There are certain arguments in our culture that are often given without sufficient evidence and an air of “its common sense!” or “of course it’s this way”. Often in Evangelical Christian books, cultural ideas are set as the foundation for an argument and what makes them seem strong is that they are typically given to push back on a clearly wrong idea and seem to be very charitable. Typically they also defend the subjective truth “some x are y” and try to use it to prove the universal truth “all x are y” or at least move it to defend a stronger argument “most x are y” than what they have provided evidence for. I noticed an argument like this the other day and although I think a good amount of the book has good content I wanted to use it to make this point.
My wife and I have a habit of reading a book and a little of the Old Testament at night. Yesterday, we started reading a book call Marriage Made in Eden: A Pre-Modern Perspective for a Post-Christian World. The book strives to present the modern view of marriage alongside the Biblical view of marriage and then to give readers how we can apply the timeless Biblical truths to our marriages in the culture and time we live in today. I think overall this is a good goal and I agree with a lot of the argumentation in the book. However, there is a bad thread in the author’s reasoning that we see again and again in the culture and in the church that leads to all sorts of bad effects. In chapter 2 the authors contrast modernism and post-modernism and on pages 37-38 they agree with some aspects but not all of the post-modern critiques of modernism, their first critique is valid that modernism often ignored the whole person focusing on the rational side only. The second critique is untrue, but often repeated the authors write
Similarly, the claim of the modern world that the “knower” (the scientist) is able to view the world as an unconditioned objective observer is a myth. Science like other human endevors, is historically and culturally conditioned; all scientists (and all knowers) are subjective participants in the world they seek to see objectively.Marriage Made in Eden: A Pre-Modern Perspective for a Post-Christian World, Page 38
Lie: All People are Subjective
The issue here is subtle but often used. Notice the unqualified word subjective at the end of the sentence. Subjective here is both correct and incorrect, correct in that we all have an element of subjectivity to what we do and say because we are people in the world and are affected by what we have learned, see and do, and are passionate about. However, subjective here being unqualified is deadly, because it is not taken in the qualified sense that there is subjectivity measured to a certain degree and according to certain conditions. Unless one gets into the conditions for a specific person it is useless to say “all people are subjective” because this unqualified subjectivity can and usually is abused. Is a person subjective when it comes to things they are passionate about? Then one can say that if you are passionate then you are possibly or worse probably incorrect. Is this subjectivity when dealing with family? Then one can say “this has to do with family so you are being subjective and not objective”. Yet, in both these cases the proper answer is maybe they are but maybe not and we can find out which is true if we observe and ask questions. For instance, in a police interview if a witness is continually deferring to their family being right in spite of evidence clearly to the contrary proving otherwise and them clearly not properly considering the evidence then we can see and begin to discern the degree of subjectivity. For instance, if it is criminal, denying some crime, or the person is being stubborn based on some clear factor. Most of us know from experience subjectivity usually can be spotted and discerned by someone who is not as subjective in that specific area but oftentimes in heart-searching, we know our own subjectivity can be found. When I was younger for instance I grew up in a very politically conservative family, I discovered later on that I tended to lean to say the Republican side was right without considering details in the specific situation and now while I may tend to agree one side is right more often than the other I see some ways on the left that are right and on the conservative side are not fully considered and vice-versa. For instance, when it comes to immigration in general or healthcare, there are some good and bad arguments on both sides and there really isn’t a nuanced approach I’ve seen.
Subjectivity is Very LIMITED
This is important because subjectivity has clear limits, and it is not a sort of counterargument to reason that limits reason in general. However, in this case, the authors go on to cite quantum physics and talk about how even science has its uncertainties based on their initial claim that “people are subjective”. The overall point being that the world has elements that reason cannot touch and reason is therefore limited (unqualified) and the world is uncertain (unqualified). This is a false start. Reasoning is not invalid because quantum physics is different from how we would intuitively imagine the world. It is a new data set, that was discovered via reasonable techniques. Its reality has certain testable qualities and these can be examined but not always satisfactorily explained. However, these more unexplainable aspects of quantum physics as odd as they are can be pointed out, we can say we don’t know what is happening here and that we know up to this and no further and give a detailed explanation of the thing that is odd and unexplained. In other words, we can reason all the way to seeing the specific aspects where something does not have angles that can be reasoned on.
Another Lie: It’s Wrong to Make Assumptions
Another common example of the overstatement of subjectivity took place during a call my wife had the other day. She was talking to a couple of fellow Christians and mentioned something she assumed based on what one of the people had said. One of the others quickly responded that “we shouldn’t assume” and went on to give a personal story of a time they had assumed and were wrong as evidence that this general overarching statement was true. However, this comment on assuming is just like the subjective comment we talked about above. While it may be true that there are a number of cases where assuming is not good they can in fact be reasoned to, and if someone is reasonable in how they assume or do not assume then assumptions are a fine thing to do. In fact, we all make assumptions as part of our day-to-day life. We assume the earth will rotate around the sun as it always has, we assume our coworkers will behave as they typically do and on that basis go in to do our job in the way we do, we assume our senses work correctly we assume all kinds of things based on limited but enough evidence even though there is certainly a chance we could be wrong. We would be silly to give up our assumptions based on that reason unless we had a valid reason to suspect specifically our assumption is not right this time.
How These Lies Infuse Into an UnBiblical Thought System
Why is this important? Well, because it is the basis of things like how the layperson vs. professional gap is maintained in the Church. Why for instance do we believe that letters and books of the Bible written to turn of the century people can only be understood by those with Masters in Theology? It is because the individual needs to deal with the subjectivity that they approach this thing, scripture reading. This is done through education to understand the culture of the time, theories of textual criticism and the like. Again the very vague subjectivity claim mixed with the very unclear benefit theological training gives claim and creates the appearance that this theological training alone can bridge the gap. The gap is so unclear that the reader or hearer of the argument cannot argue for other methods or how they might understand they simply must nod and say that they are indeed a layperson and unless they can go to seminary they must be out of the running for really understanding scripture.
The “Layperson” Can Understand Scripture
The truth is the subjectivity involved in understanding scripture for all of scripture is not very big, we need to understand some of what happened in the culture, we need to be students of the Bible ourselves and read scripture regularly, overall and in the method, it was written but these things can be done by anyone. Even an illiterate person can listen to the Bible and some discussions on the environment in which it was written. It really is not that hard to understand scripture and the subjectivity of the person in approaching it is limited. The biggest limitation in fact is not our ability to understand the mechanics but dealing with sin that causes us to overlook what God is clearly saying.
The Trap in Kind Seeming Sublety
The subtly of the wrong element of the argument frustrates me more than anything. It is a lie that goes into all kinds of evangelical books or sermons that are otherwise really good and so it seems petty to point out. However, the lie in it actually works to call out almost every author in scripture including the ultimate Author of scripture God Himself. You see in book after book in the Bible we are not only told we should understand that book and the things God has said, even the implications of what He said but also that if we do not we are actually sinning against God.
Biblically it is clear again and again we have a responsibility to understand what God has said and to understand that in detail, I make that argument here. Another lesson where this is all too clear is in the book of Job.
The Lesson from Job
In Job, the lesson we learn is twofold but today we often only learn half the lesson. The lesson we learn and often teach today is that God is mysterious and our knowledge is limited. This is part of the lesson God gives when He speaks towards the end of the book. However, the lesson is more nuanced than this and the unnuanced lesson we typically teach confirms all kinds of wrong thinking that are actually directly against what God is trying to communicate through this book.
Job is All About Reasoning Rightly
The ultimate lesson has to do with the situation that can’t be known, God’s conversation with Satan, and the thing that can be known: 1. Job has lived a righteous life. 2. God is faithful. It is his friends’ ignorance of what can be known and what they should know that ultimately gets them punished by God. The friends should have observed Job and known from the information they had available about him, that Job was a really righteous person before the big trouble in his life. He prayed regularly, was faithful to the people around him, cared for the weak and needy and God even defends Job in front of Satan about how righteous he is. If Job’s friends had observed rightly they would not have all focused on Job being a great sinner because God only allows evil to happen based on a person’s sin. Not only that but they were also responsible for discerning when they came to the limit of what they could know. The friends of Job all believed they understood exactly how the world worked regarding sin and evil and so they denied the fact that Job clearly lived a righteous life rather than discern that God may be dealing with more details than what they can see. The lesson here is two-fold 1. We are responsible to discern what we can rightly. and 2. We are responsible to discern the specific limit of what we can know.
Reason Out What You Can and Can’t Know Specifically
If we take the nuanced lesson from the book then we will see the error of the typical vague universally skeptical way of thinking. We are 1. Responsible for knowing when specifically, down to the fine details, what we can know. and 2. Responsible for knowing, down to the fine details, what we cannot know. This two-part responsibility is a moral imperative as we see Job’s friends were actually punished by God for not doing both and I think when you see both points you will see how it is a moral issue. When we deny our responsibility to know we do not act rightly toward God and others. We show we don’t know them or Him and we create little idols or toys of God and people around us making them fit our comfortable worldview. On the other end when we assume we know something that we cannot then we do wrongly, we justify lies and end up living wrongly and treating others wrongly. This is, in fact, the highest rational and logical standard and far from dismissing logic, it invites us to be utterly reasonable and logical in how we deal with the world and others.
The Cultural Lie that Binds Us
So this subtle little lie that seems so right and good really acts to work against one of the most basic elements of the Christian life. Modernism had it right in saying that we can use reason to discover and know most things, but there are some things we cannot know. This limitation of things we cannot know is a small sliver of reality, it does include things like the time when Christ will return, certain parts of why God does what He does (although I think this is very limited as many reasons are given in scripture explicitly) it currently at least includes things like aspects of quantum mechanics. However, much of life is knowable and figure-outable. Scripture especially is something that is given to us Genesis to Revelation for our good and for our understanding. Be encouraged today that when you seek God in His Word you can find Him because He has made Himself known. You can know Him by reasoning, reasoning based on what He has spoken and about what we know about reality.