Monday, February 12, 2007

prudentes sicut serpentes

Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves. Matthew 10:16

My mother just drew to my attention this piece in the NYT. It concerns Christian scientists (big C, little S), specifically of the evangelical stripe, who must navigate "secular" academia.

Asked whether it was intellectually honest to write a dissertation so at odds with his religious views, [Dr. Ross] said: “I was working within a particular paradigm of earth history. I accepted that philosophy of science for the purpose of working with the people” at Rhode Island.

And though his dissertation repeatedly described events as occurring tens of millions of years ago, Dr. Ross added, “I did not imply or deny any endorsement of the dates.”

This raises some pretty interesting issues, pressing ones, even, but does so in a fatuous way. In the above quote, the very use of a particular methodology for dating in a dissertation does imply endorsement of it and its associated ideas. This is all part of the carefully constructed and troubling "myth of objectivity" which haunts academia in two ways: First there is the denial of any sort of objectivity—although I am sure this is less emphatic in the "hard" sciences, than it is in the "soft" sciences and humanities. Secondly there is the preservation of the form of objectivity that academics (self included) use to protect themselves from criticism by their peers. This is apparent in the dense fabric of language academics weave to avoid making any definitive or conclusive statements about anything. This has its advantages, of course. It allows one to keep a particular issue open to reconsideration, but usually it masks a definitive conclusion in an apparently innocuous way: it's the ultimate wolf in sheep's clothing.

I see this regularly in the use of what we like to call "theory" which gives our ideas a pleasantly reassuring scientific and objective-sounding ring, but in reality is the artificial "naturalizing" (that is, to understand something unreal as real) of perversion. It's particularly rife among people who like to extend psychoanalysis (the world's most tragic hoax) or Marxist economic theories (the second most) into other fields, in my case, ars historiae. Don't misunderstand: These people do so usually with the best of intentions, but as is the case in the NYT article, they seldom realize how deeply prejudiced they are against contradictions to their theoretical framework. They already do not recognize it to be a theory, which by definition is something that is still waiting conclusive proof.

For the conscientious Christian (a redundancy, I know), is it (1) possible to set aside one's "personal convictions" to engage other, even anti-Christian ideas? (2) Is to do so dishonest, or worse, immoral? (1) Yes; and (2) I don't believe so. In the case of the evangelical scientist, I imagine the solution is easiest, since the scientific method operates as a control over their results: it partially relieves them of responsibility for their conclusions. If they disagree with their conclusions, they probably should be exta conscientious to demonstrate the limits of their measuring devices and thereby cast doubt on them. Frankly, this doesn't matter to me very much, since if the earth is 10 billion years old or six thousand, it intersects my life in such a liminal way. (Creationism is maybe a separate issue, but I'm not sure I have a problem with the concept of a guided evolutionary process. It accords with God's deliberate pattern of mediated interaction with the created order.)

But more importantly, I believe we as Christians should strive to reinstate the desire for objectivity, even if, this side of the escahton, it is unobtainable. My reading of René Girard (more on this soon) has left me convinced that Christ's mission was ultimately one of revelation, truth, light, and objectivity. To aspire to be Christ-like is to pursue this objectivity, and this can mean in some cases being willing to shed our "personal convictions" many of which may be preventing us from attaining that goal (and to say this I am in no way discounting Christ's mission of redemption: what is sin if not falsehood, and who is Satan but a "liar and the father of lies"?). This also may mean, for those of us (like me) who find themselves constrained by the limits of a non-Christian intellectual framework, temporarily submitting to it. Or, more hopefully, being as "wise as serpents," finding ways to secrete the Gospel into our studies and academic output so as to subtly transform the perspectives of our colleagues and students and thus prepare the ground for the reception of the Gospel. Not all evangelism happens on the street corner with a sandwich board and a bundle of tracts.*

And finally, there is an extent to which the parsing of a "Christian" view of things, e.g. Creationism versus evolutionism, ultimately inhibits and counteracts the Gospel mandate. As I read this morning in St. Paul's first epistle to my namesake:

As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to occupy themselves with myths and endless genealogies which promote speculations rather than the divine training that is in faith; whereas the aim of our charge is love that issue from a pure heart and a good conscience and sincere faith. Certain persons by swerving from these have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make assertions. I Timothy 1:3-7.

* I certainly hope that I am able to manage this. The dissertation that I hope to write would try to blow the lid off these issues as they pertain to art history, but it may be too clear of an affront to my PhD committee, so I am not entertaining great hopes.


father wb said...

"To aspire to be Christ-like is to pursue this objectivity, and this can mean in some cases being willing to shed our "personal convictions" many of which may be preventing us from attaining that goal (and to say this I am in no way discounting Christ's mission of redemption: what is sin if not falsehood, and who is Satan but a "liar and the father of lies"?)."

Indeed! I have often pondered the impulse to "objectivity". Secularly conceived, its a delusion. The route to objectivity is the route to God. The only sure way to objectivity, therefore, is through assent to having one's life being coterminous with the life of the only Son of the Father. Since Jesus and the Father are one (Jn. 10.30), if the individual believer is one with Jesus (if, in other words, to use Evangelical-talk, Jesus is in your heart), then the individual believer is one with the ONLY platform distinct from Creation. That is to say, if you are one with God (through being one with Jesus), then you are one with the Creator, one with the only thing beyond everything (as I sometimes call Him, "the undifferentiated No-Thing"). Such a state (what the Eastern Fathers call "theosis") is the only real objectivity, the only real way to see the world "from the vantage point of eternity."

You are absolutely right to identify "personal convictions" as standing in the way of objectivity -- unless, that is to say, it is a personal conviction of one's own sinfulness, which would really be in essence a personal non-conviction, or perhaps a non-personal conviction. But commitment to oneself, or to one's own methodologies, or to anything "of the world" is a distraction from the ONLY thing in the history of the World which was essentially not of this world, namely Jesus Christ. He was the ONLY Son of the Father. And therefore the ONLY route to objectivity, the only avenue to being an heir of Divinity, is through HIM. That's what's marvelous about the Gospel. It offers FREE OF CHARGE (!), to anyone who wants it, to be made by grace everything that Jesus is by nature: namely, it offers to make you a son (or daughter) of God, an heir of Godhead (and thus of objectivity).

The scientific method is a false idol. Or can be if its not subsumed within theology (in the loosest sense). I think John Milbank really understands this. I recommend "Theology and Social Theory" on this score.

timothy said...

Precisely! The current vector of secular thought is to recognize that objectivity is a delusion, but this is precisely because they have failed to understand the nature of the Gospel. In a further, and exceedingly clever, intellectual twist, they objectively regard objectivity as impossible. It's why contemporary thought, if it is not just circularity and tautology--and has the least shred of honesty in it--tends towards nihilism. More frequently, "objectivity" masks as an excuse to refuse to acknowledge one's sinfulness. That's what gives the tragic color to existentialism, which from a Christian point-of-view seems remarkably pathetic and small: sound and fury, signifying nothing.

axegrinder said...


Almost no evangelism happens on the street corner anymore thanks to the buffoonery of many who attempt it and the quickness with which well-meaning Christians report and caricature those attempts.

Two things an unfettered public forum provides are an opportunity to be forthright and access to people with whom you otherwise would never converse. In such a venue there is no need to secrete, Trojan-horse or be subtle.

Feel free to leave the sandwich boards and tracts at home. Just take the Gospel, the communion of the saints, a prayerful heart and an open mouth.

Respectfully yours,

Jason Kranzusch

timothy said...


You may have missed the facetiousness of my tone regarding sandwich boards, tracts. I think they're the most blunt and ineffective ways to spread the Gospel. In the context, I simply was using them as a euphemism for the work of explicit evangelism, calling to people to repent and be baptized, that sort of thing. Unfortunately, most people I know have (e.g. my professors) so many mixed up and prejudiced views of Christianity that they will not and cannot listen to this sort of talk (although they should). Instead, however, it is possible to begin to make a context, intellectually in this case, in which Christianity can be understood in its true light. In other words, to demonstrate the paucity and limitations of "theory." But without direct recourse to the Gospel itself. This would be regarded as being dogmatic and intellectually sterile--even if it is no different from what they are doing--and would shut their ears against it before p. 2. Don't forget the incredible insidiousness with which this "myth of objectivity" works. They believe to be taken seriously, they must appear objective, although everyone takes objectivity to be chimerical. However, inadvertently, they ARE frequently convinced in their hearts of their own objectivty, their own grasp on the truth. And in the hardness of their hearts they have regarded Christianity as objectively false. Therefore, one must exercise a little subtlety in these matters. However, we should all do well to remember that it is charity which ultimately wins hearts and minds.

J-Tron said...

In general you put forth a compelling thesis about objectivity and the way that it is currently understood (or misunderstood) in academia and beyond. But I'm confused by this particular sideways jab: "psychoanalysis (the world's most tragic hoax)." Was this just an unfortunate rhetorical flourish or do you actually believe that psychology and psychoanalysis is a hoax?

timothy said...


I actually believe that. Alas, I have no time to go into it. But psychoanalysis is by and large a theory that attempts to fill the vacuum left by the negation of Christianity. Thererfore it is untrue, or, a hoax. Sometimes, though, I am given to rhertorical flourishes.

axegrinder said...


Unfortunately, electronic communications often leave us missing the subtleties we intend. This is not one of those instances. I most definitely caught your tone regarding signs and tracts in the context of evangelism.

What I was responding to was the dismissiveness that seemed to be indicated towards all public evangelism. I was attempting to show that this particular and peculiar form of discourse can be useful in the hands of those who are able to extricate it from the clownish excrescences that have come to be associated with it.

I was also being facetious when I suggested you leave the signs and tracts at home.

I suppose that's enough on this subject.