How can we know anything about God, us and the World?

The Pendulum of Rationality

In our first post, we saw that our whole life, what we think, how we feel, what we do and say is influenced by what we believe.  We choose either to believe truth or lies about God, Creation, Humanity and New Creation.  So how do we know what is true?  Throughout history, there has been a dividing line between those who have an optimistic view of our ability to know the truth with certainty and those who are pessimistic about our ability to discover truth.  It seems that throughout history, there has been a tendency in philosophical and religious thought to swing between the two extremes.  I sometimes refer to this as “The Pendulum of Rationality.”[1]

Rationalism involves presenting confidence in human ability to reason things out using the intellect and discover objective truth.  The emphasis is on facts, knowledge and theories.  The big question = “Is it true?”

Irrationalism is characterised by pessimism at human ability to reason things out and discover objective truth.  The emphasis then becomes much more about experience and feelings.  Does it feel good?  Does it work?  Specifically, does it work for me?

The idea that non-Christian worldviews are rooted in both rationalist and irrationalist thought is particularly associated with Cornelius Van-Til who argued that Adam and Eve were both seeking to be rationalists by claiming intellectual autonomy when deciding whether or not to eat the fruit and at the same time irrationalists because, by denying God’s voice, they were at the same time denying that there was an ultimate objective source of truth on which we can depend, thus regarding life in the Universe as in some sense arbitrary.[2]

At this stage, it might be helpful to introduce some of the terms and ideas associated with questions about how and what we know.  We can only give a brief introduction here, so you may wish to follow up on some of these concepts for yourself.

Rationalism

The rationalist claims that they can know and discover truth for themselves.  In other words, they believe in autonomous human reason.  They will talk about “a priori concepts” – truths that are self evident.[3]   Truth is known through innate knowledge and deduction.  We might particularly associate this approach with philosophers such as Plato and Descartes.

Empiricism        

Empiricists believe that we can only know for certain what can be observed. Historically, this approach is particularly associated with the philosopher David Hume. In contemporary terms, it is represented by the new atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.

I tend to place this towards the middle of the pendulum.  It is still on the rationalist side of the diagram. However, the arm has started to swing towards irrationalism.  This is because if we assume that we can only know what we observe, then this tends to prompt the following sorts of questions:

-Can we really trust our observations?

-Is there any place for faith/spiritual/the transcendent?

-Can we discover true meaning?

Such questions lead to despair.  We cannot really be sure that our senses are not deceiving us and that what we see and hear does not truly match reality.  Such suspicions will only be exacerbated if you have grown up on a diet of movies of the “Matrix” ilk.  The reaction to such questions tends to a swing towards Irrationalism and the assumption that the world is based on chaos and disorder.  Truth is then seen as unknowable.

Romanticism    

A major response to empiricism was Romanticism and this approach still has a huge influence on the arts. Here the emphasis is on aesthetic qualities (beauty) and on passions or feelings such as love.  The assumption is that we cannot reach transcendent truth through knowledge/intellect, so we reach it through experience/emotions.

Romanticism is particularly associated with the following philosophers, poets and artists: Rousseau, Swedenborg, Blake, Coleridge and Wordsworth.

Post Modernism

In recent times, the irrationalist position has been represented by Post Modernism.  We associate Modernism with technology, industrialisation and the accompanying political philosophies of Communism and Capitalism.  Post Modernism can be seen as a reaction to modernity’s failure to bring lasting peace and prosperity.

Post Modernism is associated with Philosophical Pluralism: the idea that there is no such thing as absolute truth.  This means that all truth is relative.  Something may be true for me but not for you.

Other terms associated with Post Modernism include Structuralism and Post Structuralism where a strong emphasis is placed on language analysis. Words are seen as chosen somewhat arbitrarily to signify concepts.  This approach is particularly associated with philosophers such as Foucault, Derrida and Barthes.

The impact of Revelation

Christians will want to stand back from the Pendulum and offer a different answer.  As we saw earlier, both irrationalism and rationalism stem from an attempt to know truth autonomously for ourselves. The Christian will want to say to the irrationalist “you are wrong and the rationalist is right: truth is knowable.”  But they will also want to say “You are right and the rationalist is wrong: we cannot discover certain truth for ourselves.”

So how do we know certain truth?  In Romans 1, Paul says,

“I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes…For in the Gospel, a righteousness from God is revealed.” (Romans 1:16-17)

How can we know truth if we cannot discover it for ourselves?  The answer is that truth is revealed to us.  The Bible starts with the God who speaks.  God says “Let there be light” and light appears.  Throughout the Bible, we see that God continues to speak.  He calls Noah and tells him to build a boat to preserve his family through a flood. He calls a man called Abram and promises him descendants, a land and blessing.  He speaks to people through angels and prophets.  It is in God’s nature to reveal his character and plans to us.  So Paul says that “what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.”(Romans 1:19).  In fact, there is a sense in which the whole of creation shouts out God’s name, pointing us to the one true God.[4]

The problem is not that God hasn’t spoken clearly.  The problem, says Paul, is that humans choose to reject the truth, to put our fingers in our ears so that we don’t hear what God is saying, to suppress truth and to exchange it for lies, choosing to listen to lies we worship the creation God has made instead of the creator it reveals.[5]

So if we are going to know truth, then we need to start listening to God, the author of truth.  How do we do that?  How do we see and hear what God has revealed?  Our next few posts will pick up on this question.

[1] The study of how we know truth is sometimes referred to as Epistemology

[2] Cornelius Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge (Phliadelphia.  P&R Publishing, 1969), 231-38.

[3] Think of the opening lines of the US Constitution

[4] See Romans 1:20.

[5] See Romans 1:21-23.

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