With it’s subtitle, “Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship” this little big sets sail into a rather intense area of debate, and one which is very relevant to recent discussions on this blog. I’m not really going to try to summarize it. It is only 105 pages and those aren’t too terribly intense if you’ve done a bit of theological reading before. I’d suggest getting a copy and reading it. I got mine as a gift from a friend. Giving me books is a great way to get on my good side!
I’m afraid to summarize. Newbigin boils down a great deal of material into those 105 pages, so setting out to summarize is difficult. But I would say briefly that he holds that all knowledge involves risk, as a subject makes a commitment to some thing. In the same way all knowledge is subjective, as it is known by a subject. There is no point in discussing knowledge without a subject who is doing the knowing. Nonetheless we can be confident of such subjective knowledge, and in fact we regularly are.
I’m pretty certain I’ll be dissatisfied with that summary later, and I’m sure someone who has read the book will come back and point out how I have oversimplified everything, lost all the nuances, and perhaps even misrepresented some aspect. I guess I will take the risk of choosing to believe it will do to lay the groundwork for my response.
I agree with Newbigin in broad outlines, but find myself coming to a different point on the spectrum as a result, always providing that I am correctly reading where he comes out within the outline. A key point here is simply that all knowledge is subjective to some extent. We do not know absolutely or from a perspectiveless framework. We know from who we are and where we are.
In some postmodern thought, this results in the claim that all ideas are so subjective that we shouldn’t make truth claims between them at all. In the creation-evolution controversy, many people who would probably forcefully reject any idea that they are postmodern nonetheless use the “all stories are equal” approach to denigrate science and thereby make their own story look better. If scientists might be wrong and creationists might be wrong, then why privilege the results of scientific research over young earth creationism? (Note that the example is mine, not Newbigin’s.)
Newbigin doesn’t leave us there, however. He does believe that there is a reality to be perceived, and that we do our best to perceive it, and in doing so take a risk through the commitments that we make. There is a certainty, not that we are right, but that we are going toward what is right, or so I interpret page 67, separated from its specifically Christian commitment.
But the whole cannot be separated from its Christian commitment, because that is ultimately what Newbigin is talking about–the commitment to the one who is truth, a subjective commitment because it is a choice taken with risk, but not something of which one cannot be confident at all.
I certainly agree that all knowledge is limited and subjective. The results of scientific research are not complete, and my theological wanderings are certainly not absolute. (I do believe there are things that are absolutely true, but they are so far from our perception that we have to be satisfied with doing our best to head that direction. It’s sort of like navigating by the north star. You’ll never get there, but if you keep on, you’ll arrive somewhere in the vicinity of the north pole.
So in the sense that all knowledge is subjective and that one makes choices, takes risks, and can (indeed will) have confidence in things one does not know absolutely, I agree with Newbigin. Where I perceive that I differ is in the relative levels. I think it is very easy to overemphasize how relative certain elements of physical knowledge are, and to underemphasize just how relative certain spiritual issues are. The idea that all stories are equal results from such a confusion.
In practical terms most of us treat “objective” as something that can be similarly perceived by multiple people. A scientific experiment that can be repeated by anyone with the proper supplies and equipment is considered objective. Fantasies in my own mind are subjective because nobody else can perceive them. While there is a subjective element in the most objective fact, and there is an objective element in the most subjective (neurons fire when I fantasize, I would imagine!), there’s a very valuable distinction there. I don’t think Newbigin misses that point; I do think he emphasizes is somewhat less than I would.
As an example, let me relate three experiences, two of them singular and one that has been repeated many times. In the first, a couple of days after our son died, I was in my wife’s home office with her when I clearly heard our son speaking in the next room. It was clear enough to me that I actually got up and started to head over there to talk to him before I was jolted by the reality that he was dead. My wife heard nothing, of course, and a recorder would have recorded anything. In fact, the only evidence you have or can have of this event is that I relate it. I didn’t even tell my wife what happened at the time. She simply noticed me leave the room and decide to come back, and since such inconsistent behavior is not uncommon for me, she never noticed.
In the second, we were both in the living room and I heard water running. I got up mumbling about having left the tap running in the bathroom (though it did sound oddly different). My wife starts laughing and says, “No, that’s my new screen saver with sounds of running water.” In this case there is an objective event, but I misperceive it.
In the final case, which happens commonly, I hear the dog barking, and I assume something has happened. This is objectively demonstrable, as in anyone who goes to where the dog is will likely perceive him barking and almost as likely notice why. He generally only barks for some reason. It may not be a good one, but there will be a cause!
My point in all those words is that there are many levels of confidence that we have in our knowledge, and the question here would be where we place certain matters of spirituality on this continuum. I think that on a day to day basis I rank them much more subjectively than does Newbigin, but we both rank them somewhere.
Which leads to the point on which the preceding paragraph is completely wrong–or is it? Both Newbigin and I make a very fundamental choice, the choice to believe in the incarnation. This provides at the foundation of our thinking the believe in God as creator, in other words, that the universe makes sense, and second that we have placed our final confidence in a person. In my personal thinking, and as I read Newbigin in his as well, this becomes a central axiom in our way of thinking. Subordinate facts may fall wherever on the spectrum, but this choice remains at the core, and is the one to which we give our true confidence.
To quote from page 66-67, and do so more faithfully to its context than my previous allusion:
If we are to use the word “certainty” here, then it is not the certainty of Descartes. It is the kind of certainty expressed in such words as those of the Scriptures: “I know whom I have believed, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what has been entrusted to me” (2 Tim. 1:12). . . . The weight of confidence rests there and not here with us. Secondly, the phrase “until that day” reminds us that this is not a claim to possess final truth but to be on the way that leads to the fullness of truth. . . .
That’s a pretty good expression, I think.