Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Disclosing Truth: Some Preliminary Ideas

OK, bear with me here. Let me try some ideas out on you. If they don't make sense to you, don't take it personally. I'm not sure they make sense to me either. And I'm not sure where to begin (beginnings are so important in an argument).

But let's start with Martin Heidegger (I know, collective moan). Heidegger was a German philosopher who wrote a very important book, Being and Time, in 1927 (let's put aside for the moment that he later supported the National Socialist Party. I hate when that happens. In the words of Indiana Jones, "Nazis! I hate Nazis!"). Part of the importance of this book is that he challenged the way the Western philosophical tradition has thought of being going all the way back to the Greeks (we call a theory of being an ontology). Before Heidegger, Western notions of being or reality might be described as substantialist. (I know, I asked you to bear with me. This is what I meant). By this, people like Aristotle meant that the first things to talk about when describing being are substances. Qualities or relations follow after first discovering the essence of a substance.

By the time this ontology reaches a guy like Descartes, being is defined primarily in relation to subjects and objects (and this primarily in spatial, not temporal categories, but that won't be on the test). The rational, doubting subject becomes the center of ontology. What's the one thing Descartes couldn't doubt? The fact that he was doubting. Ergo, "I think, therefore, I am."

After Descartes, the question for philosophers is how is the subject related to the object--through reason or experience? Philosophers like John Locke and Immanuel Kant go different directions here, but they both start with a substantialist ontology. And if you think this is a simply an exercise in theoretical speculation, the way most of us think about our faith is totally substantialist. Trust me for now. You have skin in this game. I may come back to this in a later post.

Ok, here's the payoff (have you already gone back to watching Desperate Housewives?). If you think of reality in terms of subjects and objects, then truth usually gets thought of as an object waiting to be discovered. It is this self-contained little geography, this already defined continent of ideas or facts. We dis-cover it.

But Heidegger challenged all of that. For Heidegger there was something that preceded the knowing subject--being itself, what he called Da-sein (there-to be). Heidegger thought that once you split the world into subjects and objects, it was difficult truly to get at being. We are not simply rational subjects making sense of the characteristics or properties of objects. We don't stand at arms length from being, examining it. We are entangled in it. Being happens to us. We interpret our lives as they unfold. We know things through taking care, through empathy or being with, not just through detachment and empirical observation. Da-sein is not simply what we know about. It's what we know with.

Heidegger challenges substantialist notions of truth that he terms "derivative." From this point of view, we have truth when there is an agreement of a proposition with its object (I know, I know, hang with me here). But for Heidegger, if you move away from a substantialist ontology truth is defined as a being-true. It is not simply a proposition that you can separate from the rest of life. Truth is not so much discovered as disclosed through what Heidgger refers to as attunement, understanding, and discourse. Truth here is messier to get at, but in the end possesses more angles of reference than a substantialist notion of truth.

Now clearly, when we talk about truth, we tend to think of it as the Greeks did. But I wonder if this is the way the Bible talks about it. Before we even get to a notion of truth, let's think about our notion of God. Remember, it was the Greeks who defined God as a set of attributes (a substantialist perspective), i.e. omnipotent, omiscient, omnipresent. God is a distant object in Greek metaphysics. So much so that God could not be thought of as suffering, or even being affected by human life (we call this the impassability of God). Most of the early creeds, in my opinion, had a stake at protecting God the Father from the suffering of the Son to satisfy a Greek sensibility.

God here can become an impersonal force. Not so much a judge, but a judgment. But what if God were less a set of attributes, and more a community of persons tied together in suffering love. What if God's way with us was less as total subject (judging), and more as suffering companion (empathizing).

If the latter is the case, then the conditions of possibility for our knowledge of God and the truth would come through caring, suffering companionship with others. Truth would not simply be a deposit of doctrine somewhere, but the knowledge that comes from our taking care in the world through participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus. This truth is something revealed, somthing disclosed, something discerned, something practical, and something provisional.

Ok, one last observation. What if salvation is not an object we possess, but a being-true. What if salvation were not only a fixed object, a status, a theory or abstraction. What if salvation consists also in a being saved, in a disclosing, in a revealing, a transformation with others. This, I believe is a far more biblical way of understanding salvation.

I'm not saying that Heidegger got it all right. What he did, however, was pull back the curtain on our massive investment in a substantialist ontology and suggest that there are other ways to get at this business of being. I'm still in the what-if stage with all of this. I have questions about all of this. Heidgger would invite us to do theology without a metaphysics. I like that. Is it completely possible? He invites us away from idealism and materialism with his phenomenological approach. Is it stout enough? But it is promising enough for me to put some weight on it and see, to see what it discloses.

(And for those of you with some PMC, Pat Keifert interest, you might be able to see now why Pat's book is called, We Are Here Now).


Carisse said...

Thank you. I appreciate the effort it takes to teach a philosophical vocabulary to folks who aren't familiar with it.

Kevin said...

I think I understood sort of. What I like is that this discussion gives foundation to your thoughts on salvation. It helps to shape the conversation about participation. Great thoughts.

Mark Love said...

Thanks Carisse and Kevin. Kevin, I would substitute the word background for foundation. But, yeah, I'm glad you see that. I've come at it the opposite way, though. The biblical notions developed first for me, the the critique of psa, and now the philosophical discussion is helping me make distinctions and pushing me into new territory.


Cheryl Russell said...

Great thoughts as usual, thanks for trying them out here. I like where you are going with this. A touchable, empathetic Companion. Partnership. Transformation. Some great things to be tangled up with.

Redlefty said...

I agree that what you are exploring is actually more biblical than some of the standard doctrine.

Perhaps this is what Paul meant by the "renewing of your minds"?

Dean Smith said...

Thanks, Mark. This is much closer to the kind of transformation that Jesus preached as the kingdom of heaven. I'm coming to believe that faith is the reality you act on. All the rest is just theories.

Mark Love said...


I've been following you a bit on facebook. It looks like the transition is a meaningful one. Thanks for the comments.


Adrian Woods said...

I want to try this out on you. I've been asking people what is the point of church. I receive a fairly unanimous response, "Worship". This seems to fit with what we see in American Christianity. If Worship is at the center of your theology, then the most important thing you need to do is have a place to worship. Thus lets drop a couple of million dollars on a building, lights, camera's, video screens. I think intimately tied with this emphasis on worship is the desire to "Experience God". How do I experience God? through Worship. Thus it is important to invest to create the greatest worship experience possible, in the hopes that we can conjure up an encounter with the mystical. My critique is two fold: 1. I think this lends itself to a psychological therapeutic conception of Christianity and 2. The gluttony of America's expenditures on buildings has to be the greatest blasphemous sin on record (perhaps I overstate my case!).
My second thought is that if you imagine church as the 2nd incarnation of Christ in the world, I think you off hand ask a completely different set of questions like: What does it mean to be Jesus as this group of people? What are the things that Jesus did (i.e. concern for the oppressed)?

I'm sure you have already dealt with all of this to some degree or another, I've just been putting it together in my head and wanted to see what you thought about my putting it together.

Mark Love said...


I like to say that congregations have an imagination, what Charles Taylor calls a social imaginary, and part of that is certainly related to ecclesiology. A second incarnation imaginary would certainly be less likely to fund worship as the functional equivalent of church. Craig Van Gelder, one of my profs, says, "in N america worship is sometimes a replacement for Xianity." Not a direct quote, but you get the idea. I'm saying that soteriology is a big part of a congregation's imagination, including its worship imagination. So, let's track your suggestion together.