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Presuppositionalism

I am what the English majors in college called a “barbarian engineer” (we called them “unemployed”). I took two philosophy classes: Introduction to Philosophy and Basic Logic – and that was thirty years ago. I’ve done a considerable amount of reading in the social sciences as part of my religious and spiritual quest over the past ten years, but virtually none of it has been in philosophy.

So I’m very much out of my element when it comes to this topic I recently discovered. But it’s the answer to a question I’ve been asking for some time, and it strikes me as bad theology masquerading as philosophy, so I’m going to dive in.

By now everyone who reads this blog knows I grew up in a small, fundamentalist Baptist church. As far as I know, no one in that church had a college degree, including the minister. Education in general and intellectualism in particular were viewed with great suspicion – in many ways they were anti-UUs. In that environment, it was easy for me to understand how people could ignore the strong scientific case for evolution.

But there are other, very intelligent, very well educated people who push “young Earth” creationism and a literal interpretation of the Bible. How? I’ve heard plenty of people talk about a “biblical worldview” but that struck me as simply ignoring inconvenient evidence. It turns out they’ve created some very sophisticated philosophy to back them up. It’s called “presuppositionalism.”

Excuse me if this sounds I’m telling you about this cool new thing called the internet. Although it appears this idea has been around since the 1920s, it’s new to me.

The basic idea goes something like this. There is no such thing as a neutral, objective worldview – all of us have “presuppositions” about the way the world works. OK, that’s a reasonable argument. But they go one step further – we puny humans are incapable of understanding anything on our own. If we know anything, it is only through the grace of God – who, of course, is the God of the Bible. And how do we know this? Because the Bible tells us so. Circular reasoning? No, the presuppositionalists get around that by declaring that the Bible is the Ultimate measure of Truth.

The whole thing is far more involved and far more complex than this, but that’s enough to make the point I want to make without boring you silly. Presuppositionalism comes out of Calvinism, which should come as no surprise – it reeks of “total depravity” and the “sovereignty of God” (which, as I’ve discussed before, is a misunderstanding of sovereignty). You can’t see why the Bible is self-evidently true? Obviously you’re not one of the elect. Catholics and most non-Calvinist Protestants don’t buy it either.

It reflects a desperate yearning for absolute religious certainty – something that simply doesn’t exist, at least not in honest religion.

I am no fan of atheism and scientism, and I believe there is more to Life than the material world. But I have a strong respect for the scientific method. I believe what I believe because it matches my experiences of the world. Over the course of my life, I have developed theories about the way things work. When my experiences (which include reading and other second-hand sources, not just what I’ve seen and heard myself) are at variance with my theories, I question the theories. When my experiences begin to show that my theories are wrong, I modify the theories. Over the years I’ve had to give up some beliefs I really liked: some religious, some political, some personal. But it’s so much easier to accept things the way they are instead of insisting they’re the way I wish they were.

I’m sure my friends with better grounding in philosophy and theology have found plenty I’ve oversimplified, but I’m happy to at last understand the philosophical concepts behind the “biblical worldview.” It won’t help me debate them – we have no common ground to start from. But it’s good to understand.

There’s a lesson here for all of us, best stated by legendary economist John Maynard Keynes: “when the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

About John Beckett

I grew up in Tennessee with the woods right outside my back door. Wandering through them gave me a sense of connection to Nature and to a certain Forest God. I’m a Druid graduate of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, the Coordinating Officer of the Denton Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans and a former Vice President of CUUPS Continental. I’ve been writing, speaking, teaching, and leading public rituals for the past eleven years. I live in the Dallas – Fort Worth area and I earn my keep as an engineer.


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