Stanley Fish Is Right about Faith, Again

Recently, Stanley Fish wrote about the problems with the way the liberal intelligentsia thinks about religion vs. science — or reason vs. faith. He was, of course, slaughtered in the comment section of his NYTimes blog by, um, the liberal intelligentsia of Times readers. So this week, he defends himself against their onslaught, referring to Barthes and Foucault specifically, to harp on a subject he often revisits. To summarize: Get over it, people — science is no more objective than any other human endeavor.

Why this strikes me as particularly interesting today is that yesterday I appeared on the internet radio show of John Chisham, my long-time nemesis. John’s a conservative (he might even say fundamentalist) Nazarene Christian and Missionary Alliance pastor from Southern Minnesota who, among other things, has mentioned that he may protest outside of the Christianity21 event in October. John also appeared in a video about my book:

“The Church Is Broken” Episode 5 from tony jones on Vimeo.

The video gives a sense of the disagreements between John and me. And if you listen to the radio show, you’ll get even more of it.

What I find most intriguing, however, is putting Fish’s proposal about liberal’s liberals’ (my term, not his) blinding commitment to the objectivity of science in connection with conservative’s conservatives’ (like John’s) blinding commitment to the objectivity of the Bible. Time and again on the show, he and his co-host, Rusty, spoke as though their hermeneutic position on the Bible was the sole, objective, and self-evident version of the text.

For instance, when we were debating whethter an ontological change takes place when someone is “saved — John asserted that a person’s “very nature” is changed at the moment of salvation — they appealed to Rusty’s conversion. Rusty said that, upon his conversion, God immediately made him hate the drugs to which he had formerly been addicted. This, they said, is evidence that God changes someone’s nature at the moment of conversion.

I countered that Rusty’s experience, while valid, doesn’t prove anything, any more than if I presented to them a person who went cold turkey off of drugs and, without God’s help, went from loving drugs one day to hating them the next — and we’ve surely all heard of cases like this.

The response from John was interesting. He basically said that Rusty’s experience was valid and the other former addict’s invalid. Why? Because the Bible says so. That’s it.

Here’s Fish:

To bring all this abstraction back to the arguments made by my readers,
there is no such thing as “common observation” or simply reporting the
facts. To be sure, there is observation and observation can indeed
serve to support or challenge hypotheses. But the act of observing can
itself only take place within hypotheses (about the way the world is)
that cannot be observation’s objects because it is within them that
observation and reasoning occur…

So to sum up, the epistemological critique of religion — it is an
inferior way of knowing — is the flip side of a naïve and untenable
positivism. And the critique of religion’s content — it’s cotton-candy
fluff — is the product of incredible ignorance.

Fish’s post really deserves a full reading, but he’s trying to say the same things about his liberal readers as I am about my conservative interlocuters: we’re all boxed in by our hermeneutic presuppositions. The only real danger is to pretend that we’re not, to pretend that science is “objective” or that the Bible’s meaning is “self-evident.”

  • http://darrenbrett.wordpress.com/ Darren King

    Clearly where many of us differ from someone like Chisham is in the assertion that something like a uniform “plain reading” of scripture exists.
    Perhaps to prove to someone like Chisham that we’re really not just saying this to avoid “clear” biblical mandates, we should set up a study where 1000 people from different backgrounds, ages, cultures, etc. do their best to write down their own “plain reading” of scripture.
    Of course, we know even this would be foolhardy because, without additional contextual tools, any “plain” reading can easily miss the original intent. But, for now, I’m putting that point aside, just to demonstrate to someone like Chisham that even when we put those tools aside, we still can’t end up at any uniform sense of a “plain reading”.

  • http://jhimm.net/wabi_sabi Jim Marks

    Further evidence that Tony genuinely has no interest in neo-Liberalism.
    Now how do we get everyone to stop arguing using out of date and meaningless language and start to have real conversations?

  • Nathan

    While I don’t think it’s wise to give certain people more ammo, I can understand why you would engage someone like Friel, or critique others like Mohler, MacArthur, etc. who embody this way of thinking. They have influence and actually are voices that thus “matter”.
    I just don’t get why you’d essentially give this guy free press.
    He’s an acolyte, why not just take on the big boys?

  • dlw

    Well, this is why conversations need to be rooted in local communities, with others eventually wanting to join in as they see the fruits of the conversations flourish.
    From Milty Friedman to Richard Dawkins, just because someone is an accomplished scientist doesn’t mean that whatever they say is bonified science or what-not.
    Scientific inquiry is not necessarily more “fruitful” than inquiry in non-scientific domains, nor can we have the one without the other. God knows in my field of study, Economics, they take the name of science in vain way too often!!!
    dlw

  • http://scbpreacherman@yahoo.com Tom LeGrand

    “While I don’t think it’s wise to give certain people more ammo, I can understand why you would engage someone like Friel, or critique others like Mohler, MacArthur, etc. who embody this way of thinking. They have influence and actually are voices that thus “matter”.
    I just don’t get why you’d essentially give this guy free press.
    He’s an acolyte, why not just take on the big boys?”
    I’m not sure those “big boys” are as influential as they think they are. If they are influencing anyone, it’s local pastors, such as John whom Tony engages in these videos.
    Although I’m sure this is an edit of the conversation, it’s pretty amazing how John’s own arguments appear to backtrack against themselves (again keeping in mind that this is done from Tony’s perspective). While I disagree with him, I give the guy credit for engaging Tony on camera.
    I suspect that, if someone got together 1000 people from John’s church and asked them a set of similar questions, it would be surprising how many different answers they would offer. If you did this from 2 evangelical/fundamental churches, you would multiply the variety of response, and it would expand out from there. Christians may be able to some general consensus on core beliefs, but the idea that there will not be variations brought to the table is almost laughable. People are going to differ in opinion and interpretation of scripture, no matter how strict or structured the denomination.

  • Ted Seeber

    THAT’S my problem- I’m a social conservative who takes neither the Bible (or for that matter, any other scripture, the Vedas are as useful to knowing God as the Bible is) or science, for objective truth.
    In fact, I rather doubt objective truth is available to our species.
    Subjective truth inside a logical framework is another matter.

  • http://pantheon.yale.edu/~kd47 Keith DeRose

    Philosophers discuss Fish’s piece:
    “Does the NY Times Not Realize That Stanley Fish is Philosophically Incompetent?”
    here:
    http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2009/05/does-the-ny-times-not-realize-that-stanley-fish-is-philosophically-incompetent.html

  • Your Name

    I find it funny that science is always presented by self-styled chic christians down with the latest post-metaphysical tripe as being no better a guide to what is “real” than religious faith and as epistemologically unsound as ANY other set of assertions…
    The weird thing is that science and logical reasoning, as “ungrounded” as they may be, have and continue to produce remarkable concrete results within their admittedly limited purviews…faith, on the other hand…not so much…

  • Ted Seeber

    It isn’t that science and religion are equal methods of finding truth. In fact, I’d argue that rational religion uses the coucilar method (Catholic) or the transcendental method (Buddhist) in much the same way a scientist uses the scientific method, the only real difference are the unquestionable assumptions (whether it’s the Deposit of Faith, the Eightfold Path, or Mathematical Axioms). Fundamentalist religions, well, they’ve got significantly different assumptions that should be as rigorously questioned as rational religions are, but often are not, usually due to a simple lack of time.
    It took 1500 years for Catholicism to leave the dark ages of mere superstition and enter rationality- why should we expect Islam to do it in less?

  • http://www.pastorboy.wordpress.com pastorboy

    Nemesis?
    Wow, I didn’t know I had gotten to that point yet. Thats kinda cool, I guess.
    I am not a Nazarene Pastor, I am with the Christian and Missionary Alliance. Came out of the same movement/period of history but we are not the same, other than the fact that there are Christians in both of our denominations.
    I will not be protesting outside of Christianity 21, I don’t waste my time protesting. I will, however, be preaching the Gospel truth from the Bible outside the church and outside of one of the churches that the women will be preaching inside on Sunday morning. And I will be doing that in hopes that someone might hear the Gospel for the first time and respond in repentance and trust in the Savior.

  • Greg Gorham

    What I found most surprising in the audio with John and Rusty was Tony’s response to Rusty’s conversion story. It seemed somewhat dismissive, like, “this is just one anecdotal story, it doesn’t prove anything.” But isn’t all of our experience like that? It’s not like there’s the realm of experience, which is always anecdotal, and the true means of thinking, logical argumentation, which can establish things. If our truth doesn’t engage experience, its worthless, and not really truth. I doubt Tony actually believes that, but it sounds like it when people’s actual lived lives and lived experiences are merely anecdotes not helpful in the broader discussion. They’re the only things that make broader discussions worth having. And frankly, when someone starts sharing from the heart, engaging logically just comes off as being cold.

  • Nathan

    Congrats, T. You have your very own, personal Bullhorn Guy.

  • http://scbpreacherman@yahoo.com Tom LeGrand

    Well-stated, Greg.
    I hope that Tony is simply trying to point out that every experience of salvation is not exactly like Rusty’s. Mine is not, and I don’t see that it makes me any less “saved.” A lot of students in youth/college groups with me have the same issue. They think that their testimony is not valid because they don’t have some massive conversion experience to share, no spectacular turnaround to describe. Many of them were raised into their faith or grew into it in other ways, and that is just as valid. I don’t believe that any single conversion experience can be identified as “THE ONE.” Paul and Peter came to Jesus in vastly different ways, but I’d say both were pretty important.

  • http://scbpreacherman@yahoo.com Tom LeGrand

    “I find it funny that science is always presented by self-styled chic christians down with the latest post-metaphysical tripe as being no better a guide to what is “real” than religious faith and as epistemologically unsound as ANY other set of assertions…
    The weird thing is that science and logical reasoning, as “ungrounded” as they may be, have and continue to produce remarkable concrete results within their admittedly limited purviews…faith, on the other hand…not so much…”
    Let’s see, the remarkable concrete results of science: atomic bombs, the Holocaust, greater methods of war and destruction, knowledge of how to kill people on a grandiose scale; yet, it can’t seem to cure the common cold. Much less AIDS or cancer.
    Sorry to be so glib, but we can point to many less-than-stellar examples of what science has done (or failed to do) for us. Science is important, even critical, to many aspects of life. But it does not exist in a vacuum, it is easily misused and abused, and it is not the bastion purely rational analysis that some believe it to be. That’s the only point these guys are making, and it’s a valid one.
    As for faith, I’ve known many people who were truly changed for the better by it, and I’m one of them. How much more concrete can you get?

  • http://scbpreacherman@yahoo.com Tom LeGrand

    “I will, however, be preaching the Gospel truth from the Bible outside the church and outside of one of the churches that the women will be preaching inside on Sunday morning. And I will be doing that in hopes that someone might hear the Gospel for the first time and respond in repentance and trust in the Savior.”
    It’s pretty dramatic that you assume you have to be outside the church preaching if the gospel is gonna get preached. But I guess God can’t use women to preach the gospel, so at least someone will be there to do it for them.

  • Ted Seeber

    “But I guess God can’t use women to preach the gospel, so at least someone will be there to do it for them. ”
    Well, I for one don’t strictly believe this. But I’ve got no proof for my belief.
    I go to a Roman Catholic parish where the priest is outnumbered by women on the staff at a 13:1 ratio. He allows, within the limitations of the GIRM (by the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, only a Priest or a Deacon can give a Homily, but a lay person can be a *part* of the homily if the Priest or Deacon gives an introduction and a summing up at the end, OR if the Homily is a dramatic presentation that includes the priest or deacon as one part for children’s masses) women to speak and give the equivalent of a Protestant Sermon all the time.
    I’ve yet to hear anything new from them. And most of the time, they’re talking about emotions and a way of looking at the world I simply can’t relate to at all.
    I can easily see why some men, following Paul to a literal level I think the Bible should never be followed to, run away from the teaching of women. At best it’s empty teaching, at worst, it’s a feminist diatribe that encourages divorce and homosexuality- if only to get away from the women.

  • http://musingsonyouthministry.blogspot.com/ Geoff

    i agree with you when you say that we all need to be aware of the fact that we all have presuppositions we bring to the table, and that they have a great influence over our thinking.
    i guess i just wonder what we do about it? i can see that talking with people from different perspectives is great, but i think for a lot of us (at least me) we still filter what we hear from them through our presuppositions.
    As open and willing as I might be to hear what someone from another view is saying, I am still taking it in through my own filters…
    although the extreme left or right have pretty clear presuppositions, i think you would be the first to agree that emergiants do as well, they are just harder to recognize.
    so i guess i am just wondering how much of that it is really possible to work around, or grow out of…

  • Bruce Goff

    The Bible is clear. Jesus often when speaking would say “Haven’t you read…?” As if, this has been plainly stated, it isn’t muddy.
    Anyway…
    You never dealt with the fact that in the scriptures it says that we are new creations. How is being born from above not an ontological change?

  • Larry

    You never dealt with the fact that in the scriptures it says that we are new creations.
    Actually, no, it doesn’t, a better translation of the verse your probably thinking of is “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”. Notice that the “new creation” doesn’t refer to the one in Christ, but to “everything”.

  • http://www.oharaville.com John

    Captivating stuff… I was just reading essentially the same theory in Lesslie Newbiggin’s “The Gospel in a Pluralist Society.” Facts cannot be transmitted as facts alone, they are always bound up in the controlling narrative of the observer.

  • Cole

    Religion is subjective. Science can, in theory, be subjective. Grammar never is: please hire a competent editor next time.
    liberals’ not liberal’s
    conservatives’ not conservative’s

  • Michele McGinty

    “Religion is subjective. Science can, in theory, be subjective. Grammar never is: please hire a competent editor next time.”
    I love when commenters make grammar points about a blog post. It demonstrates that they don’t really understand what it means to read a blog. We self edit and whenever you do that errors slip in even when you read it through a couple times. Grammar critiques are cheap shots. It’s the content that’s important. Show a little tolerance.

  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/churchbasementroadshow/ Tony Jones

    Greg,
    Although I may have failed at this, I tried to communicate several times that I consider Rusty’s conversion experience valid. But his singular experience neither proves that God acts in this way, nor disproves the conversion (away from addiction, for instance) of a Muslim or an atheist. I was attempting to show how John and Rusty, like so many conservatives, seem to default to logical positivist thinking whenever it suits them, but they don’t do it very well.

  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/churchbasementroadshow/ Tony Jones

    Actually, Cole, grammar is often subjective, irregardless of what you say. ;-)

  • Benjamin

    Tony,
    If you are ever in the Fort Worth, Texas area, i would absolutely love to sit down over some jamba juice or something and have a chit chat with you.
    While we may have different views on our faith, your intelligent and an academic with a tendency for skepticism and i love it.
    Just an open invitation from a thinker to a thinker.
    Benjamin

  • michael

    Re: Fish, i think terry eagleton (prominent literary critique in the uk, and a defender of religion against the ‘new atheist’) provides a wonderful critique of him which is worth reading:
    http://www.lrb.co.uk/v22/n05/eagl01_.html
    If one wants to use contemporary philosophical tropes to defend religion, I think Eagleton would be the one to look to, not Fish. He’s much more elegant in his prose, and miles ahead of him theoretically, as well as understanding theology.

  • Panthera

    Cole,
    English is not my native tongue, still I try hard to obey the rules of grammar, syntax and spelling in writing.
    I understand that the occasional mistakes Tony makes bother you. They are as nothing compared to the disasters arising from many (most, perhaps) of the really conservative American Christians responding on this website.
    Perhaps we should love Tony for his clarity of thought and willingness to do battle with our oppressors while forgiving him the occasional error in numerus and causus.
    One of the most challenging tasks I face in teaching freshmen is to disabuse them of the concept that logic “proves” anything. Logic can, at best, make clear to us the truth about a situation, process or state of being. It is not, in and of itself, truth.
    The same applies to mathematics.
    Sadly, there seems to be no means for fundamentalist Christians to parse their statements. Had they not ascended to such levels of power and authority in the US, it would not matter so much. That they have, it must be our highest priority to use this period of tolerance and exhaustion with the hateful christianists among the general public to anchor our rights as gay and transgender people. The right to marry. The right to raise children. The right to be, should we so desire, gay and Christian. Transgender and Christian. Most of all, the right to human status.
    Ted, you reject homosexuality as an innate trait. I understand that, while disagreeing with you. What I have yet to see you offer is any grounds for your rejection. Can you give any reasons or is it just that it “grosses you out” that I like it when my husband takes me in his arms and makes me purr like a cat when his rough beard rubs against the side of my face?
    I should think the nature of your objection should determine the manner of your response to extending us human status – something you reject, for which, however, you have yet to provide any grounds.

  • Jason

    Lesslie Newbigin already scaled this mountain and came to a similar conclusion as that of Prof. Fish. The difference between you and Newbigin, though, is that you see “hermeneutic presuppositions” as something that inhibits us, whereas this recognition liberated Newbigin to take faith as a starting point for all forms of intellectual discourse.
    So stop b*tching about fundamentalists, take up the Christian creed, and go try to figure out how it’s true.

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