metaphysical through His "empirically verified experience" (although God's knowledge is much more sophisticated than that description).

The person using the Bible, then, is not arrogant in asserting its claims over all other claims, because he is asserting God over others, not himself. Now, he may be using the Bible to assert himself, but this is a motivational judgment, where the other party is merely attempting (once again) to know something metaphysical (in this case, the internal motivation of someone else). The point here is simply to say that in a clash of ideas, the only one who cannot be accused of being arrogant is the one appealing to a higher authority than himself. He is, therefore, asserting God, not himself. Hence, the claim that he is arrogant is unfounded and hypocritical, especially since it is the pot calling the kettle black.

In reality, it is a move of humility to assert the truth of Scripture over all other speculative opinions, as their origin has only a claim to be of the individual and made within the individual, but the assertion of the Scripture has its claim as being rooted in what God Himself (i.e., the only One who would actually know what is true metaphysically) has spoken.

What we have now, then, is tons of people thinking that they are humble in their opinions that reject the absolute certainty of God's Word, a certainty gained, not from empirical verification of the physical or a subjective empirical verification of the metaphysical (i.e., not by sight), but by believing what is reported therein (i.e., by faith); and ironically turning on those who would truly humble themselves to God's Word by allowing it to be in the chair of judgment over all other ideas by calling them arrogant for doing so.

Of course, the claim of arrogance comes in a variety of synonymous expressions: "who do you think you are?" "who made you our judge?" "you just think you know better than everyone else" etc. These are all assertions that attempt to paint the speaker of the Word of God as arrogant, as one asserting himself, ironically, when he is actually attempting (whether successful or not) to assert God over both himself and the speculations of others.

So we live in a mixed up world and a mixed up church that has been led down the wrong path by it. Certainty is the product of both faith in the report and/or empirical verification, depending upon what we're attempting to know. The attempt of the American Christian to make him or herself appear less dogmatic is nothing more than evidence that those individuals have been poisoned with Enlightenment-oriented distinctions between fact and value, what can be known versus what must be speculatively believed. But, as I've tried to argue, this dichotomy is false, the person who attempts to present him or herself as less dogmatic is only attempting to fool himself and the others around him. There is just no such thing as thinking and speaking without metaphysical certainty. And you can be dogmatically certain about that absolute truth.

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