Stanley Fish on Defending a Sacred Text

Earlier this week, I wrote about Chuck Colson. Colson, in his 2006 attack on the emergent church movement, wrote negatively about literary critic and commentator Stanley Fish, saying,

The arguments of some emerging church leaders, I fear, draw us perilously close to the trap set by postmodern deconstructionist Stanley Fish. Defending himself after his sympathetic statements about the 9/11 terrorists boomeranged, Fish claimed that postmodernists don’t really deny the existence of truth. He said there is simply no “independent standard of objectivity.” So truth can’t be proved to others; therefore, it can’t be known—a verbal sleight of hand.

Fish is a favorite of mine. He is so, in large part, because he often does not say and write what you expect him to say and write. He is unpredictable (not an attribute of Colson’s). Last week, his post at NY Times, for instance, takes liberals to the woodshed for poo-pooing those of us who put stock in a sacred text. Money quote:

It was at this point that Dawkins said something amazing, although neither he nor anyone else picked up on it. He said: in the arena of science you can invoke Professor So-and-So’s study published in 2008, “you can actually cite chapter and verse.”

Stanley Fish

With this proverbial phrase, Dawkins unwittingly (I assume) attached himself to the centuries-old practice of citing biblical verses in support of a position on any number of matters, including, but not limited to, diet, animal husbandry, agricultural policy, family governance, political governance, commercial activities and the conduct of war. Intellectual responsibility for such matters has passed in the modern era from the Bible to academic departments bearing the names of my enumerated topics. We still cite chapter and verse — we still operate on trust — but the scripture has changed (at least in this country) and is now identified with the most up-to-date research conducted by credentialed and secular investigators.

The question is, what makes one chapter and verse more authoritative for citing than the other? The question did not arise in the discussion, but had it arisen, Dawkins and Pinker would no doubt have responded by extending the point they had already made: The chapter and verse of scriptural citation is based on nothing but subjective faith; the chapter and verse of scientific citation is based on facts and evidence.

The argument is circular and amounts to saying that the chapter and verse we find authoritative is the chapter and verse of the scripture we believe in because we believe in its first principle, in this case the adequacy and superiority of a materialist inquiry into questions religion answers by mere dogma. To be sure, those who stand with Dawkins and Pinker could also add that they believe in the chapter and verse of scientific inquiry for good reasons, and that would be true. But the reasons undergirding that belief are not independent of it.

Read the rest: Citing Chapter and Verse: Which Scripture Is the Right One? –

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  • Jimmy Calle

    I love me some Stanley Fish. He rocked my world when I first read him.

    Given that we really can’t escape circular reasoning, how would you answer the authority question, Tony? I’m very curious as I’ve been struggling with this question for awhile.


    • Evelyn

      I don’t know what Tony would say but I would say that you have to be your own authority. Your truth is your own and it is shaped by your interaction with the world. You have to decide what you are and aren’t going to pay attention to based on your own experience and then use that information to shape yourself and your beliefs.

      • What I am hearing you say is “Truth is what I’ve experienced to work.”

        Is that an accurate understanding?

  • Scot Miller

    So long as we frame the issue like Fish does, the best answer seems to be a pragmatic one: we trust scientific authorities because their answers “work” better than alternative answers. Scientific answers have explanatory power that alternative (religious) answers don’t have when it comes to matters like global warming (a scientific fact) or evolution (a scientific fact) or intelligent design (pseudo-science).

    By the same token, the authority of scripture is something recognized/experienced to be true by a community of believers. So, yes, the authority of scripture depends on circular reasoning. Objectively or scientifically, the Bible is merely one of many ancient religious texts with a complicated history of redaction, transmission, interpretation, etc. Nothing really very “authoritative” about it objectively. But from the standpoint of the believer, the Bible becomes the authoritative word of God. Since religious belief is nonrational (not necessarily irrational), i.e., since it appeals to something other than reason, nobody outside of the community of believers can make sense of it.

    Extending the pragmatic answer (thank you, William James), to the extent that religious beliefs or interpretations of scripture “work” with other non-religious beliefs better than others, the more pragmatic justification one has for believing it.

    • Evelyn

      A brief commentary on “fact” vs. “theory”: Global warming is a scientific “fact” in the sense that we have measured a rise in temperature over time at specific locations. It is a theory in the sense that we don’t know for certain why these temperature changes are occurring. Evolution is a theory based on observations of the fossil record. It is not a “fact” but it is a better explanation for the observations than positing that all of creation was made in seven days by a supernatural being.

  • Jimmy Calle

    Hi Scott,

    I understand how pragmatism can lend itself to the question, but even with that I seem to run into the same problem. If you’ll allow me to simplify to the extreme: “What ‘works best’ is probably the best answer because it works” Who has the end-all claim on the definition of what works? Works according to who? By what criteria? It’s the big “Sez Who?”

    Is there something that transcends interpretive communities or are we all stuck in an eternal crapshoot of subjective meaning and communication?

    I think that’s where God should come in, right? Isn’t God by definition authoritative and able to transcend? This is where the biggest struggle is for me is the fact that He is and yet communicated in an interpretively limited way. I don’t think it follows, though, that because He did communicate in such a way that any authority is unintelligible or unreachable. I think to say that compromises the very definition of God. God is totally free and able, except when it comes to matter of communicating with us?

    Just some thoughts. I hope I understood you rightly.


    • Scot Miller

      Jimmy, I hear you. Unfortunately, I think certainty isn’t possible except perhaps in some kinds of mathematics. (But even Kurt Gödel demonstrated that no axiomatic-deductive system can be both complete and consistent at the same time: you have to sacrifice completeness or consistency to have a workable deductive system.) My hunch is that the choice between competing authoritative systems like science or scripture comes down to the kinds of questions one has and whether one finds the answers of science or scripture more “satisfying” (which is a psychological criterion, not an epistemological one). So while pragmatism is in some sense circular, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that one can test a belief against it’s practical effects or consequences. Not all beliefs are equally compelling.

      As for religious belief, I’m even less concerned with “right belief” as I am with “right practice.” In 1 Cor. 13, Paul reminds us that “… we see through a mirror dimly…” and “…we know in part, and we prophecy in part….” What matters for Paul is not knowledge (which he says will pass away) but love.

      I know that some people get bent out of shape about orthodoxy, and they cannot conceive of separating orthopraxis from orthodoxy. But orthodoxy isn’t the eternal Truth; it’s a provisional and historically conditioned attempt by a community of faith to make as much sense as they can about their collective experience with the Divine. Just like scientific theories, orthodoxy should be subject to examination and revision when necessary, based on better evidence and argument.

      At least I’m comfortable with this….

      • Frank

        It’s not possible to have right practice without right belief unless it happens by accident.

        • Scot Miller

          Gee, Frank, unsupported dogmatic statements coming from you are so convincing….

          • Frank

            Come on Scot!

            So tell us how you can have a right practice without a right belief and have integrity?

        • Larry Barber

          Right belief comes from right practice. Why else do the all the contemplative traditions emphasize practice?

          • Frank

            How do you know what to practice if you don’t know what to believe?

          • Larry Barber

            Imitating the practices of the community that you are a member of.

          • Frank

            Ok I get imitation and I get that someone could possibly come to a belief partly influenced by the practice but that opens up a person to simply try anything (harmful and dangerous things).

            Integrity however cannot be had without a truth first, a belief in that truth second and the practicing of that truth as a culmination of that truth. Practice before belief cannot produce integrity.

            After more thought though I do agree that it’s possible to arrive at a belief partly through practice but I still wonder why someone would jump into a practice without some belief first.

          • Larry Barber

            Because the community you joined shows you beauty and grace.

        • Evelyn

          All practices are right practices because all acts are acts of God (not accidental). Most people are slaves to sin so they do not have right belief. The good that they do is often accompanied by sinful motivation. A person’s alternative is to be a servant of God but this does not insure that you will act in ways that people will perceive as “right practice”.

  • Jimmy Calle


    Fair enough. I suppose I’m a bit uncomfortable with pragmatism. It just strikes me as inherently near sided and particularly vulnerable to the human propensity for immediate gratification. Nevertheless, I will definitely take another go at studying it.

    While I personally wouldn’t grant the dichotomy between orthopraxy and orthodoxy (I think the authority problem is equally relevant for both), I get where you’re coming from on the issue of certainly. I’m getting more and more comfortable with the idea that absolute certainty isn’t possible in this life. That being said I do have faith that absolute certainly does exist and that it lies with God. That is slight but significant qualification.

    This has been hard for me to work out… especially having reformed convictions. When people ask me how I know for sure that scripture is inerrant, God is sovereign, Jesus is alive etc, the answer I have been giving is more and more is “I don’t, but I hope so.”

    That sits well with me only about half the time; the other half I throw books and curse 🙂

    I guess what I would really lobby for is the thought that just because we can’t “know” whether scripture is the ultimate authority doesn’t mean we shouldn’t, on the grounds of faith, appeal to it as such. Especially when no other authority structure (sociology, science, etc) meets the burden of proof we so often lay on the claims of Biblical authority. I think that’s the major point divergence for me.

    • Scot Miller

      Jimmy, I understand your reservations about pragmatism, especially if you have Reformed convictions. Pragmatism is an entirely different kettle of fish. I just thought that pragmatism was a good way to bridge the gap between science and scripture in Fish’s article.

      I suppose I accept the authority of science primarily because I think of myself as a rational person in the first part of the 21st century, I want to be part of the community of rational people, and because scientific communities have come to (provisional) conclusions that have great explanatory power and “work” when it comes to answering questions about how the universe works.

      On the other hand, I accept the authority of scripture because I grew up in a particular faith community which valued the Bible, and my religious experience was mediated through that tradition. I recognize biblical authority from the “inside” as a believer, because the Bible can become the word of God in my life. I’m not sure you could convince a non-believer of the Bible’s authority, but I’m not sure it matters. Like the blind man healed by Jesus, we can say, “I do not know whether [Jesus] is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see” (John 9:25). It’s the practical effect of my religious experience that makes a difference; the authority of the Bible “works” for me.

      That said, it’s just about impossible for me to speak in certain terms about divine sovereignty, etc.

      • dopderbeck

        I don’t think “pragmatism” is a useful model. It is ultimately self-defeating. Who sez what “works?” What does “it works better mean?” These are value judgments that appeal either to some transcendent standard or to raw power.

        Personally I’m a student of the “radical orthodoxy” sensibility. Contra the rationalism of someone like Colson, and per someone like Fish, there is no non-contextual, universally accessible and “neutral” truth as these concepts are usually understood by modern, post-Enlightenment people. That sort of thinking owes much more to David Hume than to the Bible or to Christian theology or to classical thought.

        Nevertheless, “truth” is not whatever we make it — it is, rather, a “gift” — the gift of creation given by the Triune God. To say it another and rather bold way: there is finally no way to understand “truth” than through Christian theology. There is no “secular” truth; there is finally only the truth of the gift of creation, or idolatry.

        But how do we “know” “truth” understood as gift? Not through rationalistic “proofs” based on grammatical-logical rules or on some supposedly systematic and rationally evident scriptural revelation. No — we begin to know it only by participating in the gift as given, which implies a holistic and relational frame. And only in that participation can we begin to see the meaning and authority of reason, experience and scripture.

        Said another way — it all starts with being, and not with will. Will follows being. That is how the Church Fathers understood it: faith seeks understanding. There is no “neutral” path, and mere pragmatism falls far short of truth.

        • Scot Miller

          dopterbeck, the pragmatic tradition (from Pierce through Rorty) would agree with you that “there is no non-contextual, universally accessible and “neutral” truth as these concepts are usually understood by modern, post-Enlightenment people.” That’s part of the reason pragmatism is appealing. In fact, it’s the social part of pragmatism that is appealing: there is no ultimate standard by which to make judgments, just historical communities of people who ask questions. (Since I make a lot of reference to communities of scientists and communities of faith, I probably should have talked more about Wittgenstein or Kuhn than to pragmatism.)

          On the other hand, I have to part company with you when you claim

          Nevertheless, “truth” is not whatever we make it — it is, rather, a “gift” — the gift of creation given by the Triune God. To say it another and rather bold way: there is finally no way to understand “truth” than through Christian theology. There is no “secular” truth; there is finally only the truth of the gift of creation, or idolatry.

          While I am happy to expand the question of truth away from the narrow Enlightenment scientific model of truth to include truth in a work of art or truth in religious experience, I don’t buy your reduction of truth to “Christian theology” for a moment. It’s just not plausible, and seems to conflict with your apparent agreement with Fish.

          • dopderbeck

            Scot — I don’t think of the reference to “Christian theology” as a “reduction” at all — it is, rather, an “expansion.” Only Christian theology finally offers an ontology of gift that allows for the full freedom and relationality of “truth.” Only an understanding of “truth” as that which participates in the life of the Triune God from whom created reality derives ultimately gets at “truth” that abides and that is “real.”

            Whether you buy it or not doesn’t really matter any more than whether you intellectually buy into the need to breathe oxygenated air; either you’re breathing or suffocating — it simply is how things are given to us. When I understand how breathing works, this expands my horizons, and allows me to extend myself into new spaces, such as the seas or outer space, where special breathing equipment is required. If I ignore how breathing works, I’ll either restrict my ability to explore the seas and the heavens, or I’ll asphyxiate myself trying and restrict my life horizons permanently.

            “Pragmatism” also is a severe “reduction” of any notion of truth — really, it is an abandonment of any notion of “truth.” But it is a self-defeating abandonment, because it cannot explain why one thing is marginally better than another. It cannot offer any concept of “the good,” and it therefore cannot measure what supposedly “works” or explain why what maximizes utility for some people should be forbidden (say, genocides that benefit those in power….). “Practical wisdom” (“phronesis”) is a virtue, but it is not the sum of truth.

            “Rationalism” is also a severe “reduction” of any notion of truth, at the other end of the curve. (Or rather, in the history of ideas, pragmatism tends to move in synchrony with rationalism, in a death spiral that always misses what truth is really all about.)

            What I’ve said here is entirely consistent with the little snippet of Fish given in the post, and in fact is entirely consistent with much of Continental philosophy of knowledge. It is a effectively a phenomenology of truth. But of course, where many Continental thinkers loop back int the abyss of nihilism, Christian theology offers a particularity that meets the phenomenon of creation as it is — the Divine gift of love, the fellowship of the suffering of the Cross, and the hope of the Resurrection.

            Incidentally, the particularity of this claim doesn’t mean other systems of thought offer no truth. They certainly can and do — and they are made sense of through the ontology of the Logos of creation.

          • Scot Miller

            doperbeck, who are you reading in contemporary Continental philosophy of knowledge that would make ontological claims? I haven’t read Ray Brassier or Catherine Malabou or Quentin Meillassoux yet (they’re on my reading list), and they may be open to what you describe (but I don’t think so). My understanding of phenomenology comes out of Husserl, where ontological commitments (“the thesis of the natural attitude”) are suspended in the phenomenological epoché. While the meaningful structures of lived experience are uncovered, you set aside any ontological commitments. I must be misunderstanding your position, since it just sounds to me like what you are describing is an attempt to replace one set of (unfounded) ontological commitments with another.

          • dopderbeck

            Scot – my doctoral work is at Nottingham, and you can see some of the sensibility through their Centre of Theology and Philosophy ( As I noted, the point is not to suggest that Continental phenomenology is “consistent” with Christian theology (much of it, as you note, is ultimately nihilistic), but that the phenomenological turn is in fact part of a (perhaps not always conscious) turn back towards the pre-modern holistic / participationist understanding of faith and reason in Patristic Christian theology. Have you read any theologians working in this space — Milbank, Conor Cunningham, D.B. Hart, Hauerwas, Westphal, Yannaras, etc?

            I’m not sure what you mean by “unfounded” — certainly I have no truck with “foundationalism” as that term is used in relation to analytic philosophy.
            But We all make ontological commitments. In the end, it is either a commitment to an ontology of love or a commitment to a nihilistic ontology. Either God in infinite love created all things, and all things have their end in Him, or not; if not, there is no “reason,” only dissolution.

          • Scot Miller

            dopderbeck, thanks! I think I understand where you’re coming from. I’m not a big fan of Milbank, but I appreciate Hauerwas and Westfall (but also and Caputo). I think I just misunderstood your comments.

            And I didn’t mean “unfounded” in any technical sense. I was just saying that the ontological commitments of the Enlightenment have turned out not to be well supported when we ask better questions.

          • Thanks Scot. Yes, Milbank has his detractors as well! I enjoy reading Caputo too.

  • I may have to read more writings by this guy. Great stuff. Thanks for sharing!

  • Evelyn

    Suggested reading:

    Circularity of scientific thought and pardigmatic entrapment: Thomas Kuhn, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”, 1962.

    Limitations of scientific reductionism (the view held by thinkers such as Dawkins): Stuart Kauffman, “Reinventing the Sacred: A new view of science, reason, and religion”, 2008.

  • Science is based on the premise that there are consistent laws of nature that can be applied throughout the universe and time, since a few milliseconds after the big bang. Pre-big bang stuff is too complicated for me. A premise is not something one takes on faith. It is something one agrees on, provisionally, unless and until evidence comes up that suggests your premise is wrong. Science admits that there are things it does not know, can’t prove, can’t disprove, or offer much information.

    Citing science “chapter and verse” implies that the statements have been tested, repeated and reviewed by more than one person. Statements of faith come from unknown authors from a long time ago or from an unverified eyewitness account or someone’s personal experience of their own feelings.

    And, let’s not forget, in many places in the world today, and until recently in the West, questioning a statement of faith led to at the very least being marginalized or ostracised and sometimes much worse. Scientists welcome being questioned. When you add to or enhance or correct the knowledge of scientific heroes, you get a Nobel prize. If you question the Bible, some people tell you that you are going to hell.

  • star silver

    Science and religion answer very different human needs and provide answers to very different queries.

    I wish people would stop confusing the two in politics, editorials, and blogs.

    No educated man or woman asks a scientist about sin or purpose or asks a minister about evolution and chemical reactions. An educated person turns to science for understanding evolution, never to religion, and turns to religion for understanding questions of meaning, never to science.

    This is not an esoteric understanding. Anyone with access to a dictionary should know this. But politicians and others with exploitative agendas keep ignoring what these words mean for the sake of power plays and disinformation tactics, and they are succeeding in this country.

    When will we return to the basic notion that a person should know what he or she is arguing about before ever arguing about it?