15 November 2005

the character of theology

John Franke's book, The Character of Theology: An Introduction to Its Nature Task and Purpose, seems to have stirred up some considerable discussion in the past several days, largely prompted by Paul Helm's review. As I commented elsewhere, it's rather like watching a tennis match. Interpreting tennis matches, however, is sometimes aided by commentary from the sidelines, so allow me to give it a shot.

Now, I've not read the Franke book very carefully, though I'm familiar with his perspective based upon some shorter articles he's written and some personal interaction. And Helm is a fine, brilliant Christian philosopher who is, I suspect, better educated than I am and certainly has more years of experience and reflection than I can claim in the discipline of philosophy.

Furthermore, I do think Franke is sometimes sloppy in how he expresses himself, a sloppiness that is usually cleared up in light of questions and discussion. Such sloppiness is a bad trait, particularly in philosophical contexts. The proper response, however, is charitable engagement, not dismissiveness, as Helm's responses seem to slide towards.

Thus, some questions (none of which are very original), particularly for Helm, since he's chosen to take up the role of antagonist:

[1] What does Helm mean by "foundationalism"?

Helm seems to suggest that Franke's reference to granting the Trinity "epistemic primacy" or "unrestricted primacy" (a la Bruce Marshall), might count for Helm as a sort of foundationalism. That's fine. We can define foundationalism to mean something like that, but is that the sort of foundationalism that Franke is rejecting? I'm not entirely sure what sort of foundationalism Franke is rejecting (though I have some idea), but I'm also not sure what Helm takes to fall under the rubric of "foundationalism."

Narrowly speaking, I would say that foundationalism is the view that, with regard to the structure of knowing, some beliefs are known on the basis of other more basic beliefs until one arrives at a set of beliefs that are known in an absolutely basic way, that is, somehow known immediately rather than on the basis of still further beliefs. This kind of foundationalism can be contrasted with some form of coherentism in which knowing is less a feature of beliefs taken individually than it is a feature of mutually supporting and coherent networks of belief.

In this sense, I imagine that Helm is a foundationalist and that Franke isn't. The difference would play out with regard to the way in which "basic beliefs" are known, with Franke rejecting various forms of "immediacy" that sidestep the situatedness of knowers and the mediations of language and culture. This, however, begins to get into the issue of "objectivity" that I will address further below.

But "foundationalism" is also sometimes taken robustly to require a strong notion of certainty for at least the most basic beliefs or to restrict basic beliefs to those that are known either self-evidently and/or by the evidence of the senses. On such a view, moreover, a belief's being foundational or being properly based upon the foundations entails truth, at least under most conceiveable circumstances. Knowing could, of course, have a foundationalist structure apart from these commitments, but historically foundationalism (what is sometimes called "classical foundationalism") has been associated with such tendencies and sometimes a rejection of foundationalism signals a rejection of these kinds of views.

In this sense, I would imagine that Franke and Helm both reject foundationalism (though, given his comments on certainty, it appears that Helm might be be more friendly towards this kind of foundationalism than I would be inclined to be, though I can barely extrapolate the details of his views from such passing comments).

Moving in the other direction, "foundationalism" is sometimes taken very minimally to refer to any view in which the structure of knowing involves some beliefs having logical priority over others by providing support for them in a more linear, rather than circular and coherentist way. In that sense, of course, a lot of folks turn out to be foundationalists, most likely including Franke himself, from what I understand of his views.

Clarity on the issue of how "foundationalism" is functioning in this discussion would move matters forward.

[2] What does Helm mean by "objectivity"?

To speak of "objective" truth or knowledge can mean a variety of things, depending on author and context. The term is, of course, the opposite of "subjective," but that term (though often used in a pejorative way) can also mean a variety of things, not all of which are bad.

Sometimes talk of "objectivity" supposes a view of consciousness and experience in which the mind acts rather like a mirror or movie screen, passively registering representations of things corresponding to the realities of objects in the world. This would be in contrast to "subjective" experiences that are internal to the subject, apart from an external object, such as self-awareness, pain, thought, and so on. I have no idea what Helm's views are on this, but I suspect that both he and Franke would reject objectivity in this strong sense as partaking too much of an early modern (and historically novel) subject-object dichotomy.

Other times talk of "objectivity" simply expresses a commitment to the immediacy of knowing in the case of basic beliefs (as defined above). This view of objectivity might not be so inclined to view the mind in a mirror-like fashion, but allows that consciousness involves the relatively direct presence of the world to the mind, giving rise to beliefs that are known in a basic way. But, in order to be truly "objective" these beliefs must not be colored or distorted or perhaps even mediated by "subjective" elements such as emotion, personal inclination, and interpretation, or even perhaps language, conceptual apparatus, and the like.

In some cases these mediating elements are seen as inherently distorting and limiting (rather than as, say, modes of active receptivity that, when properly mediatory, open us to the world). When such distortion is posited as intrinstic to mediation, "objective" knowing is either denied altogether (so that all truth claims are subjective or relative) or basic beliefs (or forms of awareness, if beliefs are necessarily linguistic) are held to be more basic than these mediations.

I suspect that Helm holds that some beliefs are "objective" in the sense that they are known in a basic way, apart from such putatively distorting and limiting mediations. Franke, on the other hand, does not, I think, hold that any beliefs are objective in this sense. But such a rejection of this kind of objectivity need not entail a rejection of truth altogether, especially if one thinks that language, emotion, and so on, can function in a revelatory function with regard to the world when they are properly open and receptive to being as that which is given (various forms of phenomenology are helpful on this point).

Still other times, "objectivity" assumes that certain beliefs are of the sort that all rational subjects would or ought to believe them, under appropriate circumstances. Of course, one can have a devil of a time attempting to specify just what "appropriate circumstances" includes and to what degree circumstances that are deemed "internal" to the subject of knowing might be included in this.

There is a spectrum here between [a] those who, at one end, generally take "objective truth" to be something so widely available to all rational subjects that human knowing could, as it were, start over again from scratch and [b] those who, at the other end, see knowing as so person specific, historically specific, and situation specific as to make "appropriate circumstances" very nearly impossible to speak about in the abstract. Those nearer the [a] end of the spectrum are seen to hold to a version of objectivity, while, as one proceeds towards the [b] end of the spectrum, views of knowing are less readily seen as involving objectivity.

From Helm's criticisms of Franke, in which he acknowledges that one must grow in the process of knowing, it seems clear that Helm himself wouldn't be located all the way over at the extreme suggested by [a]. On the other hand, Franke is closer to [b] and Helm seems unwilling to move along the spectrum that far. But this, again, doesn't entail that Franke rejects truth. After all, truth might be available to a subject under circumstances that are simply unavailable (for all practical purposes) to a wide range of other subjects due to a variety of contextual circumstances.

Finally, "objectivity" could mean that which is purported to be "objectively true" is in fact the case (i.e., it is objectively true that p, if and only if p). While I am inclined towards a more theologically rich account of what truth is, as a matter of ontology, I certainly have no objection to such a minimalist conception of objective truth.

But I also don't think that the qualifier "objective" really substantively adds anything here to the notion of truth. Moreover, "what is the case," with regard to a wide range of objects, includes elements that are matters of social convention and human practices (e.g., the existence of universities) and thus are not purely objective in the sense of being true irrespective of what anyone believes (e.g., if everyone stopped believing in the existence of universities, it is plausible to think that they would cease to be). I suspect Franke would see this realm of constructed objects as extending further than Helm would be willing to admit.

Nonetheless, I think both Helm and Franke would be happy to maintain the existence of "objective truth" in this very minimal sense. This then is not a point of disagreement. And what Helm doesn't seem to consider is that one can be a realist about truth without necessarily signing on to a variety of understandings of foundationalism or even objectivity. Such a realism, as far as I can see, is all that is required in order to maintain the truthfulness and assurance of the Gospel for all persons.

Thus, clarity with regard to how "objectivity" is functioning in this discussion would also help move things forward.

A variety of other quibbles might be raised about the interaction between Helm and Franke (and his supporters), but these shall suffice as drawing attention to what appear to me to be two central sticking points. I've yet to see evidence that Helm has engaged with what Franke is trying to say in a way that accurately communicates Franke's point of view and, thereby, critiques it in an effective way, though his response to critics of his review does begin to move in that direction.