Off and on (mostly on, I suppose), I think about the clash of ideas that takes place between people when talking about religion.  In “educated” (I use this word advisedly) middle class America, there is an informal moral principle at work that, I think, confuses the courage of one’s convictions (and the associated truth claims) with a wrong use of power.

Some years ago (2001), Baker Academic published a collection of essays by leading evangelical scholars called No Other Gods Before Me? It’s edited by John Stackhouse.  I recommend the book.  It is an illustration of epistemic humility while maintaining a clear commitment to standard (broadly-understood) evangelical commitments to the Christian faith.  One need not agree with everything in the book to appreciate the care and thoughtfulness of the authors and to be challenged by their ideas.  Epistemic humility.

Christians of all stripes (especially Christian college and seminary professors who don’t recognize that they’re doing it) make the mistake of confusing the force of an idea with coercive tactics in arguments.  Coercive tactics sometimes fly under the flag of “informal fallacies” in logic.  When I think I can undermine your idea by making a reference to something about you personally – the charge of “homophobe” is a classic example on a very contentious topic – it’s called an informal fallacy (ad hominem attack), but it is also a power move.  Another one is “fundamentalist” (or “liberal”).  We think we can dismiss someone’s idea simply by naming some aspect of their character that we think takes away the force of their ideas.  If I’m a “conservative” and you’re a “liberal,” then I don’t have to take your ideas seriously because you’re “liberal.”  This move is a power move, not just a “bias.”

How Christians use power when they are making their claims is of fundamental importance.  In so many evangelistic appeals, we are misusing power (and abusing trust) when we manipulate people’s feelings in order to get them to sign a card.  In politics, campaign rhetoric is based on appeals to emotion (another logical fallacy), manipulating hearers’ feeling by playing (primarily) on fear.

OK, so I’ve named the easy parts.  What about when an idea that I hold as fundamentally true, say, that Jesus Christ is God in the flesh and the Savior of the world, is considered exclusionary (here’s the power) by someone who doesn’t believe that idea?  If I insist that Jesus Christ is the only way to the Father, what about people who don’t agree?  They recognize the force of the idea , which, if they persist in their prior commitment (i.e. don’t change their minds to match my claim about Jesus), leaves them out of the blessing that I associate with my belief about Jesus.  They feel understandably left out and they also think that we have demeaned their views regarding salvation (or whatever term they would use to describe spiritual wholeness).

It seems to me that my being epistemically humble means that I am authentically willing to hear their criticisms of my view and to be open to having my idea shaped by their criticisms.  But it most certainly does not mean that I have give up a priori on my idea about Jesus, which is what happens sometimes when people confuse truth claims with power moves.  Too much dialogue between people of differing religions assumes this starting point.  It basically asks Christians (at least the ones who think this way) to drop their beliefs about Jesus in order to enter “properly” into dialogue.  This is a power play of another sort and it illustrates the difficulty.  Ideas have force and we can’t avoid it.

Most importantly, perhaps, is that Christians in America, at least, are going to have to work up much more social courage than we often have, if we’re going to live effectively in a society that doesn’t recognize the difference between the force of ideas and the manipulation of feelings.  And that I write this blog on Epiphany seems quite relevant…

Epistemic Humility and the Force of Ideas

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