22 April 2006

long on constructivism

long on constructivism

Several months ago I had been reading Methodist theologian D. Stephen Long's book The Goodness of God: Theology, Church, and the Social Order (Brazos 2001).

Long's argument concerns moral theology or, rather, the necessity of theology for ethics, urging that the particularity of the Christian story is necessary for ethics inasmuch as ethics involves God's own goodness as its final end. Moreover, Long argues that the church itself embodies a social ethic and is an indispensible means by which God draws people to himself as the Good.

On the whole, it's a very helpful critique of modern ethics, Kant in particular, offering a comprehensive theological alternative. His outline of a positive Christian ethics on a range of issues is also a welcome contribution and profitable, despite quibbles I might have with various aspects of it. As Long presents the issues, he roots them in a virtue ethics in the spirit of Thomas Aquinas and rooted in Scripture: the ten commandments, the beatitudes, the gifts of the Spirit, etc.

In arguing for his views Long speaks early on of our continuing "enchantment" by the good even in the face of evil and over against various perspectives that suggest that goodness is nothing more than a social construction, perpetually (and a priori) subject to revision and critique. Long instead insists, with the larger Christian tradition, that "the good" is one of the transcendental predicates of being and thus involves a participation in God as the Good and final end of all things.

Long, therefore, must reject any constructivism that results in a thoroughgoing relativism that undermines the possibility of taking a moral stand or qualifies all moral judgments as limited and revisable. For one thing, not only does no one really live as if this were so, but such a position also often "assumes the location of some neutral and universal space where such critique and revision can take place" (18). But this is already to privilege modern secular space as neutral and universal (rather than as yet another social construction) and thereby to marginalize theology and dogma from ethical judgment. Furthermore, this sort of constructivism is itself a moral claim and thus must be seen, by its own claims, as limited and revisable.

What is intriguing about Long's account is that he decidedly does not reject social constructivism of all sorts. He insteads maintains that Christian orthodoxy will necessarily have a constructivist component, though that component is not merely Schleiermacher's religious experience refracted through Wittgenstein's views on language (as I recently read somewhere), which would simply privilege the shared grammar of religious behavior as a merely human construction.

Rather, Long realizes that the acts and words of the church are divinely instituted and authorized acts and words. Thus, when these acts and words are carried forward faithfully in accordance with the Gospel, they are the gifts by which God himself has promised to act and speak. That is to say, in terms of ethics, all ethical discernment involves participation in and formation by a particular social order. Moreover, it is the order of the church, normed by Scripture, that not only makes moral knowing possible, but also is the way in which God communicates himself as the gift of the Good and end of moral action.

While certain secular versions of social constructivism assume atheism and entail relativism, Long suggests that Christian trinitarianism also involves a constructivism that operates under and within the creating and redeeming action of God in Christ, by the Spirit. In other words, God's self-communication is always already mediated and is as much social as it is personal or, rather, is personal only because it is also social (and vice versa) since we are created and redeemed by a God who exits as Persons-in-relation. Thus, Christian orthodoxy requires a constructivist element.

So much for Long's views and my comments on them (and all I've given is the merest sliver of what he has to say). What I'd like to do now is expand upon some of what he says and suggest how Long's views might, in part, constitute a reply to critics of constructivist views, such as R. Scott Smith and others associated with Biola and their particular outlook.

In his Truth and the New Kind of Christian: The Emerging Effects of Postmodernism in the Church (Good News 2005), Smith attempts to argue against the kind of approach that Long presents, though Smith's more direct target is the kind of constructivism offered by figures associated with the emerging church (such as Brian McLaren). I don't have any interest in defending McLaren (besides, John Franke and Stan Grenz are better representatives of such an emerging approach), but I remain unconvinced that the shibboleth of supposed "postmodernism" necessarily poses the kind of threat to Christian orthodoxy that Smith suggests. Moreover, I would think that a more catholic expression of the Christian faith, consonant with the theology of the Reformers, would quite easily involve the constructivism that Long suggests.

Smith begins his book by developing an opposition between "relativism" and "objective truth," where objective truths are defined as "true for all people, whether or not anyone accepts them as true or talks about them as such" (13). For Smith, this entails a rejection of all sorts of constructivism, which he sees as "postmodern" and as involving a rejection of his understanding of "objective truth." Thus, on his view, they must fall into some sort of relativism.

Smith compares constructivist views to the film The Matrix, suggesting that postmodern thinkers see us as within the mediations of language (including all of our various social practices and institutions) as Neo found himself within the computer-generated Matrix. Just as Neo was trapped and unable to access the "real world" of how things actually are, so also our constructions cut us off from access to objective truth.

It is evident, therefore, that when Smith speaks of "objective truth," he does not have in mind primarily an epistemological notion (that we "know objectively" what is the case), but an ontological one (there there is a way that the world "is objectively" in itself that, moreover, can be known). While some recent discussions have focused more on objectivity as an epistemological notion (e.g., Paul Helm's review of Franke), as I read him Smith is more interested in the ontological notion and only secondarily in an epistemology that might flow from that.

When Smith turns to the views of Stanley Hauerwas (whom he presents as an advocate of Christian postmodernism), he interprets Hauerwas not only as saying that we "come to know the world as we learn to use our language," but also that "there simply is no way we can know how things really (i.e., objectively) are" (39). Thus, Smith suggests, Hauerwas is saying that we make or construct our worlds by how we talk, so that language (practices, institutions, concepts) do not represent a reality external to them, but constitute reality. Moreover, the epistemology entailed by this is one in which all knowledge claims involve a linguistically-mediated interpretation of reality rather than a direct access to how things are in themselves.

According to Smith, all of this amounts to embracing relativism. Smith, to his credit, recognizes and attempts to take seriously the fact that proponents of views such as those of Hauerwas would reject the charge of relativism and he examines some of their arguments. Nonetheless, Smith concludes that these arguments fail and thus the views in question do, in fact, devolve into relativism.

Unfortunately, Smith's argument at this point moves too quickly and, it seems to me, fails to move beyond a superficial engagement. Part of the reason for this, I think, is that Smith continually interprets these authors from the standpoint of his own assumed ontology without really stepping into the alternative ontology offered by the authors in question, assessing the claim of relativism from within that set of assumptions.

As Smith explains matters, there are several ways in which these "postmodern" Christian thinkers attempt to respond to the charge of relativism. First, they point out (as Long does above) that "relativism" itself, as a viewpoint or as an accusation, presupposes a neutral and universal space from which a judgment of relativism can be issued. But the views in question reject just such a space and thus lack the conceptual context in which a charge of relativism can even get off the ground.

Smith, however, rejects this response since [a] it seems itself to make a universal, neutral assertion (i.e., that there is no neutral and universal space) and [b] it supposes that we know what reality is really like in itself in order to make the claim that our access to it is only ever linguistically mediated (158).

Second, Smith suggests that these thinkers might reply that the language they use to speak about the world is language that God has given us in Scripture and thus is objectively true. Smith rejects this response as well since, on the view of these authors, Scripture itself must be interpreted by the rules of their particular Christian communities in order for it to function as revelation (159).

Still, it seems to me that these objections beg the question at the level of ontology, presupposing the very thing that Smith needs to argue for in order for his criticism to gain traction: that the world is related to the human mind externally and extrinsically so that we cannot speak of our practices (including practices of knowing) as in any way partly constituting reality. Linguistic mediation, after all, need not suppose that we know what "reality is really like in itself" (or even that there is such a thing) in order to recognize language as a mediation if, internal to language as language users, we are aware of its creative and constructive functions.

I suspect that Smith recognizes this weakness in his argument since it is to this issue that he turns in the final chapter of his book. In that chapter Smith gives several everyday sort of examples (buying a train ticket, refilling a prescription, balls and colors, etc.) that are intended to indicate how we presuppose the reality of "objective truth" (taken here, I think, in terms of ontology) in our daily living. The upshot of Smith's examples is a particular construal of how the interrelation between mind and world operates.

Without going into excessive detail, the bottom line of his account is that "our thoughts, and thus our concepts, do not confer any new properties upon or modify their objects" and, therefore, "we each can compare the object as it is given in experience, with our concept of that object, to see if they match up" (183-184). And if these points are correct, then any sort of constructivism must be rejected. Lest it seems that Smith's account remains question-begging, he does provide some evidence to support these claims.

First, Smith appeals to the process by which we learn and teach others about the world. If our experience and awareness of objects were partly constituted by how we think about and speak of those objects, thereby modifying the objects of awareness, then there would be no common, shared experiences (183). And if there were no common, shared experiences, then how could I teach someone else to rightly name and think about their own experience?

Second, Smith makes an introspective appeal to the phenomenology of experience itself. In particular, he points to our ability to "compare our concepts to things in the world, which can be given in experience" in order to see if they match up. This ability, Smith suggests, "demonstrates a commonsense understanding" that we all take for granted, that our "thoughts don't modify objects." If we assert that our thoughts or language or concepts do, in fact, modify objects (and thus that "we cannot have access to the real thing in itself"), we are speaking "nonsense, for the very ability to have access to reality is presupposed in the denial that we have such access." Smith concludes that result of these observations "undercuts the entire constructivist project" (184; emphasis his).

It seems to me, however, that these lines of argumentation are, ultimately, inconclusive and unconvincing. This is the case, in part, because of their failure to fully imagine what the world would be like and how it would function if some form of constructivism were true. By failing to imagine the contours of the alternative, the critique misses its mark.

For instance, with regard to learning about the world and teaching others about it, Smith's picture appears to suppose a kind of step by step process in which we first experience, then develop a concept in response to that experience, and finally give names to those concepts. But what if matters are not so straightforward? What if immersion in shared conceptual and linguistic practice is also a prerequisite for our ability to engage in the process of learning, so that the world always already appears to us as mediated by those practices?

In that case, there would still be shared, common experiences, even if they are mediated through and partly constituted by human practices. And thus, I would be able to teach you how to properly name, think about, and discuss those experiences from within our shared framework of practices. We would have to conceive the relationship between the mind and the world, and between you and I, as existing in a sort of reciprocal relationship. On such a view, concepts and language are not built up piece by piece from various experiences, but the whole set of practices and the world as mediated through those practices would be more like the sunrise, with dawn arriving over the whole scene at once (to use one of Wittgenstein's images).

This kind of situation would also help explain Smith's further argument, that there is a commonsense understanding that our thoughts don't modify their objects. If, however, the human practices by which reality is mediated and modified are social practices, they are always already in place before us, have a priority over us, and are received as a gift, a residuum of all the conceptual and linguistic mediations that have gone before us. If that is so, then it is not in the least surprising that we feel constrained by those practices in such way that the world appearing to us mediated through them lies beyond our ability to modify at will with our own personal thoughts, individually speaking.

This also explain why we experience ourselves in the way Smith notes, as comparing our awareness of the world with the concepts by which we attempt to understand reality in order to see if they match up. As those who find ourselves immersed within an established mediation of reality, we can discover anomalies in our practices, where our supposed conceptual competencies fail to operate as they ought.

Furthermore, except for some subset of idealists perhaps, no one positing a constructivist view of reality supposes that "thinking something makes it so" or that reality can be successfully mediated and modified through just any set of concepts, words, and practices. The world is not open to infinite modification and resists certain construals and shapings, thereby necessitating mediations that emerge from a form of life that can practically and successfully function.

Moreover, on such a view, part of the "thing in itself" character of the objects of our knowing is constituted by their "being known," which involves a real operation upon the object in which it unveils itself to us. In part, the experience we have of comparing our concepts to reality to see if they match is a matter of sensing the resistance of reality to some of the ways in which thought and practice may seek to modify it.

That doesn't entail, however, that we ever arrive at or have an awareness of how reality "is in itself" apart from any kind of mediation. After all, on this sort of view, aptness for being known is part of the reality of the blossoming tree outside my window, so that "being known by me" is as much an event in the life of the tree, constituting it's "treeness" as this particular tree, as it is an event within my experience.

I also would think that our ability to shift between languages or various conceptual schemes is part of what reveals to us that we never encounter reality as it is "in itself" apart from the event of our interaction. As with various optical illusions, there is never any seeing the image as it is in itself, but always instead a seeing as this or a seeing as that. The ability to face the world and shift between such viewpoints doesn't require access to some more basic reality in an objective way in order for us to recognize that this is, in fact, what we are doing.

Further still, whatever one might think of constructivist views as claims about knowing in general, it seems to me that at least some objects of our knowing are, in reality, fairly evidently partly constituted by and modified through our practices of speaking and knowing. Consider, for instance, objects such as universities, nations, courts, living rooms, etc.

A university isn't simply a collection of buildings full of classrooms, but is constructed, in part, by human practices and beliefs about higher education, practices of accreditation, admission procedures, academic requirements, rituals of degree conferral, etc. If everyone woke up tomorrow suddenly (and bizarrely) no longer believing in such educational practices, universities wouldn't simply sit empty, but rather, it is plausible to think, they would cease to be. Once we allow this, however, for objects such as universities, then we've opened the door for more generalized constructivist accounts.

These reflections certainly haven't demonstrated the truth of any version of constructivism, nor have they provided sufficient argumentation. I hope they have, however, suggested that some constructivist accounts are not as easily dismissed as Smith seems to think and that the evidence he proffers against constructivism can neverthelesss be accounted for within a constructivist framework.

Additionally, I hope I've given good reason to judge that constructivism of the sort that Long expounds does not at all entail relativism, let alone an "anything goes" relativism. Long's constructivism may, of course, allow for a kind of limited and principled pluralism in some areas (e.g., in the sense that Aquinas admits with regard to the exercise of prudence), but that is not the same as sheer relativism.

If, then, there is a "constructivist moment" internal to truth and to our knowing interaction with reality, then that is part of the order God has created and is thus constrained by that ordering of the world. It is, moreover, a site of divine unveiling of the world, a disclosure of the mind of God in the event of knower and known coming together in their conjoined unfolding towards God as their ultimate end. It is part of the divine light by which God illumines all successful receptivity to his world and, indeed, analogically reflects the eternally "mediated" life of the Trinity.

It isn't surprising to me that this kind of constructivist account of ontology and knowledge meets pointed resistance from individuals associated with institutions such as Biola, which, as far as I am aware, represent an evangelicalism that rejects the sacramental outlook of a more catholic (even if also reformational) Christian faith.

A more sacramental outlook holds that God does not merely work by the direct action of his Spirit upon the hearts of human beings, but that God's Spirit works through created means, embedded within the patterns of human culture, language, and practice: the Word spoken, proclaimed, and preached, and sacraments taking up material elements into human action, all within the church visible as a social organism. On a sacramental view of things, when these means are enacted in accord with divine ordinance, carrying forward the biblical story, and under the blessing of the Spirit, such humanly "constructed" realities are also sites of the presence of God himself in Christ through the power of the Spirit.

Inasmuch as some varieties of evangelical theology are manifestly uncomfortable with such an approach to theology - particularly its soteriology as it intersects with ecclesiology - those varieties of evangelicalism would, not astonishingly, likewise reject the kind of constructivism that Long, Hauerwas, and others represent. Thus, I don't think it is too much of a stretch to suggest that Smith's stance and its popularity in some quarters is rooted, in part, in a bias against biblical and reformational catholicity and perhaps an implicit discomfort with the ramifications of a richly trinitarian theology.

In the end, better than a full-blown critique of Smith's views, one might instead take up the positive and winsome account, steeped in established traditions of Christian reflection, as provided by theologians such as Stephen Long.