Specifying some epistemological questions

This, for my own good, is likely my last post on theology and epistemology. I am no expert in this area and fear I’ve already demonstrated all to well my ignorance.

But after comments on my last post, I did want to try to clarify, or at least further specify, some of my questions.

Alvin Plantinga writes that the denial of the existence of universals is a kind of anti-realism. Is that a valid assertion? If so, doesn’t that make anti-foundational philosophy and theology anti-realist?

Did Ludwig Wittgenstein have an anti-realist epistemology?

Does his influence on Hans Frei and George Lindbeck, among others, mean postliberal theology is at its base built on an anti-realist epistemology?

Do feminist theologies — and related theologies — draw upon anti-realist epistemology?

Am I wrongly concerned about this whole issue because anti-realism really is not inconsistent with orthodox Christianity? (Or is it only the concern of a small tribe of analytic philosophers who have no actual influence outside their circle?)

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8 thoughts on “Specifying some epistemological questions

  1. I think you are rightly concerned.
    To say anti-realists have had no impact on thinking and is limited to a small philosophical group is being a true anti-realist.

  2. I don’t know John. This just sounds like the kind of train of thought I would always hear among fundamentalist Southern Baptists. John was “influenced” by X philosopher who was “influenced” by Y philosopher who has some things that are problematic about his philosophy. Therefore John’s ideas should be discredited even though I can’t show directly what’s wrong with them; simply the fact that he’s been “influenced” by problematic sources. I’ve never read anything by George Lindbeck. I’m not terribly interested. Whatever he said or didn’t say doesn’t get to control what I’ve learned from Stanley Hauerwas any more than the tainting of John Howard Yoder’s sex scandal does. Every time we are “influenced’ by a thinker, it’s always an appropriation in which we use their thoughts for our purposes rather than just an inheritance in which their thoughts give us our purpose.

    I’ve been reading a book about the theological origins of modernity. The battle between realism and nominalism is quite complicated and not something that can be resolved easily into “good” and “bad.” The reason that nominalism came about in the first place was because scholasticism was getting ridiculous and had become way more Aristotilean than Christian.

    The way the history of Christian thought seems to work is in a series of reactions of dialectic reactions. So you might have an era of high Christology in which Jesus is barely human followed by a low Christology in which Jesus becomes barely divine. There is good and bad in each and they need to be balanced by each other. Even though the anti-realism of nominalism is the basis for the high voluntarist misanthropic God of Calvinism who can’t be expected to be “love” in the 1 Corinthians 13 sense since there are no universals, I’ve realized in reading this book that I can understand and sympathize with where the nominalists were coming from. There are things to sympathize with in both realism and nominalism. It kind of depends on how Platonist we want to allow our Christianity to become. Hans Boersma is willing to go ahead and say that all of us should be Christian Platonists; the two are simply synthesized. Others are going to protest, saying that this causes us to be eisegetical with scripture. So it’s more complicated than looking for the good guys and the bad guys.

  3. John,

    Lots of questions! I encourage you to pursue all of them as you have occasion. They run in too many different directions to respond to in a single reply on a blog.

    I will simply say anti- or non-foundationalism is not necessarily a species of anti-realism. I think Plantinga and other who might assert it is are missing an important distinction, perhaps because they are committed both to realism and universals, and in this dual commitment, cannot imagine or at least do not distinguish that universals may not be species of realism per se, but rather of idealism, and an idealism that, at its roots, may be more Gnostic than Jewish or Christian.

    Without getting into particulars with particular philosophers or theologians here, the movement in Christian theology and ethics toward practices as embodied beliefs rather than merely beliefs, and toward concrete lived realities as signs or venues of the incarnation rather than universal principles carrying the bulk of this load, represents a movement more in keeping with Biblical thinking and the nature of discipling than does an a priori commitment to some scheme of universals. At the end of the season, it is by the quality and quantity of our harvest, by our fruits, which is to say, by how we have actually lived, that we are both judged and known. Jesus is quite clear about this.

    This is why the Wesleys were so keen on making the General Rules concrete and specific, even if not exhaustive. Avoiding harm or evil as an abstract universal is not something we’re going to be good at until we’ve defined, and learned how, to avoid the practices that we call evil or harmful. Doing good is further specified as toward other Christians, toward others generally, and particularly toward the poor, as Jesus himself specified it. We don’t do good because we’ve defined the good as a universal. We do good as we engage in practices such as those listed in the Second General Rule. The Third General Rule is even more clearly about practices– “attending upon all the ordinances of God; such are…” and then a list of specific practices, some of them with congregations, some with the Methodist class meetings or society meetings, and some in family and personal acts of devotion. It is as we engage in these practices, the Wesleys believed and taught, that we manifest our “desire to be saved from our sins and to flee the wrath to come.”

    The Wesleys weren’t anti-realist at all. They absolutely believed in evil, and grace, and God as realities knowable potentially by all, and as realities whether any given person knew them or not. But none of these were seen as universals– static, fixed for all time, setting the course of the universe. All of them are realities we and others encounter (or don’t) in the dynamic contexts of our lives and across (at least) human history.

    1. Thanks, Taylor. I must be using the term “universal” in an idiosyncratic way because I would have pegged Wesley as both a realist and one who uses universals in his theology. I do not see the disconnect between the general rules and belief in universals. This may indicate my poor understanding.

    2. “Avoiding harm or evil as an abstract universal is not something we’re going to be good at until we’ve defined, and learned how, to avoid the practices that we call evil or harmful”
      That is an ideal that is never going to accepted universally.

      ” They absolutely believed in evil, and grace, and God as realities knowable potentially by all, and as realities whether any given person knew them or not. But none of these were seen as universals– static, fixed for all time, setting the course of the universe. All of them are realities we and others encounter (or don’t) in the dynamic contexts of our lives and across (at least) human history.”

      You don’t think “one God” is static or fixed for all time?
      You don’t see Grace as fixed for all time?
      Are you saying all of reality is dependent on our life experiences?

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